by Caitlin Moore,

On-Gaku: Our Sound

On-Gaku: Our Sound
High school delinquents Kenji, Asakura, and Ota lead a simple life. They spend most of their time getting into fights with gangs at rival high schools and playing video games in the small temple town of Sakamoto. When a man thrusts a bass into leader Kenji's hands to chase down a thief unimpeded, it sparks something in him and he decides to start a band with his two friends. Not one of them has touched an instrument since elementary school, but that doesn't discourage them one bit, and they name their new band Kobujutsu. When the school's folk trio Kobijutsu invites them to play in a festival, they agree despite their inexperience.

There's a satisfying parallelism between the story of how ON-GAKU: Our Sound got made, and the story in the film. The original manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi was self-published; the film was crowdfunded and took seven and a half years to animate, mostly by amateurs because the shoestring budget made it so they couldn't afford professional animators. The uber-indie nature of a film produced largely by people who have never worked on such a project matches the film's story, about three kids who find joy in making music despite a complete lack of musical experience or training.

Even without knowing its backstory, the movie has “cult classic” written all over it. The art lacks mainstream appeal but offers much more to the discerning eye, a smoothed-out version of Ohashi's simple, scribbly-but-deliberate style. It's fully hand-animated, much of it rotoscoped, and replete with unusual storyboarding choices. At multiple points in the movie, it pauses on one silent, unmoving frame for seconds at a time, long enough that I checked that I hadn't accidentally hit the pause button. At other times, the style shifts wildly into something new and different, always perfect for the moment and always, always beautiful. Everything is done with a sense of purpose to reflect the characters' mental and emotional states, with the music, animation, and story all working together in perfect harmony.

While high school bands are a well-trodden subject in anime, none of them do it quite like this. The story is, amusingly, most similar to K-ON, which also featured a group of inexperienced teens hanging out and making music together, rather than more gritty and “realistic” series like BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad or NANA, but with a group of jaded delinquents instead of moe-cute ingenues.

Kenji is particularly unusual as a music anime protagonist. He lives by instinct and impulse, rather than planning or reason. He starts the band on a whim and, just as quickly, gets bored of it and announces he'll be quitting right before the festival. He often pauses for a long time before speaking, not because he's thinking particularly hard about what to say, but because it takes that long for him to find the energy to respond. Everything about him communicates boredom and jadedness, as his life of fighting, smoking, and playing video games follows the same pattern day after day. He doesn't find a new passion or zest for life through music, or even really break the pattern, as his friends Ota and Asakura quickly become more invested than he is.

The soft-spoken, bespectacled members of the folk trio Kobijutsu, function as foils to Kobujutsu. They appear to have been playing together for some time, and their three acoustic guitars accompanying leader Morita's soft, lilting vocals couldn't be more different from Kobujutsu's two basses and a drum. Not drums. A drum. Singular. Morita's singing is often accompanied by gently surreal imagery of flowers and fields sprouting around him, creating an effect reminiscent of Yellow Submarine. What's particularly nice is that, despite Kobijutsu's initial anxieties about being called upon by a group of notorious delinquents, the two groups become allies and support one another for all their differences.

There's a broader theme uniting the two very different trios: music as pure self-expression. Technique and training are important, it's true, but there should be no barrier to entry when it comes to creating art for one's own satisfaction. Kobujutsu starts, ostensibly, as a way to impress Kenji, Ota, and Asakura's female friend Aya - marked as a delinquent herself with her permed hair and long skirt - but turns into something much more cathartic and personal. The first time the three play together, it would be a stretch to call what they create “music”, all booming bass and rattling drums with no real melody, but as soon as they finish, they look at each other and declare that it felt good.

Their focus on how it feels to play, rather than the sound of the end product, puts me in mind of process-oriented art, the alternative to product-oriented art. This principle gets most emphasis in early childhood education, but is useful for any age. Product-oriented art focuses on creating an end project; the classic example is the bulletin boards of a dozen identical art projects displayed in almost every elementary school. While product-oriented art projects can be educational in its own way, process-oriented art focuses on the sheer joy of creation and experimentation. Kobujutsu's music is the epitome of process-oriented, unlikely to be merchandisable or sell movie soundtracks, but with a beauty all its own.

With all that in mind, as things head toward the festival, the characters' personal journeys and relationship with their music reach a crescendo, both literally and metaphorically. The film's climax is strange, comical, and deeply cathartic, bringing everything together perfectly into a moment that is both cacophonous and harmonious, just like their music.

ON-GAKU: Our Sound has been doing well in the film festival circuit for the last year or so, but unfortunately, there's currently a significant barrier to it finding its way to mainstream audiences. It premiered in Japan just before the entire world shut down and did quite well in independent “minitheaters”, which are equivalent to arthouse theaters in the U.S. GKids is giving it a brief, Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in the U.S., but I can't in good conscience tell anyone to go see it that way right now. Thankfully, it'll accessible to be enjoyed in the safety of your own home on March 9, and I recommend you do your best to get your hands on it.

Overall : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Music : A-

+ A labor of love and a triumph of independent animation; funny and human storytelling; visually innovative and varied
Simple art and rotoscoped animation won't work for everyone

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Production Info:
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Storyboard: Kenji Iwaisawa
Music: Tomohiko Banse
Original creator: Hiroyuki Ohashi
Character Design: Kenji Iwaisawa
Art Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Animation Director: Kenji Iwaisawa

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On-Gaku: Our Sound (movie)

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