I saw Kenji Iwaisawa’s film On-Gaku: Our Sound being promoted on social media last week. Like everyone else, I stop for a minute if something catches my eye, and being a fervent cultural enthusiast and record collector, an image from the film of three men crossing the road like The Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road caught my eye. I stopped and watched the viciously dubbed thirty-second trailer. I liked the gist of what was going on, though I had no real knowledge of what the film was about other than seeing three kids start a band. I hadn’t heard of On-Gaku before now, but Instagram had done its job and sold me on the film. This time without the dubbing.
I hit play with zero expectations. I figured if the movie wasn’t any good it was only seventy-one minutes long anyway and, honestly, I watch a lot of B-films and some pretty out-there cinema so it really didn’t matter. I was sure I would find something enjoyable about the film. To my absolute delight, On-Gaku: Our Sound is maybe the best movie I’ve seen in an exceptionally long time.
On-Gaku: Our Sound tells the story of three local ruffians, the bad-asses of their high-school, whose reputation among rival high school bullies has made them targets for the toughest kids in town. Kenji (Shintarô Sakamoto), Ôta (Tomoya Maeno), and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa) get bored and go looking for fights all to seemingly impress their only friend Aya (Ren Komai). When they’re not strolling the town looking for a brawl, they’re playing fighting video games or training for a fight.
One day while Kenji walks home, a musician thrusts his bass guitar into Kenji’s hands while pursuing a mugger. Witnessing the ensuing confrontation and arrest of the thief, Kenji perceives the encounter, and the subsequent gift of a bass being forced into his hands, as a sign to walk a different path… of course not completely, as Kenji does end up stealing the instrument from the musician. The next day, without any training or knowledge of instruments, Kenji convinces his friends to start a rock band and begin practicing at once.
I really wasn’t expecting to connect with the film the way that I did. I remember being in high school when a friend asked me if we should start a band. With zero training–and even less talent—the two of us, armed with the MTV Music Generator CD-ROM and cheap instruments, would hang out and attempt to make music together. Looking at it now I’m sure it was just noise, and our single, “Left Hand Turn Signal,” was never really meant for anyone’s ears but our own, but it was fun for what it was. A rite of passage and a fond memory for the lucky souls who have enthusiastically attempted the not-so-serious garage band, and a round of applause for any that actually made it to a gig or beyond. This is the sense of nostalgic enjoyment I felt during On-Gaku.
Kenji and his bandmates form Kobujutsu after a few sessions together and playing for Aya. Their sound is the basic tones Kenji and Ôta strum over two bass guitars and the beat of the drums provided by Asakura, making for a very low but interesting rhythm. The film only gets better as the audience is introduced to a second band named Kobujutsu and the band’s vocalist Morita (Kami Hiraiwa) who experiences Kenji’s music in such a strange primitive way, it takes them on a roller-coaster ride through album artwork and different styles of animations. After listening Morita begs the band to participate in an upcoming festival and also goes through an immense transformation over the course of the final act of the film, noting the power that music has to both unite and change us.
On-Gaku is terrifically deadpan, with dry humor that at times had me noting similarities to the early Wes Anderson film Rushmore and, in more than one instance, Napoleon Dynamite. Its humor is well nuanced in scenes like the surprise use of the recorder at the end, an instrument every 6-year-old is familiar with, but it also comes off as resonating and heartfelt. When the band gears up to play the festival and all the quirky pieces of Kobujutsu come together for the ultimate performance it’s not only a concert you don’t want to miss, but will leave you wanting an Encore.
The animation style isn’t that of your usual anime film either, based on Hiroyuki Ohashi’s mangas Ongaku and Manga, Kenji Iwaisawa painstakingly made this obvious labor of love over a seven-and-a-half-year period, often having to use animators with little to no experience. Iwaisawa drew storyboards, designed backgrounds, and did a lot of the animation himself. Opting to release the work independently and without the compromise of any artistic integrity, he accepted no money from a major studio, resulting in one of the most truly inspiring, passionate, and simply beautiful films I’ve seen in ages. Containing over forty-thousand hand-drawn frames and amazingly reverberating animation when the characters are truly feeling their music, the film pulls you into the feeling of those teenage years; when music feels like everything and you just want to be a part of it.