What’s In a Character: Azusa Nakano

The youngest HTT member takes the stage!

Happy New Year once again! A new year requires new writing, and while a review would have been doable and straightforward to start with, it felt important to bring back AniB Productions’ most popular and liked series again: “What’s In a Character!”

Truth be told, there’s a number of character pieces in development. The term “development hell” is often used in gaming to describe titles that have had delay after delay and perhaps even outright cancellation for various reasons. I’m unsure if that applies also to writing on a blog, but sometimes it happens here with these pieces. To get the quality demanded by both the readers and myself, it takes extra time and effort, but also the juggling act we all know as “time management.”

Of course, nowhere is that skill learned better than in school, and in this “What’s In A Character?” we’re headed back there…again. No, it’s not the super-powered world of My Hero Academia or even a return to the Assassination Classroom, but rather, the charming real-life based domain of K-ON! It seems somewhat difficult to imagine this show’s run ended about 10 years ago at the time of this writing, but its charming characters, animation, and of course- music- have held up beautifully. While any of Hokago Tea Time’s (HTT for short) members are worth looking at in a piece, it’s the junior member of the group- Azusa Nakano- that gets the nod here. Turn that amp up and get ready to rock, as this piece explores this modest, talented member of the crew!

(MAJOR SPOILERS for K-ON! ahead.)


 

“Individually, they aren’t much…but they sound so good together!” -Azusa Nakano, on HTT’s sum being better than its parts

The main cast of K-ON!, in a word, is “adorable.” It was easy to become captivated by the girls’ everyday lives in high school, and while any one of them would be worthy of a piece, Azusa’s unique traits made her the pick. That isn’t to say the others won’t be revisited in the future, but the youngest member of the band gets to take center stage here.

An interesting aspect about Azusa is that she’s K-ON!’s “hidden” main character- one who doesn’t appear until well into the show’s 13-episode first season. A year in-universe elapses, and at this point the nascent HTT had formed within the structure of the Light Music Club, but outside of Yui, had failed to attract any new members in. While the girls’ “marketing campaign” featuring some dubious animal costumes had the opposite intended effect, it was a concert they gave that got Azusa interested in the first place.

As the only non-founding member of the band, Azusa often questioned the practicality of the club’s relaxed habits, and despite vowing to “not get caught up in their pace!”…she did.  Part of this was because of Azusa’s own mild nature, but the other members also had their own ideas. In particular, Yui affectionately took Azusa under her wing, characterizing her as “Azunyan”, or literally, “Azu-cat.” Their relationship was a weirdly inverted one, where Azusa was the more responsible and level-headed one while her “senpai” was good mostly at pushing her agenda of cuteness. (This is K-ON!, after all.) Some of the show’s more amusing moments came from Azusa’s capitulation to Yui’s will, from sweet treats to the cat-eared headband that both the latter and club advisor Sawako Yamanaka pushed fairly hard.

Perhaps the sweetest culmination of this friendship was when Azusa agreed to help Yui for a local talent show and sing a duet. Spending her personal time, she selflessly helped Yui’s dream become a reality- and in turn the two impressed as a duo, both to the neighbor Yui wished to sing to in the first place, and the other club members who came to watch, with Ritsu even commenting “they really prepped for this!”

Sawako is so into this moment. “Azunyan,” not so much.

Of course, Yui was not the only one who Azusa fostered a relationship with. She looked up to Mio Akiyama as a role-model of sorts, given her smarts, more practical nature and devotion to her bass guitar…only to be surprised by how shy and easily flustered she could be. In disputes or arguments in the group, Azusa often turned to Mio, but it could be rather hit-or-miss depending on the situation!

Ritsu, the band’s resident free spirit, nearly was responsible for driving Azusa away from the club initially with the excessive tea breaks she liked to take, but did become friends with her as time went on. Azusa was often quick to point out Ritsu’s slacking on her official club duties, but more importantly, served as a counterbalance so that (nominally) more practice happened.

