Reviewby Nick Creamer,
K-ON! Season 2
Blu-Ray - Collection 1 + 2
Two years have gone by, but the girls of the light music club aren't going to let their approaching graduation get them down. They're going to enjoy every day, eating cakes and going on adventures and generally avoiding practice in every way they know how. Summer festivals, school fanclubs, and all sorts of other attractions are still yet to come, in a year that promises twice as many memories as the last two. But the idyllic days can't last forever, and soon Yui and her friends will have to make tough choices and say goodbye to the club they've loved. How will the girls make the most of their final year, and what will happen when graduation finally arrives?
When I reviewed K-On!, I described it as an “unassuming but quietly excellent slice of life.” Cataloging the first two years in the high school life of Houkago Tea-Time, the show established an endearing cast of characters and then decided to just enjoy their company for a while, spooling out a procession of episodes full of tiny conflicts and little victories. K-On!'s second season doesn't present any wild shifts in the formula – it's still about Yui and her friends, they still spend more time sipping tea than playing music, and what conflicts that exist are still just the day-to-day trials of a happy high school life. But by refining the show's core strengths and focusing on the exact elements that make it great, K-On!! is still able to surpass its predecessor, honing the science of slice of life into a melody so graceful you won't even realize you're crying.
While the first season covered Yui and the group's first and second years of high school in one season, this one applies twice as many episodes to half as much time. This means that instead of emphasizing high school staples like beach and Christmas episodes, the focus here is both more precise and more often applied to day-to-day life. K-On!! finds episode-length conflicts in the sort of scenes that would normally just be the opening to other shows – there's one that focuses on the gang doing their best to enjoy a rainy day, and another about Yui fretting about getting her hair right for her graduation photo. When the group of seniors head off on a trip to Kyoto, that journey gets an episode... but so does Azusa back home, feeling left out by her friends but still trying to make the most of the situation. Because the focus here is on such small and true-to-life conflicts, K-On!!'s portrayal of high school ends up feeling far more poignant and well-observed than shows that just run through the high school episode greatest hits.
The second season also doubles down on the original's humor. Instead of leaning on a bunch of simple one-liners reflective of each character's “thing” (here's Mio being scared... at the beach!), K-On!! embraces the slowly evolving inside jokes of an actual group of friends, creating both a sense of intimacy and consistently self-refining gags. There's both more situational humor that breaks out of the setup-punchline routine of the first season, and also more natural banter. And because K-On!!'s jokes aren't scene-disrupting gags (ie they don't feel like the characters are “performing humor” for an audience), and instead just natural reflections of the character personalities, the show is able to build emotional resonance out of them. K-On!! is one of the few shows that actually succeeds in making you feel invested in characters largely through humor alone.
K-On!!'s sense of intimacy and investment is also aided by the show's other crowning strength – its constant evocation of beautiful, lived-in atmospheres. The school and clubroom specifically end up becoming one of K-On!!'s central characters, a character you come to know incredibly well through through the show's constant well-observed little moments. Repetition of shots around the campus (the statue outside, the steps to the third floor) make you feel the seasons pass as the characters do, and thoughtful direction takes care to consistently put you on a level with the characters. Lazy scenes exist purely to make sure the audience feels the muffled patter of a rainy day, or the sweltering heat of a room without air conditioning. K-On!!'s world feels like a living place.
That evocation of atmosphere is important, because K-On!! eventually ends up striving for higher emotional heights than its predecessor. In the series' last act, this sense of atmosphere and humor-based character development run into the fast-approaching graduation of the core characters, leading to a series of episodes that are stunningly good at evoking the bittersweet feeling of moving on from a beloved moment in your life. One episode in particular, a twenty-minute evocation of their final school performance, perfectly captures the feeling of a much-loved band playing their very last show. K-On!! doesn't undergo any significant dramatic shifts, or try to add in artificial conflicts – it simply has its characters live out their last high school days the way they've always done. They loved their time together, and it's sad to see it go.
K-On!!'s aesthetics remain incredible. The show is sharply directed, full of both visual humor and scenes that are framed either to set a general atmosphere or evoke the specific emotions of the characters. Incidental shots of the scenery of the characters' lives buttress small scenes of everyday living, creating a sense of place that feels effortless but is clearly masterfully done. From giddy excitement to loneliness to laziness to awe, every emotion the characters face prompts a different style of visual framing.
The animation is also about as good as television animation can get. K-On!! is one of the few shows where you can actually be impressed by the quality of the character acting – their body language and expression work, moment-to-moment. Not just in terms of single silly faces (though there are plenty of those), but consistently, as a living fact of the work. The characters are brought to life through expressive, tremendously consistent animation, a rare strength that you eventually come to take for granted (and then are surprised to return to normal anime, where characters just sort of stand there).
K-On!!'s soundtrack sticks to the mostly inoffensive electronic tracks of the first season, with the actual band songs once again being the highlight. I wasn't much of a fan of either of this season's opening or closing songs relative to the first season's, but the in-show performances were still great. And two performances near the end, the aforementioned final show and a private performance a few days later, end up standing as the well-earned emotional peaks of the series.
K-On!!'s dub is still fairly solid, though the transition from English voices to Japanese songs continues to be an awkward immersion-killer. Other than that, these releases are as minimal as the first season's, featuring clean openings/endings, the show's post-graduation extra episodes, and not much else. There are also a couple issues with the subtitles – some possibly over-liberal translations, typos, and things like the subs failing to convey that Mugi is speaking in an old-timey dialect for a punchline.
Overall, K-On!! exemplifies “better than the sum of its parts.” And that makes sense, really, because it's the beauty of the construction of these tiny moments that makes it work. Out of a thousand silly gags and lazy afternoons, K-On!! sketches a lasting picture of the little joys of adolescence. In its last episode, the characters fret over finding “something to leave behind” - but through the grace of its telling, K-On!! captures all that they'd want to express, one moment at a time.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Is pretty much the perfect slice of life, turning a collection of funny little moments into an emotionally charged high school yearbook
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