Review for On-Gaku: Our Sound
It’s funny how anime about music work. Shows like Bang Dream and Love Live are easy to understand, given that they are adapted from mobile rhythm matching games, and music is at the heart of the experience. But when it’s a show that is adapted from a manga, it’s a little harder to explain. After all, manga is a silent medium. You trust the author when they write about characters that succeed in music, but they don’t have to back up their words and their artwork with actual musical talent. That’s all down to the anime makers to accomplish, and the studios that have to invest in musicians and vocal artists that match the style and quality of the story. Get it right, and you get something memorable like K-On! or Beck – Mongolian Chop Squad. Fail to get that chemistry right, and you get something as forgettable as Gravitation. That brings us to the feature film, On-Gaku: Our Sound, a rare independent anime production which wowed the festival circuit a couple of years ago, and won no few awards at that.
Kenji is a high school delinquent, who along with his friends Ota and Asakura, tend to intimidate the student body, spend their time looking for an easy life, and go looking for fights with delinquents from rival schools. But a brief encounter with a fleeing thief leaves Kenji in possession of a guitar. The obvious progression is to hit the school music room and liberate a couple of instruments. With two bass guitars and a cut down drum kit, Kenji, Ota and Asakura start a band, Kobojutsu. Slowly, they make an impression, not least with Morita’s school folk band, Kobijutsu. It seems like serendipity when there’s a chance to play at a summer rock festival. But then Kenji gets bored with music...
On-Gaku gets a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p presentation on this disc. You get a DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Japanese track with optional English and Spanish subtitles. Like many of the films that All the Anime release in the UK, this looks to be a mirror of a US GKids disc. The image is clear and well defined throughout, although for the most part this isn’t a title that will challenge the limits of the HD medium. Detail is good enough, and colours are strong and consistent, while the rotoscoped animation is smooth, and there are some stylistic flights of fancy in the film that really do catch the eye. The audio is decent enough, the dialogue is clear and the subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos. The film is about music, but it isn’t about making the audience bop in their seats right from the start, and you might not be looking for a soundtrack release after the end credits have rolled. The story is more important than tie-in merchandise in this instance. The surround is subtly, but effectively used for immersion.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case, and the inner sleeve art, with a complete lack of originality for a music anime, is inspired by the Abbey Road imagery once more. I’m not too impressed with All the Anime’s case blurb in this instance, tiny writing, mostly devoted to the film credits, leaving nowhere enough room for the disc specifications. Under Bonus, all it has room for is, “Includes many on-disc video extras”, which is just one notch above completely uninformative.
But true to the statement, there are indeed many video extras, in total running a good deal longer than the film itself.
The Making of On-Gaku: Our Sound (59:20)
Our Movie: Behind the Scenes (15:!0)
Live Musical Performance (10:12)
On-Gaku (Demo) (5:36)
Rock Festival Pencil Test (2:46)
Storyboards Gallery slideshow (1:41)
Shorts By Kenji Iwaisawa
Mourning Ice Pop (3:52)
Taro Wanted to Be Water (5:14)
I’m not sure what I was expecting with On-Gaku, although given the characters and the story blurb, I was leaning more towards Beck rather than K-On!. However given the film’s 71 minute runtime, I doubted that it would have the narrative chops of either. In the end, On-Gaku turns out to be nothing like either of those shows, indeed I haven’t seen On-Gaku’s like before. The best way that I can describe it is, that it’s a 71 minute long gag and punchline setup. That’s risky, as if that punchline fails to deliver, then you don’t have a movie. Thankfully On-Gaku hits the target, and it does it with style.
On-Gaku does make it a hard slog at first though. Delinquents aren’t the most charming of protagonists at the best of times, and Kenji is so taciturn that you might find your attention drifting in the first act of the film, as it goes about describing his daily life of loafing, intimidating stares, and picking fights. A lack of motivation and an outward absence of energy don’t make him much more interesting beyond his zigzag moustache.
Even when that bass guitar falls into his hands, and he forms a band with his fellow delinquents, it doesn’t exactly light up the screen, or indeed evoke any musical appreciation. For the one song that Kobojutsu play is a monotonous, but primal beat. There’s just a little something catchy about it though, that primal feeling that gets to whoever hears it. It certainly changes the perspective of Morita, leader of the school folk band, Kobijutsu, who until that point has been playing the kind of music and singing the kind of songs that would have Animal House’s Bluto Blutarsky destroying guitars and then apologising.
Morita starts to change when he hears Kobojutsu’s song, and he also convinces them to take part in the town’s rock festival. It seems like a good idea, but there is always adversity on the road to success, not least a rival school’s gang of delinquents who have it in for Kenji, and also there is Kenji’s own apathy. But all of this does lead to the film’s almost cathartic punchline, as Kobojutsu’s monotonous primal dirge starts to evolve, and the band discover ‘their sound’.
What makes On-Gaku special is the animation. There aren’t too many anime that are rotoscoped, and given the simplistic look to the characters, and the genre of story, this is as far from Flowers of Evil as you can get. But the rotoscoped animation really does show its worth in the music sequences, where the simple line art can suddenly switch mode to something a lot more energetic and vivid.
It may just be 71 minutes in length, but you do have to invest that time to get the best out of On-Gaku, and given the nature of its story, I do have reservations about value for money when it comes to repeat viewings. On the other hand, this is one film where a shorter runtime is more than offset by the quantity of extra features. And while I might not have been invested at the start of the film, by the end credits it owned my attention completely. It’s well worth that one watch.