Review for K-ON! - Volume 2
Two months gap between single disc releases? I feel like I'm back in 2005. But while the release format may be distinctly last decade, the K-ON! anime is very much of the now, and could very well be the next anime gateway drug, the show that recruits a whole new legion of fans to the medium. Ten years from now, grizzled veterans of the anime fan base will be citing a show where cute girls do cute things as the one that switched them on to anime. To think, for me it was uber-violence and profanity laced dubs. But K-ON! goes from strength to strength, the franchise gets bigger and bigger and it looks already to be this decade's Haruhi Suzumiya. It's first fourteen-episode season led to a second, longer one, and in between the release of the first and second volumes in the UK, the hype about the K-ON! feature film exploded. The story will bring the K-ON! girls to the land where pop music was born, and already mock-ups of Yui and her friends crossing Abbey Road have started appearing. I haven't been so thrilled to greet a new volume of anime since the last next big thing.
Yui Hirasawa has spaced out her way through elementary and middle school, and history looks set to repeat itself when she starts high school. Even though she is eager and excited about her new life as a high school student, after a few weeks pass, and after every extra-curricular club in school has courted her, she still hasn't decided on which one to join. It's when her friend Nodoka gently informs her that she's on her way to becoming a NEET that she finally picks a promising flyer and fills in the form. She chooses the Light Music Club, inspired by some happy memories of playing the castanets in nursery school. She isn't quite ready for what membership entails.
Now she's lead guitarist in a rock band, although learning to play, after she has bought a guitar comes surprisingly easy. On bass is the seriously minded, and seriously shy and easily spooked Mio Akiyama, while Mio's best friend, the brash and outgoing Ritsu Tainaka is the drummer. On keyboards is fellow surprise recruit and warm-hearted rich kid Tsumugi Kotobuki, and together the girls aim to hit the big time.
The next four episodes of K-ON! are presented on this dual layer disc from Manga Entertainment.
Summer camp may have been a success, but coming back to school, the Light Music Club gets brought back down to Earth with a bang when they learn that Ritsu never even filled in the application form. They aren't an official club in the school, although thankfully, with Nodoka on the school council, rectifying that oversight is a simple matter. But then she tells them that they need an advisor, a teacher to provide suitable adult guidance and oversight. Looking through the old Light Music Club memorabilia, and photos of the old heavy rock band, Ritsu spots a familiar face beneath all the make-up and the vicious looking costumes. Music teacher Sawako Yamanaka is an upstanding, gentle, elegant and feminine member of staff who already has the responsibility of supervising a club, but blackmail is such an ugly word, and liable to backfire.
6. School Festival!
Their first live performance impends, and when she learns that Yui can't sing and play guitar at the same time, Miss Sawako takes her under her wing for some intensive training. So intensive that Yui loses her voice. That leaves Mio to sing lead vocals, on stage, in front of the school, during the school festival. Her chronic shyness leaves her in a fluster at the very thought, while everyone else is too busy with their class festival activities for the band to come together to practice. To make matters worse, Miss Sawako has some pretty outlandish ideas when it comes to the costumes that they should wear. Will Mio be able to conquer her nerves in time?
The season of goodwill looms, and so does the Light Music Club Christmas Party, for which Ritsu is already planning a cover charge. It's just a matter of finding a suitable venue. Fortunately Yui's parents are off to Germany for the holidays. Even more fortunately, Yui's sister Ui is the sensible one in the family, and she'll be able to organise a party without burning the building down. It's all set to be a nice, cosy get together, party food, and presents… and then Miss Sawako gatecrashes, depressed at not having a boyfriend to spend the holidays with.
8. Freshman Reception!
It's already been a whole year! Spring is rolling around again, and the girls of the Light Music Club are looking forward to starting their second year in high school, and finding out what class they are in. What's more Ui is starting as a first year, and with the intake of new students, it's time for all the clubs to start recruiting, and the Light Music Club is no exception. Miss Sawako has gotten over-eager again, and designed some costumes for the girls to wear as they go on their recruitment drive. Maybe they'll have better luck playing a live performance for the new students, if only Mio has gotten over her stage fright yet.
K-ON! gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, which as usual is filtered through Australia's Madman Entertainment, who have deigned to give it a native PAL conversion. The animation is excellent, detailed and fluid, while the show is replete with bright, sunny colours, and very pleasant character designs, character designs that served as inspiration for the characters in the Sound of the Sky anime. This is another high-end anime production, and it shows on the screen, with some very imaginative animation, and thoughtful character study. I noticed no problems with compression or judder, and the image looks fine, even when scaled up on a high definition display.
You have the option here of DD 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese, along with the usual translated subtitles or a signs only track. The audio is fine, the show's splendid light pop music comes across with great effect, while the dialogue is clear throughout. As usual I opted for the original language track, but from what I sampled of the English dub, it's one that follows the original pretty closely in terms of character voices, style, mood, even to the point of using Japanese honorifics.
