Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 11th 2013
It's graduation time at last for Yui Hirasawa and her bandmates in the Sakuragaoka High School Light Music Club. Mio, Tsumugi, and Ritsu will be graduating alongside her, while guitarist Azusa remains one year behind. To celebrate the occasion, the five of them plan a trip to London, one of the capital cities of rock music. Not only will they see some famous sights, but they might just get a chance to perform a live gig. In between studying travel guides and brushing up on their English, however, the soon-to-be-graduates face another dilemma: what can they give to Azusa as a parting gift? Yui suggests that they write a song for her, but working on it behind Azusa's back proves to be harder than expected. The last day of school is coming fast, and the girls want to close it out on the right note!
K-ON! The Movie sends its characters on a grand adventure, but the movie itself is not exactly adventurous. Rather, it sticks to a tried-and-true formula, chronicling the ups and downs of five rock-'n'-roll-playing high school girls as they arrive on the cusp of adulthood. Given how popular the franchise is, why change anything? The movie finishes what the TV series began, with a story that goes beyond a typical episode (graduating high school is pretty momentous for anyone), but stops short of being an epic, life-changing experience (as far as accomplishments go, finishing a song on time is pretty low on the difficulty scale). So take it for what it is: the final chapter in a charming little tale of high school life.
The movie starts out very low-key, with the girls hanging out at school as always—they snack on cakes and tea, maybe practice a song or two, and it all seems like a generic TV episode until the major plot points are set in motion. Even as everyone starts planning for London, though, the humor never rises much above mild: it's the same jokes you've heard before, from Yui showcasing her remarkable airheadedness to high-strung Azusa getting antsy over the littlest things.
The fun doesn't really start until the beginning of the trip, as the focus shifts from school humor to travel gags. This is where the girls get to goof around on moving walkways, practice broken English on the plane ... and then crash hard into the language barrier when faced with actual English speakers. However, their actual stay in London—even though it's the centerpiece of the film—never quite lives up to the hype. Instead of being a meaningful, coming-of-age experience in a foreign country, it's a disjointed travelogue, centered on a group of particularly frenzied tourists. Sure, everybody has a ton of fun: they see all the important sights (the Abbey Road pose is practically a requirement), get into some goofy situations (Yui and Azusa end up completely flummoxed by the concept of adjoining hotel rooms), and even play a couple of gigs. But like most things in the K-ON! universe, it's a story with no real story.
The true heart of the movie, it turns out, lies in the final act. The whole band teams up for a dramatic last-day-of-school gesture, expressing the joy of music and friendship in a way only they know how, and then Azusa receives her farewell gift in one of the most touching, memorable scenes of the entire franchise's run. It could have been so easy to fall into the melodrama trap—a big graduation ceremony, a tearful group hug (which the TV series already took care of, anyway)—but instead, the straightforward, understated approach brings out the emotion without having to force it.
Although the storyline is lacking in some places, the animation has no such deficiencies. Even the most mundane moments, like lazing about in the clubroom, are handled in eye-catching fashion: off-center camera angles and focusing away from the characters leads to interesting, unexpected shots. Whether at home, at school, or a few thousand miles away, scenery is always worked out to the littlest detail: books on a shelf, handwritten lyrics, airport signage, the street shops of London, and all those other minor touches that a lesser animation studio would simply gloss over. The character animation is similarly precise, and while it's easy to obsess over technical points like proper guitar fingering during performance scenes, even everyday gestures like Yui struggling to get out of bed or Tsumugi puffing her cheeks in indignation add a spark of life to the visuals. The colors stand out as well—they may be bright and super-saturated just like many other high-budget productions of this era, but the variety, shading, and realism blows away most competitors.
The songs featured in this movie are as just as polished as the animation—perhaps too much so, as some may find it hard to accept that an amateur high school band can produce such slick, professional-sounding tracks. Still, for those who are willing to suspend their disbelief, the catchy pop-rock tunes are a melodic delight. The lyrics are worth paying attention to as well, especially when it comes time to say goodbye, and Yui lets it all out with her sweet, earnest lyrics. Elsewhere, the background music sets a lighthearted tone: lots of quick, bubbly melody fragments (some of which are borrowed from the TV soundtrack) and just a dash of poignancy when the characters reflect on more serious matters.
Cute voices and high energy get the job done on the English dub—everyone is clearly having fun—but when it comes to consistency and confidence, the Japanese track is still superior. The very nature of the dub also derails some of the language-barrier jokes: how can the girls be attempting to speak English when they're ... already speaking English? Rather than try to invent an "equivalent" version of the gag, the English dub simply takes the script as it is, line for line, even if the humor is lost. Aside from that, the translation and adaptation are pretty clear, seeing as the dialogue sticks to casual, everyday language.
Special features on this Blu-Ray range from insightful making-of features (director Naoko Yamada's trip to London to gather photo and video footage) to pure promotional fluff (TBS TV segments introducing the absolute basics of the series, and various publicity appearances by the Japanese voice cast). Creditless versions of the opening and ending sequences, plus movie teasers and trailers, are also included.
K-ON! The Movie doesn't try to change the world—but then again, that was never its purpose. This is a parting gift for fans of the series, and a fitting farewell for the four-fifths of the main cast who are moving on to college. Sure, the London trip doesn't have much of a story behind it, and it seems more like a showcase for hyper-detailed visuals and pure animation technique than anything else. But when the girls get home, and the emotions come pouring out, that's what makes the saga truly complete. More than just making music, more than just friendship, more than just cute girls doing cute things, K-ON! is a celebration of all the experiences that make up youth.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Top-notch animation quality, catchy songs, and a heartfelt, touching finale sum up everything that's great about K-ON!.
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