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K-On is my favorite anime series of all time, and there’s no quick answer as to why. I like to tell people it’s because the show is “dense,” which is another way of saying that I’ll be talking for two hours before I can get to the heart of the matter; but considering I’ve dedicated that much time to breaking down my least favorite anime ever, it’s probably good for my health that I do the same for my most favorite as well.
It’s difficult to simply explain the appeal of K-On, because so much of that appeal has to do with the personal relationship which the viewer forms with the show along its run. K-On is a show that progressively gets better the more of it you watch, not only in the sense that season two is a lot better than season one, but in that season one is more enjoyable if you’ve already seen the show in its entirety.
The most popular misconception about K-On is that it lacks a narrative, and that could not be further from the truth. On a moment to moment basis, K-On is mostly a comedy show about five girls and their friends having fun and cracking jokes, but there’s a very clear narrative arc across the entire series and tons of growth on the part of every character–which is all stuff that you can only appreciate by watching the series all the way through. While it may seem like one at first, K-On is NOT an episodic series–it is a sequence of events with a logical progression which reaches an eventual conclusion, and as such should be considered a cohesive work in the same way that one might consider a film or book. Following this logic, I think the best way to explain what makes the series great is to start from the beginning.
What I love about the first episode of K-On is that you cannot possibly understand the full appeal of K-On by watching the first episode. You do, however, get a taste of the basics: it’s a cute little show full of cute little marshmallowy girls, with a light color pallet, light music (which is the name of the show), and a relaxed sense of pacing. Even the voice acting (by a cast whom, at the time, was comprised of totally new actresses), is pretty on point right from the start.
Often overlooked about this episode and the series on the whole, is the incredible attention to detail. Yui’s room looks like a real room that Yui really lives in. It tells a story all on its own about what kind of person she is and what kind of life she has. Most of the locations in K-On were directly based on real places, such as the school–the real world equivalent of which has become a tourist location thanks to the show. Because of all these details, the world feels real, alive, and storied.
It’s easy to buy into the keyfabe of K-On. When I’m watching it, I don’t think of it as a story which someone wrote, or a cartoon which a team of people made–it feels like it’s actually unfolding before my eyes. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but my point is that seeing characters who wear outfits that I could see real girls wearing, or seeing a room that looks like the character was the one who made it look that way, creates a deep sense of immersion, which is what allows me to buy into the idea that these characters really exist inside of this world.
But anyways, returning to what I said before, while there’s a lot to like about K-On right from the beginning, it is nonetheless impossible to understand the full appeal of the series at this point–and that is completely intentional. As viewers, our experience of this episode is equivalent to what Yui experiences in signing up for the light music club. We’re not really sure if we want to get involved with something like this, or if it fits our self-image. We don’t know any of these characters or have much of a reason to care, so we’re just kind of shy around them. Remember, by the end of the first episode, Yui still has no idea what the light music club is really like, and is kind of ready to bail on the whole thing.
Even if we do enjoy this episode right off the bat, it’s important that we share Yui’s lack of understanding of how this situation is going to play out or who these characters are, because the narrative of season one is dependent on Yui learning about these people and finding a place within this group. That’s not to say that Yui is necessarily an audience stand-in, or even necessarily the main character, as I think it’s equally important that we discover her true nature as the season goes along; but the experience of getting to know these characters and how they interact with one-another is itself the narrative of K-On. That’s why I said before that the appeal is dependent on the relationship which the viewer develops with the show; it’s only through experiencing first-hand how all of these character form their relationships with one-another that we can completely understand those relationships–and it’s because of that experience that the later episodes feel so emotional and meaningful.
We don’t learn very much about any of the main characters in episode one, and next to nothing about how they interact with one-another. At most, we can tell that Mio and Ritsu are long-time friends, and that Ritsu is more headstrong and energetic but also a bit of a troublemaker, whom Mio has to reign in, even as she gets dragged along in Ritsu’s plans. We vaguely understand that Tsumugi comes from a very different background and perspective, through her mannerisms, the fact that she’s never eaten fast food before, and her suggestion that they bribe a student by buying them a car or a summer home. Yui, meanwhile, is clumsy, dense, and empty of thought. She’s never had anything to do with herself, so she spends her off-time laying around; but now that she’s in high school, she feels guilty and wants to do something.
Each of these characters has a unique reason for joining the light music club. Ritsu wants to form a rock band because she was inspired by a concert she saw on TV; Mio gets dragged along because of Ritsu’s persistence, and the fact that she promised she’d form a band years ago; Mugi joins because she admires Ritsu and Mio’s relationship; and Yui joins because she expects the club activity to be easy. What’s important to realize about all of this, is that none of these motivations are what keep this club going in the long run. Not only will each of these characters change in personality as the series goes along, but form a much stronger attachment to their places in this club, to the point that their original intentions have nothing to do with why any of them are there anymore.
