GKIDS recently released the movie On-Gaku: Our Sound directed by Kenji Iwaisawa and based on the manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi in select theaters on December 11th. The movie is a musically-themed coming of age story composed of 400,000 hand-drawn frames almost fully animated by Kenji Iwaiswa and includes performances by Japanese guitarist Shintaro Sakamoto. The film is so unique in its visuals and sound that it reminds the audience that film is an art medium and On-Gaku is far from run-of-the-mill. In fact, it won the Nelvana Grand Prize at the 2019 Ottawa International Animation Festival and was selected for the Contrechamp Competition section at the 2020 Annecy International Animation Film Festival!
On-Gaku was only in theaters on December 11th but don't worry, the Blu-ray comes out March 9th! and we here at Honey's Anime had the opportunity to watch the movie at home courtesy of GKIDS so let us tell you about this artsy musical slacker comedy!
On-Gaku: Our Sound Trailer
On-Gaku: Our Sound Synopsis
Kenji is a high school delinquent, and a feared one at that! Walking down the street, members of a rival gang challenge him to a fight but they're so scared of him just from his reputation—and his complete chill as he walks by ignoring them—that they run away before anything even happens. He's kind of a badass in his circle of friends as the leader of his delinquent trio along with Oota and Asakura. Aya—who may or may not have a thing for Kenji—is the only friend they have at school and the only girl to give Kenji and company the time of day.
The delinquent trio is always bored and they like starting trouble so they go out to beat up their rivals at another school since they've been challenged to a fight. Except they can't find the school so they go back. That evening, Kenji is walking around bored as usual when, suddenly, a musician chasing a purse snatcher asks Kenji to hold his bass outside of a venue. The bassist leaves his instrument with Kenji and we hear as the police ask him to come to the station to file a report, much to the musician's dismay as he has a gig like, right that second! The musician has to leave and Kenji just basically steals his bass. He just takes it home with him, just like that. (He is a delinquent after all).
The next day after classes, while lazing about and playing video games in a classroom with Oota and Asakura as usual, Kenji suddenly—and after a 17-second pause—suggests they form a rock band. None of them have experience but Kenji convinces the guys by simply saying "that's the whole point". Having literally nothing better to do, they go for it and borrow some instruments from the school and go to Kenji's house to give it a try.
These guys are such newbs that Kenji can't even tell the difference between a bass and a guitar nor do they know what the pegs at the top are for. When they get down to it, they get ready and "bang" they each hit their instruments loudly once in unison. It is the coolest thing they've ever done! Then they start practicing and they all just rhythmically start banging on their instruments, again, in unison in an even ryhythm. They're going places!
The next day, Aya tells them that Oba, the leader of their rival gang wants to meet with Kenji and he tells her they're all about music right now so they have no time for Oba. Oh, and they are to be referred to as musicians form now on! Aya goes to watch them play and they play her their latest piece, the same rhythmic, unison banging, with all the passion in the world, regardless of how simple their music is. Aya loves it!
When they try to come up with a name for the band, they come up with Kobujutsu, a martial art, which Asakura knows thanks to his uncle. However, they find out that there is a band called Kobijutsu and they decide to scope them out. They may deserve to keep their name! The three scary-looking teenagers show up at Kobijutsu's school screaming looking for them which, clearly terrifies the nerdy, introverted folk band. Kenji and Co. end up finding them, though, and ask the band to perform for them.
Terrified out of their wits, Kobijutsu and their frontman Morita play and they are actually pretty talented and play a light, romantic folk song with soft music, and Morita's gentle voice. Kenji is impressed and Morita asks them to perform for them as well. The boys do their thing and Morita loves it! The deep rhythm the boys play transports him to a psychedelic world full of imagery from classic rock albums by Led Zepellin, Pink Floyd, and others. It blows his freaking mind! Morita loves the primitive beating of their instruments and the natural passion it conveys, they must play together! And so Kobijutsu invites Kobujutsu to collaborate at a festival and the plan is set.
Morita suggests they listen to themselves play as part of practice and they do but soon after that, Kenji decides he's over it. He loses all motivation and leaves the band! Morita freaks out because he was counting on the collaboration for the festival and is very disappointed. Kenji is MIA and the festival plans go on as planned, minus Kenji the bassist.
