K on! – The Ultimate Adaptation

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The Wicker Man is a 1973 cult-classic horror film which was largely well-received by critics, currently boasting a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 2006, the film received a remake starring Nicholas Cage which was absolutely panned, scoring a mere 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and mostly being remembered as a hilarious meme. Where this dichotomy in reception becomes really interesting, is in that 80% of the script for the remake is word-for-word the exact same as the original; making these films a perfect a case study in how execution is everything in filmmaking, and how nearly the exact same script in the hands of an incompetent staff can turn a classic film into a complete joke.

Likewise, any team with enough talent can elevate a mediocre piece of art into something incredible just by tweaking it in a few crucial ways and executing it flawlessly–and this is what happened when K-On was adapted into anime. Nearly 100% of what was present in the original K-On manga is also present in the anime adaptation–but the K-On manga SUUUUCKS; whereas the anime is considered, by anyone who knows what they’re talking about, to be a masterpiece. In this video I’m going to dissect how such a thing was possible.

In order to do this, I took the first episode of the K-On anime and re-cut it to contain only the stuff that’s present in the equivalent manga chapter. Not including the opening and ending songs or the next-episode preview, the original episode’s runtime was twenty minutes and thirty-nine seconds, whereas the re-cut version is only eight minutes and fifteen seconds; leaving a staggering twelve minutes and nineteen seconds of anime-original content–and that’s with me being extra generous and including the entire minute-long performance scene which is represented by just four soundless panels in the manga. This level of additional content is par for the course in the anime’s first season, with each episode adapting just one or two short chapters of the manga; but we’ll leave aside the additional content for now to focus on how the anime handles what’s already there even better than the original.

The biggest and most obvious leap in quality is in the artwork. The original manga’s character art is amazingly bland even by four-koma standards, and fairly lacking in expression. Compare Mio’s reaction to having her literature club application ripped up in the manga to what it is in the anime. She goes from almost disgusted shock, into anguish, and then into defeat in the span of a couple of seconds, with a series of expressions that look better than literally anything in the manga.

Further down the page, Mio is breathing heavily because Ritsu made her run through the halls, but her face is one of more general displeasure. If not for the little breath cloud and sound effects, it would be difficult to even tell that she’s supposed to be out of breath at all. Meanwhile, you can easily tell that from even a still frame of the anime, and even without the signposting.

This isn’t simply a matter of the anime having more aesthetically pleasing designs–it’s that the artists are outright more competent at drawing expressions. Whereas the manga displays a pretty limited range of expressions, and sometimes looks awkward when it tries to portray a new one, the anime is introducing new expressions constantly–some of which are downright iconic.

Compare the compositional strength of this image wherein Ritsu grabs onto Mio’s shoulder while holding her chin schemingly, against the same drawing from the manga. The distinctive curvature of her eyebrows, eyes, and mouth conveys much more of a unique personality in the anime–and I have to appreciate the attention to detail in her hand gesture, with the straightened pointer finger and slightly outpressed pinky finger forming a much more dynamic gesture than what the original did. I think you get the point–the character art is just way the hell better.

Even more impressive than the character art is that of the backgrounds, which are something of a specialty of Kyoto Animation. The studio is known for basing their shows in real-life locations, and filling them with oddly specific details that help them to feel like real places. We see this immediately in the opening hallway scene of this recut episode, with the spattering of half-opened classroom windows, the odd yellow semi-circles on the ground which have always stood out to me in particular, and the morning sunlight gently dressing the whole scene.

The original manga is almost entirely bereft of background art–and what little there is, is incredibly generic. This place could have just been any cookie cutter high school; there’s so little detail in it that they didn’t even bother putting any nameplates on the signage above the doors. Honestly, if you told me that these backgrounds were just stock template images, I would be inclined to believe you. The manga seems to avoid using them as much as it can anyways, favoring either simplistic shapes, or nothing at all. This is not atypical of four-koma manga, which are usually more focused on the gags in each strip, but honestly I don’t think the gags in this are strong enough to carry something so bland-looking.

Aside from that, there are plenty of obvious advantages that come from working in the animated medium as opposed to in manga, though each of those advantages only is one as long as the people making the show are capable of making it one. Adding in animation, color, sound effects, music, and voice acting, means adding in five different ways that a series can fuck up horribly. Not to mention, you have to completely rethink the timing of all the jokes to account for the speed of the voice acting and animation as opposed to the speed of a reader glancing across a page, which is something that I think murders a lot of gag manga adaptations.

