On-Gaku: Our Sound (2020) review [Japan Cuts 2020]

Introduction

With virtually no budget and no experience in animation, Kenji Iwaisawa started a seven-year-during project to bring Hiroyuki Ohashi’s self-published cult manga to life as an animation. But after a struggle of seven years – 40,000 hand-drawn frames and a lot of rotoscoping later – Iwaisawa can finally present his passion project to the world.

Japan Cuts 2020

Review

One day, while walking home, Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto), a high-school delinquent feared by many, is put a guitar in his hand by a bystander trying to catch an escaping thief. The next day, influenced by this event, he proposes to his friends Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa) to form a band. Despite having no musical skill, much like Kenji, they accept his proposal and start practicing – Ota and Kenji on the bass guitar and Asakura on the drums.

Ongaku: our sound (2020) by Kenji Iwaisawa

What Kenji Iwaisawa, in the first part of his narrative, vividly and visually explores is the aspect of boredom. Boredom marks the lives of our trio. The things they do – playing videogames, practicing boxing, picking fights with others, … etc. – they solely do to pass the time. They are, in fact, stuck within a certain repetition of activities that, despite providing some pleasure, have no relation to their own subjective desire.

In this sense. it would not be wrong to state that life is living them instead of them living their life. Their repetitive activities control, by virtue of providing pleasure, the rhythm of their life and problematizes their ability to find a place to assume a true subjective desire. One could even argue that their flight in pleasure is, in a certain way, an escape from the subjective emptiness that marks them and the difficulty to answer the question of their own subjectivity with a desire.

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Kenji’s invite to form a band needs to be understood as another way to fill the emptiness of daily life. It is another activity to repeat for pleasure to quell the boredom and silence their subjective emptiness. But what starts as a way to fill time soon becomes something more, due to the fact that they do not discover the pleasure of music but the pleasure of making music. Beyond providing pleasure, the act of making music opens up the possibility to assume a place from where one is able to express one’s desire.

When Kenji states, after being invited to Sakamoto town rock fest with his band, that he has becomes bored with the band, we should not make the mistake of taking this statement at face value. What, in our view, hides behind this statement is a fear of following the desire he has, whatever desire is may be (Psycho-note 1). The fundamental question that underpins Iwaisawa’s narrative is none other than the question if Kenji will be able to pass through his anxiety in order to act upon his desire or not (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).

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On-Gaku: Our Sound stands out because of its original style of drawing. The water-coloured backgrounds – full of details – are beautiful and diverse and the character-designs, despite being rather simplistic, are dynamic and full of subtle emotional expression. What is also noteworthy about the animation is that stillness, i.e. when a character like Kenji remains static within the frame, is meaningful in most cases. While stillness reveals some budget-restraints, it is also a conscious creative choice used, for instance, to evoke the very boredom/subjective emptiness that marks our main characters.

What Kenji Iwaisawa beautifully shows with his extra-ordinary narrative is that animating simple lines – making the most of the few lines sketching the character and his movement on screen – is often far more communicative than what more intricate and visually complex animations are able to accomplish. That being said, the most emotionally powerful moments of On-Gaku: Our Sound do feature a subtle change in visual style – the clean simple lines transforming into a more rough sketch-like dynamic strokes (Narra-note 2, Cine-note 1). On-Gaku: Our Sound ‘s most visually pleasing moments are those moments where movement and vitality are central – animating swaying hair while playing music, framing the act of running away from a group of delinquents, … etc. The concert-sequence is, in this respect, pure animation art.

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On-Gaku: Our Sound is, in short, pure work of art. Iwaisawa’s hand-drawn musical indie, a passion-project, does not only impress visually – underlining that hand-drawn animation will always be more expressive and communicative than 3D animation, but also offers a compelling exploration of music’s inherent power, a transformative power allowing the subject to pass through anxiety in order to give expression to his desire. Highly recommended for anyone who loves animation and/or music.

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Notes

Psycho-note 1: Kenji’s sudden burst of boredom should be read as symptom or defensive mechanism that quells the fear that accompanies the blossoming of his particular desire. The symptomatic attack of boredom short-circuits any possibility for him to assume a subjective place from where he can express his desire from.

Narra-note 1: Kenji’s vocal act at the end of the performance of the band should be read as a radical affirmation of the assumption of a desire.

Narra-note 2: The first sequence that features this temporary ‘stylistic’ break illustrates the power of movement while evoking how emotion can take over our body.

Cine-note 1: These stylistic excursions also features more ‘lines’ in order to evoke movement and make the scene feel more dynamic. Besides this stylistic shift to emphasize movement, there are also other stylistic shifts present in the narrative.

 

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