Yui Hirasawa is starting her first year of high school, but she doesn't know what club to join! Meanwhile, drummer Ritsu Tainaka wants to start up the light music club once more, "persuading" her friend Mio, a bass player, to join her. They are soon joined by Tsumugi Kotobuki, as the band's keyboard player.
Unfortunately, they need four people to save the club from disbandment. As luck would have it, Yui soon finds Ritsu and the others and joins them as their guitar player, even though she's never played a guitar in her life and has never played any musical instrument except the castanets.
High school comedy starring a bunch of wacky, cute girls anime #983245233, or K-On!, stood out to the both of us back in March 2009 as a series that could've had some potential. While it was certain that the show was going to be another high school comedy with a cast of cute, quirky girls, there was something about the promo picture of the series' heroine holding a guitar that got both of our curiosities piqued, one that made us willing to dismiss any potential criticism we might have had.
So much for that.
You see, K-On! isn't so much about music playing as it about a girls who goof off, hang out, and have summer vacation trips with the occassional bit of band practice. You know...club business, which would have been fine and dandy if Kyoto Animation gave us the same kind of compelling and interesting writing found in their other series, but they don't. So if you liked AIR, Kanon and Clannad, don't expect K-On! to scratch that same itch. Lucky Star fans might be convinced to be a bit more lenient on this show, as both shows revolve around four cute girls hanging out during and after school, but at least Lucky Star never lost track of what it was, which we will get into further on in the review.
The music club members, although generally cute and likable, are also fairly shallow and can be summarized individually in a few words:
Yui is the lazy, slow and kind of dumb one.
They have one thing in common, though; they're all airheads. In fact, only two characters in this show seem to have working brains: Ui, Yui's little sister, and Nodoka, Yui's best friend. Mileages varying (as they tend to do), you'll be wishing they were the main characters. We know we did.
There's also Sawako, the advisor of the music club. When you first meet her, you learn that she's seen as the pinnacle of gentle femininity among her students and even her colleagues. Her past is actually one of the very few genuinely funny jokes the show has to its credit. You see, a long time ago, she confessed her love to a guy she liked, only to be rejected for being too timid and shy. So what did she do? She joined the light music club... as a punk metal rock player, roaring, snarling, and playing the guitar with her teeth as often as her hands. Naturally, upon confessing her love once again, she was told that she was taking the whole thing too far, and the whole flashback comedy stint is left at that, with the girls using her past to pressure her into becoming the club's advisor. Unfortunately, that's not the humor Sawako provides in this series after all is said and done. Instead, when she's not spending her days sipping tea at the music club, she's harassing the girls (mostly Mio) against their will and subjecting them to her costume fetishes! Hilarious. No, really. I mean...at least Kimura kept his hands to himself for the most part. Sawako's actions would get her fired in real life fairly quickly, lawsuits and/or restraining orders following close behind.
Some episodes past the halftime break (aka the second year), we get another member of the light music club - Azusa Nanako. We don't really get to know why she chose the light music club, other than that she saw the girls' concert and that the jazz club she originally wanted to join apparently didn't play jazz the way she liked it. Naturally, she didn't take too well to the lax atmosphere of the club...for about an episode, where the whole subject is dropped through a short segment that almost rivals Beck's view on music and bands for sheer pretentiousness. She's mostly treated like a pet or a little kid by most of the other club members, Yui in particular. (Maybe she just didn't get to play the big sister as often as she liked, what with Ui being the responsible one of the two.)
The bottom line here is that K-On! doesn't have much to do about music, and you'll never really learn a whole lot about the girls past their initial traits. Instead it tries - and fails - to keep us hooked with its comedy. There are only so many times you can see Sawako showing off her costume fetishes, Mio being scared by any and everything, and Ritsu blackmailing people or forgetting to turn in club applications before it gets old. In fact, K-On! itself pretty much visualized pretty well what kind of mindset you'd have to be in to enjoy this show.
