Zen, Music, and So. Much. Tea. (My K-On! Obsession, Part One)
Source: K-On! Wiki
So those who pay attention to such things have probably noticed by now that I’ve been rambling from time to time on Twitter et al. about K-On!, which started as a four-panel manga comic in 2007 and was adapted to an anime in 2010, eventually gaining a total of 39 episodes and a feature film. K-On! sat in my “Anime To Be Watched” bucket list for some time and I finally found it streamable on Hulu.
I devoured it over the course of a few weeks and, like Cardcaptor Sakura and Love Hina before it, it has already started to have a huge impact on my own work. On the strength of the anime I also tracked down and read the manga, which in many ways turned out to be a mistake… but I will get to that in another post.
The premise of K-On! is simple enough: it is a silly comedy, following the daily activities and school career of a Japanese high school “light music” club. The series begins with the club’s founding, and ends when the girls graduate, and spends a lot of time watching the girls joke around and be silly goofs. Like Seinfeld‘s famously being “about nothing,” there are no major dramas and nothing “exciting” ever happens. This leads to the show’s most common criticism, that it’s nothing more than “cute girls doing cute things.”
But looks can be deceiving.
In case it isn’t obvious, there will be spoilers for K-On! ahead, in as much as you can spoil something that doesn’t exactly have plot twists. It does have surprises, of course– that’s how comedy works.
Season One, Part One: Yui
The structure of the series basically breaks down into five pieces, which are simply enough: season one (parts one and two), season two (parts one and two), and the movie. Each one builds on the one before, and there is actually a story arc that connects them all, but it’s subtle and made of dozens of small blocks, rather than the more typical major plot points.
Season one part one focuses on Yui, the viewpoint character through most of the series. She is aimless and dreamy, having spent her life drifting in a kind of fog, only able to survive everyday life because she keeps being adopted by protectors such as her little sister Ui and her friend Nodoka. Yui is sweet-natured and playful, and is an archetypal savant, capable of doing incredible things once she sets herself to it, but in order to learn a skill, she has to forget some other skill to “make room” for it.
Yui wanders into the K-On (or “light music”) Club thinking that it will be like her elementary school music class, where she can just clap castanets and be told she’s doing a great job by the teacher, and is more than a little dismayed to discover that they expect her to actually do things like sing in public and play a real instrument. She immediately decides to quit.
On the other hand, the rest of the club members have a big problem: the club must have at least four members, or the school will disband it. It’s only by the sheer force of club president Ritsu’s personality compelling the other two current members to join that it has as many as it does. In order to save the club, Ritsu and the others pull out all the stops to convince Yui to stay, first by playing a concert for her, then promising to teach her to play the guitar, and then finally all going out and getting part time jobs to actually buy Yui a guitar, as she can’t afford one on just her allowance. This gesture moves Yui so much that she vows to learn to play the guitar no matter what it takes, to honor what they’ve done for her and so the four of them can stay together and play as a band.
The remainder of the first half of the first season is spent fleshing out the supporting cast and establishing the characters of the club itself. The focus here is on episodic comedy, and it’s really good comedy, whether it’s the Mutt-and-Jeff banter of mischievous Ritsu versus straight-laced Mio, Yui’s airheadedness, or the “What planet are you from???” humor of rich girl Mugi and the club’s faculty sponsor and resident cosplay-fanatic Sawako. At this point in K-On!, the laughs come fast and frequent… and this quietly sneaks you into caring about the girls and their daily travails, as well as seeing their friendships form and strengthen. The K-On club spends precious little time actually working on their music, tending to drink tea and eat cake more than anything else, but they all love spending time in each other’s company, and somehow manage to pull it together when performance time actually comes.
Season One, Part Two: Azunyan
As funny as the opening episodes are, the show really doesn’t become “about” anything until midway through the first season, with the appearance of Azusa. In the story, a year has passed by this point and for Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi, it’s the beginning of their second year. Hokagou (“After School”) Tea-Time, the official name for their band, is playing at the reception to welcome new freshmen to the school, and there they are seen by Azusa, a freshman guitarist who is immediately mesmerized by the chemistry and unity of the band.
She quickly signs up to join the K-On club, much to the joy of all but especially Yui, who has never had someone look up to her before and goes off into her own dreamworld at being called “Yui-sempai.” At first the upperclassmen fawn over how girlish and cute Azusa seems, to the point of putting her in cat ears and treating her like a kitten. Instead of calling her “Azusa-chan,” as would be more typical, Yui dubs her Azunyan (or “Azu-meow” in the English version), a name that will stick.
