Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
K-ON! Season 2
Blu-Ray - Collection 2
Graduation is nearly upon the Light Music Club. As the club prepares for their last school festival, they must face such daunting coming of age rituals as studying for college exams, choosing a college, and hiding their teacher's graduation present during the ceremony. Okay, not so daunting. But one task is deathly hard; the simplest and most inevitable of them all: saying goodbye to the place where they've spent their youth and the friends they've spent it with.
Let's talk about the Great Depression. It was surely an unpleasant time. It was also the time of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, the Looney Tunes and Preston Sturges. Sturges, a dedicated satirist, directed some of the funniest films ever made. Among them was Sullivan's Travels. It was a funny movie indeed, but perhaps better remembered as one of the best and most passionately argued defenses of escapism ever mounted. It is not, Sturges' movie argues, a silly or petty thing to give people an escape. It's a noble goal, as worthy of pouring your heart and soul into as capturing the human experience or exposing social injustice. It's not an argument that's always easy to accept. For too many, escapism is an excuse to escape their responsibilities to their audience; to be lazy and slipshod and cynically exploitative. But occasionally something will come along that makes you think that maybe Sturges was right.
That's K-on!!. It isn't a defense of escapism; there's nothing defensive about it at all. It's proof. Proof that escapism can be heartfelt; that if made with skill and conviction, with absolute devotion, it can be moving and even true. That is truer here, as the story of Yui and Mugi and Ritsu and Mio and Azusa draws to its close, than it ever was. Let there be no mistake: this is pure escapism. This is a show that spurns with conscientious thoroughness anything that is bleak or upsetting or remotely unpleasant. Like the thirteen before them, these fourteen episodes are individually-wrapped adventures in magical mundanity. Putting on a school play, running a marathon, taking a yearbook picture, losing the clubroom for a day—each episode is twenty-five minutes of fun and friends and the bittersweet passing of high-school life built around one everyday event. It's a portrait of friendship and school life that cherry-picks only the best and happiest and sweetest of either.
Yet it's a portrait crafted with immense love and care. You can see it in the adorable details of Yukiko Horiguchi's designs, in the way she draws and her comrades animate Yui's expressive little hands and cutely pointed fingers, in the way the band-mates' eyes and happy little mouths speak to us of joy and mischief and sweet melancholy. It's there in the golden light that slants in through the windows and bathes their after-school frolics. It's there in the thought with which every shot is composed and framed, every action animated and presented. In the way every frame of every scene tells us of the pleasure the artists took in drawing it and the animators took in bringing it to life. There's joy and life in K-on's art, in its—and there's no other word for it—cinema.
And you can't help but get caught up in it. The delight and warmth and affection are contagious. The girls' personalities bleed so convincingly into their body language and such time has been spent soaking up their quirks of speech and motion and humor that they've long since ceased to be empty character types or even characters and become friends. Friends whose happiness we revel in and whose company we delight in. In their company we can really believe that happiness reigns supreme, that friends will always be together and the good times will never end. It's a place you wish you could stay forever, as seductive and immersive and even, occasionally, as poetic as Aria's—the reigning king of escapist places. It's easy to see why the actual school that the girls' is patterned after has become a pilgrimage point for the series' fans.
Eventually, though, we have to leave. And so do the girls. High school must end and college must start and the girls must move on with their lives. Therein lays this set's brilliance. It's a long and deeply moving goodbye to friends that we've grown unexpectedly close to. Unlike the previous set, these episodes don't blindside with unexpected jolts of substance; they build deliberately, with care and forethought, to discrete emotional peaks. Azusa's uncertainty about her place now that most of the band is headed to college surfaces in the light, early episodes and colors the school-play episodes before concluding once in a wonderful scene in which the band sends her off with a beautiful little song and then again when she sends them off with a guitar solo backed by the new Light Music Club.
It's the band itself, however, that gets the finest farewell of them all. Their final school-festival performance is a masterwork of musical catharsis and razor-sharp direction, a documentarian concert set-piece that captures with thrilling immediacy the tension and release of performance: the still anticipation as the noises of preparation echo, the feedback of audience and band, the euphoria of coming together just right at just the right time. Who would ever have thought during its opening frivolity that one day K-on would sit alongside Beck and NANA as a champion of the electric intensity of live music? HTT couldn't have asked for a better send-off.
K-on is English-dubbing kryptonite. The brutal truth is that no pool of English voice talent is capable of matching Japan's for depth and fetishistic variety of female talent. So, wisely, Sentai Filmworks doesn't try. Their versions of Yui and the crew are milder and more subdued; their vocal range closer to that of real-life girls. Which allows them to sound natural—or at least as natural as the too-faithful script will let them—but also dials back the original's color and tones down the girls' personalities. Damned if you do; damned if you don't. This is as good a dub as anyone could reasonably expect, but the series' fans aren't likely to throw the original over for it.
Extras? We don't need no stinking extras. This set includes the series' three extra episodes but none of the goofy Ura-On omake or any other supplementary material for that matter. With the exception of clean OP and ED animation of course—which is not to be dismissed lightly. The youthful enthusiasm of "Utauyo!! MIRACLE" and the mature pop of "NO,Thank You!" (which is presented as a music video that could easily have been produced by a grown-up, commercially successful After School Tea Time) are two of the series' great pleasures.
So yeah, K-on is escapism. When you sit down to watch it, the world washes away. For a time all is right in the universe, if only because you've forgotten all about it. That the series can do that with depth of feeling and artistic dedication such that we don't feel bilked or bamboozled for surrendering is its gift, and its gift to us. I suspect that poison-witted Preston Sturges would be aghast at its sugary sweetness, but I like to think that eventually he'd sit back and smile and say: “See? I told you so.”
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ A beautifully put together, utterly delightful and unexpectedly poignant confection.
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