Kelloggs’ Chronicles of Quality Cartoons #5: K-ON!

Come on, you had to know this one was coming, right?

come with us

After so many months and so many thinly veiled excuses to talk about it, we finally have a genuine opportunity for me to talk about K-ON. K-ON isn’t the best anime on this list (although it’s close) but it might be the most important to me. (With the possible exception of the show at number two) That may seem like a bold claim. A show about cute girls doing cute things? How can that be so important to you? But to deride K-ON as “merely” cute girls doing cute things is to do it a disservice. There’s more to the show than that.

I first started watching anime in early 2010 and first became aware of shows that were currently airing in Japan around spring of that year. At the time, one of the most popular series out there was the second season of something called “K-ON”. I didn’t know anything about the series and based on the screenshots and discussion I saw it all looked pretty silly. It probably didn’t help that my first introduction to the actual show was a troll-subbed version of the first episode of season two. Still, I liked the guitar riff Yui played at the beginning of the episode and the opening song was catchy. (I like Go Go Maniac and Yui’s voice, don’t judge me.) So a few months later I decided to give the actual show a try.

I’ve talked about other shows on this list that took some time to grow on me but K-ON grabbed me immediately. Sure, it was indeed silly, but it was also surprisingly funny and definitely endearing. I tore through the first season in a couple days and by the next week I had caught up with the still airing second season. It was a big deal to me both because it was the first time I had seen a show just about friends being goofy and enjoying their time together, but also because it represented many elements that would end up being cornerstones of what I look for in new anime to this day. K-ON set standards in areas like comedic timing, sense of atmosphere, tonal continuity and viewer immersion that I keep coming back to and judging other shows by, which is why I bring it up so often. Even as we close in on five years since K-ON aired and after watching dozens of other shows like it, no other show in the genre has risen to the standard K-ON set.

keions sunsrise

The first thing that drew me in while watching K-ON was how funny it was and how well the jokes were executed. The staff at Kyoto Animation has always had a great sense of comedic timing and has shown the ability to elevate otherwise mediocre jokes to another level and that’s certainly true here. Having read the manga I can’t help but think the first season of K-ON would have just been another nice but mostly forgettable entry in the 4koma slice of life category without KyoAni’s involvement.  Their perfect execution of moments like Yui jumping up after the other girls perform for her in episode one and declaring “you guys aren’t very good!” without a hint of irony is what makes the show work. Throughout the show, little details like how long to hold on a character’s reaction or the length of the beats between set up and punchline are handled almost perfectly. There are also more subtle gags that the show just drops in without drawing attention to them that work extremely well. Things like Mugi’s superhuman strength or the constantly changing attire of the bust outside the school aren’t used as in-your-face comedy but rather little jokes that don’t get run into the ground. While it doesn’t lean on its comedy like other shows out there, K-ON is sneakily one of the funniest anime I’ve seen.

The first season also demonstrates a great command of atmosphere and viewer immersion. A huge part of what makes K-ON work so well is the way it brings the viewer in with the group and makes the time in the club room with the light music club feel personal. Techniques like first person shots and close ups that focus not on the entire room but on the closeness of the girls as a group help draw the viewer in and make them feel like part of the action. This is key because for K-ON to be successful it needs the viewer to identify with the girls and join them in the ups and downs of their everyday lives. If you feel like a bystander who is merely observing the actions of a group of girls you don’t necessarily care about then the show falls apart. Instead K-ON creates and maintains that immersion, resulting in a very personal experience. By the end, you feel like the girls are less characters on a screen and more close friends that you’ve known for a long time. You find yourself invested in their successes and reflexively cheering them on as they go about their daily lives. Through this immersive atmosphere, K-ON creates one of the most deeply personal and rich anime experiences I’ve had.

minna happy dess

This effect is enhanced by K-ON’s incredible level of tonal continuity. Tonal dissonance is something I’ve harped on repeatedly with shows like Honey & Clover, Fullmetal Alchemist and Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso and it’s K-ON and shows like it that made me realize how important this is to me. The show isn’t monolithic in tone, but it weaves deftly between madcap comedy, sentimental moments, heartwarming moments and instants of pure elation without any of the jarring transitions that make other shows such a pain to watch. The show even takes the “super-deformed” character style, something I generally dislike and find to be synonymous with tonal issues in other shows, and makes it work. Part of it is how well the comedy is executed but it also how the style is woven into the story and characterization. Sure the style is used to add some punch to the jokes but it’s also used for little things like Sawako’s character design changing ever so slightly depending on whether she’s being a teacher or just “one of the girls”. K-ON is the rare show that can take a moment like Yui forgetting her guitar on the day of the school concert and clumsily rushing home to get it and combine it with a heartwarming reflection on the past two years she’s spent with the light music club and make it work.