This whole sense of not knowing who these people are, how they interact, or what the light music club really is, all comes through in their first performance. None of their parts synch up very well, with Ritsu rushing on drums, and Mugi and Mio being slightly out-of-time with one-another. It’s clear that they each have some talent at their instruments, but they don’t sound like they’ve learned how one-another plays or developed any chemistry; plus, obviously, they don’t even have all of their members yet. This song represents the current state of the both the club and the show itself–a state in which each disparate element shows potential, but nothing is yet cohesive or noteworthy.
Episode two is where the true appeal of K-On begins to bleed through, and the series starts to make its intentions clear. It opens with Yui sharing her observations of each of the other club members so far. We learn that Mio is extremely shy and sensitive, Ritsu is kind of shallow, and Tsumugi is wealthy to the point of abnormality. In this opening scene, Ritsu, Mio, and Tsumugi kind of walk on eggshells around Yui because they want to keep her placated. They offer her sweets any time they come close to offending her, and are desperate to appease her whims to keep her going. In the following scenes, we also learn more of just how airheaded Yui is, and how she relies on others such as her sister to get by.
As we jump into the episode’s midsection, the dynamic of these characters slowly begins to shift. It starts when the girls are on their way to the music store, but Yui gets distracted and they end up messing around in various stores along the way. This is the first time the girls get to hang out with no pretenses regarding club activity, and we get our first hints of how each of them would react and interact when put into various situations.
However, it’s during the scene in which the girls work as traffic surveyors, that the show really starts putting effort into both distinguishing and unifying them as characters. When Yui and Mugi are paired up, we see how Mugi is capable of hyper-concentration, while Yui is easily bored. Ritsu gets lost in the rhythm of her car counter, and Mio starts thinking about the time signatures of the beat Ritsu is playing before she tells Ritsu to do her job correctly. When Mugi and Mio are together, both of them are working hard, while Ritsu and Yui are slacking off. At the end, all of them are afflicted with some level of occupational illness.
Something K-On does better than any other show I’ve ever seen, is making all of the characters feel at once distinct from one-another, yet never making me question the idea that all of them are friends. Each two-by-two pairing of the characters works on its own, and they also work as one group. They experience things similarly enough that they all feel the same way, even though they interact with things in such different capacities. By the end of this episode, we start to develop a sense of what a Ritsu and Yui scene or a Mugi and Yui scene might feel like, and how they compare with one-another.
We also first begin to sense the passions of these characters. Mugi we learn has been playing piano since she was four years old, and is sort of naturally talented at it. As the show goes on, we’ll see how Mugi is perhaps the character who most uses music as a means to the ends of hanging out with the other girls, as opposed to a real passion. On the other hand, we see how Mio spent a long period of deliberation deciding which bass guitar she wanted, and how Ritsu fought to be able to afford her used drum kit. We get the sense that these two really care about music, whereas Yui doesn’t even seem to understand how a guitar and the concept of music are correlated. Her first reaction to buying one of the nicest and most famous guitars in existence, is to pose in the mirror, practice signing autographs, and take it to bed with her.
There are other take-aways from this episode as well, like how between Ritsu’s bargaining scene and the fact that she not only knows how to job hunt, but at one point is filling out contest forms to try and win a guitar, gives us the sense that she probably comes from a low-income household; putting her in the opposite position of Tsumugi, whose father turns out to own the music store.
Most important to this episode however, is the way the dynamic changes between Yui and the rest of the group towards the end. As Yui realizes how much work everyone is putting in on her behalf, she recognizes how selfish she’s been and decides to buy a cheaper guitar so that she can start practicing as soon as possible. Ultimately, Yui doesn’t have to make that sacrifice since Mugi gets her a discount on the guitar she wants, but the lesson sticks. The last scene utilizes a clever reincorporation, in which Ritsu offends Yui, and then Mugi offers her a snack to placate her; but Yui then expresses her newfound drive to be a real member of the club, thus unifying them at last.
Having heard that, you might be thinking, “wow, K-On had meaningful character development and clever writing tricks such as unforeseen reincorporation as early as episode two. So why do so many people say there’s no plot in K-On?” Well, that’s the funny thing about it–K-On is really subtle about its progression. Yui doesn’t directly explain that she’s been selfish, nor does anyone point out at the end the change in Yui’s reaction to being offered sweets. It’s something you have to pick up on yourself, and most of the people who wrote off K-On as being a show about nothing wouldn’t notice those kinds of subtleties.
