Before we begin, there’s something I feel I should explain. I like stories that, well, tell a story. A reductive statement at first glance, but what I mean is that my favorite anime, my favorite things in general, are almost always those whose first and foremost concern is a plot; narrative drive with building stakes and twists and turns and weight, held up by the notion that what is happening is meaningful, at least to the characters on screen. For this reason it is rare that I love a slice of life. Drama, even teenage drama, is a different story, but people just doing life is immediately an uphill battle for my interest. That said, I must at least respect what K-On does, and especially how articulately it does it.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
For those somehow unaware of K-On, on even the most superficial level, it is a slice of life anime by Kyoto Animation, set in high school and following four (later five) teenage girls through their entire tenure at the institution, Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Tsumugi and Azusa, as well their antics as members of the Light Music Club, or Keionbu, from which the series derives its name. There’s this idea about K-On, that I had heard many a time before actually watching the series, that it’s just about cute girls sipping tea and eating cake. What I didn’t expect, though, was how accurate that statement would be. The Light Music Club spends very little time playing music, or composing lyrics, and instead almost entirely goofs off in the club room, sometimes with their advisor too. Why not? So the question becomes: what is the appeal of that? Why should you bother to watch 39 episodes of what amounts to anime girls shooting the shit, and why would it be any better than the mountain of shows that already do that? Now, writers far my better have already given their own answer to that question, but you asked for it, so here’s my two cents.
Many would start this review by citing the depth of characterization, or the immaculate KyoAni aesthetic, and we’ll most definitely get to both of those, but no, that’s not what clicked with me right off the bat. It was something a lot simpler: I just found K-On very funny. The show has a great sense of comedic flow and timing. As a whole, jokes in anime tend to over-rely on the manzai setup. A funny man will do something outrageous, and the straight man will loudly react to it, either by verbally shouting a retort or through slapstick, knocking the funny man over the head or something like that. And K-On does have that (it’s an anime, so it has to have that), but it still made me laugh so much more than many other series that try to be pure comedies, because it had variety. While Mio and Ritsu had their endless Boke and Tsukkomi routine, the others had their own manners of punchline, as for example in the case of Azusa, who like Mio is something of straight man, but her own reactions to the situation are usually rather low key, either mumbling under her breath or leaving things at just a charmingly disappointed expression, which is a shocking display of comedic restraint and more in-line with my Western sensibilities.
Sometimes the show will even subvert itself for the sake of unique and new comedy material. For instance, it is very much self-aware about the fact that only certain characters are really party to the whole straight man-funny man thing; Mio and Ritsu, as I just said. But then, sometime in Season 2, this clashes with Tsumugi’s own burgeoning sense of discovery, a girl always wanting to try out new things. Thus, she spends the entire episode trying to break out of her normal role, trying to be the funny man and get Mio to hit her. Whether or not that’s a funny enough joke to last the entire episode is a different discussion, but it’s a clever take on things nonetheless. Similarly, the show is also well-aware that the Light Music Club does in fact spend all its time eating snacks, and embraces that. They have a reputation as weirdos across the whole school, people that never practice and are somehow always great anyway, and that’s actually very funny to me, because in a less thoughtful show, something like that might not even be addressed. That “weirdo” reaction makes it easier to buy that they do live in reality, and all these strange individuals happened to meet in just the right way at just the right time to produce the events of the show.
I might’ve laid it on thick there, maybe giving the sense that the show is always top-notch funny. It isn’t, mostly due to a little joke repetition, like Mio constantly getting scared or Sawako (their advisor) constantly trying to dress up the girls in odd outfits (which, to be fair, is basically only a gag in the first season). But that’s okay, because while it has good comedy, I would hesitate to actually call it a comedy. K-On is primarily slice of life, so it really gets by on the chemistry of the characters .
Everyone in K-On bleeds personality, in everything they say and do. If you pay attention, and frankly even if you don’t, you’ll have a good feel for every member of the club after just the first episode, and that my friends is called strong characterization. Right off the bat you get a sense of Yui’s clumsiness and forgetfulness, Mio and Ritsu’s special relationship, self-serious and carefree respectively, Tsumugi’s eccentricity and curiosity, it’s all there right away. When Azusa has her own first appearance later on, she’s all about the music, so you know she’ll be a calming and responsible influence on the club, but since her curiosity was drawn to their wacky antics in the first place, that also implies she has a spot of weirdness of her own, which she learns to embrace as time goes on.
Even so, the show is greater than the sum of its parts. There may be episodes that more heavily focus on a particular girl, but it’s not really about any one of the girls individually. It’s a show about tight-knit friends enjoying their tight-knit friendship, and we the viewer are merely intended to revel in it, putting a smile on your face because you feel like you get to know the girls and have fun just as they do the same.
