Studio/years aired: Kyoto Animation, 2009-2010
Before the review really gets underway, it’s great to be back! It has been quite a while since I sat down and wrote a proper review, but I did remain busy in the business of watching shows while on hiatus, and the standout of the bunch was this one- K-On! Considered somewhat of a modern classic in the “slice of life” genre, the show centers around the high school careers of the main cast- Yui, Ritsu, Mio and Mugi (and slightly later, Azusa)- and the club band they form and bond over, the Light Music Club. (In Japanese, “light music” is actually “keion” the way it’s pronounced, and so the title of the show is rather literal in that sense.)
So how would one describe this series and why it’s so good? For me, if a show like Nichijou was the peak of comedy in this genre of show, K-On! is its soul in what you’d want. It’s cute without being pandering, the characters are fleshed out individuals not boiled down into stereotypes, and it’s got a wonderful energy buoyed by the dynamic interactions among the cast. As a result, the episodes feel like a great deal of fun rather than a slog to work through, and the show successfully avoids the common pitfalls of many a mediocre “slice of life” en route to being adorably awesome. There’s also a relatable aspect to what you’re watching- while it’s true that not everyone is a high school girl in a band they formed, the memories of bonding with people over shared pursuits and the relationships made while growing up, right towards graduation, is a theme that resonates strongly here.
There’s a substantial real-life tie-in with the school that K-On! takes place in. It’s a real place- Toyosato Elementary School in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, and all the locations within the grounds in the show are faithfully depicted. The historical building, which was a fully operational school until 2001, can be toured around in, and to no one’s surprise, the clubroom in which the Light Music Club held their activities in the show has become a sort of K-On! shrine, from drawings to tea sets, and even replicas of the instruments the girls used. *
As you also might expect from a show featuring a band, there’s a great number of original tracks between the two seasons, three openings and endings. Like the girls who comprise the club, the styles tend to vary with one unifying theme: it sounds pretty good, which while hardly the be-all, end all of any self-respecting evaluation, is both critical and important in this show’s success. From the openings and ending to the various songs played at key moments in the show, it all melds together into the overall narrative in a way that works really nicely.
From my end, K-On! was a joyful ride while also staying entertaining and interesting the whole way through. I wasn’t on the anime scene in any meaningful way when the show released back in 2009, so the fact that the experience was undimmed by 10 years is a testament to the show’s enduring qualities in this writer’s opinion. It’s not to say it’s a perfect show, as nothing quite is, but it embodies the best qualities of a genre and executes them at a high level, and that is worthy of some praise.
Animation: Let’s get the most obvious observation out of the way: everyone is adorable in this show. At the same time, the cuteness feels natural and not pandering in the character designs, and everybody is very “expressive.” You can get a sense of each character’s personality through their actions, and so the action is conveyed nicely not only through words but the animation as a result. Overall, the show looks great still (it was a 2009-2010 release) and the style helps convey the action well.
Characterization: The main cast, as mentioned in my thoughts, focuses on the members of the Light Music Club and the band they form (which is later named Hokago Tea Time, or HTT for short). Featuring remarkably distinct personalities, the way the interpersonal relationships and character growth proceed organically in K-On! gives the show an undeniable heart while avoiding the pitfall of being generic.
Yui Hirasawa serves as the lead guitarist and technically as the show’s lead, though any of the main members could lay a claim to that title. She’s an upbeat and hopelessly flighty girl who despite the latter, can perform amazing things with proper focus (such as learning to play her guitar, which she named Gitta)…but at the expense of everything else. Yui’s also got an insatiable appetite for sweets and was initially lured into the club by the promises of tea and snacks. She’s the older sister of Ui, though in an unusual reversal it’s her loving younger sister who looks after her, knowing all too well Yui’s bad habits.
The self proclaimed president and leader of the club is Ritsu Tainaka, the group’s drummer. She’s synonymous with an air of informality, from her constantly untucked uniform shirt to her often blunt manner of speaking and love of practical jokes. Childhood friends with Mio Akiyama, the two are the formative members of the club and share a close bond, though are complete opposites in personality.
Indeed, Mio is a brilliant but shy girl, smart but easily frightened and embarrassed despite being a capable individual. As the group’s bassist, she also serves as the chief songwriter and is more level-headed than most of her companions. Despite that, she can easily get flustered, a fact that is exploited all too often by Ritsu with practical jokes. How she came to be friends with Ritsu is explored in the show, but for those who haven’t seen K-On!, I’ll save it.
Tsumugi Kotobuki, usually referred to simply as Mugi, is the group’s keyboardist and resident supplier of tea. Coming from a wealthy background, Mugi is constantly enthralled by common everyday experiences and takes great pleasure in learning about new activities and actions while seeing new places with her friends. Despite her upbringing, she’s a very kind girl and rarely gets upset or rattled over events, making her a steady presence in the group.
Azusa Nakano is the group’s junior, joining on in the later half of season 1. A serious and talented guitarist, she’s often dismayed at the lack of practice the Light Music Club does- but inevitably gets pulled into the pace of the others, as she has a not-so subtle liking for sweets. Nicknamed “Azunyan” by Yui, she’s often characterized as a little cat as Sawako (the group’s teacher and advisor) likes to make her wear a headband with cat ears, and she even gets a unique tea mug corresponding to this as well. She’s fond of her seniors and never fails to get excited when they actually perform.
The major supporting characters are small in number, yet fullfill their roles well. As previously mentioned, Sawako Yamanaka is the club’s teacher and advisor. She’s usually a kind presence who supports her students, but she hides a wild side to her, as she’s a metalhead at heart (and in her past), and has a hobby of making new costumes for the girls for their performances.
Ui Hirasawa is Yui’s younger sister and unlike the latter, she’s an extremely responsible and competent individual, but also kind. Ui adores her sister in taking care of her, and like Yui, is a fast learner (albeit far more focused all the time.)
Finally, there’s Nodoka Manabe and Jun Suzuki. The former is Yui’s childhood friend and classmate; she’s a serious and resourceful individual who becomes student council president, and remains a useful resource for club needs. Jun on the other hand, is a friend of Azusa and Ui’s in their grade. She’s quick to appear like she has a sense of knowing everything that’s going on, but she’s really a bit of goofball. In a show where characters are so important, K-On’s cast shines.
Story: In simple terms, this is a character story about growing up, in high school, and about the girls who formed a band. Sure, it’s been done before, but not always as tactfully or as fun as it is here. Here, the characters make the story, and it’s relatable on a human level, which makes it engaging in turn. Split into two seasons, 41 total episodes (counting 3 extra episodes) and a movie (which isn’t technically covered in this review), it’s a overarching narrative that keeps up at a good pace.
Themes: Going off the story, thematically this show’s about shared experiences, being part of something greater than just yourself, and of course a throwback to something relatable to everyone- going through high school, and the memories associated with it. It’s all wrapped up nicely in a cute package.
Don’t Insult the Viewer: In terms of intangibles, K-On! is overflowing with them, from its catchy music soundtrack to its engaging main cast and the fact that it’s also considered a superior adaptation from its original source, a 4-koma manga. Add in that it avoids being fanservicy, and you’ve got a superb outcome.
Total: 22.75/25 (91%): A delightful blend of fun, sweetness, and enjoyable interactions, K-On! proves to be a must watch for fans of the “slice of life” genre and an excellent pick for animation fans of any persuasion. An undeniably charming show.
Like what you see? Big fan of K-On? Leave a comment!
*Credit to https://www.bewashiga.com/article/toyosato-elementary/ and Ashley Davis for information on the real-life Toyotaro Elementary.