Meanwhile, before the festival, Morita and Kobijutsu are playing out in the street, nobody is stopping to listen. Morita is depressed and decides to just let it all come out by losing himself in his guitar playing right there, improvising a passionate, almost tribal-feeling acoustic solo that stops all passersby on their tracks.
The day of the festival arrives and Kenji is still nowhere to be found. Oota and Asakura are happy they found music and are actually enjoying themselves getting ready for the festival. Then we see Kenji and his guitar, walking over to the festival, assuming he has changed his mind, when he's suddenly stopped by Oba and his gang. Oba tells Kenji to either fight him or break his bass, or… *BAM* Kenji smashes the bass before Oba can even finish which makes him seem like even more of a crazy criminal. And then, he pulls out a recorder and plays the most gentle and melodic tune, his fingers moving quickly and fluidly over the instrument. Then suddenly, he takes off running, while still playing the recorder! A full rock band and a flute accompany the chase as the gang goes after Kenji. This is easily one of the funniest moments in the movie!
At the festival, it's Kobijutsu's turn to go on and Morita shows up with bleach blonde hair, brightly colored clothes—as opposed to the usual uniform we've seen him in—a deep voice, loads of confidence, and all the swagger in the world. When the band goes on, Morita wails on his guitar and slays the vocals. Kobijutsu is a hit and everyone is rocking out as scenes of Kenji running away and his recorder playing are juxtaposed back and forth arfully. But then, Morita's guitar strap breaks in the middle of the action and so does his confidence. He freezes and sulks away with the rest of the band, even though it was the most amazing performance of the day so far, even the audience encouraging them.
Finally, it's Kobujutsu's turn and Oota and Asakura are on their own and so, they do their thing and then, running, Kenji jumps on stage out of nowhere with his recorder and the combination is magical. Morita is revived, the spark in his eye literally comes back and he jumps on stage to join the delinquent musicians as he goes all out on a double-necked guitar, the rest of Kobijutsu joins on stage and they improvise, producing a psychedelic classic rock meets traditional Japanese sound. The hand-drawn images get even more colorful and the outlines come alive in this incredible, memorable grand finale. Kenji vocalizes with sweat and tears running down his face and the show is done. A bored delinquent has found his passion, his sound, his voice, and has become a new man.
The next day, Kenji asks Aya if she's still dating Oba, the gang leader from the other school but she answers she just went to school with him and leaves, visibly happy she was asked and skipping home with a smile. Later, as Aya is walking away from school, Kenji realizes what her reply means and he runs out screaming after her! Where did that emotion come from!? That's our quiet stoic Kenji? Music has made him a different person indeed.
From the moment you watch the trailer for On-Gaku: Our Sound, you know it isn't your typical anime movie, or typical movie, period. It is avant-garde in its character designs with simple, almost sketch-like eyes and features, the variety of hand-drawn styles used—sometimes outlines, sometimes in color, sometimes very detailed, and others not so much.
Another unique approach used in the movie is the use of long takes and long pauses. At the beginning, for example, we see Kenji walk from the convenience store to school in a three-minute sequence of him just walking, then we see him make his way to meet his friends but not without stopping to pee first; and then there's the 17-second pause Kenji takes before asking his friends to form a band. These long quiet scenes happen a lot, especially in the beginning and while they do add style to the film, and make sense considering the music hasn't even started yet at that point, some may get a bit frustrated by them.
The scenes are also blocked and seem as though performed by real people. That, added to the naturality of their rotorscope-like movements, gives the whole movie a very unique feel. The detailed hand-drawn backgrounds are also beautiful to admire during some of these long sequences so enjoy the walk.
This movie is about the music for sure, but the detailed backgrounds, be they of storefronts, a street, the neighborhood, school, or music festival, are detailed and add an air of artistry that clashes wonderfully with the simplistic character designs. And the music references are spread throughout, like the scene at the beginning with the boys crossing the street with their instruments a la Abbey Road by The Beatles.
