By Leah McDonald / March 8th, 2021
I love music and I think most people reading this do, in fact. Maybe we’re not all massive fans of a band, or know the intricacies of specific styles, or have studied its long history through human civilization, but I feel like it’s a safe bet to say we all have a favorite band or style that we listen to. It’s hard to avoid music, but that’s also why it’s easy not to necessarily appreciate it. On-Gaku: Our Sound managed not only to convey that appreciation through its masterful soundtrack and stellar animation, but it also got me thinking about my own history with music and why I love it the way I do.
Based on the manga of the same name, On-Gaku follows Chiku High School delinquent Kenji and his misfit followers Ota and Asakura, who spend their days lazily playing video games, reading manga, and fighting with rival gangs – assuming they can find them, of course. After their friend and fellow delinquent Aya tells them they’ve received a challenge from Oba, leader of the Marutake High School gang, our intrepid “heroes” run off to fight, only to get lost on their way and then get bored of the idea the next day. Instead, as he’s walking home from school, Kenji witnesses a purse snatching and while standing on the side of the road simply watching, a passing musician asks him to hold his bass so he can apprehend the thief. Kenji, being an upstanding citizen, takes the bass home with him. The next day at school, he informs Ota and Asakura that he wants to start a band, despite none of them having ever played an instrument, and our story is now underway.
As I mentioned in my Marona’s Fantastic Tale review, I love when animation helps tell a story. Marona used loose, fluid animation and vibrant, striking colors to recreate the world as seen by a dog, while director Kenji Iwaisawa leaned heavily into recreating our world while remaining true to mangaka Hiroyuki Ohashi’s style. The screener I received from GKIDS included a “Making Of” documentary that went into detail on how Iwaisawa used rotoscoping to capture realistic movement from professional actors, after which he and a small, rotating team of animators painstakingly traced video stills for more than seven years to create traditional 2D hand-drawn animation, and the finished product is stunning for his efforts. There’s a weighty, grounded feel to every moment in this movie, and exceptional fluidity when it’s called for. Not only does it look impressive, it also helps emphasize character’s emotions, giving the audience an intimate look at how the cast feels. This is especially true with Kenji, whom we follow the majority of the film, and whose bored, lackadaisical attitude is exemplified by long cuts, plodding movement, and a predilection for avoiding almost all action – which is hilarious, considering his notoriety as a badass fighter. We never actually get to see Kenji throw down the entire movie, with almost all action happening off-screen. I found it a fantastic way to show his disaffection and disconnect with the world while also hammering home the comedic effect of how other people react to him.
Kenji’s fellow classmates all shine in their own ways, as well. Like him, both Ota and Asakura are lazy do-nothings who go along with Kenji’s ideas because they don’t have anything better to do. When he says they’re starting a band, the three of them rather casually steal a bunch of equipment and proceed to fumble their way through a single riff, which they conclude is good enough. Their excitement and passion is genuine, and the animation goes a long way to showing just how into playing they get. On the flip side, classmate Morita and his band display exceptional skill, but still find the primordial rock energy inherent in Kenji’s group’s performance. Music doesn’t have to be refined to be beautiful, and there is worth in even the most basic of sounds, so long as there is heart involved.
Speaking of music, the soundtrack to On-Gaku is great. In order to capture the chaotic energy of the movie’s sound, Iwaisawa hired professional musicians to jam together in order to create the individual styles of the different bands, as well as a jaw-dropping finale that has to be seen – and heard – to be believed. Grandfunk, Tomohiko Banse, and Wataru Sawabe all lent their talent to the film to help round out a soundtrack that really helped capture a funky rock feel. While at times understated, the overall package had me tapping my feet and jamming along.
I would be remiss not to note the multiple instances of music history and paraphernalia that show up in the film. The most obvious one is the reference to The Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover, but there are also nods to Nirvana, Keiji Haino, and others scattered throughout the film. On-Gaku is all about music and our individual experiences of it, but it’s also a salute to rock ‘n roll in general, and watching it revived a lot of my own love for the genre. I grew up listening to a lot of the musical influences this movie wears on its sleeve, and seeing Kenji and company’s first foray into music, seeing Morita’s obsession with it, and experiencing the highs and lows that come with following a new passion really resonated with me. I started playing drums in elementary school on a lark, because I absolutely sucked at playing my first choice instrument (the French horn, which my sister went on to play throughout high school). I absolutely felt Kenji’s impromptu desire to experience music, as well as Morita’s passion. It was like coming home after a long trip.
On-Gaku is a brilliantly animated, hilarious slice-of-life story that succeeds at capturing the essence of playing music in ways few other movies have managed. The cast is overall likable, the music is a jam, and the animation helps liven an otherwise bare-bones story that still packs a lot of heart. Knowing that it took Iwaisawa seven years to complete this project only highlights the passion with which he approached his medium, and mirrors that of Ohashi’s characters toward finding their own sound.
Review copy provided by the publisher.
animeGKIDS FilmsHiroyuki OhashiKenji IwaisawaMusicOn-Gaku: Our SoundReviews