“To the me back then, you don’t need to worry. You’ll soon find something you can do, something you can set your heart on.” –Yui Hirasawa
When she enters high school, Yui Hirasawa struggles to decide on which club she ought to join. Meanwhile, Ritsu Tainaka and Mio Akiyama strive to find members to save Sakuragaoka High School’s light music club from being disbanded. Managing to recruit keyboard player Tsumugi Kotobuki, the club also convinces Yui to join. From picking up a guitar for the first time to learning chords, Yui settles into life with the light music club, which becomes known as Houkago Tea Time after Ritsu extorts instructor Sawako Yamanaka into acting as the club’s advisors. From training camps at Mugi’s summer home to performing for Sakuragaoka High School’s cultural festival, Yui finds joy in spending her time practising and drinking tea with Mio, Ritsu and Mugi. A year later, Houkago Tea Time performs at the welcome celebrations, capturing the heart of a young freshman named Azusa Nakano. She decides to join the Light Music Club, but disappointed at how lax the girls are, considers quitting until she confides in Mio about how she feels. Mio says that while it’s true the girls are slackers who’d rather drink tea than practise, being with them is fun, and this is the feeling they convey whenever they perform. Convinced to stay, Azusa practises with the others for another school festival. While Yui falls ill and is forced to stay home, she manages to recover before the concert. Despite forgetting her guitar, she recovers it and makes it to school just in time to perform the band’s second song: their concert is a success, and the girls are asked to do an encore, as well. Originating from Kakifly’s manga, Kyoto Animation’s adaptation of K-On! began airing in the spring of 2009 and left a considerable mark on the industry, with proponents praising the series’ sincerity and genuine portrayal of what having fun entails. K-On!‘s animated adaptation propelled the manga to fame, received a sequel and a movie, and also resulted in a collection of albums that performed strongly, as well. Musicians have cited K-On! as inspiration for their own careers, and even ten years after its initial airing, anime continue to be inspired by elements from K-On!.
Covering the first two manga volumes, K-On!‘s first season is a casual romp in the world of music: the first half focuses on Yui’s gradual progression as a guitar player, and the second half introduces Azusa into the narrative to present the idea that what makes something worth doing isn’t the technical strength, but rather, the members’ synergy in one another’s presence. Immediately upon hearing their music for the first time, Azusa is deeply moved and inspired to join the light music club, but is surprised to learn that the talented musicians on stage are ultimately a raggedy-ass bunch. Being the most mature and focused of the bunch, Mio relates to Azusa and ultimately puts into words for her what makes Houkago Tea Time special: it’s the fact that the girls are boundlessly carefree and manage to find fun in what they do. As such, the sum of their experiences together, and all of the treasured memories they make, feed into each of the songs that they perform. K-On! chooses to highlight these moments rather than portray the girls practising, and while this creates the impression that no one ever practises, the reality is that the girls practise off screen, giving both the manga and anime more time to focus on exploring the moments that the girls come to treasure. Even with practise, Houkago Tea Time are not professionals, but while the girls may be technically inferior as musicians, playing out of sync or committing mistakes, the rawness of their music creates a sense of genuineness that creates emotional impact in each of their songs. The outcome of taking this approach in K-On! creates a very simple, but powerful theme: that in the company of the right people, if one genuinely loves what they do, the inclination to improve and push the envelope for what is possible will follow. One’s companions will drive them along to new heights; as Yui and Azusa find, one will always have the support and encouragement they need to have a good time and excel among the light music club.