K-On is a show that a lot of people judged by its cover at the time that it came out. Most expected it to be Lucky Star 2.0, because it was once again based on a 4-panel comic about high school girls, and once again was being animated by Kyoto Animation. This was also at a time when shows about groups of high school girls sitting around doing nothing were becoming more and more frequent, and a lot of anime fans didn’t like that. K-On was lumped in with every other show that had similar elements, and the things which set it apart weren’t readily apparent from the beginning. The kinds of people who were ready to write off K-On as a moeblob show weren’t going to notice the subtleties–and in fairness, I didn’t notice them at the time either. I’d wager that even a lot of fans of K-On just liked it on the basis of it being a cute show, without noticing the subtleties themselves. Remember, K-On is a show that gets better the more of it you watch, and I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who expected it to get as good as it does in season two from as early a point as episode two.
Episode three is where the humor and characterization of the series finally begins to calcify. Yui is shown to be a lot more confident and friendly in her interactions, making lots of physical contact and cracking jokes, sometimes even at Ritsu’s expense. Ritsu meanwhile seems out to prove herself as an A+ comedic character scene after scene.
At first glance, this episode seems like a one-off story, and might leave the impression that K-On really is an episodic series; but once again, it’s a case in which you can appreciate the relevance of the episode more when you know where the series is going.
The point of this episode is to establish Yui as a sort of idiot savant. We see that she can learn guitar chords with impressive speed, but at the cost of losing out on her studies. With an upcoming midterm exam, her friends help her to focus on said studies, and in the end she earns a perfect score on the exam, only to forget all of the guitar chords.
When this episode came out, some people considered it unrealistic that Yui scored 100% on the test–but that was kind of the point. Yui is not a normal person. She has in incredible capacity for memorization, but is only capable of applying it to one subject at a time. This episode further develops Yui’s younger sister Ui and her best friend Nodoka-chan, and we get the sense that Yui’s been getting by in life through a combination of being surrounded by far more responsible people, and having this incredible talent for memorization. After all, there had to be a reason she was able to make it into the same high school as the other girls, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Yui has pulled scores like this out of her ass before with Nodoka’s help.
Yui’s talent for memorization isn’t just a one-off joke, but an important part of her character going forward. By the time she learns to play notes on her guitar, we’ll discover that Yui has perfect pitch, which in combination with her memorization skills makes her able to play pretty much anything she hears, which is going to be important later. Are Yui’s incredible powers of memorization and perfect pitch normal attributes for people to have? Of course not. But they are real things that real people can do in rare cases, and Yui is portrayed perfectly as one such case. These aspects of her character aren’t just being played up for a quick laugh, but are definitive parts of her nature, which we’ll get to know as the series progresses.
In the interest of keeping this post from getting too repetitive, from here on out I’m going to focus just on the broad strokes of what each episode brings to the table. You can pretty much take it for granted that every episode from here on out is going to deepen the relationships between the main characters, flesh out their chemistry and comedy as a group, and subtly teach us new things about their personalities. By now, I should have given you the tools to watch this series with a more open mind and detect what kind of subtleties it employs just by watching it and paying attention. Mostly what I want to do from here on out is to chronicle how the story progresses from episode to episode; not only in the interest of proving the narrative significance of each episode, but to eventually show how the ending is the most logical place at which the story could arrive, given all that came before.
The thematic purpose of episode four is to express Mio’s frustration at the realization that the light music club isn’t capable of performing at the level of the club that came before–but then ultimately to come to the realization that spending time with the other girls is an enriching experience in itself. Once again, this is not expressed verbally, but instead through imagery and tone. All throughout the episode, Mio is trying to force the other girls to work with her, but is continually dragged into their insistent dicking around. Only after she sees Yui backlit by fireworks does she realize just how much she values the time spent with these friends, and ultimately decides to play for them the song which had inspired this trip in the first place.
All of this is massively important, because it sets the tone for what this series is really about. K-On is the story of how each of these girls finds their place in the light music club, more so than it is about the actual performance of light music; and it’s crucial that the one character who takes herself seriously and would stop to question what she’s doing with her life is the first to completely understand this.
K-On is incredibly slow-paced, but that’s because the series is meant to reflect the pacing of actual human life. Anyone who’s been in a band when they were in high school, knows that progress moves incredibly slowly, and for most people it ends up being more of a pretense to hang out with friends than anything else. I would know–I spent the last two years of high school, and a year or two in college trying to establish a band with some of my musically talented friends, and nothing ever gelled out of it. We’d set out with the intentions of practicing or songwriting, and end up watching movies or just singing along to other music.
It’s not so much that K-On doesn’t take its musical element seriously, as it is that the story K-On wants to tell is of how these band members come together on a human level, more so than on the level of what they may or may not accomplish musically. It’s the story of Houkago Tea Time the people, not Houkago Tea Time the band–a hyper-detailed “behind the music” documentary as opposed to the story of how their album came together. Anyways, I’ll get into all of this more later, but for now let’s move on to the next episode.
