I need to start this with a rant, which might seem odd for an article about this most gentle of anime series. What I have to say relates specifically to the UK DVD releases, so feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested in that.
We have an organisation over here called the BBFC, which rates DVD releases on a scale from U (Universal, i.e. suitable for all), to PG (Parental Guidance), to the age related ones: 12, 15 or 18. In what should be a helpful move for parents, individual disks get rated, so for K-on! most of the disks are PG or 12, with one of the disks in the season 2 box getting a U. So as a parent of a 4 year old, I quite naturally decided that it would be sensible to stick with the U and PG certificate disks when he was in the room, using some discretion with the PG and quickly hitting the pause button if anything occurred that I considered unsuitable. I never once had to hit pause. Bafflingly, I could find nothing on any of the disks that wouldn’t have been suitable for my 4 year old…. except the U certificate disk. On that one, somebody gets up on stage and shouts out “ok you ba****ds, let’s rock”, and then repeats the swear word later in the same episode. Bearing in mind that U certificate DVDs are supposed to be suitable for 4 year olds, perhaps the BBFC think parents won’t mind if their 4 year old copies and shouts out swear words. Actually, some parents don’t mind that, but that’s not the point. Why have a ratings system at all if it doesn’t alert parents to this kind of thing? This is of course the same organisation that gave the Doctor Who range a variety of certificates from U to 12, and yet twice classified (VHS and DVD) the most violent Doctor Who story ever made as a U. It includes a man’s hand being deliberately crushed until it bleeds. So for any parents out there who are not sure what anime they can put on with their kids in the room, all I can suggest is use your own common sense and the pause button.
Deep breath. Now that’s out of the way, let’s look at K-on!, the most slice-of-life anime series I have ever watched. A lot of anime gets described as slice-of-life when it’s really not, particularly when there’s a romantic storyline, although that’s valid because there’s a lot of great stuff on the fringes of the genre and the definition doesn’t need to be set in stone. However, in K-on! we have a truly slice-of-life series, and by that I mean we’re just following the lives of a group of friends with nothing particularly dramatic happening and nothing really in the way of romance. The popularity of this kind of series in Japan has often been attributed to the punishing pace of life for many of the working Japanese. After a stressful, exhausting day at work, a gentle series about cute girls doing cute things is just the thing to unwind to and de-stress, rather than a series with big dramatic moments. That’s the theory I’ve read, anyway, and it does make sense.
K-on! is a reference to keion, the Japanese for light music, and the series follows the lives of a group of girls who are members of their school’s light music club, forming their own band called “After School Tea Time” (because they spend most of their club time drinking tea and eating cakes). There are two seasons, and a film, which I will write about separately in a few weeks. The animators are Kyoto Animation, who I have mentioned a few times, the studio responsible for some of the very best anime series such as Haruhi, Hyouka and Clannad, among many others I have watched and enjoyed. Their standard of animation is always impressive. The only aspect of their animation this time round that disappointed me was something I rarely see in anime: you know that bit of silliness that crops up a lot in American cartoons where somebody gets hit over the head and a giant lump pops up, only to disappear the next minute? That happens a lot in K-on! and for me it crosses the line from “anime” to “cartoon”, while perhaps justifying some of those PG and 12 certificates. I could have done without all that.
The first half of the first series only features four of the five main characters, because it takes place during their first year of high school. Then we are into their second year and they finally gain their fifth band member. The second series covers the rest of their second year and their third year, taking them right up to graduation, and then oddly going back in time for some bonus episodes (and the film).
The band members all have very individual personalities, which is important for a slice-of-life series, but their friendship and loyalty to each other is unwavering. There are also some very well-rounded secondary characters, some of whom get their chance to shine in episodes that focus on them. The only aspect of the series that is even slightly icky is as a result of one of the secondary characters, the teacher responsible for overseeing the club, who has an unhealthy obsession with trying to dress up the girls in skimpy outfits. But she doesn’t succeed, because refreshingly this is absolutely not a fanservice series, beyond the slightly odd exception of the first series end credits.
Although there are no big dramatic moments, and virtually no romance beyond the gentlest of hints of attraction between some of the club members, that doesn’t mean the episodes are devoid of storylines. In fact, it is possible to take a lot of inspiration from this series, particularly in the ways the main characters overcome their limitations. Mio in particular is ill-suited to be the lead singer in the group, as she is of a nervous disposition and terrified of getting up on stage, and yet she is enormously talented and has to overcome her nerves. The balance between work and play is constantly challenged, and the series just keeps driving home the importance of friendship. The second series offers us a very interesting vibe where four of the club members are going to be heading off to college, leaving the youngest behind. Life throws those kinds of moments at us, where something good must come to an end and a group of friends is going to have to drift apart to at least some extent, and K-on! examines the emotion of that kind of situation with great depth and thoughtfulness. It won’t be a series for everyone, but if you want a gentle-natured anime with a bit of great music as a bonus, this might be the one for you.
I can’t finish this without briefly mentioning the voice cast for the dub, some of whom I am familiar with from other series and love their work, particularly Stephanie Sheh (Yui) and Christina Vee (Mio). Watching the extras on the DVDs reveals that they even recorded their own versions of the songs for the dub, but with the original Japanese lyrics, learning them phonetically. The end results are remarkably good.
I’ll be writing about the K-on! movie but that will be in a few weeks’ time, because we’re heading into the month of Halloween and have to leave gentle slice-of-life anime behind us. Some creepy series await… RP