Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
K-ON! Season 2
Blu-Ray - Collection 1
It's senior year for the Light Music Club. That means recruiting new members (so the club doesn't disappear with its four senior members), studying for college, and *gasp!* planning for the future. There are those in the club (ahem, Yui) for whom foresight is downright unnatural, so it won't be an easy transition, leaving school behind. Not that that means that the club can't have their fill of fun on the way out. After all, fun is the K-on way.
Indeed it is. You can say a lot of unflattering things about K-on!!, that it's a puff of sugared air with an impossibly sunny take on school life being probably the main one, but you can't say you didn't enjoy yourself watching it. It's the ultimate in anime comfort food; a perfectly effortless slice of entertainment that never fails to sweeten your day.
Sweet is the operative word here. There isn't a dark or nasty thought to be found anywhere in K-on!!. No one fights, no one resents, no one thinks ill of anyone. The series has no use for angst, no place for unpleasantness. It is wholeheartedly focused on the light and bright in life, on friends enjoying the company of friends and just having fun with the little absurdities of everyday life. In many ways it's an absurdly simple show. Each episode takes a pastry puff situation and spins it into a series of lightly humorous vignettes, usually ending in an affirmation of the girls' lasting bond. One episode will use cleaning the clubhouse as an excuse for the girls to goof off in a shopping center or to riff on Yui's fondness for bizarre trinkets, another will take recruiting new club members as an opportunity to get everyone into big ridiculous animal costumes. And so it goes, through the four seniors making a hash of their senior trip, Yui entering a local talent competition, and everyone trying to beat the summer heat.
That could easily grow tiresome after a while, and at times it did during season one—especially when it pushed the cutesiness too hard. Season two is a different matter though. At twenty-six episodes and with only one school year to cover and all of the introductory nonsense out of the way, season two has no need to push or rush anything. It can let its plots meander where they will, let its characters do whatever they want, and let its sweet-natured character humor and impossibly cute shenanigans emerge naturally, with a sort of careless ease that makes them infinitely easier to enjoy. It hones and expands the first series' relaxed atmosphere, developing a laid-back narrative rhythm that sometimes comes dangerously close to a kind of gentle visual poetry. It even finds time for experimentation, as when it blurs the line between dream and reality during Azusa's summer day apart from the band.
There's room too for substance in the series' new sprawl. Of course the show's still fluffy to a fault, but occasionally in the midst of the pillow fights and weddings-turned-rock-concerts you'll stumble across something of surprising depth. You'll be floating along on a helium cloud of humor when, bam!, a real emotion will come along and puncture it. In the midst of a frantic day at a music festival we'll unexpectedly spot what music has come to mean to the girls. At a riotous party for Mio's fan club the look in Mio's eyes as she watches a slide show will drive home the love she has for her nutty bandmates, a love made deep and somehow sad by the slides' reminder of time's passing. The series is pretty nimble about it; just as it doesn't overplay its jokes or cute capering (this season), it doesn't lay the emotion on. It lingers just long enough for the feeling to register, and then flits on to whatever silliness it is currently indulging in. At other times it'll bring the focus back to the girls' looming graduation and inevitable parting, lending a light but becoming tinge of melancholy to their usual frolics. It doesn't make for anything approaching a meaty series, but it is very endearing. Cuteness may get us in the door, but it's those moments of magic that keep us coming back.
Not to knock cuteness. Cuteness is great, and K-on!! does it better than perhaps anyone. Kyoto Animation and director Naoko Yamada understand that true cuteness is as much a function of motion as it is of artwork. Yui and her crew are easy on the eyes to be sure, but the souls of their characters are in the way they move: Mio's quick-step attempts to maintain decorum as she rushes somewhere, the unladylike manners of outgoing Ritsu, the childish sternness of Azusa, the unforced clumsiness of Yui , the innocent enthusiasm of Mugi as she marvels at a store's home-improvement aisle. Whatever personality isn't written into their dialogue is written into their body language. Even with the sound off you'd still learn enough about these girls to like them nearly as much as they like each other.
Like the series itself, Kyoto's animation isn't purely about cuteness. It can be used to capture the sweaty intensity of an outdoor concert, the upwelling of happiness in Mio's eyes during that slide show, or the sheer joy of Ritsu's drumming after a long hiatus. It's animation of a very high, if not terribly flashy order. Watching the show you realize just how much other series recycle and truncate movements. Even mundane movements—climbing stairs, nodding—are complete and unique, beautiful in their detail and complexity. Yamada uses Hajime Hyakkoku's score in a similar fashion, using it mainly for its simple energy but occasionally deploying it to more complex ends: Yui and her sister singing a children's song as each band member watches the rain from their homes; Yui playing a long guitar solo over the initial introduction of the cast; the girls singing the school's anthem during commencement. What Yamada has put together is a show that isn't just stylistically distinctive—you'll never mistake it for another show—but also a joy just to look at and listen to, which is not something to be taken lightly.
All of which helps if you're going to be watching the show in English. It isn't that Sentai Filmworks' dub is bad; it just has trouble measuring up the Japanese. No one is grossly miscast and nothing particularly incompetent is done, but the cast really struggles to bring the same color to their roles that their Japanese counterparts do. Eventually there are so many different girls and such subtle variation between them that the performances start to blend into each other. Which makes the characters' visual personalities indispensable. The script for its part is a picture of fidelity, clinging to the subtitles like a wet T-shirt and even retaining honorifics and certain Japanese nicknames and terms.
Any show that just wants you to feel good runs the risk of being dismissed as escapist. But dammit, what's wrong with escaping every once in a while? Especially when the escape is this well-made. Go ahead, pine away for the intellectual ambitions of the Evangelions, the breadth of the Gundams and the depth of the NANAs, but sometimes what you really need is the warm comfort of the K-on!!s.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Loveable cast in a likeably loose version of what the first season did perhaps too well; cute, sweet, and occasionally surprisingly substantial; guaranteed to lift your spirits.
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