Episode five mostly serves to push the plot forward as we approach the club’s first performance at the cultural festival. They find an advisor in Sawako-sensei, the image-obsessed and legitimately skilled guitarist of the light music club eight years prior. Most of Sawako’s development doesn’t come until season two, but for now she serves as the first person to take a critical eye to the group’s performance as a band, as well as to start properly whipping them into shape. She takes Yui away for personal training and improves her skills massively, which brings our group up to a speed that may yet be ready for real performance.
In episode six, we get our first glimpse of where K-On is really going, and for the first time, all of the tiny moving parts cohere into something whole. Whereas the series up to this point has been characterized by punctuations of high-quality animation in-between bouts of decent to mediocre character art, this episode is more consistently on-point, with more on-model and high-detail shots, as well as much more background detail thanks to the cultural festival. I’d also say that by this point, the show’s masterful comedic timing is pretty much down pat, though really I could’ve said the same about the last two episodes.
This also gives me the opportunity to comment on the voice acting, which is one of the most crucial elements of what puts this show on top of my favorites list, but also the hardest to talk about. Not only is it difficult to describe what makes a good voice performance, especially when a lot of it has to do with what sounds pleasant to the individual, but my Japanese comprehension is lackluster at best, so I feel awkward about commenting on Japanese performances. Nonetheless, I do believe that the voice work in K-On is top notch, and in particular, Toyosaki Aki’s performance of Hirasawa Yui and Sato Satomi’s performance of Tainaka Ritsu are my favorites in all of anime.
What makes these performances stand out to me is the level of versatility which each actress bring to their role. In real life, people’s voices tend not to sound exactly the same all of the time, especially people who like to crack jokes. People throw their voice, or morph it when they’re around different people, or when saying certain things and conveying certain tones, and Sato and Toyosaki both nail that versatility in their acting perfectly. Consider that both of these actresses are not just performing a variety of voices, but doing so while maintaining their characters. When Ritsu does the sumo voice, it’s not just Sato doing a sumo voice, but Sato doing Ritsu’s voice doing a sumo voice. I chose this episode in particular to talk about the voice acting because throughout the entire episode, Yui’s voice has been wrecked from her training with Sawa-chan-sensei, and Toyosaki nails it the whole way through, even when she’s doing backup vocals during the live show.
At the start of the club’s performance, we get a sense that these characters have already come a long way–especially Mio, who is capable of singing on stage with these friends at her back, and Yui, who’s progressed as a guitarist enough to perform at all. In lieu of actually watching the concert, we’re given a cool little music video which uses hyper-saturated images and iconography to convey a certain 90s MTV look. This scene was most likely handled this way so that the last concert at the end of the season would have more impact, but luckily it gives me the opportunity to talk about the ending theme.
K-On’s ending theme is absolutely legendary, and for good reason. I mean, look at it! It’s a legit music video–a high-quality one at that, with music that kicks enough ass to justify it. This wasn’t necessarily the first ending theme in anime to go for a music video look, but it was far and away the best, and the costume designs alone were enough to make it hugely popular. My favorite part is the listless sighs of the characters, as they seem to deliberately avoid eye contact with the camera and look off into space. It’s stylish, fashionable in the high fashion sense, and pumped up with enough pop appeal to make it a real classic in its own right.
After the performance, Mio trips over an amp chord and accidentally exposes her panties to the audience. In any other show, this would probably have been played up for fanservice, but K-On deliberately subverts that expectation by turning it into a joke, and that leads us perfectly into a discussion of the fanservice in K-On–or rather, the lack thereof.
When K-On was first released, a lot of the conversation surrounding the show painted it as a moeblob show aimed squarely at an otaku, most likely young-adult male audience–and that assessment was totally fair at the time. The original manga was written by a man and published in a magazine aimed at young-adult males. Kyoto Animation had at this point most famously been responsible for the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which had tons of fanservice, and Lucky Star which, while light on fanservice, was very clearly geared towards otaku audiences. They’d also produced anime adaptations of Air and Kanon which, while not overtly fanservicey in the anime versions, were originally visual novels with sexual content in them. Given all of this evidence, there was no reason to think that K-On wouldn’t be aimed at a young-adult male otaku audience, so it wasn’t surprising when a lot of early writing about the series went out of its way to try and describe it as a moeblob fanservice show. However, I firmly believe that this is a case in which hindsight and context change everything.
