Otaku USA Magazine
For Those About To Rock

K-On! helped set the standard for slice-of-life anime, and now it’s back!

k-on anime

School is supposed to be about the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Ritsu Tainaka, on the other hand, wants to add two more things to the curriculum: rock and roll. But first she has to save the Light Music Club from being disbanded; she just needs to find the right support. So far she’s got Mio Akiyama and Tsumugi Kotobugi to back her up, but they just need to get one more member to make their club official. What they get, however, is Yui Hirasawa, the bumbling high school girl to end all bumbling high school girls, and she can’t even decide on the best club to join. That struggle to find exactly what she’s good at is exactly what gets her “recruited” into the club. And so the Light Music Club Afterschool Tea Time band is formed, and a non-journey to play at Budokan begins.

This is the big one, ladies and gentlemen. The king of the hill. The one moe to rule them all.

The specter that governs the nine realms of the sacred world tree Hnnngdrasil (I’ll be here all night). For the uninitiated, it’s just another Japanese cartoon. But for all the loyal fans, this is Patient Zero for a specific genre—it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of things like moe and cute girls doing cute things. Many folks love it, many folks hate it, and you would think that a show with such a divisive fan base would have some kind of game-changing trick up its sleeve. Does it hide some kind of fantastic tale in which the girls fight evil with the power of rock? Is it a character drama where the wonders of music act as therapy for a bunch of mentally broken girls? Or is it a depiction ahead of its time of the gruesome realities of being in a band? The answer to all of these questions is simple: NOPE.

k-on anime

See, there’s this idea about K-On! you’ve probably heard before: Nothing interesting happens in this show. It’s just cute girls eating snacks and sipping tea. And playing music? Composing music? Very little of that actually happens here.

Here’s the thing: that analysis is completely accurate. For a show billing itself to be about band practice, the actual amount of band practice that goes on is shockingly low. You would think that a show about cute girls playing music would stick with that premise to the bitter end. Simply put, K-On! really doesn’t. In fact, the only people in the K-On! universe who seem to be keen on actually practicing are Mio and underclassman Azusa Nakano—the other girls seem more interested in lazing around eating snacks and being silly (something that the show is firmly aware of, which is what makes it pretty funny). You might as well call it “Procrastination: The Anime.” And most of the conflicts the girls find themselves in don’t really have that much to do with music in the first place (e.g., one of them is about getting an air-conditioner). There’s not even a sensible sense of flow; time makes amazing leaps from episode to episode, so an entire year can pass in just a few episodes when you least expect it.

k-on anime

So with all of this, you could say K-On! is a show about nothing at all. It’s a storyless story—there’s no real weight to anything. Granted, K-On! is, at its core, cut from the same slice-of-life genre that gave us ARIA and Laid-Back Camp, but even then, it’s an episodic program with all the potential to at least be about something; yet it willingly chooses to be about nothing (though, in all fairness, it does touch on some meatier ideas, but it never truly dives into them). So what makes this show so praiseworthy?

Well, for starters, the characters may have something to do with it. The success of any show should start with how well written its characters are, and in this regard K-On! passes with flying colors. Right off the bat, you get a pretty good idea of who’s who in the main group: the directionless girl looking for direction (Yui), the funny man–straight man duo (Ritsu and Mio, respectively), the rich girl fascinated by common things (Tsumugi), and the newcomer who takes things more seriously than her upperclassmen (Azusa). And we can’t forget about the faculty advisor (Sawako), who, despite being their elder, proves to be just as weird as her students.

k-on anime

With such a simple premise, or in this case a lack of one, the show really only has is characters to carry all the weight, and carry the weight they do. In everything they say and do, these girls radiate with personality; they all bring a little something to the primary group dynamic. Case in point, Mio. Based on her personality, you would think her to be the straight man trying to keep the colorful chaos of the Light Music Club in line. But in truth, she’s just as goofy as the rest of them, and she’s too easily defeated to actually rise to any occasion.

But what truly makes the K-On! girls stand out the way they do is how they interact with each other; each character acts a little differently based on who they’re interacting with and what they’re doing, and each interaction reveals something different about each character (and creates new jokes every time). It’s not as a noticeable when they’re all together in the same scene, but it sure as heck is when they’re not. These one-on-one interactions are what end up making the girls feel more human rather than the average archetypes you’d come across in shows like this.

k-on anime

So these are just normal girls; they just happen to play instruments. Which is another thing that makes this show work—its commitment to the nonplot. Yes, it certainly won’t appeal to folks who are looking for some narrative meat in their show, but there’s something charming about the way the show conducts its nonadventures. It feels like someone placed hidden cameras all over the school and just decided to record people simply being themselves. And there’s something to admire about that kind of realism.

Helping their case is the stellar animation, which is appropriately provided by Kyoto Animation (this is the same studio that put out the Lucky Star and Haruhi Suzumiya adaptations first, so you could say they know what they’re doing). Every character in this show is incredibly expressive from the way they conduct themselves to the way they rock on.

k-on anime

By the way, speaking of rock, have you noticed that I haven’t talked much about the music of K-On! That’s because K-On! isn’t a music anime in the first place. Still, it wouldn’t be an anime about music without a couple of songs here and there, and every one of them brings down the house.

So, in the end, K-On! never really set out to be a game-changer; it’s not out to prove anything, and it wants the whole world to know it. Many love it for its simplicity; others hate it for the same reason. But you can’t fault it for its honesty; it knows what it wants to be with its quietly endearing friendliness. This is moe in motion; nothing more, nothing less.

K-On! is available from Sentai Filmworks and HIDIVE.

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of Otaku USA Magazine. Click here to get a print copy.