K-ON! gets the usual treatment of static menus and a jacket picture. As usual I only got a check disc, so I can't comment on disc label art or packaging.
The only extra features on the disc are a brief music video for one of the group's songs, "Fuwa Fuwa Time", although only the English version, and a 7-minute interview with the English voice of Mio, Cristina Vee. She discusses the character and the show, and also talks about how the show relates to her own experiences of high school.
A pop music anime that isn't about the music… With this second volume of K-ON!, it becomes apparent that the show is nothing like Beck. There's no overall narrative at this point, it certainly isn't about the music, it's about cute girls doing cute things. It's about the collision of four very different personalities and the humorous situations that result. It's a slice of life comedy anime that is all about making the viewer feel as good as possible, without any stress, drama or intrigue. There's nothing wrong with that of course. I spent another 93 minutes in the company of K-ON! over the last couple of nights and I was wholly entertained, I laughed out loudly and often, and I was left with a warm, cosy feeling of having been in the company of a group of close and beloved friends. If the only point to K-ON! is to make the viewer feel good, then it succeeds like few other anime.
While the first volume did a great job of setting the scene, getting the band together, and showing Yui's growth as a musician over those first few months of the Light Music Club's existence, this second volume reveals that narrative and pace aren't K-ON!'s strong suit. In fact, these four episodes take us past the next 9 months of story time in a comparative flash. If you're here to see the girls' trials as they try and get their band to gel, their music to zing, and work through all those inevitable creative differences, you're watching the wrong series. Here, all the hard work happens off screen. Prior to their first live performance, they have the music but they need lyrics, the next morning Mio delivers. Then it turns out that Yui can't sing and play guitar at the same time. Advisor Sawako drags her off screen for a week's intensive training, and in the next cut we see her, fully trained up, but with a croaky voice as a result. There's another live performance when the new students arrive the next year, and we cut in and out, hear snippets of songs, but really, the music, the hard work behind the band, none of that matters in K-ON!, which I have to admit I found a little disappointing.
I don't exactly want the angst and emotion of Beck all over again, but I would have liked more of an acknowledgement of the actual music as a part of K-ON!, rather than it just being the background to cute antics that take place in the Light Music Club. As it is, it appears that the only place you'll get to hear the music of K-ON! to a degree where you can appreciate it, is on the show's soundtrack CD.
But there is that cute girls doing cute things side of the show, an approach that the makers of K-ON! have perfected. The characters are so likeable, and the way that they interact with each other is so charming, that I wind up falling in love with the show more and more as I watch it. The character dynamic begins to widen beyond the four person dynamic at the heart of the band in this volume, and the major addition is the music teacher Sawako Yamanaka, a perfectly warm, likeable, and normal feminine character when we met her in the previous volume. But when the girls realise that they need an advisor for their club to legitimise it, and find the evidence of Sawako's own rock and roll past to use against her, it allows her true self to be revealed, a delightfully warped and repressed personality, which in itself is payback for the girls for blackmailing her into being their advisor in the first place. With the Light Music Club, Sawako has an outlet for her wild side once more, which in this case results in a whole series of outlandish costumes that she designs for them to wear.
School Festival! is probably the one music and band centric episode in this volume, with the girls intent on their first live performance, and with Mio having to battle a strong case of nerves. But a lot of the time is devoted to the other school festival activities, with Yui serving in a class café, and Ritsu and Mugi working a haunted house. But there is enough of the music practice and the eventual performance for fans of the music of K-ON! to be appreciative. Of course there's none of that in the Christmas episode, which truly is just 25 minutes of pure cuteness. It's a nice episode in that it focuses somewhat on sisters Yui and Ui, and the warm relationship that exists between them, younger sister Ui acting as something of a surrogate mum to spacey older sister Yui. There's also more cuteness in the final episode, with the Light Music Club on a recruitment drive, with the dubious aid of Sawako's costumes, and something more positive in another live performance. We also see the addition of a potential new character at the end of the volume, the somewhat severe and serious looking first year Azusa.
I'm torn when it comes to grading K-ON!. Intellectually I am wholly aware of just how light and ephemeral a piece of fluff it is. There's nothing of weight or import to its story, its characters aren't exhibiting any significant growth, or facing any major personal challenges. If you've come to this anime looking for deep and meaningful, something that will stay with you long after the end credits have rolled past, then you're in the wrong place. I have to weigh that against just how much I enjoy this show. There is room for light and fluffy, for cute and whimsical, and with that as its goal, K-ON! may just be the best of its ilk. I almost feel guilty for marking it down thus, but I think that if it had just a little weight and import to it, then it would transcend its fluffy perfection and attain a memorable permanence.