I know just about everyone else in the anime blogosphere has already talked about KyoAni’s latest – K-ON!; it’s even gotten Jeff Lawson (still one of my favorite bloggers) to comment on it. Therefore, I probably can’t contribute anything groundbreaking to the discussion – I’ve never been in a band or bought a guitar or lived in Kyoto and am able to talk about all the building references from the real Kyoto in this show – but I can talk about why this show is my early favorite of the season.
Rating: episode 1 – 10.5/12Strong A
Rating: episode 2 – 10.5/12Strong A
Anticipation Level: very high
The story of K-ON! follows the everyday lives of the members of a high school light music club. Ritsu (drums) and Mio (bass) are the only members at the start of the school year and the club will be closed if they don’t find two more members within a month’s time. There luck seems to be improving when Tsumugi (keyboard) agrees to join the club but the guitar playing fourth member remains elusive until Yui decides to join. The problem with Yui is that she doesn’t know how to play the guitar or for that matter, any instrument more difficult then the castanets. To get Yui to join they have to assure her that it’s okay that she doesn’t know how to play the guitar as well as offering yummy treats during the club meetings.
Success for a slice-of-life show is heavily dependent on the characters. It’s easy to dismiss a show like this as only being cute girls doing cute things; making it sound like there’s no possible way to screw it up but that’s an incorrect assumption. A look at the recent slice-of-life show Hyakko shows that if the characters are not done right, then it’s impossible for the show to be successful. In the case of K-ON!, all four main characters are readably likeable from the get go because they are given enough depth to feel like real people. These aren’t cookie-cutter characters adhering to rigid stereotypes. In this sense, K-ON! already has a leg up on a similar work by KyoAni, Lucky Star.
Once a show has likeable characters, the next ingredient the show needs is the life part of “slice-of-life”. For this show, it’s the daily tribulations and triumphs of the four light music club members as they get ready to play onstage at a music festival before they graduate high school. Leaving out giant mechs, fighting samurais, and overpowered soul reapers means K-ON! can’t rely on flashy action scenes to keep the viewers interested. Instead, the show has to resonate with the viewer’s experiences. In episode 2 we see Ritsu, Mio, and Tsumugi help their new friend Yui to buy a new guitar by collectively working part-time and giving their earnings to Yui. As the scene plays out, the viewer might remember a time in their own life when a friend or friends went out of they’re way to help the viewer or when the viewer helped one of their friends; by remembering this good memory, chances are the viewer’s mood will improve. Even if this doesn’t happen, just the act of watching 3 people help a friend can warm the heart and in this world we’re living in now, we all could use a little heart warming.
Thinking in these terms, Yui is the perfect main character for a show like this because she doesn’t hide anything and it’s easier to identify with her. People that know me would never equate my personality or actions as being like Yui but when I watch her pine after a certain guitar, I’m reminded of times in the past when I desperately wanted something but couldn’t afford it. Or when she gets her guitar and she poses with it and sleeps with it, I remember the first time I bought a car because I did very similar things and felt that exact same giddy enthusiasm that Yui displayed. Or when she plugs her guitar into an amp and strums it for the first time, you can see the epiphany that she has, it’s like her brain opens to completely new possibilities that weren’t there a few moments ago. It’s only happened a few times to me but just looking at her in that scene shows me that she felt the same thing (or more truthfully, the animators at KyoAni are good enough that they can convey this feeling in their animation).
I’m starting to ramble so let’s try to wind this down; I realize this type of show isn’t for everyone. That’s okay but I do think a large percentage of people that would watch this would enjoy it even if they’ve never watched a show like this. I’m watching this with my seventeen year old sister, she hardly fits the supposed pattern of having to be a male otaku to like a show like this. There is humor interspaced in K-ON! but it’s the type of humor that would arise in real life. Most it requires no sort of special knowledge though there’s been a couple cultural jokes that I got because of prior knowledge learned in other anime. The one had Ritsu commenting that she’d split the money the band will make 70-30 with Mio; as she was saying this, she was parting her hair at the spot you would if you had a 70-30 haircut (the part runs along the line between the top and side of the scalp). The other joke involved Mio passing out tissue packets on the street. I say this is cultural because I’ve never seen that being done in America – the closest thing I’ve seen was when I was in Las Vegas but they weren’t passing tissues out. This scene reminded me of a scene in Ichigo Mashimaro where they talked about how hard it is to be a tissue packet hander-outer.
I’ve noticed a few complainers complain about the animation quality to this. If these people had watched Clannad, especially After Story, then they’d notice that KyoAni has been experimenting a bit with exaggerated proportions and so whatever supposed deviations from “quality animation” they find are most likely because KyoAni wants it to look like that. The complaints about 4:3, on-the-other-hand, are justified. I understand the business reasons to have the 16:9 version lag 3 weeks behind but it hurts all the same.
I probably don’t need to praise the OP/ED because it’s been done so much already but let me do so anyways – they’re really good and I can’t wait for the full versions of both songs. I also love the seiyuus. Going with relative unknowns and newbies was a big gamble that paid off. Sometimes it’s good to get a well known voice but oftentimes that voice carries associations with certain types of characters and shows that might not be wanted. I don’t know if we’ll see any of the main four seiyuus receive the huge boost that Aya Hirano did after Haruhi but I bet we’ll be hearing much more of them in the future.
If you’ve watched shows like Manabi Straight or Ichigo Mashimaro and haven’t enjoyed them then chances are, you won’t like this. Though Ichigo Mashimaro was more of a comedy and Manabi Straight was more plot focused but I can’t think of a show that feels exactly like K-ON! However, if you’ve never watched either show then I’d recommend giving K-On! a go, you might just find something you like.