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On-Gaku: Our Sound review: wild hand-drawn anime that took seven years to make

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There’s a scene early on in the standalone anime film On-Gaku: Our Sound that epitomizes its scrappy underdog attitude. After inheriting a bass guitar from a stranger and grabbing whatever else they need from their high school’s music room, delinquent Kenji and his friends Ota and Asakura return to his place to jam out. After beating at their instruments for a while during an impressive 360-degree montage, the trio pause, rapt in utter astonishment at what they’ve just done. “What just happened felt so good,” Kenji says with monotone sincerity, the other two nodding in agreement. On-Gaku: Our Sound is a story of musicians who can’t play music, but still find gratification in the act of creating. It’s a deadpan buddy comedy about amateur passion, produced through the raw power of an animator’s amateur passion.

On-Gaku: Our Sound, based on a manga created by Hiroyuki Ôhashi, is the feature-length debut of first-time director Kenji Iwaisawa, who made the film over the course of seven years with a largely amateur team. The final project wears its freewheeling DIY sensibilities loud and proud. The plot centers on Kenji, Ota, and Asakura, three high-school ne’er-do-wells who decide to start a band on a whim that’s equal parts inspiration and boredom. This eventually results in them being invited to play at an upcoming summer festival, even though they know absolutely no songs, and can only fiercely bang away at their guitars and drums with the kind of monastic concentration and repetition expected from a post-rock band.

Photo: GKIDS

Along the way, there are hijinks involving Aya, the trio’s classmate and only female friend, and a mohawked gang of rival hooligans from a neighboring school who are itching to start some trouble. But really, the bulk of On-Gaku: Our Sound’s run-time only grazes against these elements before returning to luxuriate in the experimentalism and absurdity that manifests organically through teenage idleness. “When you think about a story about high-school students starting a band, you tend to think about a youthful tale involving friendship, love, or struggles,” Iwaisawa said in an interview with Deadline. “But On-Gaku didn’t have any of those obvious elements, which is why I especially enjoyed the story.” It’s an unapologetically vibe-oriented movie, capturing the easygoing capriciousness of being young and discovering your bliss.

It’s a narratively unassuming yet eccentric premise, brimming with the same sort of offbeat Gen Z humor and energy featured in animated sitcoms like Beavis and Butt-Head or Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Such comparisons feels especially pertinent in terms of the film’s art style, with simplified yet memorable character designs that feels like a cross between the work of One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 artist ONE and the animations of Swedish illustrator Magnus Carlsson, perhaps most popular for his 1997 music video of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.”

The design of the film’s characters are essential to much of On-Gaku’s quirkiness and humor, with the majority of the film’s most memorable laughs prefaced by long pauses locked on Kenji’s nigh-perpetually expressionless face before he flatly delivers nearly every one of the witheringly hilarious punchlines. The film’s distinct hybrid of rotoscope animation, hand-drawn characters, and painted backgrounds is also a big part of On-Gaku’s defining quirkiness.

Kenji leaps into the air for his big finale in On-Gaku: Our Sound

Photo: GKIDS

The film’s quirkiness is also attributable to its use of hybrid animation in the form of rotoscoping alongside its more traditionally animated assets, which give it almost magnetic visual appeal. The characters’ relatively rigid designs are rendered with charming clumsiness and innocuous fluidity. It’s as entertaining to watch these characters just sit around and shoot the shit as it is to see them bang away at their instruments or burst into some off-the-wall chase scene.

Curiously enough, what stands out the most about On-Gaku: Our Sound’s, err, sound design is that in spite of its narrative emphasis on rock ’n’ music and the original songs composed by musicians like Tomohiko Banse, Grandfunk, and Wataru Sawabe, it’s a comfortingly quiet movie, for the most part. The scenes of Kenji and company walking through the streets of their hometown, with an ambient buzz of human activity peeking at the audible periphery of the action on-screen, are arguably some of the film’s best. They draw the audience not just into a scene and place, but into a peculiar, approximate sense-memory of adolescence.

On-Gaku: Our Sound is hilarious adolescent-rock comedy with an irreverent sense of dry deadpan wit that would feel right at home alongside the likes of Daria or Home Movies. If this is what Iwaisawa was able to accomplish on his own over the course of seven years, the 40-year-old director has a bright future ahead of him, and the world of anime is fortunate to have him.

On-Gaku: Our Sound is now available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital rental services.

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