Of course, a show about a light music club wouldn’t be that great without some music and K-ON delivers here as well. While the OST itself is functional but mostly forgettable, the actual songs performed by Houkago Tea Time (literally After School Tea Time) are top notch. All of the songs, from Fuwa Fuwa Time to Brush and Ballpoint Pen are catchy and full of energy like the band that performs them. The lyrics in particular are very effective at evoking the image of a shy, high school girl like Mio writing a song for the first time. The songs add another element to the show that’s purely the creation of Kyoto Animation as they only had bits of lyrics and no melody in the original manga. The music is the icing on the cake that lends the concert episodes their energy and makes them feel like major events rather than just another episode.

final concert rear view

All of these elements combine to make the first season something very special and if it was left at that K-ON would probably still stand as the best 4koma slice of life anime out there and one of my personal favorites. But the show’s not done yet. The second season and movie take the show and transform it into one of my top five anime of all time. After thirteen episodes detailing the first two years of Yui’s high school career, we have a twenty-six episode second season devoted entirely to her third and final year in high school. This is where the true strength of Kyoto Animation and scriptwriter Yoshida Reiko are on display. The second season is almost entirely made up of anime original material and that transition results in greatly improved episode flow and construction.The first season had great episode flow by 4koma standards, but the best episodes of the second season are beautifully constructed by any standard. Each episode takes a concept or an event and plays with it for a full twenty minutes in contrast to the occasionally erratic episodes of the first season. The show incorporates repeated gags throughout these episodes like when Azusa returns from the summer concert completely tan and each new friend she encounters responds with a confused “Da-re?” (Who?)

The level of storytelling also takes a huge step up and results in some of the funniest moments in the show but also some genuine character growth which is rare in shows like this. We see Yui starting to become more adept at taking care of herself and actually thinking about her future and even taking care of the people around her. We also see Mio slowly developing more confidence and enthusiastically taking part in things she never would have dreamed of doing at the start of season one. After remaining mostly static during the first season, we get to see these characters actually growing up and get a real sense of the passage of time that was mostly absent in season one.

second years sunset

This all peaks during episode twenty of the second season which covers the girls’ final school festival concert. By this time the light music club has become well known among the student body and the Houkago Tea Time performance is the most anticipated part of the school festival. The episode is a perfect encapsulation of that experience from beginning to end. It starts with the nervousness the band is feeling before they go on stage. It moves through the high levels of energy and raw emotion felt as they put everything they have into their music and the audience is right there with them giving it their all. The energetic songs are accompanied by Yui’s clumsy, rambling MC portions that are nonetheless endearing and heartwarming. The concert closes with a stirring rendition of U&I as Yui does her best to get her sincere gratitude to reach her younger sister. Then, as quickly as it started, it’s all over and the girls and the viewer are left basking in the afterglow and wondering how it all went by so fast.

As they come down from the high of the concert it slowly dawns on them that this is almost over. It’s in that moment of realization that all the immersion the show has worked for and all the emotional attachment it’s built between the viewer and the characters pays off in one beautiful moment of happiness, melancholy and nostalgia. It’s a remarkable sequence of events that’s perfectly constructed and enhanced by lines like Yui declaring “We’d love to play more but unfortunately our time is up” or Mio’s comment that “Everything went by so fast”. The end result finds me wiping away tears as a music box version of U&I plays and I think “that was a perfect episode of anime.” Other anime may have better individual moments but from beginning to end that might be the single most perfectly made episode of anime I’ve seen.

sleeping close up

This episode highlighted another strength of K-ON: its sentimentality. The show has a penchant for looking back lovingly at past events and cherishing special moments in a way rarely seen outside of pure iyashikei anime like Tamayura. As the show rushes towards its ultimate conclusion, the final episodes often serve as a reflection on everything the characters have been through up to this point. Episodes like the one where they lose use of the club room and Yui realizes how you often take precious things for granted until they’re gone are emblematic of this shift in tone over the last ten episodes. The graduation episode is the ultimate example of this, hitting the emotional points of Azusa struggling to come to terms with her four closest friends leaving the school. It also plays on the viewer’s sentimentality as it calls back all the way to episode one of the first season when Azusa responds to the group’s performance of Tenshi ni Fureta yo with “you guys aren’t very good!” This, combined with the sentimental way the movie shows the process that brought that song into being, shows us yet another side to K-ON that few other shows can match.

tears on the picture

Yet, despite all these wonderful things about the show, K-ON still generates more than its fair share of hate. More than any other show on this list, K-ON brings out people who absolutely detest the show. Far from being a masterpiece, many consider it indicative of the overall decline in the quality of anime. It’s understandable, I suppose, since the surface-level qualities I mentioned earlier are the kind of thing that could potentially turn a lot of people off. On top of that, the concept just doesn’t feel like something worthwhile. It’s just a bunch of cute girls hanging out, what’s so important about that?

