Anime Reviews: K-On!
K-On!'s catchy music and likable leads have earned it quite the large following, though many will be turned off by its aimless pace and limited appeal.
Production: Kyoto Animation
Series Length: 13 episodes + 1 OVA
Air Dates: 4/3/2009 to 6/26/2009
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language)
Summary: In order to save Sakuragaoka Girls' High School's defunct Light Music Club, wildcat drummer-slash-self-proclaimed club president Ritsu Tainaka and shy bassist Mio Akiyama must recruit more members to form a band, keeping the club from being officially dissolved. Initially, luck seems to favor them as they stumble upon Tsumugi Kotobuki, a sincere and wealthy girl who was looking for the Choir Club, but decides instead to help out and play keyboard in the Light Music Club. With only one member left to fill the four-student-minimum club requirement, as well as the necessary position of guitarist on the line, the girls encounter another hopeful--airheaded Yui Hirasawa, who wants to join the club because it sounds like fun, despite the fact she can't play any instruments (though she thinks she's good at the castanets). With the threat of dissolution hanging over their heads, Ritsu and the others must help Yui learn the guitar--while honing their own skills--to take this club all the way to the Budokan!
The Good: Typical KyoAni production values; toe-tapping songs; likable and attaching characters
The Bad: As boring as day-old dog turds; comedy is hit-or-miss; extremely niche; Azusa is a frickin' alien
The Ugly: Why are Mio and Tsumugi the only ones with actual eyebrows...?
Truth be told, I went into K-On! fully expecting to hate it. I was anticipating this series to be irredeemable, despicable, pus-spewing cancer. I can't tell you enough how much I dreaded sitting through six hours' worth of "cute girls doing cute things" bollocks that has been plaguing the industry for over a decade now and refuses to die the gruesome death it deserves. But as I started watching, I remembered one very important detail: this is Kyoto Animation we're talking about. With a few particularly disgusting exceptions (Haruhi Season 2 and Lucky Star), KyoAni have a pretty good track record for making quality anime, and it seemed K-On! would, luckily, follow suit. Granted, it comes with a lot of grievances, but would I still recommend it? Let's find out~
First of all, as with any Kyoto Animation production, the visuals and the presentation here are top-notch. The character art is very vibrant and colorful without going berserk (the girls do all have normal hair colors), and their animations are quite smooth and nuanced--even if what's going on isn't really very realistic (overblown reactions are Japan's bread and butter, after all, and K-On! is no stranger to them), you could totally buy that that's how a person would move under those circumstances. Likewise, the backgrounds are given a lot of personality--the school is painted in a lot of subdued, earthy, inviting colors, and the outside is usually very warm and verdant. Visually, the show just looks fantastic.
The voice acting is also superb...well, at least for what kind of show K-On! is. While the cast's super-high-pitched ultra-feminine vocal wiles can certainly have your ears begging for the sweet mercy of death, we are dealing with teenage girls here, so it kinda comes with the territory--oh, and the acting itself is spot-on, too. For my eardrums' sakes, I also checked out the English dub, and it's a pretty damn good dub, for what it's worth. Unfortunately for my eardrums, they picked voice actresses who sounded most like their Japanese counterparts so that when the songs came barreling through, the characters slipping into singing in Japanese doesn't sound out of place or bizarre (except for, y'know, the language shift). Oh hey, on the subject of music...
...let me preface by saying that, if you're not a fan of pop music, the songs will do absolutely nothing for you. However, if you do enjoy some good ol' pop, then K-On!'s got a few treats for you. Right from the get-go you have the extremely lively "Cagayake! Girls" as the opener, and can I just say how unexpectedly fun this song is? Much like the show itself, I was expecting to hate it, but those vocal hooks are just too potent. Excellent slice of pop music. To accompany it, we have "Don't Say 'Lazy'" as our ending theme, and it's a much more guitar-focused tune with a pretty dark tone for such a lighthearted song--but hey, it's a good song, so I'm happy with it. And that's not including the songs performed by our intrepid(?) heroines! They deliver unto us more fun tracks like "Fuwa Fuwa Time" (episode 12 spoilers, if that sorta thing matters to you), "My Love is a Stapler" (j-just roll with it), and "Brush and Ballpoint Pen." I had a lot of fun with the show's music, is what I'm trying to say. Very catchy stuff.
