Watching On-Gaku: Our Sound (2019) directed by Kenji Iwaisawa is in many ways like watching a slice of the male teenage experience. It is part of the “slice of life” genre, after all, a genre of anime that aims to show you the human experience rather than terrifying giants destroying your city or bald strong men taking on supervillains with nothing but a punch. The latter’s male toxicity (and baldness) rears its ugly head through the high school halls on display in Our Sound, much like it does for most, if not all teenage boys.
We first meet our protagonist, Kenji, in a corner store cafeteria. His violent aura is immediately made visible as we see three kids stand up from the table they were occupying in defiance, despite Kenji simply standing still with his trademarked blank expression. The three boys run away in fright when Kenji raises his hand for his famous “spaghetti fist,” which has been mythologized as a fearsome attack that decimated other groups of teenage boys. Kenji, unphased, is simply raising his hand to light a cigarette. His reputation precedes him, as it does for his friend group consisting of Ota, Asakura and himself, who have been deemed “the delinquents.” We follow the delinquents as they vagabond through Japan during the first quarter of the film trying to pick fights out of a need to assert themselves as the alpha gang, but also out of pure boredom. This begs the question: Why do they choose to live a life of such violence? The answer is simple—they are steeped in the purest strain of directionless teenage apathy. They have nothing better to do. No passions, no love-lives, and most importantly, no purpose. Therefore, they do what all teenage boys are taught to do—channel their aggression through the guidelines that toxic masculinity provides.
Everyone is familiar with the concept of group obsessions: For example, all of your friends investing hundreds of dollars into a new trading card game only to shift interests months later onto the next thing. This is also the main way that kids become friends with one another, as we find people in school who have similar interests and then expand on those interests as a unit. This film puts a lot of effort into emphasizing collective obsessions within friend groups, which at first is seen through the gang’s eagerness to beat people up, but later morphs into a more productive, or personal outlet in which they channel their aggression. By sheer chance, their new obsession becomes music.
One day, Kenji is standing on the side of the road when a man asks him to hold his guitar so he can chase a thief who stole someone’s bag. This sparks interest in Kenji as he later returns to his friend group and very unenthusiastically says they will start a band. It is with this music that the film shows its first sign of emotion. Similar to bands from the old punk scene like the Sex Pistols, or more specifically Sid Vicious from said band, none of the three can play the instruments that they had stolen from their school. However, this gives way to the most punk song they could have written. Composed of one note on the guitar, bass, and drums, their song channels the aggression into what can only be described as the most punk thing since hating your hometown. The film often makes reference to other punk adjacent, such as The Clash and The Beatles (who I’d consider to be the punk of their time). These bands are good examples of using your passion to perform your aggression rather than the downward spiral of physical violence.
In this way, music allows the friend group to grow as people as they become disinterested in their life of gang violence, only caring about practicing their one song. They are now on the road to becoming less apathetic by being driven to become better in an unknowing attempt to let go of their toxic masculinity. Dropping the toxic facade that teenage boys are programmed from birth to subscribe to is a hard road that demands intentional learning. The way I see it, boys have two separate instances in which they come of age. The first is when they join the herd mentality of adhering to what they are told they should be, and the second is acknowledging the flaws in that system and actively educating themselves to become better, more well-rounded human beings. However, this is a road that can involve slip-ups, as it can be hard to go against the way your brain has been programmed. I feel that it often takes a large slip-up to truly drive the idea home that a change must be made. Messing up should be seen as a lesson and not a failure.
This idea is particularly relevant to Kenji as he eventually becomes bored with being part of the hive mind that consumes his friend group after listening to a recorded version of their song. What once was their collective passion has now grown stale in Kenji’s eyes, to the dismay of his buddies who would like to continue making music. We even see Kenji lying flat on the floor, seemingly in a dissociative state brought on by his intense apathy as his friends continue to practice their passion. This sudden disinterest is said to be a common thing for Kenji as Asakura explains that, “he once had a crocodile, but he soon got bored of it and released it in a river.” It would seem as though Kenji has trouble figuring out who he is and what he likes. This tears a hole in the once tight-knit friend group, complicated by the fact that the band just signed on for their first live performance at the oldest rock music festival in Japan. Ota and Asakura are intentionally continuing to channel their aggression into their music, while Kenji falls back into the world of imposed masculinity. Kenji chooses the life set out for him by societal norms rather than putting in the effort to become his own person.