Luckily, the team behind the K-On adaptation nailed every single thing as perfectly as they could have. Each animation is loaded with personality, and contributes something new to the joke than what was there already in the still images. One of my favorite moments in the first episode is when, after Yui tells Nodoka that she’s made up her mind about joining the light music club, and then Nodoka asks what they do, Yui responds with [“Saa~” – roll clip]. It’s a combination of Yui’s slight head tilt, vacant expression, and mouthful of food, coupled with the absolutely delightful delivery of the line by voice actress Toyosaki Aki that makes me laugh every time I see this. Not only does it have a lot more impact than the line has in the manga, but the lead-in for it is better too, with Yui making such a strange and unique hand gesture to announce her joining the club to Nodoka, which is straight-up absent from the same scene in the manga.

K-On has some obvious advantages in being animated over being on a page, given that the subject matter of the show revolves around music; so it adds a huge dimension to the series to actually be able to hear the characters’ performances–but Kyoto Animation goes so far above and beyond the call of duty with this aspect of the series that it’s ridiculous. Not only are all of the animations accurate to the music and to reality, but the music even sounds like it’s being performed live in the room, and by performers of the skill level which they’d have at to be to elicit the reaction that Yui has to their performance. Again, in the original manga, this first performance is conveyed in just four short panels for the sake of a quick punchline–in the anime, it’s more like a full-blown introduction to the musical personalities of the characters.

And that right there is the biggest difference between the anime and manga versions of K-On: personality. The manga barely imbues the characters with any of it at all, while a majority of the scenes that were added into the anime are dedicated to doing just that. In the manga, each character basically has exactly one personality trait which summarizes them completely. Yui is kind of dumb, Ritsu is energetically pushy, Mio is a scaredy-cat straight-man, Mugi is super gay and rich, and Azusa is a little more serious. All of these things are also true of the characters in the adaptation, but they don’t tell us much of the story.

For instance, in what way is Yui dumb? In the manga, we see that she joins a club much later than she should, and has an attitude towards it of hoping for something easy and lazy. Beyond that point, her test scores aren’t very good, and she’s slow at picking up music terminology, but that’s basically it. Most of the times that she’s on the page, she’s participating in the same kinds of jokes that everyone else is, and there’s not a sense that she’s really all that different from the other girls, or that she really has much going on with her character at all. We don’t learn anything about what she was like before joining this club, or what she was hoping to accomplish by doing so, or really anything about her at all.

The anime, on the other hand, opens up with a shot of Yui and her best friend Nodoka, along with a couple of other friends whom we’ll never see in the series, holding their certificates of graduation from middle school. We then see that this image is tacked to a cork board in Yui’s room, because it’s something that she’s proud of having accomplished. If we’re rewatching this episode, we can appreciate how difficult it must’ve been, and what a relief it must’ve been, for Yui to get into the same high school as her much more intelligent friend. Panning around her room, we get a sense of the bizarre kinds of things that Yui finds cute, and watch her sleep right through her alarm until her little sister comes in to wake her up. Keep in mind that in the manga, we never even see the interior of Yui’s room, so everything that this space says about Yui is unique to the anime.

After Ui wakes her up, Yui fumbles around comically with her phone trying to check the time–never mind the clock right there on her desk–and then runs past Ui in a frenzy. I’ve always found it funny the way that Yui doesn’t even look at Ui or address her presence at all on the way out of the room. She then slips and slides, planting on her ass on the way out of the house, and then boldly bursts forth with toast in her mouth on the way to school. In spite of the fact that she’s in such a hurry, she nonetheless gets distracted several times on the way, to do things like play with a cat and walk an old lady across the street; all of that, only to realize that she wasn’t even late in the first place.

This first minute and a half of the anime tells us more about what Yui’s like than the entire first few chapters of the manga. It’s not simply that Yui is dumb, but that’s she’s clumsy, airheaded, easily distracted, and needs her little sister’s help just to keep her shit together. By the way, attentive viewers will know that this Ui is the younger sister immediately, because she’s wearing the same uniform which Yui was wearing in her middle school graduation photo.