Mugi, as usual, was an enthusiastic friend, and like the other girls, Azusa was surprised at her antics and enthusiasm for everyday life at times. She was indirectly responsible for the latter’s anguish at how much the club slacked off, given that she supplied the tea and sweets- but they were hardly refused when offered, or with little resistance. Azusa also marveled along with the others at Mugi’s hidden family wealth, be it at her spacious beach house or the unexpected discovery that her folks had a place in Finland!

The club’s affection for Azusa as a full-fledged member was seen in many ways, from her cat-themed tea mug that was obtained, to her taking on the role of watching the club’s baby turtle they obtained- Ton. The turtle’s existence in the club room was a result of Yui’s belief that Azusa had wanted him- a thought that wasn’t true at first, but after the effort of obtaining him (via selling Sawako’s old guitar, no less), what had been an initial curiosity turned into a companion the pigtailed girl was very fond of taking care of.

Azusa was also at the center of a secondary trio in the show within her own year, as she became fast friends with Ui Hirasawa- Yui’s younger sister, and Jun Suzuki, a spunky girl who often asked why Azuza joined the Light Music Club, while harboring her own secret interest in the group. The trio had a few spotlight episodes, most of which showcased some summer escapades- and the fact that the focus of this pieces gets very easily sunburnt.

Setting Guitar - K-ON! Wallpaper (1366x768) (144774)

A passionate, talented musician.

All the silly, cute parts of the series did not change a fundamental fact about Azusa: she was an outstanding guitarist. More serious and dedicated to her craft than her band-mates, she often pushed to practice when no one else would, and sincerely hoped the club would spend more time on music and less on tea and sweets- something that never quite happened.

Azusa provided a major talent infusion upon joining the group, and understood the fundamentals of the guitar extremely well, along with more advanced techniques. She was shocked that Yui did not despite being impressed with her initial performance and energy at the welcoming concert of her freshman year, and in turn would wind up advising Yui more on her craft than the other way around!

It was Azusa’s talent, determination and experience, along with her junior status that made her the only logical choice to carry on the Light Music Club when her friends all were set to graduate. Furthermore, it spoke to her character as a person that she’d be entrusted with the club’s fate by herself, as without her, there was hardly a guarantee for a tomorrow as far as the Light Music Club went.

One of the more emotional moments in any show comes courtesy of K-ON!’s series finale, where the graduating members sing a song of farewell and gratitude to Azusa, knowing that she alone could carry the torch at their school. And indeed she does, ending the series playing a solo instrumental version of “Fuwa Fuwa Time,” one of the band’s signature songs. While not in the anime version, she carries on the club and even forms a new band when the others leave, leading the way.

All of the events that form her character point to an individual who was passionate about music, a great friend to those she knew, and a responsible person. Add in that she’s relatedly adorable, and very cute when she’s taken off-guard, and you have a real winner of a character. Not every individual has to have an epic backstory to be great, but Azusa’s strength lies in the total characterization that she receives, both in her own right and in the context of the people around. It’s true that this is a strength as well of what is an outstanding “slice of life” show in general, but Azusa Nakano manages to still be very unique among this quirky cast, and worthy of the “What’s In a Character” designation.


It wouldn’t be an Azusa piece without this scene:

Some things in life are irresistible.


Like what you see? Big fan of Azusa or K-ON!? Leave a comment!

 

2020: A Look Back and Ahead at Animation

Bye bye yesterday, indeed.

Happy New Year, everybody! I hope everyone has enjoyed Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever holiday you celebrate. Amazingly, we’ve reached the end of another year, and with it, another distinct chapter in the history of the world and by extension, animation. A few years ago, back in the early days of AniB Productions, I mused about the state of Western animation at the time (it was 2017) and said “we’ll revisit it at the end of the decade.” Well…that time is now! And as a farewell to the 2010’s and a hello to the 2020’s, this is a special piece that’s going to take a big and little picture on what’s happened and perhaps, where we are going next decade with a few predictions. Let’s get to it!

