It is quite difficult to do a comprehensive review on K-on!/!! (season one and two, mentioned simply as K-on! from this point on) since the dual-season, 30+ episode classic by Kyoto Animation is a high-profile work that has been reviewed a million times already. Acknowledging this fact, this review of K-on! will focus on my own viewing experience rather than going over the criteria, and will probably be a little more “personal” than my usual writing style. After all, as a non-professional, what’s the point of making snobbish points over such a wildly popular title?
To sum up my impressions on K-on!, it is my “anime of the year”!
Without complex drama, multi-layered characters or profound philosophy, K-on! manages to strike me hard, and provoke some of my best memories on this trip through three years at Sakuraoka Highschool with the members of Hokago Tea Time（放課後テイータイム, Afterschool Tea Time）.
After reading a number of K-on! reviews in English (in other words, most likely written from a Western perspective), I find that many would describe K-on! as an anime telling the stories of a high school girl rock band and how their passion for music exploded into (very limited) success. On this I cannot agree. Actually, I believe that these reviews simply missed the most prominent aspect of the show. Indeed, music plays a large role in K-on!, and most activities of the 5 main characters are band related. Yes of course the band is good, almost too good… I have read in some reviews questioning the story, that how come Hokago Tea Time does not get super popular and become real stars outside of the their tiny high school? This is hardly a relevant question, unfortunately, as the story (written by Reiko Yoshida) never intended in the first place to make Hokago Tea Time a musical success. Moreover, the story has never intended to make them devoted to making music and even expect a moderate success as defined by going onto stages bigger than a high school cultural festival (remember the playful “To Budoukan!” slogan briefly shown in a few episodes? It was quickly forgotten). Instead, for Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Tsumugi and Azusa, their center of life is normal, plain, ordinary… nothing more than living an enjoyable period of their youth inflated by outlandish dreams, just like the rest of us. Hokago Tea Time is, and always will be (till their disband at graduation, that is) a grass-root, average Joe kind of band. Their awesome songs are nothing more than backdrops for their ordinary yet joyful lives.
Go further on this point, it is interesting to look at the Op and Ed of K-on!, in which two different art style contrasts each other. The three Ops feature Hokago girls in their normal school uniform performing in daily settings, while the three Eds show fancy MTV-ish sequences. Personally, I think the two styles symbolizes the reality and fantasy of Hokago Tea Time. This is not to say, though, that the fancy, “celebrity” style is more desirable. It’s just youth at work, no more, no less.
The story of K-on! pretty much involves every element of life in (an Asian) high school: studying, procrastination, exams, extracurricular activities (band), school starts, school ends, cleaning, cultural festival, marathon race, field trip with sleep-over, summer vacation(s), dreams about the future, new year, college decision, more studying, college entrance test, getting the scores, graduation. Luckily (or unluckily) for me, growing up in a neighboring country of Japan gives me much similar experience during high school (the city I grew up is a major population center and is about 5 degrees higher on longitude than…. wherever Sakuraoka High is located. Educated guesses please). Despite the fact that I am years beyond that period of life that most memories turn vague, I could still afford to revisit them once in a while.
Also, it is fair to say that only with these memories could I feel the “power” of the title. In fact, K-on! is often referred to in Japan (along with a couple of other titles) as “懐かしいアニメ” or “nostalgia anime” (notice the different “naki-ge” concept which focuses on purely tragic, and often less-than ordinary developments). Except for the school life elements listed above, K-on! is good at using small details to deliver a sense of nostalgia, or the passage of time at the very least. For instance, the staircase in Sakuraoka High has a turtle and rabbit decoration, which is a reference to the race from Aesop’s famous tale. The decorations (mentioned in conversations a number of times, and Azusa habitually touches the turtle when going up and down the stairs) call to viewer’s attention that as characters advances in grade, they move onto a higher floor. Though trivial, this point reminds me of the saying back home that “to climb the three floors, it costs us three years”. Yes, three years, and tons of studying… Eventually, no matter being a turtle or a rabbit, you shall reach the third floor, along with everybody who accompanied you on the way. This is the kind of images and reflection K-on! was extremely successful at provoking.
As to the characters themselves, they had the best and worst of their times, and eventually started to realize the weight of the coming graduation. All of the transitions are presented in a genuine, emotional way. No emotional hypes took place, and life goes on as a fine balance between all the business (study, exams, deciding colleges) and leisure (band activities, shopping, eat-out) they attend to… There is no real highs and lows, but some authentic developments like Mio being rejected from certain application for entrance without test, Azusa & Yui failing to grab any prize at a local talent show, and Yui writing “NEET” on her career survey form (which I consider to be one of the most hilarious moments throughout the show). When the girls eventually managed to receive offers from the same university, I truly felt for their excitement, yet only to realize Azusa would be inevitably left alone… A story of our generation, K-on! never failed to put YOU on the spot.
Despite all the charms, I still want to talk about the greatest disappointment in K-on!, which is its lack of consistency on the time-frame of story. It seems that when producing the first season, Kyoto Animation never expected the title to become a hit, and was simply testing viewer response. The result was a 12-episode short series covering an time spanning a full two school years with little character developments. The second season though, suddenly doubles the length to 24 episodes covering the single last year at school. The story-telling in the first season was rushed, and lacked the emotional impact of the second season. I could come up with an ad hoc justification for the void though: happiest times always fly by in a hurry, so please remember to collect as much good memories as you can and make it count, good luck…
Finally, I shall make a strong recommendation on all the K-on! songs to J-pop lovers out there. K-on! songs are mostly divided into Yui style, which is playful and bright and Mio style, which is more on the mature side (still, teen pops with a rock and roll twist). Both style features playfully written lyrics in quirky Japanese that can really take some time to fully understand. Unfortunately, there are no iTunes sales so far (only the adapted version by Scandal, a Osaka High school girl band…), but you can always check at your local Japanese bookstore : )
To properly conclude this review, a quote from an insert song of K-on! ぴゅあぴゅあハート：
頭の中想いでいっぱい So much memories in my head (Mio)
溢れそうなのちょっと心配 It is a little worrisome it might overflow
とりあえずヘッドホンでふさごう For the moment, I’ll just block it with an headphone
Don’t Stop the Music! (Yui)