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On-Gaku: Our Sound

One summer’s day, a group of yobbish high-school kids, who’ve never touched an instrument in their lives, decide to form a band. This is how they start playing a youthful and quirky rhapsody.

Film Credit
Director: Kenji Iwaisawa
Autor: Kenji Iwaisawa (based on manga On-Gaku by Hiroyuki Ohashi)
Music: Tomohiko Banse / Grandfunk / Wataru Sawabe
Sound: Takaaki Yamamoto

Kenji Iwaisawa

On-Gaku: Our Sound is a Japanese indie animated feature film based on Hiroyuki Ohashi’s manga of the same title, which was developed by the director Kenji Iwaisawa for over seven years with rotoscoping animation technique. The film received the grand prize of the Feature Film competition at Ottawa Animation Film Festival in 2019 and was nominated for the best indie feature at the 48th Annie Awards.

The three barefaced delinquents at a high school form a band and enjoy the sounds of instruments being truthful to their emotions, despite being complete beginners. They sublimate their passion in an unexpected style of energetic music.

With very unique characters drawn in simple but memorable designs, distinctive pacing of the storytelling, and accentuating the story with artistic expression and comedy, all come together to make an addicting film to watch.

We are delighted to deliver the words from the director Mr. Iwaisawa on the story behind the film, thanks to the help from Kaboom Animation Festival 2021 (From 31st March to 4th April in the Netherlands) for giving us the opportunity to interview him.

Interview with Kenji Iwaisawa

Hideki Nagaishi (HN): Could you please let us know the structure and size of the development team of the film?

Kenji Iwaisawa: On-Gaku: Our Sound is an independent film, so I started to develop the film alone and then I gradually acquired some staff to help me. In terms of the staff for drawing, the total number was about 30 to 40, but people came and went during the production period. Basically, I managed all the creators of the film project.

There were almost no animation professionals in the staff. The people who helped me were amateurs, so they played more of an assisting role of production. Hence, I needed to do many parts of the production process by myself. It ended up having my name in various roles in the film credits.

HN: This film is based on an original manga. How did that lead to creating the film?

Kenji Iwaisawa: Hiroyuki Ohashi, the author of the original manga, is not one of the super-famous manga artists in Japan, so this film project didn’t start out like, “let’s make a film based on this manga, because it’s a blockbuster and a bestseller.”

First of all, I got to know Mr. Ohashi and we became like friends. Then, I started wanting to make a film based on his manga because his works are interesting. So, I asked him directly about having an animated feature film adaptation of On-Gaku: Our Sound, and thus the production of this film was started.

Actually, the original manga was published privately by Mr. Ohashi. He sold it in bookshops that dealt with self-publishing. It became popular at those shops and caught the attention of a publisher, who began publishing the manga. Also, it went back into print following the release of this film.

HN: What part of the original manga appealed to you and made you want to develop an animated adaptation of the story?

Kenji Iwaisawa: There were several reasons why I decided to make a film based on the story of the original manga.

First of all, the story has humour and includes very appealing characters.

When working on a new film, I am the type of director who prefers to direct a film based on an existing story, rather than creating a new story from scratch. And the original manga is one of the works of Mr. Ohashi, who I personally know very well. Those were also part of the reasons.

In the animated feature film business in Japan, in general there are only projects based on very successful or very popular works so I feel there is no variety. They just think: “There’s a demand for this kind of work, so we made a film of that”. So, in addition to the reasons I gave you, I thought that if I could make a feature-length animation film based on the hidden gem On-Gaku: Our Sound, the film would be able to compete with other Japanese animated films as something completely different from them.

HN: This film has been highly acclaimed not only in Japan but also internationally. What is your personal analysis on what made this film universal?

Kenji Iwaisawa: So far, it was only at the Ottawa Animation Film Festival in 2019 where I could directly see the live reactions to the film from overseas audiences. To me, they seemed to have enjoyed the comedic elements sprinkled throughout the film quite a bit, and were accepting of the emotional beats of the story, such as the excitement of the outdoor music festival scene.

A story of high school students who form a rock band is the kind of theme that has the scent of the bloom of youth and has been depicted in many films. However, this film doesn’t depict the conflicts of the protagonists’ mind. They become shocked at how unbelievably cool the first sound they make on their instruments is. And then, they start to believe and push forward by thinking the sound they make is cool. I think that unfolding that kind of story, which is different from the audience’s expectations and not a pre-established concept, makes this film a universal story.

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