The message in K-On! is concealed up underneath a layer of fluffiness that arises from the girls’ adorable mannerisms. Much comedy is derived from watching Yui, Mio, Ritsu, Mugi and Azusa bounce off one another: Yui is air-headed, Ritsu is energetic, Mio attempts to act mature but invariably fails, and Mugi simply goes along with things, while Azusa is doing her best to keep up with the eccentricities of each. Such a diverse and varied group results in hilarious moments of chaos, as well as equally heartwarming and endearing ones where the situation calls for it. Because their interactions drive the events (and misfortunes) that audiences see in K-On!, it is very easy for thematic elements to be lost as viewers laugh at, and with each of Yui, Mio, Ritsu, Mugi and Azusa as they experience various events as members of the light music club. The total absence of a significant conflict, and the fact that goals are very loosely defined (Ritsu and Mio endeavour to perform at Budokan, a famous venue for martial arts that has also seen rock performances historically, but this goal quickly fades away over time) gives the impression that K-On! has not a clear direction. While this is true, it is not to K-On!‘s detriment; a focus on life in Houkago Tea Time reminds viewers that ordinary, mundane moments are worth enjoying, especially considering the rigid structure in one’s life. High school students study and focus on getting into their post-secondary institutions of choice, leaving very little time to smell the roses, and so, moments such as those that Yui spends with Mio, Ritsu, Mugi and Asuza are incredibly valuable: viewers may take for granted the smaller things in life, and by placing a great deal of emphasis on things that may seem unremarkable, K-On! creates the sense that even the simplest things can be very enjoyable, and meaningful, to experience.
Screenshots and Commentary
- K-On!‘s protagonist is Yui Hirasawa, a first-year high school student who initially has no idea as to what she wants out of high school. Despite her careless mannerisms, she is very capable when the moment calls for it, although she remains very prone to being lazy. Aki Toyosaki provides Yui’s voice, which has a very soft, fluffy character to it. Mio and Ritsu are the light music club’s initial members: Ritsu strong-arms Mio into joining, and after recruiting Mugi, the three perform for Yui, who decides to join after seeing what light music is about.
- Light music (軽音楽, keiongaku) refers to the North American equivalent of pop music, and is ultimately what gives K-On! its name. While Yui is moved by the initial performance, she has no experience with music beyond the castanets. However, this isn’t really a problem – K-On! is about the journey, after all, and watching Yui learn enough to put on enjoyable performances despite her lazy attitudes made the series fun. Ritsu is voiced by Satomi Satō (GochiUsa’s Chiya Ujimatsu, Kiniro Mosaic‘s Sakura Karasuma and Eru Chitanda of Hyouka), while Yōko Hikasa (Infinite Stratos‘ Houki Shinonono, Yama no Susume‘s Kaede Saitō and Kō Yagami of New Game!), plays Mio.
- The light music club is best known for its elaborate afternoon tea setups. With Mugi (Minako Kotobuki, Hibike! Euphonium‘s Asuka Tanaka and Chihiro Miyoshi from Tamayura: Hitotose) providing a range of sweets and tea, there is rarely a dull moment for this fledgling club: Mugi comes from a wealthy family and has access to tremendous resources, but despite this, longs for nothing more than an experience of everyday life. Both Mio and Ritsu have experience with music: Mio is a bassist, and Ritsu is a drummer. The two have known one another since grade school, and despite a turbulent and even violent dynamic, the two are close.
- While it is a foregone conclusion that I greatly enjoyed K-On!, the story of how this came to be is something I don’t think I’ve ever fully shared. During the winter term in second year of my undergrad, an uncommonly difficult course-load had my GPA drop below the minimum needed to remain in satisfactory standing in my faculty. Between organic chemistry II and data structures II, I was unable to keep up – attempting to understand Diels-Alder reactions and how balancing a B-tree works was too much. Most of my peers only needed to focus on one or the other, and those who were in my stream ended up dropping data structures II, which I felt to be the wiser decision in retrospect.
- I foolishly resolved to remain behind, and pushed forward. By March, my performance had dropped, and I finally had to withdraw from an option, having neglected this course to keep my program requirements in satisfactory condition. I had also been involved in a freak accident during an organic chemistry computer-based quiz, and the department of chemistry had intended on disciplining me despite clear indications that things resulted from a happenstance series of bad luck. The tumultuous situation was getting the better of me, and so, I decided to give K-On! a spin, having been curious to watch it ever since seeing various parodies of its music and becoming intrigued by the vocal pieces.
- As I pushed through the first season, term began ending: the lighthearted comedy of K-On!, in conjunction with support from my friends and peers, allowed me to figure out a way. I ended up helping organise a study session for data structures II and spent as much time as I could asking the TA for help: in data structures II, I ended up with a B on the final and pulled my C+ to a B-. Similarly, in organic chemistry II, studying with my friends allowed me to earn a B+ on the final. The other incident was eventually sent over to my home faculty, who dismissed it on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to ever have suggested that this incident was anything other than an accident. One at a time, these problems were resolved.
