Interview: On-Gaku: Our Sound Director Kenji Iwaisawa

by Caitlin Moore,

Following three high-school delinquents in their quest for musical glory despite having no skill, money, or even a full set of drums, ON-GAKU: Our Sound is an Annie Award-nominated adaptation of Hiroyuki Ohashi's ON-GAKU manga that presents a highly original take on the beloved slacker comedy. The award-winning movie has its sights set on a possible Oscar-nom and with GKIDS and Shout! Factory release of the anime film on Blu-Ray+DVD and digital platforms, Anime News Network had the opportunity to interview director Kenji Iwaisawa about ON-GAKU: Our Sound's unique, fully hand-drawn animation and the intricacies of translating a soundless music manga into an indie film.

Original manga creator Hiroyuki Ohashi is virtually unknown among English audiences. How did you become familiar with the ON-GAKU manga and is there anything that viewers should keep in mind about Ohashi's work while watching ON-GAKU: Our Sound?

After I met and became friends with Mr. Ohashi at a part-time job, I read his manga. ON-GAKU was one of them, and I enjoyed it immediately.

For what I want the audience to know when watching, it's a different visual style than the usual Japanese animation. But many expressions will surprise you, so I think you'll be in a positive mood after watching it.

ON-GAKU: Our Sound has been doing very well in film festivals. How has the general population responded?

The response was really good, and there was a lot of laughter. I was watching with them at the theaters, and it made me really happy.

What are some of the challenges of adapting soundless music manga into animation?

I didn't have many challenges expressing the sound in the film. What was a challenge, though, was to fit the picture with the sound. If they weren't synchronized, the audience would have felt that something was out of place, so I was cautious with that.

You've said in other interviews that you're not a musician. How did you choose ON-GAKU for this project?

Before wanting to make ON-GAKU into a film, I had always wanted to make a feature animation. But it was difficult to solicit funds because the manga for ON-GAKU was not well-known. The only way I can make the film was through independent financing.

But I was convinced that it would become a new kind of film never seen before if I were to complete this project. Therefore, although it was a tough road, I decided to take on the challenge.

The animation style changes rapidly at times. What went into the different styles, and what sorts of things did you want to express?

There is no flashy action in the story, so I added different animation styles for visual entertainment, but I didn't think I was doing anything special.

What was the process for casting the voice actors?

Kenji doesn't show much emotion, so I thought it would be better to cast someone with a memorable voice. That was when I chose Mr. Shintaro Sakamoto, a musician.

Once we booked Mr. Sakamoto, I tried to balance out the cast by choosing actors instead of anime-specific voice actors.

Do you see any parallels between the process of creating a super-indie movie and the experiences of the bands in the film?

I often hear that the film's content and the actual production feels like it was born from "the impulse of just wanting to rock or create." I personally don't have special skills and made this film purely from wanting to create a film. So perhaps that may be something in common.

What kind of music do you like to listen to? Did that influence the process of the film?

I gave homage to them in the film, but I listened to 60's and 70's rock when I was in my twenties: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Graham Nash, etc.

Fully hand-drawn animation is rare these days. Why did you decide to go that route with ON-GAKU?

We didn't have professional creators working on this project. And I also didn't have skills, so this was the only route we could take to create this film. That is the biggest reason.

Because if it's a simple hand-drawn animation, we can keep creating as long as we have a pen and paper.

Do you have a message for your English-speaking audience?

At first glance, it may look like an eccentric and artsy animation, but I consciously made this film as entertainment.

A few experimental shots are quiet and still, but there is a big surprise at the end, so if you can watch it with an open, laid-back mind, that would make me happy.

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