On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

The high school band movie has a special place in Japanese cinema. From the anxious release of Linda Linda Linda to the laidback charms of K-On, music is that rare thing that both brings people together and enables individual expression. Adapted from the cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi, Kenji Iwaisawa’s highly stylised indie animation On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Ongaku) is a psychedelic ode to the transportive qualities of musical performance from either side of the stage as its laconic, tongue-tied heroes rediscover themselves through the art of song. 

Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto) is perhaps the archetypal hero of another kind of manga, a shaven-headed delinquent stepping straight out of the pages of Crows Zero or a hundred other tales of high school hierarchies mediated through male violence. Known for his “spaghetti fist”, the monosyllabic young man is feared all around town as a ruthless fighter, engaging in petty acts of aggression with boys from neighbouring high schools, such as the mohawked Oba (Naoto Takenaka) and his identically dressed gang of young toughs who seem to be his current nemesis.

Lost in his own little world, Kenji barely notices when he finds himself in the middle of a crime scene as a thief runs past him on the street pursued by a heroic young man who, temporarily liberating himself, thrusts the guitar he is carrying into Kenji’s arms. Bemused by the chaotic scene in front of him, Kenji becomes fascinated by the strange instrument and immediately announces to his two friends, Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa), that they’ll be forming a band, picking up everything they need from the school music room and cheerfully walking off with it. Of course, they have no idea what instruments even are let alone how to play them but then that hardly matters, or as Kenji puts it might just be the “whole point”. 

Asakura comes up with a name for their musical trio, “Kobujutsu”, without quite knowing what it means (classical martial arts), later realising they have a problem because there’s already a similarly named band at school, Kobijutsu (classical fine arts). Asakura has the idea to strong-arm the other guys into changing their monicker, but in place of the expected battle of the bands the two sets of unlikely allies find unexpected common ground in musical appreciation. Kobijutsu, led by introverted music geek Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), is an old school retro folk trio, while Kenji & co are unrefined, avant-garde punk rockers, but each discovers something in the other that speaks directly to them in mutual understanding as “musicians”. 

In fact, “musicians” is how Kenji demands to be identified, explaining to the gang’s female friend Aya (Ren Komai) who was used to referring to them as the “three musketeers”,  that they’re “now obsessed with music” which is why they “don’t have time” to go fight Oba. But Kenji later finds himself depressed, declaring himself “bored” with the band much to the alarm of his two friends who’ve fully embraced their artistic sides. The young men find themselves literally transported by music, Morita seeing himself in a surrealistic scene surrounded by artefacts of misremembered traditional culture pointing to unexpected angles in Kenji’s raw musical expression which later manifest themselves in an unexpected sight gag as he reveals a different side to himself in a musical register which is both refined and naive, while Morita too begins to embrace his inner rebel with psychedelic glee complete with a fresh new look. 

Iwaisawa spent seven years on the project drawing over 40,000 images by hand largely on his own. His designs perfectly mimic the quirky minimalism of Ohashi’s manga, complete with a lowkey deadpan sensibility that is perfectly in tune with the laidback charms of its slacker heroes. Kenji lives in a slightly different temporality, his extended pauses before offering up his idiosyncratically concise replies rendered as perfectly timed still frames while the musical sequences are filled with the raw anarchic energy of something being set free as the youngsters liberate themselves through the joy of music, climaxing in a rotoscoped final concert which unites all in a shared sense of transcendental transformation. Boasting an expertly crafted, nostalgic soundtrack, Iwaisawa’s joyful celebration of the power of making music is an off-beat gem.


On-Gaku: Our Sound is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Wind in Your Heart (心に吹く風, Yoon Seok-ho, 2017)

the wind in your heart posterYoon Seok-ho is best known for his work in Korean television drama which included several of the series thought of as kickstarting the “Hallyu” wave. Chief among these is Winter Sonata which proved extremely popular in Japan and is also cited as a major inspiration for the short-lived boom of “junai” or “pure love” movies in the early 2000s. The Wind in Your Heart (心に吹く風, Kokoro ni Fuku Kaze) brings things full circle – making his feature debut, Yoon brings his brand of romantic melodrama to Hokkaido for a re-evaluation of first love, middle-aged regrets, and an escape from real world cynicism to a world of beauty and innocence.

Video artist Ryosuke (Hidekazu Mashima) has been in living in London for many years but is currently staying with a friend in Hokkaido on a working holiday. When his pick up truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere he chances in to a nearby cottage in the hope of using the phone, only to find a ghost from the past standing in the doorway – Haruka (Masumi Sanada), his high school sweetheart whom he has not seen in 23 years. Obviously a lot has happened – Haruka is married with a grown-up daughter, but seems sad and lonely. Ryosuke is only in town for a couple more days, but the pair make the most of their time to reconnect and think about what might have been and why it wasn’t, as well as what might still be if someone finds the courage to boldly pursue their desires.

Well, that might be a little strong – this is a story of innocent, chaste love, rather than a hot and passionate affair. The Wind in Your Heart does indeed share much in common with the classic “junai” in its nostalgic look back to innocent teenage romance and yearning to return to a time when everything seemed so simple and love was all that mattered. It is, however, sadder – we’re not told exactly what made Haruka decide to forget Ryosuke after he left for university in Tokyo, only that she went through some tough times. Likewise we don’t really know why Ryosuke didn’t try harder to find out, save that perhaps he thought that was what she wanted and respected her decision. Nevertheless, Ryosuke has remained unmarried and apparently still carries a torch 23 years later. All the pair have are mutual regrets and a shared sense of nostalgia for a future they feel they lost because of things that happened to them in their youths.

Now, things might be different. Haruka is obviously miserable in her marriage. Her daughter has left for university, her husband is working away in Taiwan, and she’s left at home all alone with her horrible mother-in-law. Ryosuke asks her if she’s happy and she can’t answer. She doesn’t want to talk about her husband whom she doesn’t seem to like very much. When we eventually meet him he is drunk, bossy, and insensitive. It’s no wonder Haruka might dream of running off with her idealised first love but when all is said and done she lacks the conviction to do it. She is simply too conventional, too bound by social obligation, to consider throwing caution to the wind and embracing her own happiness.

It might be patronising to suggest that Haruka is a stand-in for the expected audience – unhappy, under appreciated middle-aged women who perhaps feel trapped by a conservative society and long for escape from their humdrum lives through an innocent romance, but then that does very much seem to be the screenwriter’s intention. Haruka hesitates – her hand always hovering over door handles as if they were triggers, unsure which door to open and which direction to choose, ultimately making her decisions far too late. Unlike the more positive resolutions of a junai romance which allow the left behind to come to terms with their loss and resolve to live on with happy memories rather than sorrow, Haruka is left only with the crushing realisation that it really might be too late and she’s made a lifetime’s worth of poor choices though she does at least begin to find a degree of fulfilment in re-embracing her youthful dreams previously crushed by the unforgiving attitudes of her family.

Filming in Hokkaido, Yoon maintains a notably Korean sensibility in his static camera and straightforward composition which prioritises simple conversation between two people, only occasionally wandering off into poetic reveries in which the sun embraces the wind in a bracing Hokkaido spring. Reaching for something deeper than it manages to grasp, The Wind in Your Heart lands in standard melodrama territory, never quite managing to lend its central romance the weight it seems to want, but nevertheless doing its best to strain the heart with a tale of inescapable middle-aged misery in lives lived through the power of what might have been.


Original trailer (no subtitles)