- I attribute watching K-On! to helping me relax, keep a cool head and systematically address each of my problems, one at a time. I ended up barely meeting the requirements for satisfactory standing and then entered the summer with a scholarship for research, which ended up being one of the best in memory – the work I did ended up acting as the basis for my undergraduate thesis. Back in K-On! itself, Yui has finally acquired a guitar: she ends up with a Heritage Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard electric guitar, which goes for north of 4500 CAD. Having chosen it purely for its aesthetic, Yui decides to take up part time work to fund it, and in the end, having fallen slightly short of the mark, Mugi pulls a few strings in order to allow Yui to buy it.
- K-On! also had one unintended side effect: it led me to watch Sora no Woto, as well. I had been looking for series similar to K-On! and chanced upon Sora no Woto, which had been held to be similar. While Yui and Kanata outwardly resemble one another, and each character in Sora no Woto has a functional equivalent in K-On!, the themes are dramatically different. Here, Yui presents her test results to the light music club: she’s done so poorly that she’s prohibited from club activities unless she can pass her exams on a second attempt.
- All of Yui’s friends, including Nodoka, show up to help her out: Nodoka’s known Yui the longest of everyone except for Ui, being someone that Yui came to depend upon. With their aid, Yui manages to pull through and gets excellent scores on each make-up exam, although this comes at the expense of her guitar-playing. As K-On! progresses, however, this aspect of Yui’s character fades away: K-On! does not recycle jokes to show that the characters subtly mature over time.
- Summer training camps are an integral part of K-On!‘s first season, and while ostensibly for the girls to get away from distractions so they can practise, all training camps devolve into the girls having fun on the beach. These seemingly extraneous side trips actually serve an important purpose in K-On!, showing how the girls always move at their own pace regardless of wherever they are, and admittedly, also provides a bit of an opportunity to show off Mio in swimwear: of everyone, Mio has the best figure.
- It was to my pleasure that the K-On! manga was sold at my local bookstore: I ended up buying all six volumes in the series, although the second volume was one I had considerable difficulty in finding. After picking up volumes one, three and four, plus the two volumes that were sent following K-On!!, I decided that for the sake of completion, I would order it online. Reading through the manga, I found that the anime to be a superbly faithful adaptation: some anime series take creative liberties with the source material, but K-On! successfully uses the space provided by the anime format to augment the story.
- The summer camp episodes also show that, for their propensity to slack off, the girls put their heart into practise when they are properly motivated. Enough instances of the girls practising are shown to indicate that they don’t just enter a concert blind, but because the technical aspects of music are not the focus of K-On!, audiences are not treated to the same level of insight as series that are more focused on music. One common criticism of K-On! was that the emphasis on music was insufficient, but this criticism only arises when one ignores the fact that K-On! is not about music. Instead, music acts as the catalyst that drives the formation and maturation of a deep friendship amongst the light music club.
- It was moments such as these that made Mio such an agreeable character for me: while she is mature, hard-working and focused, Mio can also be prone to moments of childishness, and in particular, is frightened by anything macabre. She recoils in fright whenever things like blood or ghosts are mentioned, and her over-the-top, yet adorable, reactions became widely known amongst the anime community. While amusing when sparingly seen, incessant reference to these moments at various forums and image boards may have also contributed to the dislike of K-On!.
- While the light music club may get along well, the club still lacks an advisor. Instructor Sawako Yamanaka is eventually strong-armed into taking on this role: Sawako was once a member of Death Devil, the predecessor band that was known for its death metal-like lyrics over-the-top style. Sawako retains most of her skills from her high school days, and after she berate the girls, Ritsu decides to extort Sawako: it turns out that Sawako most desires to maintain the image of a professional and approachable instructor, but fears that her students might lose respect for her should word of her past get out.
- Because Mio is intrinsically shy, she prefers playing the bass because it is more of a support role (mirroring one of my characteristics). If the circumstance calls for it, however, Mio will step up to the plate against her own reservations. While trying to prepare Yui to perform the vocals for their first-ever performance in front of their school, Yui becomes exhausted and loses her voice in the process, forcing Mio to take on the role.