Naturally, as you can expect, there’s not much “plot” to speak of here. The show is mostly rather episodic, especially in the second season, usually setting up a scenario for the club, such as a lack of air conditioning, which is resolved in some form by the time we hit the credits. Sometimes these events will have a clear message; Episode 17 of Season 2, for instance, is all about appreciating the things we take for granted, when the club loses its club room and then Yui loses her sister. (She catches a cold). And very near the end, it flirts with more meaty ideas, like the club’s inherent impermanence and the cast’s impending adulthood, which is all handled very deftly, but there were many other times that I struggled to see any point to what was happening besides cute girls doing cute things.
And really, that brings me to my main issue. As well-made as K-On is, it is very much not for everybody, at times including me. No matter how well the girls were characterized, no matter how cute they were being, at a point I was starting to get fed up. It’s just so much of the same; good friends being good friends and still being good friends and still being good friends. It’s fun to a point watching other people have fun, but there came this moment when I started longing for more. I guess you could say it lacked… impact. There are certain scenes and episodes that will stick with me as the months and years go on, but conversely, so much of the rest just blends together into this insubstantial feel-good haze. If you asked me, “did K-On need to be 39 episodes?”, if I was being honest with myself, I’d have to say no. 24, 25, I could allow, but somewhere along the line I reached this point of critical mass where I wasn’t getting anything substantially new out of the experience from episode to episode. It was just more K-On.
So now that I’ve aired that grievance, we can move on to the animation. I’m sure I’ll be saying some variation of this all month, but K-On looks good. No surprise since it’s a KyoAni show, but it really does. Vividly animated, solid shot composition, excellent expression faces, nice cartoony style, the whole shebang. Season one can have minor issues with drawings being sloppy or under detailed, but that’s mostly ironed out come season two, which for its part generally looks the same, just slightly more put together, with certain specific scenes that stand out a notch above. (If I’m smart with the editing, you should be seeing one right now.)
However, somewhat unfortunately, K-On is not a “new” show anymore. The series is now seven years old. Certainly far from being actually “old”, as a casual anime fan probably wouldn’t instinctively recoil the way they might seeing something from the 80s or 90s, but there are digital quirks we see today that the series lacks; little bits that modern KyoAni has nailed down, but the technology just wasn’t there yet at the time. Mostly this is in regard to effects and CGI. Effects, there’s not very many of here. If you love the filtery, illuminated look of stuff like Hibike! Euphonium, you just won’t find it, because it’s not recent enough. CGI comes up very rarely, but when it does, it’s jarring, to say the least.
You might think that’s a little unfair, judging CGI from a modern lens rather than as the product of its time, but considering how good the Stand Alone Complex’s Tachikomas from 2003 still look today, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold bad CGI against a show from 2010.
With that, I guess I can’t get away without talking about the music, since it is ostensibly a show about music. Uh… the music was alright. The songs were kind of catchy, but I don’t really like Yui’s voice, it’s a little too high on the moe girl spectrum for me, so hearing her sing is honestly kind of grating, openings included. Now the endings, I love all the endings. The visual design was always super stylish and very dissimilar to anything in the show proper, the vocalist was Mio instead of Yui, and there was more of a rock vibe than the otherwise pop one.
What else, anything else… the movie! The movie. I do love the movie. It looks phenomenal, naturally, and it very well captures both halves of K-On, the funny whimsical half as the crew has their Engrish shenanigans in London, and the real-er emotional half, the bonds of friendship and their consummation. Oh, and well-animated musical performances for the third half I guess. All in all, a very fine capstone on the series, and personally my highlight of the franchise.
Obviously, the appeal of a show like K-On is… selective, as my family, who frequently walked out or took a nap five minutes into any given episode, can attest. I wouldn’t say it’s even completely for me. I sometimes got bored, it sometimes felt like a slog, but I was always carried through in the end by the strength of the characters or the wit of their interactions. So, after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… I’ll say K-On is indeed an A. I may not have loved every minute of it, but I loved just enough of it, and appreciated how well it did was it was doing, to highly recommend it if sounds like your cup of tea, no pun intended.
This is perhaps not as long a review as you or I would have liked, given how beloved K-On is with certain crowds, but I never want to arbitrarily stretch things out when I don’t actually have any more of note to say. K-On just didn’t hit me in that way, where I could drone on and on about it forever.
If you like what you see and want to check out the series for yourself, it is currently available for legal streaming on Hulu, Viewster and The Anime Network, with the movie available exclusively on The Anime Network.
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