Music, at its simplest, is a form of raw expression. Ongaku (音楽), the Japanese for music, could be read as ‘sound enjoyment’, if your Japanese is as bad as mine. Based on Hiroyuki Ohashi’s manga, Kenji Iwaisawa’s feature debut of such a name looks at a group of young delinquents, seemingly aimless, who find a way of expressing themselves in the most raw of forms.
Kenji, Asakura and Ota are three high school delinquents who sit around all day, playing computer games and not much else. Kenji, the stone-faced head of the trio, out of nowhere suddenly decides he wants to start a band, after a chance encounter where a guitar was placed in his hand. Acquiring two bass guitars and a basic drum kit, the band is formed. There is just one problem: they have no idea what they are doing.
They play anyway, with two bass guitars and drums, even giving themselves a name and developing a very basic sound. But, a folk music trio at the school have a very similar sounding name. Word gets round, and Kenji wants to meet this rival band, much to everybody’s fear. But, against supposed reputation, Kenji wants nothing more than to listen to their music, and a cultural exchange is made. Surprisingly, Morita, the lead in the folk trio, loves their raw expression of sound and wants Kenji, Asakura and Ota to join them at an upcoming festival.
But, just as his love of music came from nowhere, Kenji’s interest in the band is just as fleeting and he quits. With Kenji and Ota essentially playing the same sound on bass, Ota and Asakura play on and are set to appear at the festival. But Kenji discovers his sound and returns for an eruption of musical expression on stage.
It’s difficult to explain why you like a certain music; you simply respond to the sound. A lack of explanation is what sums up “On-gaku: Our Sound”. Kenji’s decision to start the band has no reasoning, nor does Morita’s decision to ask them to join the festival. In what is a script that could essentially be written on the back of a matchbox, narrative is not what is important here, but feeling. Character motivations are not a cause for concern; just letting them play their music, as the finale attests to.
Throughout, there are visual nods to psychedelia, The Beatles and even Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. But in what is a short film, there are a few extended shots of the characters doing little more than walking from A-to-B with accompanying music, as we move from music video to music; from live performance to live performance. The music is allowed to flow, with the animation a simple visual accompaniment.
And this is where the comedy in the film arises. The fact that everything is left unexplained, but met with such normality, can only prompt amusement. The dead-pan nature of Kenji’s expression at all times complements the film, but it finally comes alive when on stage at the festival: a cacophony of noise fills our ears, but soon becomes a hypnotic rhythm of music taken back to its roots. Here, Iwaisawa shows music as that fleeting moment in which band and crowd alike lose themselves.
A project that has taken several years to be realised, “On-gaku: Our Sound” is an inexplicable mix of music, comedy and a sense of enjoyment that you can’t quite explain.