On-Gaku: Our Sound (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Kenji Iwaisawa’s debut film, On-Gaku: Our Sound, responds positively to the youth-oriented, music-centered movie checklist. This animated adaptation of Hiroyuki Ohashi’s manga is lively, electric, infectious, and hopeful. What the film uniquely adds is a character – a tone – that affects you both visually and aurally.

We follow Kenji (given life by the voice of veteran Japanese alternative musician, Shintaro Sakamoto), the most feared among the trio of school delinquents, in his daily misadventures with Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa). The trio is not so brilliant: they get lost on the way to their rival’s school and are often slacking off reading comic books or playing old video games. Until one day, an incident leads Kenji to own a bass guitar. He decides to quit their thug life and forms a band on a whim. Despite being total amateurs, they are able to impress high school folk musician Morita (Kami Hiraiwa) and get to play a local gig.

What can first be noticed about this work is how it makes use of variations in animation technique in tandem with its focus on music. The trio and the music develop alongside one another. At first, looking at the film’s deadpan approach, one might notice On-Gaku sharing the same tone as MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, even with regards to the film’s soundtrack. But as the story develops and their music deepens, the film varies its approach, from minimalist to realist, from childish drawings to rotoscope. These variations occur as the protagonists’ experience of music changes.

The trio’s music is defined by Morita as exalting the primitive energy of rock and roll. Their droning sound supplements their characters with much-needed texture. It is made obvious right away how music affects the trio, who have been leading monotonous lives. If you observe carefully, especially if you’ve been following developments on Japanese alternative music, you can see how On-Gaku speaks for its current generation as it portrays music variety from its time: from punk- and sludge-influenced music to folk indie as the film features music from more contemporary bands such as Galaxiedead and Oshiripenpenz.

It’s easy to love On-Gaku. It’s lively, light, and at the same time irreverent. We have amateur characters, whose care for music is less about technique than getting-on with it. It saves you the artistic-euphoric pretense and music lectures. It is, quite literally, a film about experiencing music, from both sides of creating and listening. In this way, On-Gaku becomes an immersive ride that does not cease to surprise on every scene. It defies expectations, even from eyes trained on watching Japanese animation. Its mix of various treatments both in animation and its soundtrack makes the film entirely unpredictable.

With a slight running time of 71 minutes and a small number of plot turns, On-Gaku achieves so much more than what it presents itself to be. Its attempt to bring its character to different heights with music has a sense of optimism, innocence, and wonder that is quite rare not just in animation, but in contemporary cinema in general. Critics may be comparing the film to other teen-oriented fare, such as Beck (2010) or Linda Linda Linda (2005), and the similarities are quite obvious. But in its audience effect and its potential to be a classic, On-Gaku is closer to Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) than the films with which it shares a narrative.

On-Gaku is a film for everybody that loves animation, music, and cinema. It’s a delightful treat whether you only care for one or all of them and provides the respite we deserve from our current locked-down lives.

On-Gaku: Our Sound was streamed as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30 2020.

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