Recently I reviewed the live action film, Zokki, which like On-Gaku: Our Sound was based on a manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi. Zokki was a mixed affair, its episodic nature working against it feeling like a fully formed feature. So what would I make of On-Gaku: Our Sound, a crowd-funded film, much of which was animated by the director, Kenji Iwaisawa, and a team of amateur animators?
Read on and find out.
Notorious delinquents Kenji, Asakura and Ota get into fights. Until Kenji accidentally finds himself with a bass guitar and decides they should start a band, no matter that they know nothing about music and everyone except Aya is scared witless of them.
Likely the first thing that will strike you watching the film is how On-Gaku: Our Sound wears its shoe-string animation so utterly on its sleeve. So much so that its economy of animation, it’s willingness to use stillness and silence is raised to the point of being a purely artistic aesthetic. The second thing you'll notice is its defiantly, deliciously deadpan sense of humour.
It is in the film’s favour that the style of animation, with its frequent minimalism, suits the protagonist Kenji, who often seems one string short of a guitar. Blank-faced, apparently heedless of how those around him are expecting to find themselves on the receiving end of his fists, yet he’s an oddly engaging character. Whether his capacity for fisticuffs is warranted or not, we never know, though you suspect it’s in part based on the fear he evokes rather than anything else; Kenji’s sudden decision to form a band could be narratively jarring but it works because he seems to be a creature of instinct, something apparent in the band’s first spontaneous performance, which is more a force of nature than one of musical nous, something that is offset later by the introduction of another band at school, of the folk variety, with whom they create a curious musical bond.
The imagery of the film often suits the music; as we meet the folk band the film goes a bit "Yellow Submarine" on us, but also references albums covers like Led Zeppelin's first album and Tubular Bells (there’s also a later nod and a wink with King Crimson's screaming face from In The Court of the Crimson King, and earlier to the The Beatles Abbey Road crossing), so stylistically the film is never a one trick pony, but most importantly the style always matches what is happening. The moment Kenji finds himself in possession of a guitar for the first time everything happens off-screen, and where this could be seen as a lazy way to save money, if anything the skill inherent in the script feeds the deadpan humour and it’s pitch perfect – even though you recognise it's likely a cost saving but remains beautifully judged nevertheless.
And that humour is something that gets under your skin and is absolutely nailed. Even those moments where you can see the joke coming a mile off, the sense of expectation brings a smile to your face because the low-key payoff never disappoints. It could easily wear thin but it never does.
The characters too have their own unique charm, whether it’s Aya who is happy to stir interschool grudges, or the initially terrified Morita who leads the folk band. Though there is no great depth of characterisation on show, this doesn’t matter because the film provides such a terrific sense of who these people are that it doesn’t need to go into back-stories or explain the why's and wherefores. It’s a curious talent on display, in part because not a lot happens over the course of the 71-minutes of the film, yet at the same time it manages to reach a quietly dramatic and, in some aspects, surprising and fitting denouement.
The entire time I spent watching On-Gaku: Our Sound I never fell into unabashed adoration for the film, but I felt it was impossible to deny that it was a remarkable piece of cinema. Being made on a shoe-string by non-professional animators gives the film a very specific tone and feel that just seems like nothing else. Even if On-Gaku: Our Sound refuses to work its way into your soul, I would struggle to imagine anyone thinking that it is not a beautifully defined piece of work. The love and effort that has gone into the film simply radiates off the screen.
I’m not sure I would stick my neck out to say On-Gaku: Our Sound is a stone-cold classic - it’s a film that, at 71-minutes long sustains the story for just the right length of time, and love it, hate it, feel indifferent to it, it would be hard not to feel enriched by having watched it.
Oh, and the music, even at its most naive and intuitive, or most sophisticated, is really, really good.