[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be taking a look at the nuanced Oscar hopeful On-Gaku: Our Sound! Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands; is On-Gaku: Our Sound worth analyzing, or is it a waste of your time?]
Anime production is hell.
If you’re a fan of anime, then you probably take for granted just how insane and painstaking the amount of effort the animators, directors, artists put into a single episode of a series, let alone an entire season. Although the actual business of making anime is one that’s fairly tight-lipped in regards to what gets greenlit, how it gets greenlit, and shopping projects around to various studios, one element is common throughout: it kills the soul.
Some anime gives us an insight into the struggles of anime production, such as Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!!! and its look into the process of creating animation, or even brief segments like in Paranoia Agent the explain the nuanced roles each employee has in a given production, but the reality is far, far grimmer. Most anime productions have laughably pathetic budgets unless they’re a massive Shonen property, and even then that might not save a project from cutting corners and pinching pennies, sometimes releasing unfinished or poorly animated episodes to make a deadline. Think of how South Park works, only with way more elements in play. Plus the average retention rate for animators is abysmal, with most earning — I kid you not — around $12,000 a year for their work. Just read this short manga that offers a fairly accurate insight into the business. No one wants to know how the sausage is made.
Because of all of this, works like On-Gaku: Our Sound just blow my mind from a creative and developmental standpoint. The film is the passion project of one Kenji Iwaisawa, who, for the life of me, I cannot find any info on him before this movie outside of doing a short film in 2012 called Kotatsu Man as well as a few minor animated projects. Even then, IMDB and Anime News Network have absolutely nothing on the guy outside of those two projects. When sites like Anime News Network, which will catalog the most obscure mid-90s short films and list every person who was involved in it, has no information on the guy, that’s just impressive how unknown the man is.
But Iwaisawa was not just the director here. Nay nay, he did everything for this movie, and I mean EVERYTHING. Scriptwriting, art design, editing, storyboarding, even animating, the man did it all by himself. He only got outside help when it came to actually creating the music of the film. But everything else is all Iwaisawa here. Because of this, the film took seven and a half years to make, not only because he was a one-man show, but because he goddamn rotoscoped the film. I repeat, one man, over the course of over seven years, ROTOSCOPED, and entire feature film.
In case you don’t know how horrifying the idea of rotoscoping an entire feature film is, when Richard Linklater decided to rotoscope A Scanner Darkly, he described the process as being “torture” with it nearly sinking the entire production. This is Loving Vincent levels of dedication, and that movie had over 60,000 paintings made for it!
But we’re no stranger to passion projects here at Weeb Analysis. Aragne: Sign of Vermillion was a passion project that failed in nearly every single regard, showing that sometimes blood, sweat, and tears don’t excuse a bad movie. I’m happy to report that On-Gaku: Our Sound avoids the same pitfalls that Aragne made and delivers an… interesting final product. It’s good, quite good actually, and On-Gaku: Our Sound is indeed a film worthy of a Weeb Analysis, but it’s still a weird little film. So in honor of the film releasing today on Blu-ray and VOD, let’s see exactly how On-Gaku: Our Sound stands apart from the crowd.
On-Gaku: Our Sound follows three delinquents, Kenji, Asakura, and Ota, who decide one day to start a band. Kenji just decides he wants to start a band because he felt like it and the other two decide to join in. Unfortunately, the three of them know absolutely nothing about instruments or even how to play music. Their band has a single drum, two basses, and they just strum and mash things randomly. Despite their clear lack of talent, they keep at it and remain as talentless as ever, but they still have fun doing it.
As a comedy, you would think that On-Gaku: Our Sound would use the three as punching bags for the audience, offering them up as sacrifices for us to laugh at. And at first, that seems like the case. They randomly play notes and they think they’re amazing when clearly they aren’t. That’s just comedy 101 there. But as the movie progresses and they begin to play for other people, you never once get the sense that the other characters are patronizing them and their clear lack of ability. Instead, their appreciation for the trio, who call their band Kobujustu, feels genuine and they enjoy hearing them perform.
It’s puzzling to watch because the tone the film is projecting is all over the place. Should we laugh at Kobujustu because we, the viewer, are clearly aware that the music they’re playing is bad? We see other performances by actual musicians in the film that are clearly better than Kobujustu, yet as the movie progresses, we stop laughing at the trio. It’s not because the joke gets old, but because we begin to appreciate the fact they like what they’re doing. They may not be talented and are most certainly not aware of the lack of talent they possess, but they like what they’re doing and that should be all that matters. By laughing at them after watching them have fun playing, it feels like punching down and laughing at people who don’t deserve it.
It was weird watching this a few days after seeing Interstella 5555 and its highly produced and depiction of music and the music industry with garish lights and bright colors reflecting a sci-fi fever dream. On-Gaku: Our Sound is the anti-Interstella, eschewing fancy visuals and kinetic beats for something more guttural and simple. The animation is sparse, the backgrounds are basic, and the world feels like a small town not dissimilar from the one you would find anywhere in Japan.
Plus the message is plain and straightforward; anyone can play the music the Kobujustu plays. It doesn’t matter your technical prowess or if you’ve ever held a musical instrument in your life. YOU can make music and have a blast doing it, talent be damned. In fact, I kind of prefer the simplicity that On-Gaku: Our Sound presents since I don’t feel like I’m trying to connect music to visuals that don’t quite sync up, a problem that Interstella 5555 had quite often. Instead, everything here has a purpose with no unnecessary element. It’s efficient and doesn’t try to say more than it wants to.