So yeah, how about the art and animation? The art is just fine, which has always been one of the staples of Kyoto Animation. Character designs are quite pleasant for the most part, with the girls' features being a bit lessened compared to AIR or Kanon, and with a fairly simple normalcy to it. The background art isn't quite up to scratch, which might be limited due to the whole show taking place at school or at someone's home. (With a few exceptions, like the beach episode.) The animation's not too shabby, but there's certainly some priority issues to sort out. See, most of the slower scenes are animated fairly well, with the girls being downright freakishly adorable. The numerous tea drinking sequences and general moments of fooling around are drawn and animated as gently and expressive as they should be, given that it's the main draw of the show.
But, despite the show being about music (in theory, at least), if you're hoping for the same kind of animation during the actual music sessions like in that one episode of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, you're out of luck. The animation during those segments is lazy. (And yes, we're definitely saying it.) For some unbeknownst reason, K-On!, with very rare exceptions, refuses to show the girls play their instruments until the very last episode. (One of the things Beck REALLY did correctly ALL the time.) Whenever the girls play their instruments, they almost always cut away to something else: a statue, the floor, outside, crowds of people, a table, a picture of a rock-and-roll player -- or, best of all, the water faucets outside of school, because oh yeah, we're REALLY hankering for some of that right about now. Anything BUT them playing their instruments. And if you do get to see them "in concert", it's either from the neck up or from a great distance. They can't even have them animated in a repetitive cycle of animation, which is inexcusable for a show about music! It's like watching Aria and the show cutting away to the sky every time someone got on a gondola, or Dragon Ball Z animating frightened bystanders during all the fights. Only at the last episode (not counting the bonus story) do we get to see the band, up close and personal WHILE they're playing. As symbolics go, it's not the worst thing ever, but it's definitely too little, too late. This is the sort of attitude the show should have had towards their characters from the beginning, or at the very least leading up to -- and after -- the first concert they played.
The actual music itself isn't really doing the show any favors either. The background music is dull and forgettable, and the opening/closing themes are banal at best, and downright horrible at worst - especially the ending theme, a mishmash of punk chords and horrible, horrible Engrish interspersed with the Japanese lyrics. (Stig's note: One of my biggest pet peeves in Japanese music.) The actual insert songs, aside from being amusingly named ("My Love Is a Paper Clip"), are rather asinine. As in "decently played, but with lyrics that kind of gets the eyes rolling" - although in all fairness, that's at least somewhat realistic in light of the girls starting out as amateurs and all. The voice acting is serviceable, which might have something to do with the VA's being mostly new talent (save Asami Sanada as Sawako).
If watching K-On! was the equivalent of going to an actual concert, then it would be one of the most disappointing concerts you'd ever go to. You'd start off with a large amount of anticipation, until you realize that you paid a lot of money for a place at the back of the stadium. And before you know it, it's over. All you got to see were the people in front of you, all of who were taller than you (and most of them carrying their girlfriends on their shoulders). And just to add insult to injury, the music wasn't much to get excited about anyway. The first half of K-On! is okay, but it's in the middle of the show that the warning signs become too loud to ignore, and your only hope is pretty much going to hinge on whether you at least meet some cute girls there.
It just goes further downhill from there, selling out to otaku pandering in a way that makes Haruhi's look subtle. And that's too bad, because if the characters were fleshed out more, and the musical segments actually had animation in them (or that they had more to do with actual music, or playing at all), K-On! could've been another winner for Kyoto Animation. Unfortunately, the only parts we even remotely enjoyed were the small moments inbetween all the boring craziness, mainly in the way of Yui's charming relationship with her younger sister, which is delightfully similar to Tenma and Yakumo's sisterly love in School Rumble. (Or, if we're sticking to KyoAni shows, the various family relationships in Kanon or Clannad.) These are the moments when K-On! manages to raise smiles, if not necessarily laughter. But as a whole, it just doesn't work as a music show of the "ganbatte" type, and as a comedy even less so.
...well, okay. That was fairly amusing, too.
Recommended Audience: Teenagers and up, due to Sawako's antics and some (pointless) scenes of fan service.
Version(s) Viewed: Pre-license fansub
Review Status: Full (13/13)
K-On! © 2009 Kakifly / Hobunsha / Light Music Club Production Committe
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