Even in the silent film era, when full orchestras would perform a score live as a movie flickered overhead, we have expected our movies to have sound. Yet we don't have the same expectations of reading. Why not? Why shouldn't a book, or even a comic book, have its own score? That's the idea behind the Otowa, a charming device that merges a mechanical organ with a Japanese manga to create an adorably analog multimedia experience.
There's nothing high-tech about the Otowa. It's a standard hand-cranked mechanical organ, but instead of having a pre-determined song, the music it plays can be programmed using strips of perforated paper. It's something between a music box and a player piano, except instead of using music rolls, you feed manga through it.
These musical manga strips read from left to right, and as they wind through the music box, a story—complete with score—unfolds. On some manga strips, there are pauses for panels when dialogue is happening, only for the music to spark back up as talking gives way to action. In other strips, the manga itself instructs you to crank the music box faster or slower to adjust the tempo of the music to suit the action, so a scene where a character is running, for example, would be faster than a scene in which the character drinks a cup of tea.
The Otowa was created by Japanese design group Mieru Record, a collection of eleven artists who are all inspired by the idea of merging music and manga into an alloyed form. Sponsored by Japanese papermakers Tokyo Shiki, the Otowa went on to win a jury's prize at the 17th Annual Japan Media Arts Festival.
Although admittedly simple, the Otowa is quite charming. Imagine reading Speed Racer or Astro Boy with dynamic soundtracks. Sadly, though, there's no chance of buying one of these right now and dropping it into a beloved Japanophile's stocking: it's just a prototype.
You can read more about Mieru Record at the artists' official site.