You're not there for the art until you start noticing that it is hand-drawn and that the characters' moves almost feel real. And then, the first psychedelic scene happens when Morita trips out on Kobujutsu's music and you're on board! Bright colors, quick trippy scene changes, music references, all done beautifully. And then again when Morita lets loose playing in the street, his long flowing hair sketched out in color pencil. Of course, the culmination is at the end during the final performance when it all comes together, the most beautiful scene visually and musically.
It's a Comedy, Right?
On-Gaku is a labeled as a comedy and is funny but don't expect your usual shounen humor. The comedy in On-Gaku is deadpan and nuanced so be ready for that and lots of long pauses and silences at the beginning. But it's to be expected as the music hasn't even started at that point!
The scenes with the rival gang, however, though they are just as deadpan as Kenji and his friends' scenes, are somehow the funniest scenes in the movie. And the running gag of Oba, the rival gang leader, always telling his lackeys to "not be hasty" when they offer to go beat up the legendary Kenji is a great addition, as well as the hilarious scene when Kenji is finally confronted with Oba and he bashes his bass before running away playing the recorder. Outside of that, though, it's really not a laugh-out-lout type of comedy, but the humor and chuckles are there for sure.
Finding Your Sound
Like most works of art, we can't say for sure what the artist meant to convey with this film, but it's clear that those lost, bored boys were all able to find themselves and a purpose in life by finding "their sound". Kenji found something he's naturally amazing at and something he is passionate about and that leads him to pursue other things that interest him, like Aya. Likewise, Asakura and Oota make notice that they are happy they formed a band because it seems music makes them happy, they like who they've become thanks to it.
Even Morita, while naturally introverted and self-conscious, changes thanks to the self-confident boys playing with their natural passion, which helps Morita find HIS own sound and so they all bloom together. All in all, a great message, especially for those still looking for themselves, all beautifully portrayed with character development that is nuanced by the interactions between the boys. Morita's usual demeanor and shyness and the contrast with the confidence he gleans from Kenji and Co.'s music by the last performance, as well as Kenji's shift from blank-stared, bored, delinquent to emotional musician chasing a girl at the end also make this the kind of film that leaves you feeling pretty good after watching it.
Speaking of Sound… It's Really All About the Music!
True, it's an artful coming of age story and a showcase of the creator's artistic talents but, as the name suggests, it is also about MUSIC! If you like classic rock and good music, you'll love On-Gaku. Though you wouldn't know it right from the beginning. The beginning of the movie is actually pretty quiet with even Kenji not uttering a single word for minutes of action. And then when the first bit of "music" is played, it's just a "bam" in unison of the boys' drums, guitar and bass. Quickly followed by their hit which is just all three strumming/drumming in unison in an even rhythm.
But really, the film shows the making of the culminative improvised piece of music that is the Kobijutsu x Kobujutsu collaboration at the end. First, the discovery of sound, one note; then a rhythm and bass line that embodies the 3 boys' newfound love for music; then Kenji's recorder playing, the true sound of his feelings; then Morita adds in his own newly found psychedelic, passionate sound, and finally, the rest of Kobijutsu joins in to complete a piece of music made from nothing but these young men's own, true, individual sounds. And boy is that piece worth the trip! The quality of the music is not surprising, as the psychedelic riffs are all courtesy of legendary psychedelic guitarist Shintaro Sakamoto, who loans Morita his incredible talents.
On-Gaku: Our Sound left us feeling like we had just enjoyed art. You know that feeling when you leave a modern art exhibit or a modern dance performance? Just like that. Is that a good thing? It depends! Do you enjoy modern art? This film will be especially enjoyable to those with an ear or passion for music as well as anyone who can appreciate the work that goes into hand-drawing animation. Those who like abstract art or psychedelic art—music or visual—will likely enjoy On-Gaku as well.
On-Gaku is out of the ordinary, well-written, artistic, and overall, a unique experience you will not get from any other movie we have seen, at least not in recent years! We definitely recommend it, especially for musicians, artists, and those who enjoy new experiences. On-Gaku will be out on Blu-ray and DVD on March 9th from GKIDS and Shout Factory so, you can get in on that too! What's the artsiest anime movie you've ever seen? Will you check out On-Gaku: Our Sound? Chat with us in the comments!