Kenji and his friends have absolutely no musical training, but they can pound things. That is more than good enough for punk rock. Somehow, the three knuckleheads tap into something raw, primal, and transformative when they take up instruments in Kenji Iwaisawa’s anime feature manga-adaptation On-Gaku: Our Sound, which screens during the 2020 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
Kenji is a brawny high school meathead, whose primary satisfaction has come from rumbling with school rivals, but even that now leaves him bored. He and his running mates Oota and Asakura swipe two electric basses and a drum set from the school band room and suddenly they are beating out a hypnotic pulse. They christen themselves Kubujutsu (a martial arts reference), but soon learn there is also a folk-rock trio on-campus named Kubitjutsu (a fine arts reference), led by the confidence challenged Morita.
Of course, the sensitive folkies are terrified when they hear Kenji and his pals are looking for them, but it turns out both groups really dig each other’s music. They might even both play the town’s rock festival, if Morita and Kenji do not mess things up, in their own distinctly idiosyncratic ways.
In terms of animation style and attitude, On-Gaku shares a kinship with Beavis & Butthead, but the humor is much drier—like bone-dry. At times, Kenji and his mates are so laconic, viewers will start to wonder if the film is stuck. Yet, whenever that tension is released, the effect is hilarious.
In fact, the wonderfully loopy way music brings opposites together in On-Gaku makes it an utterly unlikely feel-good winner. Honestly, Kenji and company are some of the most weirdly charming animation characters you will ever hope to hang with. Iwaisawa’s simple but sharply-drawn character designs perfectly suit their punk-rock, slacker attitudes. Yet, he also adds some crazy surreal imagery during the musically-induced flights of fantasy.