This is why K-ON is worth your time
Among anime fans, the K-ON wave is something that is pretty much unstoppable. The fact that it’s a man-made animation is perhaps the only thing that’s keeping it from being called a force of nature. It has spawned a global legion of fans, dominated DVD and Bluray sales, topped the Oricon charts enough times to rival the musical icons of Japan. Even more fascinating is the fact that it’s based of an extremely boring 4-panel manga.
While every other anime blog out there has been commenting on K-ON on a weekly basis, yours truly decided to wait until it’s all over, and the hype has all simmered down. Hopefully, by now everyone wouldn’t be too crazy about Azusa winning SaiMoe 2010, that they are able to read this article with a calmer state of mind.
From Print to Screen
K-ON started out a 4-panel manga written and drawn by Kakifly. It tells the story of four girls forming a band in high school. Despite the plot being about music, the manga itself shows more of them chatting, cosplaying, drinking tea and eating a variety of confectioneries. Occasionally, they’d go shopping or vacationing somewhere.
There’s actually very little about music. It is, in essence, a slice-of-life comedy. Starred by adorable girls, the K-ON manga had a very modest following, not much difference from other 4-koma fandoms in terms of size. Things changed however, when Kyoto Animation stepped in.
Breathing It To Life
Admittedly, I’ve only heard of K-ON when the anime announcement appeared around the ‘net. Since then, I’ve read several chapters of the manga, judging from the manga alone, I can safely say that the characters are just as flat as the paper they’re printed on.
KyoAni, perhaps, took advantage of this flatness and expanded it as they pleased. As a 4-koma manga, there isn’t much room for fancy background artworks and sceneries which kinda made the whole thing pretty bland. Of course, having audio in an anime that is supposed to be about music helps, too.
A lot of friends have asked my opinions about K-ON, so let me get this out of the way first. Let’s start with the basic questions.
Do I think it’s awesome?
Do I think it’s funny?
Do I think it’s got good music?
It’s got a few good songs.
Do I think it’s recommendable?
That depends on who’s asking.
In regards to its content, there’s nothing positive for me to say about K-ON. At least, nothing that would please my literary palates. Let me put it to you this way:
- There’s no plot.
- There’s no progress.
- There’s no depth.
- There’s no wit.
This doesn’t mean I am anti-K-ON, nor do I hate it. Before you label me a hater, I do have things to praise about this, this animated production.
The first time I heard of KyoAni is when I first watched the Full Metal Panic: Fumoffu OVA. Back then I didn’t know much about animation studios but I did notice the glaring difference in character design, animation style and direction. It was then that I started to notice production studios in the credits, and have ever since been on the lookout for productions by certain studios. Today, when the new season rolls in, I’d be on the look out for titles from Production IG, or Bones, or JC Staff and yes, from Kyoto Animation.
I think it was in Clannad that I started to notice the beautifully illustrated backgrounds that the studio used in its scenes. Reading articles from various otaku blogs revealed that they replicate a lot of images of real Japanese locales and paid great attention to detail in doing so.
If you’re not used to appreciating visual media, you might not notice those beautiful artworks that transition in and out of scenes, hours and hours of work appearing only for a few seconds before being cut away to another artwork. They are subtle, but these backgrounds added a lot of atmosphere to an anime – and this is very visible in K-ON’s case.
The backgrounds were drawn with every intent to express the feel of a certain scene. Whether it’s a peaceful scene, a rowdy classroom, a loud hall or a cosy home. They do it so well, it feels completely natural and complements whatever is happening on screen. So well, that most wouldn’t notice it at all.
Attention to Detail
I’m not much of a musical person. Okay, screw that, I’ve only ever played the recorder at school, I can’t read a music sheet, and I’m probably tone-deaf. The only musical quality I have is the ability to discern what kind of music I like, and what kind of music I don’t like.
Which is why whenever I look at illustrated musical instruments, or ones modelled in 3D, I always find myself looking at them in fascination. K-ON doesn’t show much of the girls actually PLAYING the instruments, but whenever they appear on screen, they almost always drawn very close to the real thing. Of course, it doesn’t stop at musical instruments.
Premium headphones, English tea sets, japanese lunch boxes, heck, even lip gloss have been replicated from real-life products! More than a few times have the fans discovered and posted pictures of the real thing online. For a production studio to go that far, I truly respect that.
A Human Touch
Perhaps K-ON biggest selling point is the moe factor. It features cute girls looking cute while doing cute things and emitting cute sounds. They look cute, they move cutely, they react cutely and they sound cute. They exploited this point to the max, visually and aurally. Perhaps more on the aural side, as the characters were voiced by a rather talented crew of voice actresses.
