Mu Concept in On-Gaku: Our Sound (Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

“Sin is that which is unnecessary.”

Andrei Tarkovskij’s Offret

A long-lasting embarrassing silence can also be the source of unknown, ethereal beauties. Kenji Iwaisawa’s first animated feature film uses a minimalistic style, slow storytelling, only a few motifs, reduced soundtrack, and sparse dialogues. However, it is one of the most entertaining coming of age movies I have ever seen.

To grasp Mu, the pure emptiness, the “nothingness” is one of the most important approaches in Japanese art and culture history. The haiku poets, the Japanese painters, the masters of hōgaku music, and some enlightened filmmakers and manga artists also tried to reach the wholeness of Mu, whose meaning is close to nothing, literally could be translated to “not have; without“. It is a keyword in Buddhism, especially Zen traditions. “Won’t you come and see / loneliness? Only one leaf / from the kiri tree,” writes Matsuo Basho, and my heart is breaking. “I’m afraid we’ll have another hot day today” – says Chishû Ryû’s character in Tokio Story the next morning after his wife died, and how could anyone react more gently and beautifully to passing away? The one-corner paintings, such as Ma Yuan’s masterpieces, uses only a few brush strokes, but they express the substance of a person or a landscape in such a high and subtle level, like the quoted texts, which have a revelatory effect. But how is it possible to recreate this ancient, paradox, magical aesthetical power by one of the dirtiest, noisiest, stinkest cinematic genre, by a coming-of-age punk musical?

Won’t you come and see

loneliness? Only one leaf

from the kiri tree

Matsuo Basho

In On-Gaku: Our Sound most of the time is spent hesitating. The characters often don’t know what to do, sometimes because they are helpless, afraid of something, or just because they are bored. The main character Kenji and his two buddies are mostly hanging around without doing anything. One of them is playing a video game, the other is lazily hitting a punching bag, and the third is reading mangas. Their shapes are drawn only with the most important lines and colors which are enough to recognize them, and we see their banal idleness in fixed, wide compositions focusing on just a few sensitive details. We can hear the rustling of the comic book pages, the squeaking of the punching bag springs, and the fidgeting of the video game console. The precise, patient observation of these boring, delicate afternoons, and the low-key representation form of it transforms these undramatic actions into a dense, quiet poetry. So, I can bravely say that On-Gaku is the heritor of those Japanese artforms, which dedicated themselves to the expression of Mu. Empty hours seem to be the most banal, smallest, and less significant moments for the material of an artwork, but somehow therefore they turn into the greatest ones – similarly to the mustard seed in Jesus’s parable in the Gospel by Matthew. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

How does the punk music and its raw aesthetic fit to this style? After the boys find out that they are going to play music, they grab their instruments, two bass guitars and a drumkit – such a line-up –, count down, and they begin to play only one sound with consistent repeating: two boys are tearing the low-tuned bass guitar strings, and the drummer hits the drums in the same, repetitive rhythm. Bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo. This is their sound. The eye of the “camera” is circling around them on a slow speed, following the tempo of the monotonous music. The first thing is this: the boys’ music is punk but it’s focus is on Mu: one-corner punk. Powerful and noisy, but plain and simple as well. After they had been playing it for a while, they suddenly stop, and so does the “camera” movement. Kenji’s friends look inspired, but without showing many emotions, however, Kenji keeps silent. His face is expressionless as always. Embarrassing, tense silence. Then he says that “What just happened felt so good”.

But the most virtuoso moments of On-Gaku are those, in which the whole mise-en-scène changes, mostly regarding the definitive, magical beauty of music. After and endless, super-boring, yet somehow super-entertaining brainstorming, the three boys decide to use the band name Kobujitsu (ancient martial arts). Soon they get to know that there is another band in their high school with the same name. Three long haired pupils wearing sunglasses. The lead singer is a shy girl, Morita, the guitarist are two boys, who barely speak. They look like the opposite signed complement of the other Kobujitsu band. They have an anachronistic look, not like yakuzas, but like wannabe hippies who wanted to recreate the feeling of the Woodstock in a pretty clumsy and ironic way. (What a lovely adolescent portrayal!) The boys scare them to death, but they just wanted to sit down in front of them peacefully to ask them to play their music.

The other Kobujitsu formation begins to play a puritan, generic acoustic guitar song, with average, but beautiful lyrics. “After many sleepless nights / A pale light sheds on the darkness,” and lines like these. The camera shows Morita in fixed close ups. When she reaches the chorus, we watch her face, and a magical breeze, the quiet but dizzying power of Mu begins to blow her hair. I have read once a very precise and witty remark in the book 501 Movie Directors. Unfortunately, my copy is in Hungary, but I can quote it approximately. It said, “Next to Quentin Tarantino’s carefully directed headshot the audience would rather be captivated by a simple slap in the face in a Yasujiro Ozu’s movie.” The same goes with On-Gaku. The modest style takes its benefit: only a small change in the mise-en-scène, a subtle movement in the amplitude, literally a slight breeze generates such an elemental, translucent power which is bigger than anything.

When they finish the song, there is no ovation, clapping hands, hurray, or anything. Morita embarrassedly says, “Um, it’s like this. Did you like it?”. The chance of the fight is still in the air, but the spectators already know the nature of Kenji. His reactions are unpredictable; however, he is never harsh. After the usual tense waiting, he suddenly stands up, grabs Morita’s hand – which is the scariest moment for her, – shakes it, and says, “Wonderful!” This is the overbeating victory of the one-corner aesthetic – even if it manifests on a more common, less radical way, the beauty of it is always overwhelming, triumphant, and commendable.

“ON-GAKU: Our Sound” Official Trailer