It’s easy to fall into this trap of only seeing K-ON as insubstantial fluff and not actually digging to see what the show is really about. I’ve even fallen into the trap somewhat as I’ve ranked the show down here at number five because at the end of the day it’s still just a show about cute girls doing cute things and all the good execution in the world shouldn’t make it rank above more substantial things, right? But that line of thinking is reductive and superficial. While the events of K-ON don’t really deal with any earth-shattering conflicts or major life events, the show still gets at a fundamental truth about growing up and the moments in life that mean the most to us. Sure, shows about somebody saving the world or finding true love or winning a tournament are fun, but those aren’t the only events that matter. Sometimes just hanging around with your friends and enjoying snacks while you talk about nothing in particular is important too, and if you shut off anime from exploring that you’re cutting off a key part of the human experience. The events are clearly idealized but the fundamentals of what K-ON is about still ring true. People complain about the girls goofing off too much and having tea and cake instead of practicing their instruments or studying for tests. To me, that’s a hollow complaint that misses what the show is about and the truth of the high school experience that K-ON illuminates.

welcome to the club

To illustrate I’ll draw on an example from my own life: in high school I was on the math team (I know, I’m a nerd, but you knew that because I’m blogging about anime). We’d meet weekly in a classroom where we were supposed to practicing math problems for the upcoming monthly competition but we’d usually spend those sessions eating snacks and chatting about nothing in particular while somebody doodled on the white board. The club advisor was still around but he never really forced us to do our work and often felt like more of a friend than a teacher. Sound familiar? We still occasionally did our math problems and the team was actually pretty good. Could we have been better if we completely devoted ourselves to studying for the competitions? Sure, but to do that would miss out on an important part of the club/team experience and a big reason why we kept showing up. As I sit here ten years after the fact, I don’t remember the times we spent drilling math problems or the questions I got right or wrong at the competitions. I remember goofing off in the club room after school and enjoying the company of my best friends. I remember staying up late at night at the national competition playing mafia or card games when we should have been sleeping to get ready for the competition the next day. These might not have been the best things for our overall performance, but they were some of the most fun experiences I had in high school.

final shot

So don’t say that K-ON doesn’t matter just because it’s about girls goofing off with no hard work and no conflict. Goofing off is great! And to dismiss it as meaningless or insubstantial is a sad mistake. I’ve mentioned in other write-ups that I’ll be moving a show down when I re-do my rankings after this is all over. K-ON is the first show that I am certain I will be moving up. The show is just too well made and emotionally resonant to get caught up in questions of the artistic merit of cute girls doing cute things. K-ON transcends that concept and taps into an irreplaceable part of the way we experience life. It gets at a core truth about life that my dad taught my brother and me one night as we were lying in bed together laughing after he had read us a particularly funny story. He told us to remember that moment because it was one of the few moments in life when we’d be purely happy and we should cherish those moments. And its very core, K-ON is all about those moments. It’s about cherishing the fleeting bits of happiness we have when we can forget about all of life’s other responsibilities. The show embodies the philosophy of living in the moment and enjoying life as it comes. Homework and career surveys and music practice will still be there when you’re done taking the time to sip some tea and enjoy the company of your closest friends.

cheers

Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your test scores were or whether you got every single note right during that concert. The moments that stick with you, the ones you truly remember, are the happy times you shared with the people important to you. The first moment you realized you wanted to be part of a club. The “training camps” that were really just excuses to hang out on the beach with your friends. The school trips where you rushed through the historic landmarks and spent more time goofing off and having pillow fights in your room at the inn. The summer concerts you attended with your friends. The performances at the school festivals and the energy and emotion you felt with the entire school cheering you on. That’s what’s important. And when you can see the pure, unbridled joy of moments like Mugi hopping up and down at her keyboard during the final classroom performance or the four seniors running through the hallways on their last day at school and realize that this is what we live for, that these are the moments that make life worth it, that’s when you understand the true meaning of K-ON. That’s when you realize that we need to cherish those moments and seek them out because if we don’t have them then everything else doesn’t really matter. If K-ON can teach us that, I think that makes it pretty important.

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2 Responses to Kelloggs’ Chronicles of Quality Cartoons #5: K-ON!

  1. DP says:

    Amen! Always delighted to read someone sticking up for K-ON.

    It may not be the best anime ever made, but it is among the most enjoyable and heartfelt. Would that more people who casually dismiss it actually give it a chance.

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