Aki Toyosaki, in particular, was spectacular in acting out a slow, clumsy and innocent girl. I don’t remember seeing any other anime character that carried as much innocence as Yui. Her exclamations, giggles and ‘tee hee hee’s have defined Yui, changed her from paper thin to something you just want to squeeze and glomp all day long. The other actresses were good, no doubt, but none were too extraordinary, in my opinion.
K-ON ran for two seasons, with 40 episodes in total. The first 14 episodes covered the group’s first and second years in school, while the following 26 episodes, the third and final year. In the first season, nothing too interesting happened. At least, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing outside of drinking tea, chatting, shopping and various other normal things we do to pass the time.
Yet, I found that I couldn’t stop watching and followed it the entire 14 weeks it aired. It was then I realised that I kept watching because I appreciated the normalcy. How the ordinary is made extraordinary through subtle ways that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t really pay attention to the big picture.
Realising that I was caught in the lullaby, I anticipated the second season – waiting for the opportunity to watch it again with eyes wide open, careful to spot any cool tricks the studio might employ to capture its audience.
An Excercise in Passion
Having established the setting, characters and backstory (what little there is of it, anyway), the second season of K-ON began airing with a rather different feel. Halfway through the first season, a fifth girl, a junior, joined the group and this new season begins with the original four in their final year of school.
Suddenly K-ON takes on a different flavour, each episode unveiled with an inevitable ending hanging in the air – graduation. Having cemented the characters into the minds of its audience, KyoAni unveils its characters slowly, bit by bit. It was a tasteful direction, with much attention paid to shot-framing and cutaways.
I continued to watch K-ON for another 26 weeks, fascinated and curious as to how a droll, boring manga became such a tasteful exercise of passion. A lot of the things began to have an underlying meaning, a subtle hint, a delicate touch of something ephemeral. Things that weren’t really there in the first season.
In those 26 episodes, K-ON became a glorious work of animated art.
True Quality vs Cheap Shots
By now, I’m sure many of those who know me would be surprised to see that I’m praising a moeblob anime – a genre I’ve detested for many, many years. I still hate moe-oriented shows, just to let you know. I hate its shallowness, I hate how it prominently bares cleavages, nipples, panties and various other things that are made to coax a reaction from the male crotch (and psyche). It is this cheapness, the repetitiveness, the lack of anything substanstial that makes me hate the genre so, so much.
“But K-ON is nothing but moe!” you say.
Yes, that is true. K-ON is all about moe. However, compare it to most other moe-oriented shows and look at K-ON, and ask:
- Is it a harem?
- Does it bounce boobs every episode?
- Does it show cleavage every episode?
- Does it show upskirts every episode?
- Does it feature private parts?
- Does it use sexual innuendoes?
The answer to all of the above is, of course, a rock-solid No. Yet, without resorting to these kind of cheap tactics, it has captured the hearts of millions all over the world, proving that you don’t need any sexual elements to gain a rabid fandom.
I’ve come to realise that the reason K-ON sells so well isn’t just because of its cute girls, or good voice acting. Sure the icing helps to sell the cake, but it’s what inside the mix that’s really good. The most amazing part about it is that people keep praising/condemning the icing, completely oblivious to the true flavours. Pfft no, I’m not talking about the music.
It’s all about Teamwork
In a recent statement by a KyoAni staff;
In Kyoto you won’t get business unless you do the work yourself. We cooperate as we’re in Kyoto.
I don’t mean to criticise Tokyo, but they use a lot of freelancers so it can’t be helped. As for us, we do things together as company employees. This injects an energy into our products which just isn’t there in other works. We have passion. Maybe that’s why they sell.
Games can’t beat us with mere CG – character is what moves animation. Human feelings move characters.
The production team CARES about its product. A LOT. They make every effort to make the show appealing. They pay a lot of attention to backgrounds. They come up with innovative and attractive screen wipes. They animate hair, fabric and hand gestures with every little thing in mind. The team worked closely together and they were all passionate about the same thing: making K-ON as moe as possible.
For that, I tip my hat off to you, Kyoto Animation. Truly you are masters of your craft.
It’s been a while since I wrote such a lengthy commentary about anime – it surprises even myself that I’m actually writing about K-ON in the first place. So, after all is said and done, some people still want me to condense it into something simple. Okay, here goes:
I think K-ON is a story about nothing. It’s a boring story about boring things, but it was told beautifully, exquisitely, and yes, passionately. If you give yourself some time and help yourself to three or four episodes, you will find yourself sucked into a bowl of ordinariness and you’ll be left wondering – how did they do that?
As mentioned before, I’m not a music person. Meh, not like the music is much to talk about, anyway.