On-Gaku: Our Sound is a lo-fi animated treat from director Kenji Iwaisawa about a trio of high school delinquents who discover the power of music almost by accident. It is based on the self-published manga Ongaku and Manga and was almost completely hand-drawn by Iwaisawa over a seven-year period. It is tremendously funny at times with its low-key sensibilities, deadpan delivery, and also often very sweet. The animation is decidedly lo-fi with the characters formed from geometric shapes and squiggles with backgrounds given watercolor flourishes. It is only when the characters get inside the groove of the music that things take psychedelic-looking forms.
Kenji (voiced by Shintaro Sakamoto, singer for the cult psychedelic rock band Yura Yura Teikoku) is a dim-witted, beefy boy who likes nothing better than to roam the high school campus of which he is technically attending but never seems to take part in, with his two pals Asakura (voiced by Tateto Serizawa) and Ota (voiced by Tomoya Maeno) picking fights or playing retro video games. When a stranger asks Kenji to hold onto his bass guitar for a minute and then never returns for it, Kenji declares that the trio should form a band. Neither of them owns or knows how to play an instrument so they break into the band room and steal a bass guitar (Kenji doesn’t even know that the guitar he now has is bass and so the band winds up with two) and as much of a drum kit as they can carry.
Not bothering to even attempt to learn how to play their instruments the trio take their rudimentary understanding of rhythm, and a whole lot of punk attitude and creates a loud, driving noise. It moves something inside them and Kenji realizes he no longer has a use for getting in fights with local gangs. On the advice of their friend Aya (voiced by Ren Komai) they choose a name, Kobujitsu. Soon after they realize there is another band on campus with the same name. Terrifying much of the school, the three go roaming the halls looking for this other band. They discover a folk trio led by Morita (voiced by Kami Hiraiwa). Surprisingly, Kenji respects their musicianship and Morita is completely mesmerized by the sheer intensity and power of Kenji and his friends.
On-Gaku: Our Sound surprises in other ways. Though known for his physical prowess and monosyllabic conversation style Kenji is also sensitive and subtly kind. Morita who comes off as the intelligent folkie learns to explore his inner headbanger. The film’s basic animation defies the more typical bid-budgeted, stylish anime with its convoluted storylines. The story and animation is basic, the tone more reminiscent of old MTV shows like Daria than something more modern coming out of Japan.
At times, this can make the really rather short (it clocks in at just over 70 minutes) film seem to drag. Transitional scenes where a character is walking down a street or a hall seem to last forever as the animation doesn’t change. Iwaisawa allows the camera to stand still for long beats letting the deadpan humor take hold. There were more than a few moments when I had to check my internet connection to make sure it wasn’t lagging because a motionless beat was allowed to go on for longer than normal.
I am by no means an expert on anime so I can’t really compare it to the long history of the form, but this film definitely feels out of place from the films and television series I have seen. I mean that in the best possible way. Its droll sense of humor and basic style give it a unique perspective. I suspect it isn’t for everyone, but for those who can tune into its peculiar wavelength, there is a lot to love.
GKids along with Shout! Factory are bringing On-Gaku: Our Sound to Blu-ray, DVD, and digital on March 9. Extras include a making-of and a behind-the-scenes featurette, a live musical performance, an On-Gaku Demos, a pencil test, storyboards gallery and several short films from Iwaisawa