- Mio does an admirable job with the performance, and delivers Fuwa Fuwa Time with a mature, sexy voice. Yui’s version is cuter by comparison. The school festival sets the stage for one of K-On!‘s most infamous moments – post performance, she trips on a power cable and moons the entire audience. The manga is very clear as to what happened, showing everything in what is one of the most overt pantsu moments ever to make it into a Manga Time Kirara series, whereas the TV series is more implicit. In a hilarious coincidence, I happen to have a striped rice bowl of the exact design seen in K-On!, except that the stripes are yellow rather than blue.
- Ui is Yui’s younger sister, and despite sharing Yui’s gentle and friendly manner, is the polar opposite to Yui: she is dependable, reliable and focused, being an excellent cook, good all-around student and capable of picking up almost anything without much difficulty. The two siblings are as close as siblings get, and while Ui is always looking out for Yui, Yui always does her best to find ways to make Ui happy, as well.
- Going back ten years and watching K-On! again has shown just how much the anime’s aged. Despite being a Kyoto Animation production, the artwork is somewhat inconsistent in places and minimalistic, while the animation is not smooth in some places. The first season was probably produced with the aim of being a 12-episode series aimed to promote the manga, and while overall, was of a passable quality from a visual perspective, its execution and delivery was strong enough so that reception to the series was overwhelmingly positive.
- The K-On! Christmas party sees shenanigans of an unexpected variety when Sawako shows up at Yui’s place unexpectedly. When I began watching K-On!, I was closer in age to Yui and the others than I was to Sawako. At the time of writing, that has irreversibly and unequivocally changed – I’m now older than Sawako, and found that K-On!‘s portrayal of Sawako as being only somewhat more mature than Yui and the others plausible. At the Christmas party, all sorts of crazy stuff happens, and while Mio is again, made to bear the brunt of the humiliation, everyone ends up having a good time.
- During the New Year’s, only Mio dons a kimono. The girls share with one another what they did over the winter break, and it turns out Yui spent the entire time under the kotatsu. As a high school student, I spent most of my winter breaks studying for exams: in university, I ended up spending time with friends (notably, I went skiing one winter break) and generally relaxing more, since my exams would have been done. Besides catching up, the girls also pray for the success of their light music club in the new year.
- K-On!‘s first half was about introducing Yui and the others to viewers. The second act brings Azusa “Azu-nyan” Nakano to the party: as Yui and the others enter their second year, Azusa begins her journey into high school. Armed with prior experience in playing the guitar, she initially has the same trouble as Yui did and cannot decide on what club to join. The art style in the second half begins taking on a more consistent form, and animation begins improving slightly compared to the first half.
- Yui attempts to recruit Ui and her friend, Jun, into the light music club, but Jun prefers to join the jazz club, being inspired by a senior. Ui does not join any clubs that I can remember. With the challenge posed by recruiting new members, the light music club decides to continue onwards anyways towards the welcoming reception for the first year students. When Yui and the others graduate, both Ui and Jun join the Light Music Club to keep Azusa company.
- Besides Fuwa Fuwa Time, the light music club also prepares a pair of new songs for the reception performance: Curry Nochi Rice and My Love is a Stapler are part of the line-up. I’m very fond of the music in K-On!, and even a decade later, the pieces Yui and the others perform are as fresh and enjoyable as they were when I first watched K-On!: the lyrics to Mio’s songs are spectacularly sappy, but the musical composition of each song is wonderfully done.
- The welcome performance moves Azusa to tears, and she decides to join the light music club, adding a second guitarist to their ranks. Unlike the others, Azusa has had previous experience with the guitar, and she comes in with the expectation that the light music club consists of dedicated members who can help her improve in music. The reality comes as a bit of a shock to Azusa when she learns that the club is about as frivolous as it gets, favouring cakes and cosplay over practise.
- Armed with upwards of seven more years of life experience since I last watched K-On!, I find that Azusa’s experience is like joining an top-notch software team, only to learn that during work hours, they crack bad software jokes and spend more time talking about Philz Coffee than coordinating on builds. Azusa feels short-changed when she spends a day with everyone and begins to wonder why someone like Mio hasn’t peaced out already for another band. However, the reality that keeps Azusa going with the light music club is equivalent to the idea that, despite this gap, the team gets along with one another and when the chips are down, are responsible, active developers who take pride in their work and follow best practises.
