Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 1st 2011
BLURAY 1 - Volume 1
Yui Hirasawa has just started high school, and naturally that means joining a school club. But with so many options, which is the right one for her? A club devoted to "Light Music" sounds gentle and easygoing, but the reality turns out quite different. As soon as Yui steps into the clubroom, she's greeted by drummer Ritsu Tainaka, bassist Mio Akiyama, and keyboardist Tsumugi Kotobuki ... which means Yui's just signed up for a rock band and she's going to be playing guitar! First she's got to get through the basics like picking out an instrument and learning some chords—oh, and making sure not to forget to study for school. Then after midterms, Yui and the girls are off for the summer to relax ... but when is the band going to actually start rehearsing?
To understand what K-ON! is about, one should first understand what it's not. It's not some edgy, hipster rock 'n' roll chronicle in the style of BECK (although the plot would arguably be more much interesting if it were). It's not a saucy, fanservice-laden schoolgirl smorgasbord—sure, they show off their swimsuits in Episode 4, but with none of the lecherous, slow-panning camerawork that would signify a true harem or fanservice title. It's barely even a classroom comedy, as most of the punchlines are simply wry observations on the characters' personality quirks rather than goofy, screaming gags. It's a series more likely to elicit a knowing grin and "Heh" rather than outright laughter.
So what, then, is K-ON! all about?
It's the idealized extracurricular experience, a fantasia of made-up high school memories where everyone picks the right clubs and meets the right people. Of course, nobody can say that about their real school experience, but this is the series that asks "What if?" What if you got into a club with a fun-loving focus, and you hit it off with all the members right away, and discovered a purpose in life? The first four episodes are exactly that: a gradual arc showing how Yui starts out not even knowing if she has any particular interest or talent, but by the end of the seaside episode has a musician's dream and maybe a few good chords in her fingers (if she could just remember them).
Of course, those looking for a proper verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure to the series will see only a plotless mess. K-ON! operates more like a psychedelic jam band, where viewers are free to fixate on details—the instruments, the snacks, the characters' idiosyncrasies—or soak in the big picture, as described above. These episodes are at their best when reveling in whimsy, like Yui having a Detroit Metal City moment when she wonders what the club is like, or the girls imagining if Yui's younger sister is as scatterbrained as she is. But there also stretches where the series drags its feet, drifting for minutes at a time as the club sits around a table and discusses their next course of action.
If the series is vague on plot, however, the visuals are almost the opposite with their precise attention to detail. In particular, each band member performs on instruments modeled after real-world equivalents (and as this pianist will tell you, Tsumugi uses a Korg Triton Extreme in the show and breaks out an extremely rare white Korg RK-100 keytar for the ending). But high-priced gear isn't the only place to find such detail: the sweets served in the clubroom, the school hallways, and even the construction of Yui's house all give the show a visual personality unique from the usual prefabricated school walls and suburban streets. The character designs might be more difficult to fall in love with, though, with oddly tiny hands and nonexistent noses all designed to make them look as cute as possible. The girls are easy to tell apart, but getting used to the style takes longer. From a technical standpoint, the animation is fluid and confident, with more than a few surprising camera angles—enough to keep the series from getting boring (especially with all those dialogue scenes).
For a rock-centric show, however, the soundtrack is surprisingly sparse on rock music: the tuneful opening and ending themes have full electric guitars crackling, but aside from that it's easy-listening synth pop all the way. Perhaps the contradiction is intentional: throw lots of regular everyday music around, to make the bursts of rock 'n' roll playing stand out. It's a good idea once the band starts performing actual songs, but at this point the feather-light music only saps the show of its energy.
Fortunately, there's plenty of energy to be found on the English dub, which defies all odds and is actually a lot of fun to listen to. Stephanie Sheh successfully addresses the challenge of voicing Yui, going a full octave above her usual speaking tone and doing it consistently. But it's the rest of the ensemble that makes the dub complete: everyone on the English track sounds like they're having a blast and the natural delivery flows through each episode. There are no halting orations or lines being read off a script, just the easygoing conversation of high school girls. It's a shame that such effort couldn't have been put into the actual Blu-ray disc, though, which comes with only a brief interview and some trailers as extras. (The animated menu is cute, but superficial.) Perhaps those who really want some goodies might want to wait for the box set?
While K-ON! might look like a pile-up of clichés on the surface, it does just enough to steer away from those clichés and establish its own identity. It begins with a ditzy, clumsy protagonist, but by the end of this disc we know she's got instinctive learning abilities when she focuses. It teases viewers with schoolgirls in swimsuits, but never sinks to level of pandering fanservice shots. It shows us that signing up for a school club, making friends, and taking up an instrument may not be a journey but the destination itself. And if the lack of drama and complexity is a problem, just watch those instruments gleam and the colors pop. K-ON! may be focused more on an overall mood than any actual storyline, but it sure gets that mood right.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : C
+ Rich visual details and light character-driven humor fill out this pleasant view of high school.
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