For one thing, the minute you divorce yourself from the mode of thinking that K-On is aimed at otaku audiences, it becomes clear that K-On doesn’t have any fanservice at all. It’s a super-adorable show for sure, but there’s nothing about it that seems geared towards men specifically, or any kind of sexualization whatsoever. You could say that it’s trying to be moe with all of its cute moments, but I’d wager that pretty much anyone who likes cute things would have an easy time getting into K-On. You could show this series to literally anyone, and I doubt they’d find any of the content to be objectionable; except for maaaaybe Sawa-chan-sensei’s actions, which are more or less supposed to be objectionable.
The proof of this is right there in the pudding: whether or not K-On was deliberately aimed at young-adult men, the series was a huge success outside of that demographic. I’ve heard a friend who worked as middle-school teacher in Japan talk about how his female students recognized the characters from keychains that he carried around; and I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds of female K-On cosplayers at Otakon and in youtube videos over the years; and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the girls in K-On are portrayed realistically.
You might be thinking, “bullshit, those do not look like real girls, their faces are weird and they’re made of marshmallows, what are you talking about,” but hear me out. For starters, the girls in K-On are a little bit thicker than what you might expect from anime characters, and they aren’t all the same thickness either. Tsumugi and Nodoka are clearly portrayed as thicker than the other girls, whereas Mio is on all accounts described by characters within the show as abnormally beautiful. If you’re like me, and you hate it when everyone in a show describes one character as beautiful even though all of the characters are clearly attractive, then you’ll appreciate the fact that in this show, Mio is legitimately the only one who’s classically pretty.
Moreover, let’s look at the outfits. First off, in most shots, the skirts on the school uniforms actually appear to go past the characters’ fingers, which is regulation length in Japanese schools and incredibly rare in anime. The outfits that the characters wear on stage or in the ending theme are very cute–and I mean that in the way that a girl would describe an outfit she’s about to buy as, “very cute;” not in the way that an otaku is describing something he wants on a dakimakura cover. The outfits are legit cute in this show, from the street clothes to the pajamas; and what’s more, the characters themselves find one-another and their outfits to be cute.
Yes, there are scenes at the beach in which the characters all wear two-piece swimsuits, and guess what? When real girls go to the beach, they also wear two-piece swimsuits–preferably cute ones, like the ones these characters wear. What I’m saying is that at no point do the characters wear any outfits which you wouldn’t be able to imagine a real high school girl wearing, or which appear to exist for the gratification of a male audience.
There are moments in K-On which could be taken as fanservice, such as this one shot in which Mio’s breasts are shown as well-defined, but the reason for this shot is that Yui and Ritsu are noticing Mio’s impressive bust size, which is not an abnormal thing for a close friend to comment on. It is because of this scene that I’d now like to go into full hipster journalist mode and make up a bunch of phrases in order to define the different kinds of fanservice as I see them.
Fanservice moments can be broken down into two large categories: diegetic and non-diegetic. Non-diegetic refers to fanservice that has nothing to do with the events that are actually going on in the story, and is solely experienced by the audience. For instance, when the camera randomly pans across Shinon’s ass in Sword Art Online 2, those shots don’t affect the narrative in any way–they are simply the lens through which the narrative is being presented to the viewer. This is arguably the trashiest kind of fanservice, because it means that a scene which didn’t necessarily need to contain any fanservice was given some solely in the name of appealing to the audience.
Diegetic fanservice can then be broken down into two subcategories–immersive and non-immersive. Immersive fanservice is when a situation contains fanservice simply by way of the nature of the scene. For instance, the scene of Yui and Ritsu pointing out Mio’s boobs is completely in-line with their characterization and feels natural in the context of the scene, but could still be taken as fanservice simply by virtue of the fact that a lot of people are going to enjoy seeing Mio’s boobs. Non-immersive fanservice then is when a show completely breaks away from what would seem to be natural in the context of the scene in order to deliver fanservice. This brand of fanservice is particularly obnoxious, because it cheapens the overall impact of the story when you can tell that a scene exists for no purpose other than for the author to gratify the audience. I would argue that the closest things K-On has to this are when Sawa-chan forces the girls into cute outfits, though again I don’t think that any of the outfits she makes them wear are explicitly oriented towards male gratification.
Now, what I’m about to say could be taken the wrong way, so allow me to clarify up-front. I am well aware that a significant number of the raunchiest, most sexually-charged anime and manga around were created by women, and that some of the same staff who worked on K-On were also involved in shows like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kyoto Animation is known to have an abnormally high female-to-male ratio of staff members, nor that the Director, Writer, Animation Directors, Character Designer, and a lot of the leading Key Animators who worked on K-On, were all women.
It’s no coincidence either that from this series onwards, Kyoto Animation shows had a tendency towards minimal fanservice, with the exception of the manservice extravaganza Free. Even the currently-running Amagi Brilliant Park, which has a lot of fanservice moments written directly into the narrative, seems to be almost ashamed of itself, with shots that last only a split-second, or deliberately downplay the amount of service that the scene seems intended to convey. One of the KyoAni staff members has even been quoted as saying that the studio considers it important that they treat their characters with respect as real people and thus, they don’t like to include a lot of fanservice in their shows.