- The manga did not cover this aspect, but Azusa’s doubts about the viability of the light music club leads her to dissolve in tears one day when even Mio has trouble motivating Yui and Ritsu to practise. Mio ends up answering the question on Azusa’s mind: the light music club’s strength comes from a bond amongst the team members, and while it may not look it, this fun-loving team can definitely pull their weight and then some when the moment calls for it. It is probably naïve for me to say so, but this is actually what I value in a team – members who are easygoing and authentic people, but who are competent, determined and focused so that they can always rise to the occasion when things get serious.
- It suddenly strikes me that many of my own experiences, both during university and after, parallel those of K-On!. This is likely a consequence of the fact that that of everyone, I most resemble Mio – ironically, I also have Mio’s fear of the macabre despite my love for things like DOOM, and refuse to watch horror or slasher movies. Every team and group I’ve worked with, I tend to be the quiet and focused one, although once I warm up to a group, I’m known for creating a sense of reliability and an endless supply of bad jokes.
- Mugi’s family is always looking for ways to keep her happy, but they sometimes go overboard – during the light music club’s second training camp, they stock the summer house with expensive welcome gifts and have even prepared a yacht. Mugi immediately requests that they stand down here, so the girls can enjoy things as normally as possible. The girls subsequently enjoy another beautiful day together on the beaches, under skies of deepest blue. The finale to K-On! aired ten years previously, two days before the start of summer, and up here in Wildrose Country, the weather of late has been excellent, and the lengthening days are well suited for enjoying fresh home-made burgers under sunshine.
- Having two summer camps in the space of twelve episodes does seem a bit excessive, and prima facie appears to be little more than a flimsy excuse to showcase Mio’s excellent figure in a swimsuit. The manga, after all, spaced the summer camps over two volumes. However, the summer camps also act as an opportunity for the characters to bond with one another. Seeing how someone is outside of a professional or organised setting offers insight into their character and traits, so by seeing Yui, Ritsu, Mugi and even Mio without their instruments, Azusa can gain a better sense of what the atmosphere of the light music club is like.
- After preparing dinner in a most amusing way, the girls set about practising, and make it in a short ways before burning out and setting up a classic “test of courage”. They run into a disheveled Sawako, who resembles an onryō, and later soak in the onsen. K-On!‘s immense popularity drew the ire of narrow-minded viewers who adamantly refused to see any merits in the series. In particular, the folks of Behind The Nihon Review would write numerous posts arguing that K-On! was, amongst other perceived slights, “mediocrity at its quintessence”.
- Only mediocre reviewers use the word mediocrity seriously – Behind The Nihon Review’s writers operated under a perpetual belief that K-On! was “harmful” to the industry because even though the show does not advance the medium in any way, it was successful. These thoughts stem from a very limited understanding of what K-On! was about. K-On!‘s success does not come from its sense of humour, nor does it come from watching the characters bounce off one another. The meaningful message the series shows is that having heart makes a major difference, and is why Houkago Tea Time is able to perform at the level that it does despite the technical shortcomings amongst each members.
- The light music club ultimately takes its name “Houkago Tea Time” (“After School Teatime”) after an irate Sawako runs out of patience as the girls struggle to come up with a band name during registration of their club. Mio prefers something a lot sweeter-sounding, but Sawako’s choice is both appropriate and iconic, perfectly describing what the girls’ band is about. With Azusa now a full-on member of Houkago Tea Time, a few other side adventures, such as Yui learning to look after her guitar properly, are presented. It turns out that everyone’s named their guitars: Yui calls her guitar “Guitah”, while Mio calls her bass “Elizabeth”, and Azusa names her Mustang “Muttan”.
- Yui has never done any sort of maintenance on her guitar, and invariably, its performance starts degrading. After taking it in to get it serviced, the shopkeeper, who is familiar with the Kotobuki family, offers it free of charge to Mugi’s friends. Yui’s inexperience with everything is meant to indicate that being a musician has numerous nuances that one must be mindful of, and even though any musician will likely find Yui’s attitudes towards music to be blasé, K-On! is intended for the average viewer who may not be familiar with music.
- Jealous that Mio is becoming more friendly with Nodoka, Ritsu becomes more distant from the others. Azusa attempts to mediate things and even puts on the cat ears that she’s normally too embarrassed to wear, showing just how far Azusa has come with Houkago Tea Time. However, even this is ineffective, and it takes Mio visiting Ritsu when the latter develops a cold for the two to reconcile.
