Anime Reviews: K-On!!
Some Basic Information About the Series You Ought to Know
Title: K-On!! a.k.a. K-On! Season 2
Production: Kyoto Animation
Series Length: 26 episodes + 1 OVA + 1 film
Air Dates: 4/7/2010 to 9/28/2010, 3/16/2011, and 12/3/2011, respectively
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language)
Summary: Sakuragaoka High School's Light Music Club, now infamous around the school for being lackadaisical and not the most serious of clubs, enters its third year under the wildcat drummer-slash-president Ritsu Tainaka. Under her wing are spacey guitarist and vocalist Yui Hirasawa, earnest rhythm guitarist and underclassman Azusa Nakano, shy bassist Mio Akiyama, and graceful rich-girl keyboard player Tsumugi Kotobuki. For most of the club members, this year also marks their last as high school students, and so, with the help of their capricious teacher and counselor, Sawako Yamanaka, as well as the clubroom pet, pig-nosed turtle Ton-chan, the girls are ready to give it their all in making their last year their most memorable and enjoyable yet!
The Good: Maintains KyoAni's typical high-quality presentation; the comedy, characters, and scenarios are more consistently well-written than in season one
The Bad: The first opener is ear poison; Azusa still has no definable character
The Ugly: The abject agony that it must be to be Ui Hirasawa
So, what brought me crawling back to this series?
My feelings on the first season haven't changed after my recent(-ish) rewatch--it's still a mild and pleasant series that introduces us to some likable characters even if its pacing and consistency are nonexistent--but I never quite felt comfortable with the fact that I only delved a handful of episodes deep into its double-length second season. I felt like I'd quit, and quitting is for quitters, and I didn't want to leave a job unfinished. Now, two and a half years later (geez, has it really been that long?), I've finally given K-On!! a fair shake. The fact that I never completed this second season all those years ago is a crime and a shame, because I have never in all my years of anime fandom seen a series improve this dramatically from one season to the next (well, maybe once before). I deeply regret dropping this series like I did, and now I have to live with the fact that a series I once dreaded watching to its completion turned out to be legitimately great in the end.
What does K-On!! do well? Does it beat out the first season?
As you might expect from KyoAni at this point, K-On!! comes packed with a veritable truckload of aesthetic polish and stylish cinematography. Not only are the characters wonderfully expressive in their animation, the backgrounds and settings have a mind-melting amount of love and detail poured into them. The characters' rooms feel intimately personal and reflect their inhabitants' personalities, the school has a well-worn and rustic look that makes it feel like a real place in its own right and not just because photo references were used to create it, and the many streets and stores the characters visit feel so alive and vibrant. Not many studios can truly nail the feeling of reality from the settings they craft, but KyoAni have completely nailed it.
I was also pretty impressed with how memorable and sometimes impactful the background music was, this time around. Yeah, it was fine in season one, but season two really kicked it up a notch, making some of the more powerful scenes real gut-punchers. The girls' in-universe setlist has gained a few new entries as well, and frankly, if you liked the pop songs from season one, you'll like these, too. "Rice is a Side Dish" is inherently silly and dumb, but also super infectious, and it's probably my favorite of the new crop. "U&I" is a bit more mellow, but nonetheless carries a memorable hook and, in the context of the show, is wonderfully emotional. They've also added a heartfelt ballad, "Tenshi ni Fureta yo!," and I love ballads, so I naturally can get behind this tune, too. As for the main theme songs, both ending themes just kinda did nothing for me, which is disappointing, but I've really come to love the second opener, "Utauyo!! Miracle," which was a little much for me at first, but its earnest tone and upbeat tempo won me over in the end.
But hey, so they came up with some more catchy songs. That's not exactly new. What is new is how dramatically the series' writing has improved between seasons--like, it's hardly even the same show in my eyes. For one thing, the jokes in this season come flying far more often and nearly every single one of them hit the mark. It was around the 4th or 5th episode that I started noticing how often I was laughing, and I was legitimately surprised--the first season was never this funny even in its funniest moments. One thing that certainly helps the comedy work so well this time is the sheer amount of ridiculous scenarios that crop up. The class is putting on a production of "Romeo & Juliet" for the school festival (at an all-girls school, no less), and they overwhelmingly voted Mio to play Romeo and Ritsu to play Juliet? The jokes practically write themselves in such a crazy set-up, and they are glorious.
In the end, however, comedy lives and dies by the strength of its characters, and perhaps one of the main reasons this season was so much funnier than the last is that the characters have been given much, much more room to stretch out and develop. The first season only dedicated 6 episodes to each of the group's first two years of high school, so the amount of time passing between each episode meant we never really got to know who the characters were outside of some basic quirks and traits, but now a single year is given quadruple the airtime as before, so it's really no wonder that this season really feels like it's given us more time to get to know the Light Music Club as the silly sausages they are. Most of the series' time is spent watching characters bounce off each other in ways both funny and surprisingly touching at times, and certain character-centric episodes go a long way in giving us perspective on how that character sees things; in particular, the Mugi-centric episode where she tries so hard to earn a comedy bonk-on-the-head from Ritsu remains one of my favorites in the series.
