Being a teenager in a suburban town can be excruciatingly boring. Fun has to be found even when there’s nothing to do, which often manifests in dangerous and downright stupid behavior (we, for example, drove down unlit streets without headlights on as fast as we could just to feel something). This boredom also leads to bone-crushing depression. With no variety in routine, everything feels useless. But then, sometimes, something appears that banishes that monotony and breathes excitement into an otherwise dull existence. That discovery can be revelatory; life can suddenly have purpose. In the case of the trio of delinquents in Kenji Iwaisawa’s incredible debut feature, the animated On-Gaku: Our Sound, they discover the catharsis and power of music.
Kenji (Shintarô Sakamoto), Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa) spend their days either playing videogames in a secluded classroom or looking for fights with other high schoolers. With nothing else to do, they turn to violence to get their kicks, which has earned them a reputation of being delinquents. But, one day, Kenji decides he wants to start a band. None of them have experience, but that doesn’t matter; this is finally something exciting that will break the monotony of their lives. So with two basses and an incomplete drum set, they write a song. It is a simple one-note bassline, but it awakens something within them. They have finally found joy.
On-Gaku: Our Sound is writer/director Iwaisawa’s love letter both to the power of music and to the manga of the same name by Hiroyuki Ohashi. He took inspiration from Ohashi’s simple and sketchy style and hand-drew almost every single frame of the film himself. His characters are very basic, with short lines making up faces and bodies with no extensive shading or coloring. These initial character designs are building blocks for the masterpiece Iwaisawa is working towards. His backgrounds are much more detailed and full of color, looking like elaborate watercolor paintings that Kenji and crew are merely strolling through. This tension between simple characters and painstakingly constructed backdrops hints at something coming, that there is something more to these literally two-dimensional teens. The potential for beauty is lurking underneath the surface, and when it finally makes itself seen, it is breathtaking.
As the trio pick up their instruments and finally play a note at the same time, the animation shifts into rotoscoping, where Iwaisawa has traced over actual footage to give these characters the appearance of life-like movement. The camera goes from stagnant to kinetic as it moves around the boys who are experiencing something special with a single strum of the strings and bang of the drum. Kenji even grumbles, “That felt good.” Iwaisawa is purposeful with his style, using it not to create something flashy but to create a deep emotional connection to the freedom Kenji, Ota and Asakura have suddenly discovered with music. As the film progresses through more musical numbers, Iwaisawa continues to experiment with form as certain songs evoke different emotions from his characters, whether it is a kindly folk song or a primitive-feeling rocker that reverberates in a listener’s chest.
In contrast to the visual style, the phenomenal deadpan comedic delivery is reminiscent of American animated comedies of the ‘90s like Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Kenji in particular embodies that tone, through both line delivery by Japanese rock legend Sakamoto and a design that includes an unrelenting stare, thin mustache that zigzags across his upper lip and shiny, bald head. Despite being a high school student, Sakamoto’s grizzled voice gives Kenji the vibe of a tired old man who has seen everything, when really he’s just a bored teenager who smokes too many cigarettes and watches too much TV.
Kenji, Ota and Asakura are not just funny in their deadpan delivery, but in how they appear to the audience versus others. Despite their description as delinquents, the three boys are never shown being violent. In fact, the only act of the violence in the whole film is when Kenji himself is punched for groping a girl. Such a tough guy is laid out on the pavement for his immaturity. But still, students cower in fear as Kenji approaches them while all he wants to do is shake their hands. He’s even said to be a master of Spaghetti Fist as if he belongs in the classic anime series Fist of the North Star. In avoiding the portrayal of any violence, Iwaisawa adds comedic and mysterious depth to his three main characters; they appear to be so quiet and harmless, playing videogames and chain-smoking cigarettes, yet they make everyone they encounter shake in their boots. On-Gaku: Our Sound beautifully captures that a group of misunderstood kids are more than just their tough exterior; they are kids with passion.
Iwaisawa’s own passion fills the chilled-out slacker comedy with a lot of heart and a gorgeous variety of animation styles. Coming in at a brisk 71 minutes, Iwaisawa doesn’t want to create a story full of tragedy and trauma. He just wants to create a simple story about surviving the monotony of existence, which is particularly refreshing in the world of animated film. So often the medium focuses on being flashy with quick cuts, long action sequences and epic characters who must save the world. But, not in On-Gaku: Our Sound. Here, Iwaisawa pushes the form in a new direction that ebbs and flows with the sound of music.
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Writers: Kenji Iwaisawa, Hiroyuki Ohashi (comics)
Stars: Shintarô Sakamoto, Ren Komai, Tomoya Maeno, Tateto Serizawa, Kami Hiraiwa, Naoto Takenaka
Release Date: March 9, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.