- For the school festival, Sawako wonders what to best outfit Houkago Tea Time in, and decides to use Mugi as the model. Even Mio participates in the selection process, and ultimately, the girls decide to go with a short yukata that Azusa takes a liking to. The others agree, feeling that it has a nice aesthetic but unlike more elaborate costumes, would not restrict their movement as to interfere with their playing.
- While I count K-On! to be a remarkable series for its execution and messages, ironically, for a series whose focus is on music, the incidental music to the TV series is ordinary in every respect. It does convey a light and fluffy mood, but beyond this, does not elevate the K-On! experience: when K-On! first began airing, the technical aspects were strictly average, improving in season two and by the time of the movie, both incidental music, artwork and animation reach a very high standard. Coming back from the K-On! The Movie really makes the first season feel primitive by comparison.
- Yui eventually falls ill after catching a cold, and is made to stay home so she can recover. Ui decides to stand in for Yui and swiftly masters the guitar, but is busted when she addresses Azusa as Azusa-san rather than Azu-nyan. Yui recovers just in time for the concert, but forgets her guitar at home and rushes off to retrieve it. K-On!‘s finale shows that while Yui’s come a long way since joining Houkago Tea Time, she’s still her. This aspect is revisited during the second season and movie.
- While K-On!‘s incidental music might be unremarkable, the vocal pieces are solid. For their final performance, the girls bring Fude pen, Boru pen to the table. The curiosity in the music of K-On! is what drew me to the series, and I was particularly drawn to the song Tenshi ni Fureta yo!. It’s not often that music can bring me into a series, but ultimately, I am glad to have followed my curiosity. I finished the first season just as winter term ended, and began the second season shortly after exams ended.
- Because of the impact K-On! had on me personally, in helping me regroup and survive a difficult university term, I’ve since come to regard well-done slice-of-life series as a tonic of sorts for life, acting as a source of stress relief. This is why criticisms of K-On! end up being something I do not expend effort giving any consideration to: the series does something very well, and stays true to its form. Watching characters grow and learn in a slice-of-life is something that I look for, and how favourably I regard a particular slice-of-life (or whether I choose to watch it at all) is driven by whether or not this component is present.
- Ten years later, while the original K-On! might not have aged quite so gracefully, the sum of its themes and what the series resulted in remain as powerful as they had back in 2009. Whether or not critics admit so, the reality is that K-On! left a tremendous impact on anime. I will be returning at some point to write about K-On!!, the second season, and remark that I’ve written about the movie on enough occasions so that another review is quite unnecessary. With this one in the books, I’ve done all of the larger posts for this month, and in the remaining days of June, I plan on covering Yama no Susume: Omoide Present, as well as the final thoughts I have for Valkyria Chronicles 4 and my experiences in Battlefield V now that a new map has been out.
The sum of a minimalistic, yet effective theme, fun characters and the presence of good music contributed to K-On!‘s runaway success during its initial airing in 2009, and even a decade later, the aspects that make K-On! particularly enjoyable remain effective, being seen in other series such as GochiUsa, Kiniro Mosaic and numerous others, speaking to the strengths of K-On!. Coming right after the likes of CLANNAD, K-On! does not hold a candle to its predecessor in emotional impact, animation and art quality: the technical aspects have not aged gracefully, and the first season looks very dated. However, the series did ultimately come to make its own presence felt in a very distinct and enjoyable fashion, capturing audiences with its endearing characters and excellent music. Even if K-On! has not aged well, it sets the stage for future developments that propel the series down a path where it is able to explore the more subtle and intimate aspects of friendship. K-On! will continue to present a genuine and heartfelt story surrounding how a group of people ultimately are brought together by music, become friends through their shared experiences and ultimately use music to convey how they feel about one another, and so, the first season’s contributions are that it sets the stage for the events that have yet to come, bringing Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Mugi and Azusa together to start a journey that results in the creation of treasured memories that are irreplaceable. Hence, even if K-On! had been polarising during and after its run, indicating that it is not suitable for everyone, I find that K-On! is something I would recommend without hesitation because it marks the beginning of a remarkable adventure that is heartwarming, relaxing and amusing, irrespective of what critics may make of the franchise.