Of course, the main draw of a show like K-On! is its characters and how well they bounce off each other, and dammit all, this is where the show won me over (for the most part, anyway). I'm gonna sound like a broken record here, but I came into the show fully expecting to hate each and every one of these people, but it didn't take long for that attitude to wane. Sure, the cast came across to me as being a lesser version of Azumanga Daioh's, but y'know what? If you're gonna remind me of something, better something great than something garbage. But let's be fair here, the characters are pleasant to watch and (metaphorically) spend time with, and I'm just being a cynical old man who's seen too many anime shouting "RITSU IS JUST TOMO WITH A DRUM KIT AND BROWN HAIR HHHHHGGGGGGGG" when I should just relax and be happy that the character writing is good enough to evoke memories of Azumanga in the first place. And being completely honest again, the very end of episode 12 did make me feel all warm inside, and no series with bad or lazily-written characters can do that. Then there's the music teacher, Sawako Yamanaka. Who is amazing. And is consistently the best thing and the funniest thing in the show.
But now the fun time's over, kids. We gotta bend K-On! over our knee and spank it for all the...things it does...wrong. Okay, that metaphor was way better in my head, but nevertheless, we've got some glaring issues to address. Like, for instance, the fact that the show's pacing is very slow and aimless, which makes much of its runtime as exciting as watching dinosaur eggs hatch (...the joke here is that they don't anymore). Every now and then, something funny or amusing or actually-music-related happens, but for long stretches, it's just the girls hanging out and doing everyday things like drinking tea and eating snacks together. Like I said, some funny moments occur during these scenes, but they're still very slow.
Speaking of the comedy, it's pretty spotty and inconsistent (except for Sawako, who is always funny). Sometimes, like in the Christmas/New Year's episode, the jokes are rock-solid laugh-a-minute stuff, and then other times, like the first Training Camp episode, the jokes are just...there, eating up airtime. I don't really have much else to add to this, other than I would've liked this series a lot more if every episode were more like the Christmas/New Year's one.
Something else I should mention, and probably should've done so in greater detail earlier, is that this is very much a moe anime. It's solidly in the "cute girls doing cute things" category, and it never even makes any indication that it wants to be anything else. Luckily, as with CLANNAD, K-On! is an example of moe anime that is actually not repulsive on an instinctual level, but it still will lack any appeal for those who are not even remotely in the slice-of-life-anime camp. If you're not a fan of that kind of thing, then K-On! has absolutely nothing for you. On the flip side, if you are a fan of slice-of-life and/or moe anime and somehow haven't already seen K-On!, then I don't need to say anything more--this show is entirely for you, and you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to check it out.
And finally, remember how earlier I said the characters were enjoyable "for the most part"? Well, there is an exception. And her name is Azusa. Azusa was introduced about halfway through the show, and she represents everything I was afraid the show would be before actually watching it: she looks like an alien, she talks like an alien, she sounds like an alien, and she acts like an alien. She is an unrelatable moe-blob with inhuman quirks and basically zero personality--ergo, she is an alien. And she assimilated herself into the show's opening theme animation in a half-assed way, almost exactly as if she really were an alien entity trying to convince the Earthlings she's been among them the whole time. I love the core cast of Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Tsumugi, and Sawako is the best thing about the show hands-down, but frickin' Azusa just sticks out like a sore thumb.
Well, now that we've reached the end, I have a confession to make: I was originally going to review both seasons of K-On! at once just to get it all over with, but life's been kicking me in the mouth these past few weeks, so I've yet to actually finish watching the second season. If you want my thoughts on it so far in a single sentence, they would be: "It's more of the same with some interesting new characters, but there's also more Azusa, so it evens itself out." So if you finish the first season, like it, and want to know if season two is up your alley, then the answer is "yes." And with that, you have my entirely-too-long-winded opinion on K-On!--it's far better than I was expecting, and that's always a good thing, but I still had some major complaints in the end. I still enjoyed my time with the series, and the second season so far, as well. Oh, and one last thing: don't get used to me reviewing moe titles. This is one of the best the subgenre has to offer, so we'll just leave it at that.
Final Score: 6.5 out of 10. While certainly not the most exciting, comedically consistent, or even widely accessible title around, K-On!'s insane popularity can be justified by its infectious soundtrack, its lively animation, and of course, its fun and attaching characters.