“On-Gaku: Our Sound,” an oddball music comedy directed by Kenji Iwaisawa, upends all that is typical of Japanese animation. A wee 71-minute hand-drawn animated feature about three high school lunkheads who form a band, the film’s minimalist expression breaks the mold of Japan’s big-budget studio-cloned anime glutted with mind-bending sci-fi conundrums or elaborate time-slip-body-switching fantasies. But what fuels its easy breakout to western audiences are its bona fide rock references and characters as deadpan as any Aki Kaurismaki cast.
Signs of “On-Gaku” being the year’s biggest dark horse in anime fandom came in September 2019, when it beat “I Lost My Body” and “Children of the Sea” to win the Grand Prix at the Ottawa Animation Festival. It has since been picked up stateside by GKIDS and should enjoy wide fest play following its presentation in the Contrechamps Competition section at the Annecy Animation Festival, which just awarded the film a prize for its music.
“On-Gaku,” which simply means “music” in Japanese, was adapted from a revised draft of the cult manga “Ongaku and Manga,” first self-published by its creator Hiroyuki Ohashi in 2005. In 2012, Ohashi started a crowdfund to help make the animation, which was produced by documentary filmmaker Tetsuaki Matsue, also a known buff of Japanese underground music and subculture. It took Iwaisawa seven years to complete the project, drawing over 40,000 pictures on his own.
Kenji (voiced by Shintaro Sakamoto), Asakura (voiced by Tateto Serizawa) and Ota (voiced by Tomoya Maeno) are classmates at Chiku High in the small town of Sakamoto. Their nickname “The Three Musketeers” is surely parodic as all they ever do is pick fights, bully others or play retro computer games on outdated monitors. Their neanderthal antics and barely-verbal friendship set the eccentric tone of the film. Alternative rock veteran Sakamoto’s gravely voice, fitted to Kenji’s monotone and monosyllabic dialogue, has a decidedly droll effect.
The Marutake Tech College boys (who sport goofy red mohawks reminiscent of Leningrad Cowboys) led by Oba (voiced by veteran comedian Naoto Takenaka, “Shall We Dance”) have been itching for a brawl with Kenji, who has acquired a reputation for his “macaroni fists” (a reference to Spaghetti Westerns which were called “Macaroni Western” in Japan).
On his way to beating up Oba, Kenji passes by a thief on the run, and is asked to hold on to his swag — an electric guitar. Even though he’s never played an instrument before, he orders his cohorts to form a band. With the basic ensemble of a drum set and two bass guitars, they make sounds that allow them to release a raw energy, and never have they felt so good.
They decide to call the band “Kobujitsu” (ancient martial arts), which curiously suits their combative approach to everything. However, when they hear about school band “Kobijitsu” (ancient fine arts), they intend to intimidate it into dropping the similar-sounding name. To their surprise, Kobijitsu’s frontman Morita (voiced by actress Kami Hiraiwa), recruits them to play at the town’s annual rock festival.
The way “On-Gaku” unfolds defies expectations, as none of the characters behave according to any conventional arc. Though a skinhead as articulate as an Orc, Kenji is capable of respect for Morita and his drippy folk ballads. Morita, the better trained musician, doesn’t so much teach the three beginners as set free his own inner Keiji Haino (a Japanese rock legend comparable to Frank Zappa). A busking scene in which the elf-like Morita explodes into pulverizing psych rock shows Kenji’s influence taking hold. Kenji’s final performance with a surprise instrument is both a salute to Jethro Tull and a revelation of a gentle side.
True to Ohashi original manga, Iwaisawa’s illustrations are geometric, employing abstract backgrounds and bright, dominant colors. Faces, reduced to a few stark, scrawly lines, heighten the comical effect of the characters’ poker-faced dialogue, without compromising the richness of their expressions. The artwork soars into flights of trippy fantasy whenever the characters are transported to a musical high, culminating in a rotoscoping feat which traced footage of real Japanese bands Galaxiedead, Oshiripenpenz and other singers performing, with an exuberant blast of psychedelic pencil drawings.
Not surprisingly, the score by Tomohiko Banse and Wataru Sawabe, produced by Kemmochi Manato, is the soul of “On-Gaku.” Kobujitsu’s sound recalls an eerie hybrid of Krautrock, drone rock and garage rock, especially the songs of Faust and drumming of Moe Tucker, all made to sound deliberately unschooled in their delivery.