Opening an adaptation on an anime-original cold-open sequence isn’t such an uncommon practice, especially for a 4-koma adaptation such as this, but after the opening theme the anime-original content continues. We get two brief, parallel scenes of Yui absent-mindedly wandering onto campus–first getting bombarded with offers to join various clubs, and then, presumably several days later after the club rush has died down, checking out the bulletin board to see what clubs are still available. We then get a scene in which Nodoka establishes that Yui had never joined any clubs before in middle school, and then Yui stating that she feels like she should do something with herself–a motivation never established in the manga. It’s only after this that we finally get into the slightly-reorganized scenes from the manga, but with little extra shots and expressions thrown in for good measure.

For instance, we are introduced to Mio and Ritsu via shots of their legs, which is something of a specialty of director Yamada Naoko. She’s mentioned in interviews that she thinks a girl’s personality is present in the way that they move their legs, and she even ended the K-On movie with more than a minute-long shot of the characters’ legs as they all walk together. We can see what she means perfectly here, comparing the energy of Mio’s movement with that of Ritsu.

From there, the episode continually slots characterization into every place that it can, reworking scenes from the manga for opportunities to give us more information about the characters. For instance, whereas the scene of Ritsu and Mio in Sawako’s office in the manga ends when a random classmate takes her attention away, in the anime this student is Yui herself, and there’s an entire extra sequence of Yui being vacant and clumsy.

Similarly, when Ritsu tries to emotionally manipulate Mio by invoking the supposed promise that they made to start a band together, in the manga Ritsu simply mentions this promise, and then that they would split the earnings 70-30, and that’s the end of the joke. In the anime, Ritsu recounts a scene of the two of them, measurably younger, being inspired by a performance that they saw together live. Mio then corrects her that it was actually a performance which they saw on TV that only Ritsu was excited about. Either way, this scene establishes something that the manga never did–the fact that Mio and Ritsu have been long-time friends, and that the prospect of them being in a band together was floated before they joined this club. It seems important that this scene exists to me, because I’d never questioned the idea that Mio and Ritsu had been practicing the bass and drums before the start of the series as a result of this sense that they’d been doing stuff like this together before. In the manga, it’s never established why these girls already own these instruments or have any interest in them.

Another important new scene happens when the girls all go to McDonald’s, wherein Mugi is really excited to be indulging in commoner food, which she’s never had before. In the original manga, Mugi is almost never given any personality whatsoever. Her main deal is that she really likes to watch other girls being cute together, and chooses to interpret it sexually. The fact that she’s also a rich girl is never really used for the sake of exploring her personality. Meanwhile, the anime series really pushes the whole yuri aspect into the background, and focuses a lot more on the idea of Mugi as a fish out of water who is really determined to try and experience normal teenage life and friendship, and to relate to her friends. A perfect example of the dichotomy between her character in the manga vs. the anime can be seen when the girls go to her summer home in episode four. In both versions, Mugi clarifies that she’d hoped to get a bigger house, but was only able to get the smallest–but in the anime, she frets over the fact that the people who set up the house made everything look fancy and expensive, when she’d asked them to try and make it more normal–and she becomes even more exasperated about this the next time they come to the place later in the season. This aspect of Mugi’s character is entirely anime-original.

For that matter, pretty much all of the best scenes in the anime are anime-original content. Any moment that really furthers the development of the characters or establishes something new about their personalities is unique to the TV show. The entire arc of Yui raising money to buy her own guitar and learning how to be less selfish and to work towards her goals is entirely absent from the manga–meaning that we also don’t get the delightful scene of all the girls doing the car counting job and interacting with it in ways unique to their personalities.

In the episode where Mio finds out about the lefty fair at the guitar store and then gets dragged away by Ritsu, that moment is the end of the chapter in the manga. The entire rest of the episode, which is about Mio and Ritsu getting into a fight, exploring the nature of their relationship, and eventually having them make up and grow an even stronger bond, is anime-original. And of course, so is everything about the incredibly emotional climax of episode twelve.

That’s because you can’t have the emotional payoff of Yui making the exact same run that she did in episode one, but this time without getting distracted or falling all over herself and instead keeping her eyes on the prize, without having had the scene from episode one. You can’t have the same level of emotion from Azusa crying that the performance wouldn’t be worth doing without Yui, when you didn’t have the entire arc of Yui teaching Azusa to enjoy her time in the club. Pretty much all of the things that make K-On great, and give it an actual narrative, as opposed to the lack thereof which so many people who haven’t actually seen it accuse it of, is unique to the anime.

