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)

Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル, Toshimitsu Iizuka, 2017)

poetry angel posterLife is confusing. You think you know what you want, only to realise it wasn’t what you wanted at all. What you really wanted was the very thing you convinced yourself you didn’t want so that you could want something else. The characters at the centre of Toshimitsu Iizuka’s Poetry Angel (ポエトリーエンジェル) are all suffers of this particular delusion, lost and alone in a small town in rural Japan without hope or direction. That is, until they discover the strange sport of “poetry boxing”.

Our hero, Tsutomu (Amane Okayama), is a 21-year-old farm boy with dreams of becoming an author. His illusions are, however, shattered when he checks the board in the community centre and discovers he hasn’t even placed in a local history essay writing contest which appears to have been won by a child. In this delicate state, a pretty girl suddenly approaches him and begs for his help but then drags him into a seminar room where he is forced to listen to a lecture on “poetry boxing”. Almost everyone else leaves straight away but Tsutomu is intrigued – after all, semi-aggressive literary sport might be just the thing to get an aspiring author’s creative juices flowing.

Tsutomu’s problems are the same as many a young man’s in Japanese cinema – he resents having his future dictated to him by an accident of birth. His father owns a large orchard and is a well respected producer of salt pickled plums. As the only child, Tsutomu is expected to take over but he hates “boring” country life and the repetitive business of farming, his thinly veiled jealousy all too plain when an old friend returns from Tokyo on a visit home between university graduation and a new job in the capital. Tsutomu thinks of himself as special, as an artist, but no one seems to be recognising his genius.

This might partly be because his only “poem” is an alarming performance art piece in which he laments his tendency to destroy the things he loves with his “weed whacker”. The sport of poetry boxing has no physical requirements but it has no limits either. It’s more or less like performance poetry or a less directly confrontational kind of slam, but participants are encouraged to step into the boxing ring and express themselves in whichever way they see fit. Once both participants have concluded their “poems” a panel of judges votes on the winner. Like Tsutomu, the other members of the poetry boxing team are dreaming of other things or claiming to be something they’re not. Rappers who really work in cabaret bars, lonely girls who fear they’re plain and long to be “cute”, civil servants longing to kick back at inconsiderate citizens, and old men who really do just want to write poetry and appreciate the time they have left.

Yet through the endlessly wacky tasks set by Hayashi (Akihiro Kakuta), the leader of the group, each of the participants begins to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what they really want. Not least among them An (Rena Takeda), a gloomy young girl who spends her life scowling at people and refusing to speak. She’d been into boxing for real and first met Tsutomu when she punched him in the face because his unexpectedly sexist friend from Tokyo was harassing her in the street. Poetry, however, begins to unlock even her deepest held desires which can finally be voiced from the ironically safe space of the poetry boxing ring.

There may be nothing particularly original about Iizuka’s delayed coming of age tale, but it has genuine warmth for its confused no hopers as they look for connection through formalised language and ritual play, discovering new depths to themselves as they do so. As it turns out mostly what you want was there all along, only you didn’t want to look. Annoyingly, other people may have figured it out before you but that can’t be helped and is, after all, only to be expected. Poetry is a doorway to the soul but it’s also one that might need a good kicking to get it open. Maybe the boxing ring is a better place to start than one might think.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Their Distance (知らない、ふたり, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2015)

Their DistanceAh young love! So beautiful, so complicated, so retrospectively trivial. Intrigue engulfs a group of young Koreans living in Japan, their co-workers, and even their English teacher and her fiancee in Rikiya Imaizumi’s indie youth meets boyband quirky romance movie, Their Distance (知らない、ふたり, Shiranai Futari). The aptly named picture paints a vista of misdirected love, miscommunication and misjudged honesty to show how messy romance can be even when it’s intent on being cute.

The hub of the story is a small shoe repair store where Korean migrant Leon (Ren) is an apprentice. Having been involved in a traumatic incident two years previously which has left him with a huge amount of personal guilt, he’s entirely cut himself off from human interaction of any kind, leaving the store each lunchtime to eat alone and miserably on a solitary bench surrounded by concrete. Despite this, one of his Japanese colleagues, Kokaze (Fumiko Aoyagi) has developed a crush on him and is patiently waiting for him to decide it’s OK to be happy again.

Events are set in motion when he finds fellow Korean Suna (Hanae Kan) asleep on his favourite bench after a night of binge drinking to forget her troubles with boyfriend Ji-woo (JR) who’s developed a thing for his English teacher, Kanako (Haruka Kinami). Kanako, as well as being a little older, has a fiancee already, Awakawa (Tateto Serizawa), who happens to be in a wheelchair following an accident, before which he had also been cheating on her. The two Koreans are also joined by a third who works with Suna at her part-time job at a convenience store, Sangsoo (Min-hyun). Sangsoo ends up in the shoe repair store where he falls for Kokaze, completing our love…heptagon?

This is all very complicated already. Ji-woo decides to unburden himself by revealing his feelings for his teacher to Suna even though he doesn’t actually want to break up with her and the teacher turns him down for a number of very sensible reasons. His case of (probably selfish) extreme honesty sends Suna into a bout of drunken confusion during which she meets Leon and becomes semi-attached to him despite not being able to remember much about him because she was pretty much out of it the whole time.

Flitting between the innocence of a hand written love letter to quasi-stalking, and even a third layer of stalking the stalker, Their Distance has an oddly schizophrenic tone which darts between quirky comedy and serious drama without much consistency. The most interesting plot thread concerns Kanako and her fiancee who are both a little older and ought to know what they’re doing but only seem to confuse and mislead each other even when they’re making a point of mutual honesty. Neither can be sure of why the other is still in the relationship and if the true love partner is the wheelchair itself – did she stay because she didn’t want to leave a disabled man (even though he’d been cheating on her before the accident), or did he stay with her because now he’s in the wheelchair he thinks he won’t find anyone else? Arawaka gives Kanako an out by offering to separate so she can pursue her dreams of living abroad and travelling the world but refuses to say one way or the other what his true feelings about the marriage are causing more than a little emotional confusion for the put-upon Kanako who is also getting drawn into the maelstrom of her students’ romantic problems too.

Ji-woo treats Suna in a similar way by revealing his growing feelings for Kanako yet leaving all the decisions entirely in her hands. He claims he’s doing the right thing by being “honest” but actually he’s being a coward by refusing to choose (and anyway, seeing as the teacher turned him down there’s no real reason to tell her). This kind of childishness is almost forgivable in the younger guys who, after all, are still inexperienced, but in a man of Arakawa’s age, diffidence is far from an attractive quality.

Imaizumi has three members of top Korean boy band NU’EST as his gang of Korean émigrés and has half an eye on cute idol drama with the other half pointed firmly at the indie/arthouse scene. Though the performances are strong across the board, Imaizumi never quite manages to reconcile these two distinct forms and his detached, almost ironic tone may not hit home with an audience primed for pop star drama. Ultimately, Their Distance has relatively little to say, its message is very slight indeed, and it takes an awful long time to deliver. However, Imaizumi’s observations about romance through the ages have a universal and timeless quality which along with the mild humour and generosity of spirit on show make Their Distance worth the journey, though not perhaps the fare.


Their Distance is actually available now in the UK and other regions from Nikkatsu via iTunes either as an enhanced iOS app or as a regular video from the store (where it has subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese).  You can apparently rent it on Nikkatsu’s YouTube channel too as well as Google Play and Vimeo (click the link to the YouTube page in the video below for a full collection of subtitle/territory specific links for each of the platforms).