Yes, K-On is a show that is enjoyed by a very large number of young-adult male otaku, but I think it’s reductive to suggest that the show was made for that audience specifically, or to suggest that that audience only enjoys it as moeblob fanservice. K-On is a series with both a massive number of female staff members as well as a massive number of female fans, which are the cause and effect of the show’s deliberate attempt to portray believable, well-rounded female characters with all of the respect that they would deserve as human beings.
Anyways, episode seven mostly serves as a rest period in-between arcs with a focus on character interactions, mostly between Ui and Yui. Noteworthy here is that the production values have jumped up once again to a much higher level of consistency.
Episode eight kicks off the second arc of the series, which is a lot more clearly defined than the first one. Not only does this arc serve as the introductory period for the new band member, Azusa, but it presents both the girls and the viewer with a question which will take a few episodes to fully answer. Early on, when the girls are trying to think of ways to appeal to the new freshmen, Tsumugi asks, “what is the appeal of our club?,” and no one comes up with anything. It’s important to us as viewers that the name of the show and the name of the club are one and the same, since Tsumugi is literally asking, “what is the appeal of keion?”
Later in the episode, Ui asks Yui the same question, and Yui answers that, “it’s just fun.” The fact that this answer comes first, and that it isn’t the last answer we’ll be given in the course of this arc, is imperative. On the most basic level, K-On is indeed fun. If you asked a lot of the show’s fans what the appeal is, they’ll probably give you the exact same answer, and that’s fine. But the show is as interested in diving a little bit deeper into that as I am.
What episode eight mostly serves to show us is how strange and insular the light music club has gotten to be over the first year of its existence. The personality quirks which the four girls and their teacher all take for granted end up alienating the new freshmen, who see them as a weird and incomprehensible little clique. And they’re basically right to think that–it would be incredibly hard to break into a group this tightly-knit. But when Azusa sees the group performing on stage, she can feel the raw energy that their togetherness lends to their performance, even if she doesn’t understand yet what the cause of that energy is.
Episode nine is our proper introduction to the fifth band member, Nakano Azusa, and mostly takes place from her perspective. Unlike the other girls, Azusa is a serious guitarist who wants to be in a serious band, and most of the episode is about her trying to reconcile the awesome performance that the light music club put on at the freshman welcoming ceremony against the unmotivated idiots that they seem to be.
This episode is almost uncomfortable to watch, as it comically plays up all of the characters’ worst attributes–and once again, it’s doing that on purpose. At this point, we’ve gotten used to the rhythm of the main group’s interactions; but this episode seeks to show us how off-putting and uncomfortable it would be as a newly inducted outsider. We feel Azusa’s frustration and anger not only at the group for slacking off so much, but at herself for admiring them in spite of it all. Azusa makes us feel guilty for having gotten used to the way these characters act, by reminding us how dumb they can really be.
Yet along the way, Azusa can’t seem to tear herself away from them. She can’t even decide whether or not she likes them as people; they seem nice enough, but are ultimately a bunch of disappointments in terms of work ethic. However, she looks at other bands and just doesn’t see in them what she saw in the club’s performance, so she seeks answers from Mio as the only seemingly sane member of the group.
Remember, back in episode four, Mio was the first one to get frustrated with the club’s lack of ambition, and in the end she was able to realize the value of just having the other girls as friends. It fits perfectly, then, that Mio is the one who can best express what the REAL appeal of K-On is. Not necessarily that they’re a great band, but that she loves being a part of a band with these members. This, ultimately, is the appeal of the show–the experience of following the lives and interactions of these specific characters.
And once again, I think it’s understandable if this appeal doesn’t yet resonate with the audience on a very deep level. We’ve come far enough to understand the appeal of K-On, but perhaps not far enough to legitimately feel it. K-On is a show that gets better the more of it you watch, and we’re only about a fourth of the way through so far. Consider this like the difference between having read a Wikipedia article on something versus having read all of the sources: we get the basic gist of what makes K-On good now, but we don’t have a full grasp of it yet.
Episode ten puts the girls into yet another training camp scenario, and mostly treads a lot of the same grounds as episodes four and nine. It culminates in Azusa essentially learning the same lesson that Mio did before, but more by gradually coming to accept the others as friends instead of being hit by a blunt revelation. You’ll notice there’s a common trend throughout this series of the characters growing closer in big ways whenever they’re taken away from the school setting, and I’ll talk about that a lot more once we get into season two. This episode also establishes the beginning of Yui and Azusa’s relationship as guitarists who learn from and admire one-another, which will also be a bigger deal in season two.