It is after this that Kenji makes his first big mistake, one for which he is fully responsible, driven by toxic masculinity. When confronted by the group’s only female friend, the band’s biggest supporter Aya, Kenji is quite defensive which leads to Aya calling him an idiot and walking away. Kenji then speed-walks after her and grabs her ass in what is seemingly an attempt to regain control of the situation, and a stupid expression of feelings through sexual harassment. After all, men aren’t meant to express their emotions, right? However, it is imperative to emphasize that having this mindset does not hold you any less accountable for what you choose to do. Kenji’s actions cements the idea that he has fully re-subscribed to the norms of toxic masculinity by treating Aya as a sexual object. Aya then turns around and punches him in the face so hard that he falls to the ground. The once-mighty fighter Kenji has now just been beaten in combat by a girl, an occurrence that doesn’t fit within the confines of the mindset that toxic masculinity fosters, as men are taught that women are physically weaker.
It is this situation that forces Kenji to reassess the way he thinks. If the “impossible” just happened, then how could the way he views his place in the world be correct? Following the punch, Kenji disappears from the film for quite a while as the focus switches to Ota and Asakura. We see the new duo practicing in an attempt to recapture the magic that the three-piece initially had. However, Ota is not concerned as he claims to have seen Kenji “keeping rhythm with his ass” while passed out on the floor during their last practice session together. This shows that Kenji was clearly having an internal struggle in which his first coming of age was fighting with the second. Asakura then tells Ota how happy he is that they started the band and Ota agrees because their lives have become healthier since finding their passion. It is at the end of this conversation that we hear an important whistling sound seemingly coming from an island off in the distance.
We later learn that said sound was actually Kenji, who chose to go into exile on a journey of self-discovery after the incident with Aya. However, as we find out, so does the rival gang from their violent past who attempt to ambush Kenji as he makes his way to the music festival. The gang leader gives Kenji an ultimatum of either getting beat up or destroying the bass that he needs for the gig if he wants to get there alive. Without hesitation, Kenji smashes the bass on the floor with a shot composition that is in reference to The Clash’s London Calling album art. At first, it seems as though he is the same Kenji from before his exile, the move initially symbolizing his return to his old ways. However, he then pulls out a recorder, an instrument that he mastered during his time on the island, and begins to play a tune while running to the gig and literally dodging violence with inhuman dexterity as the rival gang chases him. This scene is particularly important as it shows that Kenji has finally put in the effort towards his second coming of age. His dodging of the violent attacks from the gang members shows that he has let go of the old Kenji and is now on the path to becoming his own person.
He eventually makes it to the show just in time and jumps onto the stage right as his friends were begrudgingly starting to play without him and performs a beautiful recorder solo that leads into their one song. This performance is very different from the initial practice sessions as Kenji is fully committed and passionately improvising through his newfound love for the recorder. The trio’s performance is so infectiously passionate that the band who played before them, who share the same band name and would have been seen as rivals with the trio’s old mindset, are compelled to join them as the performance transcends into a display of teenage passion, aggression, and emotion. It is the end of this performance that holds the most power out of any sequence in the film. As the band stops playing, Kenji continues as he jumps into the air, seemingly soaring to the heavens above while everyone, including the rival gang, watches in awe. When he lands, he throws his recorder on the stage and we see him show emotion for the first time as he passionately sings through tears, letting out all the repressed emotions that he had been taught to conceal. Kenji is no longer the apathetic and directionless boy that we first met. He has become an individual with a little help from his friends.