And that’s where I start to take issue with the film. It has a good message and one that is presented in a way that feels special and unlike any other project around. But as I’m writing this, a part of me feels like I’m kind of forcing an analysis out of On-Gaku: Our Sound. It presents its ideas so matter-of-factly and like they’re no big deal that I second guess myself if that was the real message of the film. Am I reading too much into a movie that rarely attempts to convey its message? It’s like if you’re in a high school English class where your teacher is trying to convince you that the author of a book decided to make the curtains in a room blue to represent the sadness of the character when in reality the curtains are blue just because the author wanted them to be blue.
An analysis, in this instance, is tricky because, in the absence of hard interviews where we can gather and understand Iwaisawa’s goal with On-Gaku: Our Sound, we’re left to fill in the void on what’s missing. Most of the interviews I could find from him through GKIDS, the film’s distributor, focus on the process of independently financing the movie versus the overall content and authoritative vision.
Yes, yes, yes, I know that we’re approaching “death of the author” territory and how you don’t have to enjoy or find meaning in a film or work based on authorial intent, but On-Gaku: Our Sound is difficult to deliver a worthwhile analysis because when you’re actually watching the movie, none of that is apparent. When the movie ended I wasn’t thinking about the fun that the members of Kobujustu had pursuing their band’s goals for a week or two. Instead, I was more focused on just how barebones it was. Don’t get me wrong, there is something special here in a way that most Indie films carry a distinct charm, but I mean from a visual perspective.
There are moments where On-Gaku: Our Sound is brilliantly animated, featuring some sublime watercolor work that would make an entire team of animators blush then hang their heads in shame that one guy basically did it all with very little assistance from others. Those beautiful moments are contrasted by plain and simply animated characters who will stand motionless for dozens of seconds staring off into space. Sometimes the quality in animation can shift from cut to cut. It’s never outright bad, but it reached a point where I was wondering if I accidentally hit pause as I was watching because the pauses in animation went on for a significant amount of time.
I can’t really criticize the animation too much though. I mean… it was pretty much all done by one man. The fact that Iwaisawa was even able to complete this film is a miracle enough regardless of the overall quality of the animation. But passion project or not, the tactics he used to get this to a feature-length are pretty apparent. Take one scene fairly early on whether Kenji holds a bass for someone who goes running after a purse-snatcher. We hear all of the action happening off-screen, but we just see Kenji stand there and watch. He doesn’t emote, he doesn’t move, it’s nearly half a minute of watching someone watch someone in what amounts to a still frame.
This does line up with Kenji’s character, however. Kenji is your prototypical slacker. He doesn’t like school, his motivation is abysmal, and he frequently loses interest in things that bore him. He starts Kobujustu on a whim and quits it just as quickly. We never learn any rhyme or reason behind why he is the way he is, he’s just the definition of a stoic teenager. He would stand around and watch a man try to stop a purse-snatcher and contribute absolutely nothing to the proceedings.
As a comedy, it works. A lot of the humor comes specifically and Kenji’s expense, like when he decides to go and beat up some punks from another school but doesn’t know where the school is and gives up even trying to fight them. He just can’t be bothered to find them. He’s not a straight-man as he’s not reacting to the wacky situations around him, but he’s too straight-laced to be a stooge. He’s just… Kenji.
It’s almost impossible to get a read on him as he never lets anyone see his emotional side. As the movie progressed I was wondering if the man even had an understanding of what human emotions were. Yet by the time the climax approaches and we inch closer and closer to a local music festival that Kobujustu is performing in, Kenji becomes somewhat more open through the use of… a recorder. As in, the same recorder you probably got in the third grade and learned to play “Hot-Cross Buns” on. That kind of recorder.
The actual performance is the highlight of the movie, an unforgettable and brilliant meshing of sights and sounds that just commands your attention. Kenji moves and performs at inhuman speeds to the point where I want to relearn how to play a recorder, a statement which I never thought I would say. And there’s about a solid 10 minutes of recorder music here. And On-Gaku: Our Sound made it bearable. But at the end of the performance, we finally get to see Kenji show his emotional side in a way that we never knew could happen. It’s open and honest and revealing and it does not feel justified.
This has more to do with the understated nature of the film and Kenji’s portrayal throughout the film, but watching him pour his heart out just didn’t click with me. I’m reminded of movies like Mad Max: Fury Road where Furiosa’s scream into the desert at the revelation of the Green Place feels deserved. Here was a character who spent the entire movie focused on one goal and indeed was stoic as Kenji is, but we saw more of an emotional range from her. Furiosa was protective and we could tell that she was willing to do anything to get there and save the Breeding Wives from Immortan Joe. In On-Gaku: Our Sound, Kenji admits numerous times to not caring about his band and his boredom with it, so the revelation that he actually does care and he just never expressed it before rings hollow.
But that’s one of the weird things about trying to give analysis about a movie like On-Gaku: Our Sound; it doesn’t really care about being analyzed. The film just exudes this impression that it doesn’t care what you think. Like its main characters, the decisions that Iwaisawa made were done so because he wanted to do them and we just have to take them as they are. The simple animation mixed with the rotoscoping may look odd at first, but that’s how it was meant to be. The members of Kobujustu don’t have any musical expertise, but they want to play because they just want to play. Sometimes you don’t need a complicated answer or a complicated message.
This isn’t a movie where the movie encourages you to turn your brain off and just watching the pretty visuals and sounds. There is substance here, but it’s almost anti-substance. It’s aggressively trying to be simple and revels in simplicity. Sometimes people want to play music because it’s fun. Sometimes you don’t really share your feelings because you don’t know how to express them. Sometimes you want to make a movie with basic visuals just because you have a story you want to tell. Sometimes you don’t need a deep reason to appreciate a movie or a story. Sometimes analyzing something like On-Gaku: Our Sound doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
Sometimes the curtains are, in fact, just blue.