Reviewby Ko Ransom, Jan 4th 2012
The school year is drawing to a close at Sakuragaoka Girls' High School, and with it will come the graduation of four of the five girls in the school's light music club. The girls have already spent plenty of time together during and after school having fun, making music, and drinking tea, but what better way to cap it all off than with a graduation trip? After some serious deliberation and a little outside help, the five girls decide to go to London, guitars and bass in tow. Between visiting Abbey Road, seeing palace guards, drinking afternoon tea, and more, they've got plenty to do on their schedules, but how much of the trip will go as planned? Will they get a chance to play in front of real live Londoners? Can the girls even speak intelligible English? While these sorts of questions have a tendency to sort themselves out, one more question is weighing heavily on the minds of the four seniors, Yui's in particular: what kind of song will the four write as their goodbye to Azusa, the one junior they'll be leaving behind?
Having made itself into one of the biggest anime franchises of the past few years, the K-ON! name has surely become a familiar one even among more casual followers of anime and manga. In the process, however, it has also come to be recognized by many as a hallmark moe anime title. As such, one could be forgiven for imagining the audience packing the theaters to watch the K-ON! movie consisting entirely of a hardcore fan audience, and may be surprised to discover that the average Japanese screening of the film is just as packed full of couples and teenaged girls as it is diehard otaku. This is important to note, as it means that the film must navigate the difficult balancing act of pleasing hardcore fans while not losing and confusing newcomers to the franchise. Here, it isn't simply a case of deciding whether or not to summarize important plot points that have happened in the two television series, but more of a question of how to establish the emotional connection between the series' characters. Of course, fans may insist that it is impossible to grasp all the subtleties of K-ON! without being intimately familiar with the franchise, and to a degree, they would not be wrong in saying this. However, the film still succeeds in its attempt to please fans across the spectrum, drawing even the most unfamiliar viewers into its world through its minutely detailed characters and fun, thoughtful story while also providing more than enough to keep hardcore fans happy.
Though much of the hype around the movie is about the K-ON! girls' trip to London, the trip to London is only one of three acts, sandwiched in between two other segments of roughly equal length that take place back in Japan. Spending a significant amount of time following the girls around at school and at home runs the danger of sliding into the mundane, but Director Naoko Yamada and her team at Kyoto Animation manage to keep it interesting through their strong sense of comic timing, as well as their ability to give a surprising amount of individuality and depth to each of the five protagonists through finely crafted performances and overall presentation. For example, in many of the group shots of the protagonists, each girl's personality is often displayed through unique and detailed reactions to a given event, or even in the different ways they drink tea. This is all enhanced by the voice cast's outstanding performances, heightened even further by Kyoto Animation's expert sound design. This not only helps draw newcomers into the film, fans of individual characters are also given ample opportunity to watch their favorite girl go through all the steps of getting to a foreign country, ranging from booking the trip and getting to the airport in the dark to checking into the flight and trying to get some sleep on the plane.
Eventually, our heroines do arrive in the promised land, but much of the stereotypical sightseeing the girls do is summarized fairly quickly in a montage of short moments at famous locations. The speed at which this all goes by may be a letdown to some, but on the converse, this approach does an excellent job of capturing how a highly-planned overseas vacation in an unfamiliar land might feel, as rather than actively engaging in their sightseeing, the girls' experience seems to passively happen to them as they whisk themselves off from one spot to the next. This otherworldly and disconnected feeling also manifests itself in the film's choice to put viewers in the girls' shoes by keeping the English spoken in the film unsubtitled, leaving any viewers without a solid grasp of English just as confused and at a loss as the girls. Of course, some fantasy is certainly injected into this London outing, as the girls find themselves playing two concerts in London due to fairly incredulous circumstances. Regardless, these scenes are still surprisingly subdued, both stylistically and within the world of the story.
Much like the Japanese snacks stuffed into the girls' suitcases, this London segment is less about London itself and more about the familiar, in this case the K-ON! girls, being brought to a new, foreign locale. This is even reinforced by how the girls are framed in many of the London scenes, as scenes where all five girls are in the same frame, often in a higher perspective than normal and surrounded by the city of London and its multicultural residents, remind the viewer that what is most important is the protagonists and their human relationships, and that the setting of London is primarily there to provide a new background to play off of. This approach might be summed up best in one of the final scenes of the London sequence, where during their second concert, Yui is fixated on a baby in a mother's lap. While shots of the concert are contrasted with overlooking images of London with Big Ben in the center of the frame, it is clear that at that moment, Yui is fully concentrated on playing her music for a single child, effectively transforming Big Ben into nothing more than a plain clock in the background, counting down the few hours the girls have left in the country.
While the film's first two acts are well-paced and easy to follow, the third and final act may prove to be the most divisive between hardcore fans of the K-ON! franchise and those who aren't. Not only have the girls returned from a lengthy and conclusive trip by this point, but viewers will also have grown accustomed to the film's technical aspects, meaning that the significantly lengthy end segment hinges around the emotional drama between the girls as all but one of them spends their final days in high school. The final two performance scenes take place in this segment, creating some overlap with the television series, but these scenes are portrayed from a new point of view, actually adding a level of depth to the situation for those already familiar with them. In fact, for viewers newer to the K-ON! series, this segment may begin to drag or even seem superfluous at times, as the film could have been neatly ended at the end of the London trip. But for those seasoned fans who know and love the K-ON! quintet, the final act will likely serve as the movie's real emotional climax.
As mentioned previously, the animation in the K-ON! movie is by no means flashy. Considering that it is a theatrical production, the animation is actually quite restrained, in fact to a point. This is most apparent during the film's multiple concert scenes, which eschew flashy camera movement or overdramatic action in favor of still and measured shots. Nevertheless, the movie manages to be rich and expressive enough to make you want to go back and just watch how each individual girl acts in a given scene. An extreme example of this approach is a scene that shows the legs of the K-ON! girls from the thighs down as they walk and talk. While this sort of thing would normally be seen as nothing more than a cost-cutting measure, in this case it's a subtle way to further expand the girls' personalities – they express themselves even in the way they walk. It's character work like this that makes the film feel special and can probably be used as an example of why the franchise has seen so much success.
As for the music in the film, all of the girls' catchy, fluffy power-pop songs heard in the various performance scenes will be familiar to those who have seen the television series, as the three new songs by the K-ON! girls are used are all heard outside of the context of the story. The background music is fairly unobtrusive but stays varied by doing things such as sneaking short musical quotes of famous Beatles songs to set the mood during the London scenes. Beyond the music, the sound effects in the film are used very effectively to further add to the sense that the film takes place in a fleshed-out, three-dimensional world, while the voice acting performances, ranging from simple classroom chatter to fast-paced, manzai-esque comedic performances are all fun and natural to listen to.
While this probably goes without saying, you're looking for a theatrical anime experience that will blow you out of your seat, K-ON! is probably not the movie for you. What it is, however, is a very well-crafted and whimsical look into the lives of the movie's five heroines, with each of its constituent parts supporting and creating a polished final product. Its story might just be about a group of girls who go on a school trip, but they're are quickly made into characters who you develop emotional connections with and naturally want to watch as they go about their lives. While it may seem like a light message delivered in a sugar-coated package, K-ON! does a brilliant job of reminding us that sometimes who you choose to spend your time with is more important than what you do with that time.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Phenomenal richness in characters, enough for first-time viewers to sit back and enjoy while established fans lap every detail up.
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