Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Blu-Ray - Season 1 Complete Collection
Yui Hirasawa knows that in high school, things will be different. She may have been a useless lump up until now, but with her whole future ahead of her, it's time to find a club that can really help her shine. Unfortunately, the club she actually finds is the Light Music Club - a group of enabling slackers who feed her lack of initiative with tea and delicious cakes. But in the margins between occasional band practices and the rigors of everyday life, Yui will end up finding something else in the Light Music Club; something silly and warm and absolutely worth holding on to.
So here it is. The big moe specter, that harbinger of slice of life disaster, K-On! Considering the show's reputation as Patient Zero for a specific commercial trend, you'd almost expect the show itself to be either magnificent or terrible - after all, depending on your perspective, the various “cute girls doing cute things” shows that followed this one were either a slice of sunshine or sign of the end times, and it just stands to reason that a show that cast such a long shadow would stand very tall. But it turns out K-On! isn't some great obelisk in either direction - it's unassuming, good at what it does, and happy to shine within the confines of its specific goals. K-On! is not a great destroyer - it is just a simple idea executed very well.
The show opens with our “hero” Yui Hirasawa bumbling her way towards her first day of high school, sleeping through her alarm and occasionally stopping to pet a cat and running into all manner of tiny but clearly important diversions along the way. This is basically a microcosm of the show to come - K-On! is a show about the journey, and in this case, the destination of that journey is actually just “more journey, possibly accompanied by tea and cakes.” As Yui struggles to decide on what school club might fit her unique lack of talents, she ends up being roped into the Light Music Club, accompanying Ritsu Tainaka, Mio Akiyama, and Tsumugi Kotobuki. Together they form the band Afterschool Tea-Time, and vow to perform at Budokan… preferably after more tea and cakes. And so the club's non-adventures begin.
K-On! is a slice of life in the most pure terms - in fact, it's actually a running gag in the show how even though Mio and later arrival Azusa want to actually practice music, the rest of the group are too determined to laze around and eat snacks to let that happen. Instead, most of K-On!'s episodes play out as very small conflicts (going on a training camp, getting a club advisor) interspersed with plenty of time for the characters to just be themselves. This is the heart of K-On! - four or five girls bantering and lazing around and generally being occasionally frustrating but ultimately committed friends to each other.
This very simple premise works, because the characters are both individually endearing people and also possess strong group chemistry. All of K-On!'s five main characters add something unique to the group, and all of them possess multiple sides to themselves. Additionally, basically any potential pairing of the main characters creates a different dynamic than any other pairing, and so smaller scenes with only a few of the characters will often reveal new sides of each of them (and light jokes to go with them). As the most committed airhead and slacker, Yui is likely the member who most embodies the “K-On! spirit” - but pair her with the energetic Ritsu, and their common sense of humor will lead them into ridiculous extended fantasies together. Mugi is the sheltered rich girl who's overly delighted by the mundane details of everyday friendship, which would make her seem most similar to the reserved Mio - but in truth she's as much a goof-off as Yui, and often ends up enabling the silliest tendencies of the group.
Normally, a show full of goofy slackers would have some kind of “straight man” character intended to offer commentary and keep things focused. Here, that role generally falls to Mio - but she's unfortunately too easily defeated to actually rise to that role, meaning a lot of the show's episodes play out like “what if a normal drama's goofiest characters were allowed to always set the agenda?” The show is largely comprised of lighthearted group jokes interspersed with small episodic problems, with each of the characters offering their own set of personality-based gags. These jokes can occasionally get repetitive (Mio being afraid of everything is played for laughs at least once an episode, for example), but it often feels like the easy character humor is more about creating a sense of atmosphere than provoking consistent laugh-out-loud moments. And plenty of the jokes are laugh-worthy, either way.
The one weak point on both the humor and character front centers on the club's advisor, Sawako-sensei. In contrast to the endearing and character-based humor of the rest of the cast, most of Sawako's material is boilerplate late-night anime gags - dressing the girls up in silly costumes, “I'll never get married” routines, etcetera. Her jokes are an unwelcome blemish on an otherwise uniformly upbeat and character-cherishing sense of humor, but she fortunately doesn't interrupt the show that way too often.
Beyond the simple but effective strengths of the show's characters and humor, K-On!'s atmosphere is tremendously buoyed by its strong aesthetics. The characters are nicely designed and incredibly expressive, possessing a vast variety of silly faces to pull out at any occasion. The animation is rich and flavorful, with the character models possessing a great looseness that perfectly matches and extrapolates on their personalities. From the quick expression-based gags, to the general sense of personality expressed through the characters' organic and evocatively animated body language, K-On!'s characters feel visually alive.
The direction here is equally strong, applying just as much care to evoking a sense of warmth and nostalgia as another show might dedicate to tension or sorrow. Naoko Yamada is one of Kyoto Animation's most talented directors, and though this is one of her earlier works, it still possesses a great eye for creating a sense of space, maintaining a strong atmosphere through shot framing, and letting gags breathe through smart framing and timing. Different episodes even possess starkly unique personalities, with episodes like eight and twelve using very different techniques to evoke the different dramatic necessities of the group's second and third school performances. The show has a masterful grasp of conveying mood visually, an important technique in a show almost entirely dedicated to creating an atmosphere you feel you could curl up in like a fuzzy blanket.
K-On!'s music is also largely a point in its favor. The backing tracks are a fairly generic mix of mood-appropriate electronic tracks, but Afterschool Tea-Time's music is the clear highlight. Though they slack off constantly, the show is generous enough to make them an actually pretty darn good school band - their pop-rock songs have strong melodies and a nice interplay of instrumental focus. Yui isn't a good singer, but that's the point - she's the clumsy heart of an offbeat group of young girls, stumbling through and enjoying each other's company in their idyllic after-school days.
K-On!'s dub is generally solid - though I prefer the somewhat floatier tone of both Yui and Mugic in the original (and the abrupt transitions to Japanese songs are a little awkward), it's overall a strong performance that maintains the key sense of easy camaraderie within the group. Sentai's collection is otherwise fairly bare-bones - there are no physical extras, and the only on-disc bonuses are clean opening and closing songs. Overall, K-On! is an unassuming but quietly excellent slice of life, an endearing retreat from the worries of the day with a charming cast of characters. It has a couple weaker moments and a couple questionable choices, but still consistently succeeds in evoking that key mood of a lazy after-school meeting with friends. Divorced from its reputation, K-On! demonstrates it's not interested in proving anything at all. It's just a very nice little show.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Consistently evokes a warm and endearing atmosphere; the central cast has great chemistry and are brought to life through some wonderful character animation.
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