Photo: ‘On-Gaku: Our Sound’/GKIDS Films
‘On-Gaku: Our Sound’ – An Unforgettable Anime Experience
If you’re like me, you’ll always remember your first time watching On-Gaku: Our Sound. For me, it was at Atlanta’s unparalleled Midtown Art Cinema (responsibly socially distanced, of course). I thank my lucky stars that I am still able to visit movie theaters on a semi-regular basis in 2020, and I am also incredibly thankful that Midtown Art Cinema has been able to remain afloat despite this year’s apocalyptic impact on the theater industry. There’s something completely irreplaceable about a local low-key indie movie theater. The usher working the cash register gave me the details about exactly how many minutes I had before the film would start and explained that an animated short would play before the feature. He also suggested that I order a sake to “facilitate my anime experience”, and I spontaneously complied.
This was more than just a movie. This was a revelation. From entering the theater to exiting, everything was immaculate. The short film that accompanied On-Gaku set the stage. It was Make it Soul, a wondrous parable chronicling a fateful meeting between soul music legends James Brown and Solomon Burke. Make it Soul is a magic marker miracle guaranteed to warm your heart with a stick of dynamite. It’s definitely worth seeking out, either as the impeccably paired aperitif to On-Gaku or otherwise.
Song of the Slacker
On-Gaku follows Kenji (Shintarô Sakamoto), a high school layabout who seems to do nothing but watch cartoons, play fighting video games, and halfheartedly hit a punching bag with his two friends Asakura (Tateto Serizawa) and Ôta (Tomoya Maeno). In spite of (or perhaps because of) their zen-like stasis, Kenji and company are paradoxically regarded as the most dangerous guys in town, feared by classmates and envied by crosstown rivals. With his vacuous goldfish stare that nonetheless evokes dread and panic from all who perceive him as a potential threat, cue ball-headed Kenji is like One Punch Man with a dash of Robin, the Swedish cartoon character that starred in the music video for Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. Meanwhile, friends Asakura and Ôta are Merry and Pippin to Kenji’s Frodo, Walter, and Donny to his Big Lebowski, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his Hamlet. They are a delightful duo complete unto themselves, their commitment to passivity made complete by their utter devotion to the agency of the town’s biggest slacker.
There’s something truly mesmerizing about Kenji. His tabula rasa face, slow and deliberate speech and lack of obvious desires give him the capacity to contain whatever psychological traits the viewer may subconsciously imbue him with. He is the ideal cipher. It’s easy to imagine Kenji and his gang continuing down a road of trivial pursuit ad infinitum, were it not for the intervention of fate in the form of a bass guitar thrust into Kenji’s unsuspecting hands. To resist destiny requires more deliberateness than to accept it, so Kenji announces that the trio are to start a band.
A Fried Egg Meteor Shower
In giving this group of aimless goofballs purpose through music, Kenji Iwaisawa’s film relays a message about the connective power of song that is both simple and profound. The trio’s sound is primitive yet supremely unified, and it seems to have an alchemical, larger-than-life impact on those who hear it. It’s a bit similar to the adventures of Bill and Ted, the ambitionless teenage rockers suddenly tasked with saving the world through excellent guitar solos. Aya (Ren Komai), Kenji’s would-be romantic interest who matches him in nonchalance, subtly clicks into engagement, skipping teenage mall trips to practice singing. Ôba (Naoto Takenaka), the mohawked gangster who fancies himself as challenger for Kenji’s throne, is all the more incensed that Kenji has a goal that doesn’t involve grappling with him.
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But no one is more impacted than Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), the music-obsessed singer of the high school folk group. Upon hearing Kenji’s sound, Morita experiences a vision quest evocative of Yellow Submarine or the animations of Terry Gilliam, featuring amusing surrealist touches like a fried egg meteor shower, a slowly crashing blimp, and two perfect mounds of hardened dirt forming on glasses lenses. Morita’s increasing existential crises in reaction to Kenji’s unpractised transcendence culminate in the character stealthily becoming On-Gaku’s heart and soul.
On-Gaku electrifies from the first frame. It doesn’t jolt you in the wild, phantasmagoric way that a Marvel movie or a particularly zany episode of Adventure Time does; the lightning bottled here is rather a rarer, more refined, effervescent vintage. On-Gaku is like ozone, the chemically crisp, surprisingly refreshing scent that fills the air just before a summer storm. There is a visual component to this observation–Iwaisawa’s film features gorgeous, serene water-color backgrounds which its sharply drawn characters casually drift through like electrically-charged particles.
A Linklater-esque Instant Classic
The sensation of discovering On-Gaku is similar to that of discovering Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, or the early films of Wes Anderson. Iwaisawa has a preternatural understanding of the gentler rhythms of comedy that will have you locked in an ear-to-ear grin for the duration of the film if you happen to speak its language. On-Gaku seems to share more DNA with those auteur indie hangout films than it does with your typical feature-length anime, aside from Morita’s somewhat Miyazaki-reminiscent hallucinations. It features some of the best rotoscoping since Linklater’s Waking Life, brilliantly using the technique to capture the hypnotic and transformative effect of live music. Like so many cult classics, Iwaisawa’s film is engagingly soundtrack-driven, featuring silly yet sincere songs from Tomohiko Banse, Wataru Sawabe, and Grandfunk. As the film meanderingly barrels towards its big music festival finale, its soundtrack takes on a mythical quality.
On-Gaku is a labor of love, its seven years of indie production evident in its hand-drawn frames. It’s full of endearingly quirky vocal performances, its actors perfectly attuned to the deadpan comedy of Hiroyuki Ohashi’s original manga from which the film was adapted. Although the film maintains a minimalist execution for both budgetary and aesthetic concerns, it’s full of hilarious small flourishes–my favorite being the bizarre cartoon Kenji watches titled “The Mischievous Squeeze.” (It reminded me of the Cheddar Goblin in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, in that it’s a brief look into a world within a world that provides more questions than it does answers). Ultimately, On-Gaku is much like its wacky characters: it’s a bunch of disparate, unconventional elements coming together to make wonderful music.
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