Review for K-ON! - Volume 4
First the bad news, and there is plenty of that. K-ON! was to be released in the UK in a collected Blu-ray set this spring by Manga Entertainment. Prior to the release of this final volume, they announced that this title was now cancelled, and spring would only see the collection in its DVD form. To be honest, I wasn't too surprised at this, as Bandai Entertainment's US Blu-ray release hasn't been without issues that have significantly affected its uptake there. The Japanese licensors have insisted that the US product not be equivalent to the Japanese Blu-rays to inhibit reverse-importation. The US Blu-rays have had zero Japanese extras, not even the textless credit sequences (which also affected the DVD releases), one piece of music in the first episode couldn't be licensed and had to be replaced, and the worst of it all, the HD K-ON! release was saddled with SD Dolby Digital audio. Of course the UK release would have had the same issues.
The worst news though, was that Bandai Entertainment, who jumped through those hoops to satisfy the Japanese licensors, declared last week that they were leaving the anime distribution business. K-ON! has its fans, a significant number of vocal and committed fans, and those fans, both in the US and here were looking to Bandai Entertainment to eventually licence the second series, K-ON!!, and the recently released K-ON! movie. Will other distributors pick up where Bandai left off, and also dub and release these titles on Blu-ray as well as DVD? Given the difficulties that Bandai had with this release, it seems an unlikely prospect indeed. We have to just take solace in the fact that with this final volume, the first series, K-ON! has at least been released in the UK in its entirety.
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 final three episodes of K-ON! are presented on this disc from Manga Entertainment.
12. Light Music!
When last we left the Light Music Club, they'd just gotten over their most worrying crisis yet, with Ritsu's illness almost afflicting the band with their first set of creative differences. Ritsu's recovery came just in time for the school's Cultural Festival and their first major performance as a five piece. Except that now Yui's caught the cold too. With just four days left, they have to hope that Yui gets better in time. But when someone suggests that they go on as a four piece, with Azusa taking Yui's place, the band almost falls apart again.
13. Winter Days!
On a cold, winter day, what better than to have a hot nabe party at Yui's place. She and Ui are going ingredient shopping for the hotpot, but for once, the girls of the Light Music Club have their own plans. Mio's looking for inspiration for her lyrics, Mugi's got a job, Azusa is babysitting, sort of, while Ritsu's fallen in love? But even on this day off, fate has a way of pulling the band back together.
14. Live House!
New Year's Eve is almost upon them, but the next big step to stardom beckons the girls of the Light Music Club. Ritsu's friend has invited them to play live, in a club, in front of an audience. They have just 10 days to prepare, 10 days to get more professional, 10 days before their first, proper concert. That's 10 days in which Ritsu gets more outrageously absent minded, Yui gets more clumsy and scatty, and Mio's shyness returns at full strength. At least Mugi's making lots of tea.
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.
For once, I got to look at the packaging with a clear Amaray case providing the storage for the disc. The cover gets a nice, simple effective image of all five girls being energetic, while the rear has all the blurb, including one of those god-ugly smartphone barcode blobs. The inner lining simply has an episode listing. K-ON! gets the usual treatment of static menus and a jacket picture.
The only extra features on the disc are a brief music video for one of the group's songs, "Brush Pen, Ballpoint Pen", although only the English version, and a 7-minute interview with the English voice of Tsumugi, Shelby Lindley. She discusses the character and the show, and also talks about how the show relates to her own experiences of high school.
I've never been fond of anime discs with low episode counts, and three episodes on a disc seem just ridiculous in this day and age. Of course that's a resentment left lingering from when I had to review three episodes of a long running shonen action show on one disc, 75 minutes in which nothing happened except brief bursts of fighting action broken up by long periods of standing around talking about it. Then again, you can't at all compare three episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho with three episodes of K-ON! What we have here is the perfect distillation of cuteness in animated form. It's a delicious confection of feel-good sweetness that envelops you for its brief runtime, and watching just one episode of K-ON! at a time is enough to leave you with a warm glow that lasts for the rest of the day. Yu Yu Hakusho never did that.
It turns out that the first episode on the disc is actually the final episode of the series proper, and brings things about full circle with the girls' second Cultural Festival, the culmination of another year's work at growing the band. It's Azusa's first festival, and she's looking forward to performing live with the other girls, except that Yui has caught Ritsu's cold. As usual for the Light Music Club, it's a matter of leaving everything until the last minute, and panicking all the way there. Perhaps the most charming moment in this episode is where Yui's little sister Ui decides to help.
The series concludes with two bonus episodes, and following the series structure of alternating music focussed episodes with slice of life stories, we get the slice of life first, that sees the girls go their separate ways on a winter's day, while being overwhelmingly cute at the same time. Still, there are murmurings of disaffection when the show starts, with Yui's invitation to a nabe party being snubbed by everyone, and everyone keeping schtum as to just why. Ritsu's surprisingly subdued and preoccupied, Mio can't write lyrics if she's surrounded by Yui and Ritsu's innate stupidity, rich girl Mugi is exercising her independence by working at a burger restaurant, and Azusa is babysitting a friend's kitten, trying to overcome her fear of cats. Cuteness abounds throughout, while events conspire to bring the girls together again.
Of course the final episode is the perfect note for the show to bow out on, with the Light Music Club getting their first live gig in the outside world, and coming face to face with a steep learning curve. The prospect of performing for people other than their schoolmates is a daunting one, as is the reality of a live house, as well as the other, more seasoned bands that they will be performing with on the same bill. Once again, it's Yui's gormless enthusiasm, and Ritsu's unfocussed passion that will see them through. K-ON! is at its best when it has the band battling, what passes for adversity in this sweet and harmless world, and coming out unexpectedly on top, and both the first and final episodes on this disc are prime examples of that.
I started off this review with an overdose of bad news. Well here's the good news. K-ON! is the epitome of cute heart-warming anime. It's the ultimate feel good experience. Forget that the Blu-ray has been cancelled, as these DVDs aren't to be sniffed at. Forget that the collapse of Bandai in the US has drastically reduced the chances of the second series ever being licensed in the West, as these fourteen episodes are complete in and of themselves. Yes, they leave you wanting more, but there are no pesky cliff-hangers or loose ends. And forget that 2012 is the year that the meteorite strikes and the world ends, as while civilisation may fall, as long as there is electricity flowing to your home cinema system, you can lose yourself in the ultimate distillation of cute!