With episode eleven, K-On is nearly operating at full capacity. Azusa has become a fully integrated member of the group, and we get our first big interpersonal conflict that isn’t directly related to the club’s activities. Ritsu’s jealousy and anger towards Mio is portrayed in a unique and interesting fashion, with the nature of the conflict never being stated outright by any of the characters at any point, even when it’s over. Everything is communicated by actions and expressions, which is pretty damn cool–but even cooler is the complexity of the problem.
There isn’t any one direct cause of the conflict, but more of a boiling over from various tensions. Mio and Ritsu are both somewhat stressed over the upcoming concert, and Ritsu, as we learn later, is starting to come down with a fever. Mio gets angry with Ritsu first, because Ritsu fails to understand how important the lefty fair is to her, or why she might be upset with Ritsu for dragging her away, especially when Mio has to put up with Ritsu’s indulgences all the time.
Ritsu seems to know that she’s done something wrong, but is too stubborn to admit it. She blames Mio’s growing relationship with Nodoka–which is downright selfish considering that Mio just wants to be friends with the one person that she knows in her class. Mio is too angry and Ritsu is too stubborn for either of them to be straight with one-another, and since the other girls and their idiot teacher don’t really understand the nature of the conflict, they don’t know how to intervene. In the end though, when it gets to the point that Ritsu is in bed sick, both of them realize that they’ve basically just been buckling under stress and stubbornness, and they remind one-another that in the end, they are still best friends. It’s adorable.
K-On might be the only show that could pull off this conflict without making it too melodramatic, and without having the reconciliation feel too hammy, while still communicating that these characters had a conflict and made up over it in the end. The situation is just complex enough, and the characters communicate in realistic enough ways, that all of it feels completely natural; and that feeling is one of K-On’s biggest specialties.
Episode twelve is the climax of the first season, and I can’t finish it without bursting into tears. Seriously, I watched it twice leading up to writing this post, and I lost my shit completely both times. It tells of the period leading up to the club’s second big cultural festival performance, as well as showing the performance itself. If this series could be said to have been made with a mission statement in mind, then this episode spells out what that statement is.
The conflict revolves around the possibility that Yui won’t be able to perform on stage because of the cold she picked up from Ritsu at the end of the last episode. At first, this mostly leads to hijinks, as Ui tries to pose as a stand-in for Yui, and Yui tries to practice sick; but it becomes more dramatic as the group has to decide whether or not it would be worth it to perform without Yui. Azusa is the most concerned, and cries out that it’s meaningless for them to go on-stage without her, which is particularly powerful when we think back on the arc she’s had.
Remember that Azusa was only able to understand the appeal of the light music club when Mio explained that she enjoyed being in this band because it has these members. Azusa has learned to attribute the group’s amazing live performances to the fact that they work so well together, and had this idea reinforced in the previous episode when she was watching the last cultural festival performance on DVD. Azusa still hasn’t gotten to perform with this group yet, and both her desire to be a part of the magic she saw on stage at the freshmen ceremony, as well as her own desire to perform with this group as a friend, is tearing away at her now.
In the end, Yui gets over her cold in time, but ends up having to miss the first song of the performance while she runs home to get her guitar. All throughout this episode, and really the entire season, Ui and Nodoka have been talking about how much Yui can get into something when she really sets her mind to it, and how only now that she’s a member of this club has she really been able to put that single-minded tenacity to good use. As Yui leaves the house, the scene from episode one in which she tripped and busted her ass is reincorporated–only this time, she doesn’t fall down; plus she isn’t distracted by anything while running down the street like she was before.
As Yui makes this run, to the soundtrack of her friends’ performance, she remembers how scared she was back at the start of the season that she wouldn’t find her place or figure out what to do with her life. She tells her past self not to be afraid, because at long last, she’s found a sense of belonging in the light music club.
If Kyoto Animation has one big specialty, it’s making emotional scenes through detailed animation and music. When K-On first came out, a lot of people joked that the series was one big expansion on the famous musical performance from the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. That scene had been famously emotional because of how the visually accurate musicianship, emotional facial expressions, and generally awesome music had culminated into something which felt raw and alive.
All throughout its run, whenever K-On shows a character playing their instrument, it’s always presented with technical accuracy. However, up until this point we’ve only seen it in bits and pieces. Performances usually feature frequent cutaways, or are replaced with music videos, or we see the face of the person hearing the music instead of seeing the performance. Only here at the end of the season do we get lots of uninterrupted shots of the characters performing accurately: growing passionate, breaking into a sweat, and generally exhibiting a whole range of emotions on stage.
