Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Upon reaching high school, drum-player Ritsuko is gung-ho to join the school's Light Music Club only to find that it is about to disappear. Strong-arming her friend Mio (bass) into joining, the two then convince choral club hopeful Tsumugi (keyboard) to join. Eventually they get spacy Yui (guitar) to join up as well, and even blackmail an adviser into helping. But can they make a music club work when the girls are more interested in drinking tea and eating cake than practicing music? New recruit Azusa isn't so sure.
Readers simply curious about the K-ON phenomenon could be excused if their first reaction to seeing these graphic novels was “$11.99 for 114 pages?!” These are very slim books for the price tag, and if you aren't sold on the story, it may be worth reading them at a library before deciding to collect. But while it has its problems, K-ON is a fun little series and Yen Press has done a good job in bringing it to English-speaking readers. The seemingly hefty price tag for the page count is offset by how good these books look. The trim size is a bit larger than normal and the paper is good quality. The printing is clear to the point where other manga don't look quite as nice if held side-by-side with this one. And there are lots of colored pages – the first ten pages of volume one are all in color and other color pages are sprinkled throughout both books. Also worth your attention are the extensive notes in the back. While there are some repeats between the two volumes, the information is useful to understanding the story if you don't know the Japanese in-jokes Kakifly uses, aren't familiar with music, or just want to know what on earth the title means.
To be fair, the print quality may be a result of Kakifly's art style. He favors simple designs without a lot of gray and his lines are more slender than not. It isn't fair to write this off as moe art. Girls look their ages and he does a nice job of giving everyone a different figure. Sisters are clearly sisters and adults look slightly older than teenagers, although Ritsuko and Yui can be almost indistinguishable from the back. Kakifly gets credit for allowing the girls to wear believable casual clothes – there is no random Goth clothing when the cast is just hanging out. Fetish clothing is played more for a joke, as club adviser Sawa-chan is fond of dressing up the girls for their performances. In one strange scene, Sawa-chan laments that the girls' uniform skirts are a bit too long. This feels especially out of place given that if the skirts were attached to the uniform blazers physically it would look like they were just wearing long shirts. Fortunately there is not enough of this sort of thing to poison the books.
The plot here is simple. Ritsuko and Mio have just entered Sakuragaoka High School. Ritsuko really wants to join the light music club (kei-ongaku-bu). Unfortunately the entire membership has recently graduated and the club is about to be disbanded. Realizing that this is her chance to be a club president, Ritsuko decides that she will just have to reform the club. Mio isn't keen on it, but Ritsuko won't take no for an answer, and Mio gets forced into it. They need four people to be official, however, and they luck into number three when rich girl Tsumugi wanders in looking for the choir group. After advertising for a guitar player they land Yui, a space cadet who has to learn to play from scratch. Luckily she can do that – but when she has to learn another skill, she promptly forgets the first one. In volume two, which marks the girls' second year of high school, guitar player Azusa deliberately joins the club to much rejoicing, but she quickly comes to suspect that things are not as she had hoped. Azusa and Mio play the straight men in the group, and the former's cuteness gets her in a lot of trouble with cosplay crazy Sawa. (A relief for Mio, who suffered Sawa's attentions in volume one.) Yui nicknames Azusa “Azu-meow,” which presumably worked better in Japanese. (Azu-nya?) That's the only glaring translation choice; apart from that, this is a very smooth read.
The biggest difficulty is adjusting to the manga style – K-ON is written in four panel strips, which readers are most likely to be familiar with from Tokyopop's release of Hetalia. Reading up-and-down rather than right-to-left takes a bit of getting used to, but the strips do have a nice continuity that aids in reading. Ritsuko's tendency to react to silly ideas by saying “Yeah, not going to happen,” or some variation thereof feels particularly natural.
Despite the brevity of the volumes, it is perhaps better not to read them both at once, which may explain their length to begin with. K-ON is a delightful sugar cube of a story, but too much of it at once can get tiresome. While Azusa is a welcome addition in volume two, as is the increased attention given to Yui's younger sister Ui, the main four girls are still just canned enough to make too much of them rob the story of its charm. Kakifly gets points for Tsumugi's family being in the music business rather than the more typical crime or hospital scenarios, as well as for making her the rich one when Mio's refined character design would normally tag her as the wealthy heiress, but there still isn't a whole lot in the way of character development going on here. That's really just fine in this confection. K-ON is like the candy corn of manga – compulsively enjoyable and absolutely terrific when you're consuming it, but have too much and you may find yourself feeling a little ill.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Cute, pleasant art, enjoyably quirky characters, and a light, fun story. Lots of color pages and terrific cultural glosses add to the experience.
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