The crowning achievement in my eyes, though, is episode 20. The school festival is on, and that includes the girls giving a live performance once again--for most of them, their last school festival concert--and so they perform. It's another great KyoAni-brand concert scene. But because we've gotten to know the characters so well this time, there's a truly resonant impact that the concert leaves with the viewer and between its own cast members. But then, we see them retiring to the club room afterwards, reflecting on the meaning of this being their last concert, and lemme tell ya, folks, I was never going to be ready to feel so many feels while watching K-On!!, of all things. Not only was episode 20 proof of how far the series came in terms of sheer writing quality, I'd feel comfortable placing it in my list of best individual episodes of anime, it's that good. Holy crap.
So, where does this song and dance strike a foul chord?
In a shocking twist, the list of negatives for K-On!! is surprisingly short! First among them, sadly, is the series' first opener, "Go! Go! Maniac." This was not an encouraging start to the series, and is one of the reasons (aside from the lukewarmness season one left me feeling) that I stopped watching season two in the first place. This song is bad, guys. Like, really bad. As mentioned above, it's ear poison, seeping its way down the inner ear and corroding away your brain with its jumbled chorus and incomprehensible vocals and downright-irritating melodies. No sir, I don't like it.
A more important issue than a bad opener is the fact that Azusa still exis--er, I mean, still has no definable traits or anything at all that marks her as an actual character instead of a cardboard cutout of a human being with no individuality. The only thing she has is "more serious about practice than the others," and that is only ever brought up once or twice, and is nowhere close to being a suitable foundation upon which you build a character. Azusa has nothing. She is nothing.
In clambering desperation, they gave Azusa her own episode and made it explicit that the other club members' personalities have rubbed off on her and she finds herself subconsciously adopting some of their habits, which would be clever and interesting if Azusa had any character traits of her own for those habits to clash with. But she doesn't. She basically just transforms from a blank slab of tofu into a shadow of the imitated club member and back again.
And what absolutely maddens me about Azusa's lack of character is not just that she's a boring 5th wheel with nothing to contribute, but the emotional climax of the series--the graduating senior members write a song for Azusa to remember them by--rings completely hollow because the song is so heartfelt and meaningful to the four performing it and yet the person they're honoring is an empty shell devoid of any of the qualities being attributed to her. What should have been the ultimate feels trip is completely undercut by the fact that Azusa is not a character. It's infuriating. When I go around the internet saying "Azusa is the worst thing about K-On!," it's not a joke or a meme or a cynical gripe--I legitimately detest Azusa for being a complete non-entity in a series practically overflowing with lively and memorable characters. She is a complete and utter waste.
Oh hey, there's a movie that ends the series! How'd that turn out?
I have mixed feelings about the K-On! movie. On the one hand, I was bitterly disappointed that it was merely playing catch-up with the last few episodes of the series, giving us more of their last week of high school instead of showing us a glimpse of their post-high-school lives, which I always want after a series like this. But on the other hand, it's still a continuation of season two but on a grander scale (like, y'know, visiting London), and more of a good thing is still a good thing. The movie gives us a few more enjoyable songs, but my favorite was "Ichiban Ippai," the light and fluffy opener of the film that is infinitely adorable and relaxing.
The inclusion of three(!!!) live performances by our heroes did feel a tad forced and unnatural, but I'm not about to complain about having more KyoAni concert scenes. And besides, the set-ups included some very clever jokes, so that's even more reason to not be too bothered by some minor contrivances. I also enjoyed the amount of research that surely had to go into making the London scenes feel authentic, and while their efforts weren't 100% successful (a panning shot of a store awning with gibbering insanity scrawled upon it doesn't quite make the grade), it was otherwise very convincing. In the end, though, the movie wasn't anything super spectacular. It felt more like an extended episode of the series, which is fine enough, I suppose.
And so, with all that said, what's the verdict?
I first entered this franchise legitimately dreading the worst--I spent a full week steeling my resolve to watch a mere TV show--but now, at the end of this long and cake-flavored path, I stand by my earlier statement that my decision to wait so long to finish K-On!! was a terrible mistake. Even though I will forever curse the fact that Azusa never ended up becoming an actual character, the time I wasted watching Yui, Ritsu, Mugi, and Mio embark on their mundane after-school adventures turned out to be time I greatly enjoyed wasting. For everyone out there who takes one look at this series and expects the worst kind of empty, mindless fluff, let me assure you: I once was you. The fact that K-On! became a sensation was no accident or cynical cash-grab--there is a heart and soul to this series that hooks you in when you least expect it.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. In every metric, K-On!! is a gargantuan improvement over its first season with a much greater emphasis on developing its characters' wacky personalities, crafting clever jokes and emotional payoffs that belie its false reputation as a show about nothing. Except Azusa. Screw Azusa--she's the reason the score isn't higher.