Yui arrives on the scene in glorious fashion, and breaks into tears at the realization of the burden she’s been–not because she’s ashamed of herself, so much as because she’s only now truly realized the gravity of how much she cares about these friends, and how badly she wants to repay everything they’ve given her. Yui tries emotionally to communicate these feelings to the audience; and despite her odd manner of speaking, she gets the emotions across. She even boldly states that this auditorium right here: THIS is their Budokan–the pinnacle of what they wanted to reach. Remember, K-On isn’t a show about Houkago Tea Time the band, but about Houkago Tea Time the people–and for this group, coming together in this place to perform as a unit puts them at the height of interpersonal connection.
The second performance of Fuwa Fuwa Time is even more emotional than anything before, as we see not only the girls in full force, but images of all the places that brought them here. And when it’s over, and everyone starts playing again, we get the incredibly powerful image of the five girls all facing one-another while they play. Even as they’re sharing this feeling with the audience, they’re more importantly experiencing it together, and… fuck I’m actually crying just thinking about it, I need to go sit down.
Episode thirteen is somewhat confusing, because it’s considered an “extra” episode, even though it aired along with the rest of the season. Once again the production quality makes a leap in consistency, putting it closer to what the show looks like for most of season two. Story-wise, this episode takes it slow by separating all of the girls and putting them in casual day-to-day scenarios. Towards the end, some of their days are doing downhill, but simply being able to spend time with the others quickly abates all of their worries, showing once again how this group operates best as a unit.
The K-On Live House OVA was released with the last disc of season one on blu-ray, and is definitely something special. By invitation of one of Ritsu’s friends, the girls get the opportunity to open for a live show. Kyoto Animation definitely went out of their way to make sure that the location and the setup leading up to the performance was as accurate as possible, which I appreciated as someone who’s been to a lot of live shows.
Each of the bands performing with them is another all-girls group–one in the high school age range, and the other more likely in college; but both with a much stronger sense of image and purpose. Meeting these bands and being in this situation is at once frightening and enlightening for the girls, as they get a look at what it means for a band to take themselves seriously and work ambitiously. At first they feel distant from all of this; like children getting a glimpse at what it means to be adult. However, they gradually develop a sense of kinship with the other bands, and, upon realizing how important this live show is to everyone, try tightening up their game.
Perhaps the most important realization is had by Mio, as she observes that it is only because Yui was willing to talk to the other bands, and because Mugi was willing to offer them tea, that all of them were able to get to know one-another. I would add in that Ritsu was able to get them the gig to begin with, and that Mio and Azusa were able to hold this group together with their sense of responsibility all this time. What Mio realizes isn’t just that each of the members of this group contributes something to the whole, but that all of them are turning into better people by way of being around one-another. Mio would never have spoken to the other bands on her own, but because of her friends, she gets to experience something valuable and inspirational to her own development as a person. Just by being together, these five girls are filling in the blanks in one-another’s personalities to create more complete persons; all of them progressing handily towards adulthood.
And that, my friends, brings us to the end of the first season of K-On. By now, you should have a pretty good grasp of what makes this show appealing, what it’s trying to accomplish narratively, and where it might be going from here on out. Knowing all of this, it might not be so surprising to learn that K-On was an insanely massive success at the time that it came out. It beat the previous record-setting blu-ray sales of Bakemonogatari to become the best-selling TV anime of all time in Japan, and the amount of merchandise to come out of the show cannot possibly be overstated. There are few anime out there with more product tie-ins than K-On, and the impact was far-reaching. While K-On wasn’t nearly as big of a hit nor as critically acclaimed among Western anime fans, it is nonetheless very popular and well-known, even if it’s a lot more divisive here. The first season actually got an English dub by Animax Asia and was broadcast in other Asian countries before it made it to the US and UK and got another dub here.
My motivations for making this video have not only been to share my opinions on my favorite anime series of all time, but also to offer some perspective. K-On’s reputation is so divisive in the Western anime scene, that I’ve talked to some people who think everyone loves it, and some who think everyone hates it. I’d gotten so used to seeing constant K-on love threads on 4chan’s anime board over the years that I’d honestly forgotten that K-On wasn’t universally acclaimed, until I started talking about it in my videos and getting a lot of weird looks. I guess what I’m saying is, you don’t have to take my word for it. K-On is widely appreciated around the world; and if you bring it up in most anime communities, you’ll see fans pouring out of the woodwork. Even if not all of those fans can easily put into words what makes the show special, I’d like to think that I’ve helped to explain the appeal in as much detail as possible.
But of course, we’re not done yet; not even halfway! There’s a twenty-six episode second season, another OVA, AND a movie that I haven’t even touched on yet, and as I’ve been saying again and again, K-On is a series that gets better the more of it you watch. But we’ll get to all of that next time, in Part Two.