Every so often, a film comes along that’s so fresh and distinctive, your immediate impulse is to stand up and applaud it. This indie anime by director Kenji Iwaisawa, adapted from Hiroyuki Ohashi’s cult manga, gets the year off to a terrific start.

A magical realist paean to the mind-altering powers of music, “On-Gaku: Our Sound” feels like an instant classic. To call it the best high school band movie since Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Linda Linda Linda” (2005) may be faint praise, but it’s that as well.

With deadpan humor and a laconic style reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, it follows the exploits of a trio of misfits who find their calling as outsider musicians. Their leader, Kenji (voiced by former Yura Yura Teikoku frontman Shintaro Sakamoto), looks more like a construction worker than a student, with his shaved head, scraggy moustache and perpetually blank expression.

On-Gaku: Our Sound (Ongaku)
Run Time 71 mins.
Opens JAN. 11

After coming into possession of a bass guitar, he suggests to pals Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa) that they start a band. None of them have any musical training — they’re unsure where to plug their instruments in, let alone what the tuning pegs are for — but the muse works in mysterious ways.

When they start playing, they summon a primitive dirge that may remind some viewers of Rhys Chatham or German krautrock band Faust, and sound to others like a tuneless din. But rather than treat this as a joke, the film embraces it.

The group’s choice of name, Kobujutsu (classical martial arts), proves problematic when they discover that the school already has a Kobijutsu (classical arts). The latter turns out to be a prissy folk trio, whose leader, Morita, is particularly affected by Kenji and pals’ unschooled approach, and invites them to play at an upcoming festival.

Director Iwaisawa spent over seven years working on the film, and it has resulted in an increasingly rare thing: a feature-length animation that’s entirely hand-drawn. His character designs are cleaner than Ohashi’s original artwork, while preserving all of the idiosyncrasies.

During the performance scenes, the animation gets more audacious. Morita’s first exposure to Kobujutsu transports him into a surrealist fantasia, like Max Ernst crossed with Tadanori Yokoo; a later performance explodes into rough pencil strokes as the music gets wilder.

The climactic festival sequence — featuring a crucial intervention by one of the least rock ‘n’ roll instruments imaginable — makes effective use of rotoscoping, tracing the animation over footage of actual musicians performing. And, speaking of music, “On-Gaku: Our Sound” creates a glorious racket, even if the soundtrack pays little attention to the innovations of the past 40 years.

It may seem odd to enlist a musician of Sakamoto’s caliber purely for his voice acting, but the rock veteran’s monotone delivery is perfect for the part. He isn’t the only unorthodox casting choice: 63-year-old comedian Naoto Takenaka plays a delinquent gang leader, while Morita is voiced by actress Kami Hiraiwa, but undergoes a gender switch every time the character sings.

The film’s celebration of amateurism makes it the antithesis of “Beck,” Harold Sakuishi’s hit 2000s music manga, with its emphasis on hard graft and respect for the rock canon. “On-Gaku: Our Sound” offers a more inclusive vision, depicting music as something whose energies can be tapped even by people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing. It doesn’t just make you listen with fresh ears. It’ll make you want to start a band.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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