ON-GAKU: Our Sound — A Melodic Masterpiece


Article by Rui Serizawa, Writer

Reading Time: 2 minutes

With the rise of digital technology and its efficient application in the animation industry, the distinctive vintage styles of anime from the late 80s to the 90s seem to have disappeared over the years. Yet, the award-winning feature film by Kenji Iwaisawa, ON-GAKU: Our Sound, goes against the grain and captures the nostalgic feeling of classic animation and Western rock music. 

The film premiered in 2019 at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and has remained “underground” ever since. Its narrative is simple and easy to follow: A feared trio of high school students suddenly discovers an inner passion for music and starts a band. Due to their lack of experience, they begin experimenting with the sound that forms the basis of a song. The story extends to the confrontation of a rival gang and having to perform at a music festival. As the film progresses, melodic sounds build up intricate layers to form a complete piece of music. 

However, the film focuses primarily on animation and stylistic musical choices. It almost seems as though the minimal script was purposely written to draw key attention to the music and sound. The audio fills in the gaps of the characters’ dialogue and reveals more than what is on the screen. 

The film took seven years to hand-draw. Each frame resembles the tedious work that went into anime in the previous decades, such as the production of AKIRA (1988). The film also mixes in a few scenes of animation derived from tracing live footage, setting it apart from the majority of the visuals. These are scenes in the throes of the characters’ music-making. In all, over 40,000 hand-drawn frames make up the entire 71-minutes. Through an artistic focus on the scenery, the characters are drawn with simple shapes and lines fetching a cartoonish feel of other works like the Sazae-San Series (1969-Present). Long pauses and still images can also be spotted throughout, adding a comedic effect to the story. 

In addition to the incredible animation styles involved, ON-GAKU, which translates to “music” in Japanese, pays homage to 60s and 70s rock music. Most evident are the allusions to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Whether it is music in the background as the characters stroll through the picturesque night in the Japanese suburbs or the music they play on their instrument, every sound is carefully chosen to complement the mood of the set environment or to fit the characters’ complex emotions. Perhaps the second half of the title, Our Sound, comes from the notion of sound being a form of self-representation. 

Overall, the film is certainly worth watching when considering the short duration and the artistic value of this movie. Unfortunately, the film is exclusively available on NETFLIX in Japanese with the option of having Japanese subtitles. Although the film might be more enjoyable with a familiar language, the straightforward narrative can be easily comprehended by any non-Japanese speaker. Through the influence of multiple Japanese and Western styles, ON-GAKU: Our Sound is a cultural masterpiece.