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On-Gaku: Our Sound (2019)


There is a common misconception that all Japanese animation looks the same. It's true that much of the mainstream industry does feature variations on what has become to be seen by gaijins as the classic 'anime style', but this does not represent the entirety of Japan's animation scene. There's stop-motion, abstract, CG, and many other animation styles produced in Japan, just as in any other well-developed animation industry, as well as many different styles of 2D animation. Kenji Iwaisawa's debut feature certainly does not look much like any anime you've seen before.

On-Gaku: Our Sound is based on an original manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi. It's a truly independent venture- with Iwaisawa not only directing, co-editing and writing the film but also producing much of the animation himself almost singlehandedly- the only other credited artist being a compositor.  The animation was produced over a seven-year period and contains over 40,000 hand-drawn frames. The film was licenced by GKIDS Films for the North American, receiving a limited cinema run-in December of 2020, before a Blu-Ray/DVD and digital release in March of 2021. On-Gaku was the grand-prize winner at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2019 and was recently nominated for Best Indie Feature at the 2021 Annie Awards.

The film centres on three High-School delinquents who decide to start a rock band despite having no idea how to play music (and having no discernible talent). After forming an unlikely friendship with a local nerdy folk trio, they are convinced to agree to play at the forthcoming rock festival. Can they make it to the stage before a band of hoodlums from a rival school track them down?

On-Gaku stands out from most of the anime that makes it to the west. There's not a pink-haired highschooler, giant robot or merchandisable mascot to be seen. Instead,  there's a sketchier, more cartoony look to the character designs- even the way Iwaisawa draws their eyes is highly distinctive. The central three characters all have a distinctive look, none more so than the bald-headed moustachioed Kenji.  Every other character is similarly distinctly designed and varied, even down to background characters, avoiding the 'same face different hair' trap that some anime can fall in. That is except for the uniform look of the Mohican sporting miscreants from the rival school, but in that case, their similarity is entirely the point.

As a low-budget production with a mainly one-man animation department, On-Gaku clearly isn't going to look as slick as a blockbuster release from a major studio. That said, it looks pretty remarkable for a film made mainly be one artist. For the most part, the animation is pretty simplistic with occasional moments of fluidity, produced through the use of rotoscoping. At several key points in the story, it switches animation style, with these providing easily some of the most impressive and dynamic looking parts of the film. The backgrounds also have a very stylised look, rejecting realism for a more hand-painted aesthetic.

Iwaisawa makes a virtue of his limitations and elements like re-used animation and extended walking sequences feel more like stylistic quirks than cost-cutting measures and are often used for comedic effect.

The scrappy look actually suits the theme and content of the film perfectly. The lo-fi aesthetic is a good fit for the punk-rock feel of the whole endeavour. It just wouldn't work as well with more slick production, somehow- the spirit of the amateur musicians seemingly in-sync with that of an independent animator.

On-Gaku is riffing on two popular genres. The first is the Japanese teenage delinquent story. Fueled by a moral-panic over "the youth", its spawned popular manga, anime and live-action films and TV series, primarily throughout the 80s and 90s. Not a great deal of it ever made it to English translation, but the few that have include GTO, Be-Bop High School and Cromartie High School. Many more anime and manga that are not specifically about them also feature delinquent characters too.

With its rival gangs and grudges, and teens who look at least 10 years older than they should, On-Gaku definitely pokes fun at this trope. Our trio of protagonists, Kenji, Ota and Asakura each conform to a typical archetype of delinquent characters in Japanese culture (the pompadour being particularly iconic). Their reputation precedes them and they strike fear in the hearts of students from other schools and their own. Kenji particularly has a representation for beating up an entire rival gang on his own.

Not that we see much evidence of this on-screen, and it doesn't feel like they're bad, more that they just don't know any better. The three of them seem to have the combined IQ of a particularly dimwitted doorknob. In one particularly amusing sequence, they set off to fight a gang at a rival school that has challenged them, only to realise they had no idea where it is.  They seem completely clueless, but they don't really seem to mean any harm. It makes them somehow, surprisingly lovable lugs. The only time any of them really lose our sympathy is when Kenji grabs the behind of their only female friend Aya- and gets an immediate smack in the kisser in reply.  

It's also playing with a much more universal genre, the musical story. The journey of a band of amateurs to play a big show is a story that we've all seen a million times, and it's full of cliches. On-Gaku's amusing spin on this whole idea is that Kenji, Ota and Asakura can't play at all. In a typical iteration of such stories, the teens who decide to form a band are full of raw untapped talent and sound unrealistically slick from the off. These boys just make a racket, with no discernable tune. And there's no growth, they can't play any better by the time the film finishes. But it doesn't matter to them, because they think it sounds good and they love doing it. They are rocking out for the sake of it.

Although music plays such a part in the film it doesn't feel like the soundtrack is as memorable as it could have been. The band's music is deliberately discordant and bad and there's no tune to speak of.  Beyond that, the score is suitably rocky and rough around the edges but is lacking any particular stand-out tunes. 

Much of the film's comedy comes from characterisation and it gives the film its own unique rhythm. Our 'heroes' are men of few words, and Kenji is particularly laconic. They rarely show outward emotion and constantly sport a gormless expression. They never seem to actually go to school, spend a great deal of their time apparently staring into space, with long-drawn-out silences. The three are very well matched-  you have to give them that at least.

On-Gaku's particular brand of humour isn't going to be to everyone's taste. The film's look will be an instant turn-off for some too. If you're looking for a more conventional anime, maybe this isn't going to be for you. For the more open-minded, however, this is a refreshing break from the norm- a film that doesn't look or feel like any other animation from Japan or the West. It's not quite a classic but marks out Iwaisawa as a talent to watch.

GKIDS and Shout Factory's Blu-Ray/DVD combo-pack of the film comes complete with a line-up of exclusive bonus features that include making-of featurettes, a live musical performance and four short films by Kenji Iwaisawa.



IN A NUTSHELL: Fresh, funny and free-style, On-Gaku plays to the beat of its own drum. A Lo-Fi delight. Give it a Spin.