Reviewby Carlo Santos,
It's business as usual for the five girls who make up the Sakuragaoka High School light music club, as they face the challenges of school life while playing in an extra-curricular rock band. Did hyperactive drummer Ritsu forget to send New Year's greeting cards to everyone? And who will junior member Azusa give her Valentine's chocolates to? Then comes the start of a new school term in the spring (along with a surprising new homeroom teacher), and the club members do their best to enjoy their final year as a group. That means cleaning out the clubroom together, trying to get some air-conditioning installed for the summer months, going on out-of-town excursions, and sometimes just hanging out on the weekends. After all, their youthful days won't last much longer!
If the slice-of-life genre is so slow-paced, how is it that the young ladies of K-ON! are entering their third year of high school already? Indeed, these lighthearted four-panel gag strips seem to be moving at the speed of real life, not slice-of-life, where your high school years are almost over before you know it and all that's left is a string of loosely connected memories. That seems to to an apt description for the events of Volume 3, which features little in the way of dramatic ups and downs or stunning plot developments. No new characters, no major crises, just a stretch of incidents from New Year's to the end of summer. Graduation day is still months away—so this part of the series is all about creating memorable moments before the inevitable separation comes.
Whether those moments are of any value to readers of K-ON!, however, is the real question here. Of course they're important to the characters—who can forget attending a summer rock festival in person, or mad days when the weather is just out to get you?—but for readers who are only observing the proceedings, the events in this volume fall flat in their presentation. "First this happened, then this happened, and then we laughed about it"; that seems to be about the full extent of the girls' everyday lives. (Then again, that's also how most high school kids spend their everyday lives, so who are we to criticize a slice-of-life series for being ... well ... an accurate slice of life?)
If the plot is not where it's at, then surely it must be the characters that give the series its spark. With introductions well out of the way, and personalities (one-sided as they may be) firmly established, most of the humor comes from the main cast's quirks and interactions with one another. Mio's insecurities are a charming counterpoint to the level-headed personality she tries to project, while the ever-dopey Yui has a misguided one-liner for every occasion, and whenever there's a lull, Ritsu's gung-ho attitude often leads the band down a crazy new path. However, the four-panel format also limits these characters and their relationships to a template: after several chapters, one realizes that it's always the same quirks leading to the same jokes (Silly Yui! Ridiculously rich Mugi!) over and over. Only a full flashback about Mio and Ritsu's childhood offers a true insight into the bonds of friendship—and while heartwarming, that episode ends up being too little, too late.
The restrictions of the four-panel format also negatively affect the art, where almost every scenario is some kind of conversation taking place in a nondescript room with white walls. Of course, trying to fill up every panel with pointless background details would be an equally bad idea, but even just a hint of location or lighting would help make this high school seem more real. Instead, most of the artistic effort is concentrated on the characters themselves, and certainly this series outshines its peers when it comes to differentiating the members of the cast. There's enough variety in hairstyles and face shapes that, despite all being cut from the same cute-girls-doing-cute-things mold, the characters of K-ON! can easily be distinguished from one another. A wide range of facial expressions, usually in the comedic vein, also adds visual interest to a series where most of the "action" involves people talking to each other. Bright splashes of color, arriving every ten pages or so, are another treat for the eyes.
If personalities are what drive this series, then surely it also comes through in the way the characters talk, right? The dialogue in this translation brings out all those details, most notably in Ritsu's wild outbursts and colloquialisms, but also in subtler ways like Yui's airheaded comebacks and Tsumugi's natural politeness. One stumbling block that comes up in this volume is in the field trip to Osaka, where the girls' attempt at speaking in Kansai dialect is presented in English as a faux-urban New York accent. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Japanese can argue for days whether this was the right thing to do, but outside of that, the script as a whole still shines: the characters sound like real humans talking to each other, not plastic figureheads reciting lines translated from Japanese. Just as importantly, a glossary in the back provides thorough notes on the puns and wordplay that occur in the book, so everyone can understand where some of the jokes are coming from.
Clearly, K-ON! is not meant to be a deep intellectual experience. Heck, it's barely even a fanservice experience (aside from that poolside chapter and Azusa's funny-looking tanlines). What it is, then, is a mildly pleasant high school experience, focusing on the people you meet and the things you do during those brief, formative years. Volume 3 epitomizes that idea with anecdotes about winter holidays, starting a new school year, spring and summer activities, and simply meeting up with friends to have fun. But let's be honest: if you aren't in some way attached to the characters, or enjoy seeing them goof off, then there's nothing here for you. The humor is extremely mild, and the storyline almost nonexistent, aside from things happening in chronological order. It's simply about being there and living life—which is at once the series' greatest strength and also its most glaring weakness.
Overall : C+
Story : D
Art : B-
+ Continues to provide amusement in the form of likable, distinctive characters and their day-to-day misadventures.
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