THE BIG PICTURE

The 2010’s were by and large a transitional decade for the medium, whether in the context of the West or the anime scene. Stateside, the decade had started in a turbulent place with many beloved 2000’s series having come to an end recently, and a general void begging to be filled by trendsetters yet to be named. One may have been a late 2000’s holdover that ran all the way to 2015- Disney’s Phineas and Ferb, but it was arguably the Cartoon Network duo of Adventure Time and Regular Show that would be the progenitors for most other Western TV fare this decade. In turn, the rise of the so-called “CalArts” style- a cartoonish, deformed-esque style defined by characters with big heads and eyes became a huge trend, and was noticeable in many of the decade’s big hits, from Gravity Falls to Rick and Morty.

As for anime, this past 10 years may be looked back on as the time where being a fan finally became more mainstream. Mall stores are loaded with merch of the most popular and current shows; the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade has featured a balloon Goku the past few years, and even Netflix has adapted popular series into live action (whether or not this was advisable is another thing, but that’s a different discussion.) In addition, the quantity of anime has increased several-fold year after year- so much so that there’s almost a saturation (and a real question of industry working conditions.) Sometimes, you have to dig a little harder to find the good stuff, but the cream always rises to the top and like many decades that have passed before it, this one also produced some outstanding fare.

In both the East and West, the rise of streaming services has been a major story of the decade, changing the way most people consume these shows, and making the medium more accessible than ever. From Crunchyroll to Netflix, and various other means that exist, the internet has supplanted TV in all ways as the choice to view- although you can still watch the late-night Toonami blocks if you’re so inclined.


So with a quick look back, I’ve decided to pick from what I’ve seen at least, my top show picks from the past 10 years in both the West and the East. I would have extended the column to movies as well, but I’m thinking it’ll be a different post for another time. Very curious to see what people think of these picks!

MOST INFLUENTIAL CARTOON OF THE DECADE: Adventure Time

Was there ever any other option, really? No series defined animation quite like this one, which encapsulated the decade with a run that almost perfectly coincided with the years themselves, revived a flagging network, and became a sensation where even casually, you’d see people with merch. But from a pure animation perspective, this show set the tone, and then lived up to what it did, growing and evolving over its brilliant, often weird and quirky, but always imaginative run.

 

BEST CARTOON OF THE DECADE: Gravity Falls

There has been some really interesting choices as the decade’s unfolded, but despite a few years passing now since its completion, Gravity Falls really is a delightful gem of a show, blending skillful humor with great detail and an intriguing plot that also takes time to flesh out the characters in this quirky town. It’s sometimes easy to forget, but there was few shows worth old-school appointment viewing on debut this decade, and this was one of them. I also considered Samurai Jack’s revival here, but as the show was originally from the 2000’s, it was more a completion of a masterwork that demanded it.

 

MOST INFLUENTIAL ANIME OF THE DECADE: Attack on Titan

I really could say One Piece here for longevity, but I think it’s had a greater impact in the manga world, and it wasn’t a debut from these 10 years. There’s plenty of shows that were good, but what ones have had an impact globally and beyond? One answer is My Hero Academia, which certainly has that cache, but it was only for a little under half the decade. No, the best answer may be Attack on Titan, a show whose debut galvanized fans everywhere, even to the point that one year a kid dressed as Captain Levi showed up at my door at Halloween! And it truly was a decade show, with seasons spaced out at the beginning (2013) and end of the period (2018, 2019).

