On-Gaku: Our Sound proves that storytelling wins over flashy animation as one of my top ten movies of 2021.
In the quiet town of Sakomoto, the “Three Musketeers” are a well-known gang at Chiku High. The moniker is a parody – Kenji (voiced by Shintaro Sakamoto), Asakura (voiced by Tateto Serizawa), and Ota (voiced by Tomoya Maeno) spend their days picking fights, playing retro video games, and whatever passes the time.
On his way home, a musician asks Kenji to hold his guitar and takes off to catch a thief. As the person who apprehended the criminal, the bass player has to provide a police statement at the station and ends up forgetting his guitar. Kenji “inherits” the instrument and decides to start a band.
The first thing you need to know is that On-Gaku: Our Sound, is not a typical animated film. Yet it still has everything it needs to be a classic.
The movie does not have detailed photo-realistic anime (see: Garden of Words) and mind-bending sci-fi concepts (see: Patema Inverted). There are no body swaps, shapeshifters, and secret worlds. There are no youthful tales of love, friendship, and Talk no Jutsu. There are no long action sequences or epic save-the-world moments.
On-Gaku is an adaptation of a cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi. It’s made by first-time director Kenji Iwaisawa (with a largely amateur team) over the course of seven years, featuring a lead performance by Japanese alt-rock legend Shintaro Sakamoto.
The animation looks like a DIY project. Iwaisawa drew over 40,000 pictures on his own. The hand-drawn images are reminiscent of “Dr. Katz“ and “Beavis and Butthead“.
This amateur look fits the story of a high school band with two bass guitars and half of a drum kit. With no musical skill and knowledge, propelled by half inspiration and half boredom, Kobujutsu is born. Improvising on the spot, the trio somehow ends up with the raw spirit of a post-rock sound.
The journey of The Three Musketeers as they become Kobujutsu is engaging because it focuses on the relatable aspects of being a kid in a small town – boredom, idleness, and hopping from one interest to another. At the beginning of the movie, the trio heads off to fight a rival gang without knowing where their school is located and then ends up getting distracted by a boxing gym. In the next frame, Asakura is sparring with a punching bag.
The characters don’t have any conventional arc, yet stay amusing thanks to a deadpan comedy similar to “Daria“ (a teen cartoon by vintage MTV). While their faces are just squiggly lines, this enhances the comical effect of their poker-faced dialogue.
Kenji doesn’t say much, but he’s respected by his friends. The reputation of his “Spaghetti Fists” has garnered the interest of another delinquent named Oba (voiced by Naoto Takenaka) who leads a bunch of red-mohawked boys from the Marutake Tech College. His enthusiasm gained the admiration of a folk band also named Kobujutsu who recruits his group for a rock festival.
While the character design is simple, rotoscoping highlights their musical high. In one busking scene as the other Kobujutsu distributes flyers, its lead singer Morita (voiced by actress Kami Hiraiwa) goes into a rock solo and the artwork soars into a psychedelic pencil drawing. Iwaisawa uses abstract backgrounds and dominant colors to convey their feelings.
On-Gaku has a few musical numbers, but its unschooled delivery results in music that lo-fi and arthouse rockers will enjoy. It represents the core of the movie and matches the rest of its amateur spirit.
In the end, Kobujutsu doesn’t magically get good but the movie perfectly captures that moment where a group of aimless individuals is lifted by the joy of creating.
On-Gaku: Our Sound is an unconventional movie that doesn’t subvert anime followers’ expectations just for the sake of it. It’s an amateur movie that celebrates that magical time we all look back to when we stumbled onto something that ends up becoming a life-changing passion.
On-Gaku: Our Sound
On-Gaku: Our Sound is a loveable homage to self-discovery, the joy of creating, the amateur spirit, and old-school animation.