And for that matter, all of the worst things about the anime are present in the manga. When every single scene of Sawako forcing the other girls to play dress up are still there, but less than half of the surrounding scenes remain, then it really starts to feel like getting the girls into a bunch of moe fetish outfits is the whole point of the story. Even though all of the scenes from the manga are present in the anime, most of what the anime adds in is pointedly dissimilar from what usually happens in the manga, and all of the most fanservicey scenes are significantly toned down. In the manga, Mio falls on stage and we see her panties. In the anime, they turn this into a visual gag by showing a bowl of rice with the same pattern that Mio’s panties would have had. In the manga, Sawako convinces Yui to put on a sexy two-piece santa costume, and she looks embarrassed and uncomfortable about it. In the anime, they turned it into a much cuter one-piece, and had Yui pose proudly in it, like she thinks it’s cuter than anyone.

My least favorite part of the K-On anime has always been the overabundance of Sawako dressup scenes in the mid-part of season one, and the stretch in the middle where a lot more of it feels like typical four-panel gag structure. All of that is in the manga, and it’s why the second season manages to expand on the series so massively and to really become its own animal. Consider that the original manga is only four volumes long, and that the first season covers the entire first half of it. Meanwhile, the second season is twice as long as the first, and adds just as much original content even into the episodes where it actually covers the same material as the manga. By the time you get to the second season of the anime, it barely has anything to do with the manga anymore–it’s entirely the product of Yamada Naoko, writer Yoshida Reiko, and their team at Kyoto Animation who deservedly have garnered so much respect in the industry for this work.

K-On fascinates me as an adaptation, because it represents what I think is the ideal form of doing it. Rather than trying to be accurate to the original, it identifies what can be improved and expanded upon and constructs something entirely new out of it, without ever disrespecting or discarding the original–even if it might have been better off doing so with some of it. Too often, I see fans clamoring for adaptations of materials which are already great in their own mediums, and which wouldn’t necessarily be better or even possible for the transformation into another one; but I think the best adaptations are the ones that take something which maybe didn’t work that well in its original medium to begin with, but have enough ideas that they could be expanded on and turned into something better in another one.

If you feel similarly, or know anyone whom you think would be interested in this case study of anime adaptation, then be sure to share this video. If you’d like to help me to make more videos like this, then consider supporting me on patreon, so I can give my editor a long-deserved raise. Check out my other channels if you need a lot more of my voice in your life, and go watch my previous videos about K-On if you haven’t heard enough of my gushing about it. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!


3 thoughts on “K on! – The Ultimate Adaptation

  1. The amazing thing about K-ON isn’t really that it’s so good, it’s that why aren’t all other adaptations also good like K-ON is? This is the KyoAni question sakuga nerds field all the time, but it should apply to everyone who cares about TV anime and adapting anime from existing material.

    The reality of comparing the manga and novels to their anime remakes is that you’re looking at the output of a couple people against the output of a couple hundred people. There is no fair line to draw between the two. It’s one of those things where anyone who is well aware of the full picture find an aimless comparison, if at all constructive. The additional consideration creators make (consulting with the creator, taking temperature of fan opinion, etc) when adopting an existing work is fully not relevant to your K-ON love fest of a vlog.

    I think Shirobako (unsurprisingly) did this best. it’s not something the west have traditionally been equipped to tackle as a subject matter, because there’s so much in-industry context that we needed to know to even know where to look.

    • I think Shirobako also showed us how adding in a couple hundred people is also adding in a couple hundred people who can fuck up–which I think is at least some of the answer to your first question. There’s a ton of advantages to being a one-man product, or that of a small team, after all. This isn’t really about how K-On is better as an anime per say, so much as it is about how K-On sucked as a manga. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to compare final products no matter who worked on them–like, Nausicaa manga is better than 99% of anime.

      • What you say rings true, but also rings hollow, because it applies to like, everything. When I take a plane ride on a Boeing 737 that is the work of tens of thousands of people, and I’m sure somebody somewhere has made mistakes, but were subsequently corrected. When I fold a paper airplane and say “this sucks compared to a Boeing 737” well duh. You know what else? I’m sure the people who made K-ON anime can draw a better K-ON manga than the original mangaka.

        The fact that we think A is associated B (for any given A and B) has to be rooted in something. I guess if there is anything to be said, it’s about the power of branding.

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