 

BEST ANIME OF THE DECADE: 

Just one pick, eh? There are many worth the crown of this distinction, but it had to be something where we can look back years from now and say “yeah, that was a masterpiece.” Not everything ages well! For every Cowboy Bebop, there’s a 70’s Devilman out there. So in the end, I’ve picked two, because why not:

Hunter x Hunter and Steins;Gate.

steins;gate.png

There’s specific points for these picks. For one, Hunter x Hunter is my favorite for a reason, and it is a remarkable achievement in long-format shonen anime between how well it’s done and its remarkably engaging cast and themes. It is the second adaptation of the source manga after 1999’s effort, and and for all intensive purposes improves greatly on it. The ability to flawlessly switch genre-styles within show is masterful, as is the subversion it performs on common tropes. Add in that it has one of the most uniquely remarkable arcs in any show (Chimera Ant) and there’s a great case for it here in this column. Running from 2011 to 2014 in its Japanese debut, and its English dub from 2016 to 2019, it really was a show of the 2010’s. (Read the review here!)

Steins;Gate on the other hand, was a different ride, one that wove time travel and the consequences of it right into its very fabric. Of all the series in the 2010’s, I think this one will be remembered uniquely for a few reasons (and the review is also here!)

2011 was a remarkable year for anime. Aside from these two, it also featured Fate/Zero, Nichijou and Madoka. However, these two are excellent adaptations from source material, which takes away nothing at all, but I want to nominate one more dark horse candidate that’s anime-original for the story:

Little Witch Academia.

Why this show, you may ask? Well, for one, yours truly watched it. Can’t pick something you don’t know. But more importantly, it has a little bit of everything you could ask for, from a spirited, memorable cast, to a enjoyable story, gorgeous animation and some incredibly uplifting themes. (You can read my review here if you haven’t, or peruse a character piece on Akko Kagari as well.) But I also asked myself, “how will this age?” and the answer is clear that it’s going to be like fine wine. It doesn’t date itself with dumb references in-show, the plot itself is timeless, and the show is accessible even to a younger audience, with an appeal that’s broad but hardly to the lowest common denominator. Finally, the story about how it got to be green-lit from Trigger and how it started as a fan-sourced project and special is interesting. Feel free to look it up.

Are these truly the top anime of the decade? Perhaps. As a writer, critic and then fan, I suspect everyone will have a different answer, and I’d like to think this one is no worse than anyone else’s reasoning or logic.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR ANIMATION?

Well, my guess is as good as anyone else’s. We started the decade on cable; we ended it streaming, and what turned out to be good and popular wasn’t even on anyone’s radar when it all started. So a few predictions shall suffice:

-The CalArts style will fade out by mid-decade for a different style.

This is history talking here. Each decade has been distinct stylistically and this might be the safest bet- that a new or recycled style comes back into prominence in the West. We’ll see though.

-SpongeBob finally ends.

Underrated aspect of the 2010’s has been “zombie shows”- titles that have lived generations and eras which continue onward. This falls more under “bold prediction” but the yellow sponge’s run will dry up at some point, and crazier things have happened. Heck, long-time running mate The Fairly OddParents ended this past decade, so it’s not impossible.

-A previously unheralded anime genre takes center stage.

In the 2010’s, that had to be the isekai explosion led off by Sword Art Online, but with the saturation of that area, the new decade is ripe for something fresh. We’ll all wait enthralled and one day realize it’s happened, but not until we start scrolling through releases.

-The foreign film drought continues at the Oscars.

I know this isn’t the animated movie column, but it’s criminal how little attention non-American fare gets in stateside circuits outside of industry professionals and passionate folks like perhaps yourself, dear reader. It would be nice if it changed, but I don’t suspect it will.

 

-More revivals of older shows will happen.

Recent years have borne nostalgia trips across culture, from Star Wars to DuckTales, and in turn, I expect more of the same as we get into the new decade. If there’s one thing Hollywood is good at, it’s recycling ideas, and I think it’s become applicable to animation as well.


Well, that’s it from me! A Happy New Year to all, and a big thank-you for all the support for the blog. Here’s to the end of one decade and the beginning of a great new adventure with you all!

(Leave a comment if you’d like!)