K-ON!: Review

After surveying all the titles, I came across one I heard of: ‘K-ON!’.  There was a big buzz around it when it came out, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong with this one.  It follows a group of girls united by a music club, and presents the trials of getting through highschool while also trying to manage a stitched-together rock band.

Looking at the premise and genre, I already knew what the kind of content the show would have: a mismatched group of eccentric and subdued personalities with various backgrounds.  Acute observations of the mundane.  Humorous reversals of circumstance.  An obligatory beach episode.  Some sort of cosplay.  A school festival climax.

Unsurprisingly it had all these things, as if they went through a checklist.  But despite that something about it made it very entertaining and fresh; not just because it had the twist of being in a band together, but in other aspects as well.  It’s not something one can easily pinpoint because it’s an accumulation of a lot of small details in every aspect of production that brings this series to a different level than others in its genre.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a deep series by any means, but it has subtle and inspired(and sometimes brilliant) moments sprinkled throughout that add dimension to character interactions and the world they exist in.

The narrative is, as most ‘slice of life’ anime are, self-contained in each episode;  there’s no over-arching storyline or winding plot twists.  The series chronicles the first two years of high school, from the forming of the band, to performing as a fully realized band at their school festival.  The focus is on the dynamic between the characters, and how each member comes to understand each other and unify under one goal, despite their clashing philosophies.

While the main cast consists of five members, there is a central protagonist: Hirasawa Yui.  At first glance she seems to follow a by-the-books, tired archetype: A spacey, earnest airhead without a mean bone in her body, not unlike Ayumu ‘Osaka’ Kasuga from Azumanga Daioh who was a supremely entertaining character, but more or less unrelatable.  But by the end of the series, Yui ends up being a truly interesting and multi-faceted character.  The first season is very much Yui’s story, and her journey to finding herself and a place where she can belong.

Another aspect that struck me was how polished the presentation was.  I absolutely love the animation work in this series.  The animation director and key animator, Horiguchi Yukiko, had also worked on high profile shows like Lucky Star and the Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, but I see k-on! as his best work yet.  The simplification of movement and subtleties is almost masterful.  The series never goes over the top with flashy animation, but the quality is very apparent.  When the studio’s budget allows for them to blow a lot of money on a particular scene or episode, it’s mesmerizing.  It’s nice to see animation take priority over making overly-detailed characters; I’d rather see fluid motions than stiffly animated characters that are meticulously drawn.

The design department deserves applause as well.  Everything has an air of smart design choices, from the type work in the intro to the overall look of the show.  Even the beginning and mid-episode title cards are clever, with the introduction of the episode hand-written on a cassette tape showing ‘side A’, and the mid-episode title card showing the reverse side of the tape showing that its ‘side B’, alluding that each episode is like a cassette tape.  Small details like this add up to strengthen this series.  I just started watching the second season(the title also cleverly designed as ‘K-ON!!’, using two exclamation points to signify its season) and it’s looking better than ever.

Running at a modest 12 episodes(13 if you include the bonus episode), this series can easily be seen in one or two sittings.  It won the ‘Best TV Animation Award’ this year from the Tokyo International Anime Fair, and it’s easy to see why.  I’m always gushing about a series long after the hype train has come and gone, but there’s got to be a few stragglers like me who want a fun series to watch, and I say to you: check this series out!

About Dae Lee

-Dae, aka Mizu -Writer, broadcaster, and podcaster on New School Kaidan

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