This dynamic is almost immediately turned on its head, however, when the rest of the girls discover that not only is Azusa a much better guitar player than Yui, but is actually a more skilled musician than just about any of them and takes her music very, very seriously– to the point where she yells at her upperclassmen for their blasé attitude and storms out. She does eventually return, but it’s clear that the event has had a deep impact on the other four, making them take their music more seriously, but also making them realize how important the club is to all of them.
Azunyan, for her own part, comes to realize that there’s more to making music than the technical skills involved. What made the Hokagou Tea Time concert that blew her mind so enthralling, wasn’t how well each member of the band played their individual instrument, but how well the four of them blended together to become something larger than the sum of their parts, and it’s that connection that she has been searching for up to now. Even though the K-On club is in many ways a group of 4+1 rather than a group of five (something that will become even more important in the second season), Azunyan is still an important member of the group, a thumb to their four fingers.
The remainder of the first season (which is actually quite short) is in some ways a do-over of the first half, only now exploring the dynamics of the “new, improved” K-On club and ironing out rough spots, such as the back-and-forth between Ritsu and Mio and how their own culture of two fit together, and how aimless airhead Yui of the first episode has morphed into the focused and energetic (if still an airhead) Yui of the season finale.
Season Two, Part One: The Golden Age
The entirety of season two, which actually has twice as many episodes as season one, takes place over the course of the four upperclassmen’s senior year, and that countdown to graduation informs the entire season. The first episode of the season opens with Yui, no longer floating in a mental bubble, instead zooming to school on the first day of the year, running up to the music room, and rocking out on her guitar in a routine she’s clearly been practicing for some time while she waits for the rest of her friends to arrive.
With the beginning of the school year, the club again turns its efforts towards recruitment, not only because that’s just what you do at the beginning of the school year, but because when the original four graduate, that will leave Azunyan completely alone. It’s a muted note at first, but it is also the moment when the girls first realize that before long, there will be no more After-School Tea Time, both figuratively in the name of the band, and literally, because they will graduate and scatter and not be there to drink tea together.
Their recruitment efforts fail, with the suggested reason being that because the girls already seem to be such a tightly-knit group, that none of the freshmen want to join because they’d feel like they were intruding. In an usually level-headed speech, Yui tells the other three upperclassmen that she actually prefers it this way, wanting to enjoy the time of being just the five friends while they can; Azunyan overhears this, and realizing how important her club-mates have become to her, agrees, deciding to let the future of the club resolve itself… in the future. Yui does insist on at least a gesture of giving Azusa a “new recruit” of her own to look after… in the form of the pet turtle Ton-chan. It’s not quite the same as new members, but it’s the only way Yui has to make sure Azunyan won’t be alone.
The next several episodes of the series then very deliberately stop talking about it. That isn’t to say that the subject isn’t there, but the girls, and by extension the show, all make a point of being “in the moment,” whether the moment is a Christmas party, or a school trip to Kyoto, or several rainy days and Yui’s various attempts to keep her guitar from getting ruined by the weather. The four upperclassmen, sharing the same class, become more and more of a unit by their shared experiences, while Azusa begins to form her own connections with other girls in her class (notably Yui’s younger sister Ui, and their mutual friend Jun). But the older girls and Azusa keep making a point to come together, by phone call or text message if they have to, even if those calls or texts are random and out-of-context inside jokes sent by Yui. The older girls think of Azusa as being one of them, regardless of circumstances keeping them apart, and they are always eager to bring the group back together.
Season Two, Part Two: Thank You and Farewell
Structurally, K-On! goes a little wonky here, which seems to be an artifact of the manga/anime production process more than anything. It’s fairly typical for an anime adaptation to run while the manga is still in publication, and since anime comes out much faster, it’s quite common for the manga to run out of story long before the anime does. (Love Hina went through this as well, as have who-knows-how-many other stories.)
Thus, the final half of season two seems to have been written mostly by the animation studio, rather than being adaptations of the manga. The last point where there is clear overlap is the class play, where Ritsu and Mio are roped into playing Romeo and Juliet much against their will. From there, the anime production studio start pointing squarely at the final school festival and the older girls’ graduation, while the manga continues being more-or-less serial gags. (And as before, I’ll talk a bit about the manga in another post.)
In the latter half of season two, as graduation looms, all five of the main characters have to face and cope with what is a metaphorical death. Having spent so much of the past two or three years respectively being defined by their connection to the K-On club, they have to figure out what their lives will mean without it. The older four girls therefore resolve to all get accepted to the same college– something highly unlikely given their very different social strata and academic achievement levels. As a band, they will play together one last time at the school festival, an echo of the festival that first brought Azunyan into their fold. But no matter what happens, even if the upperclassmen somehow manage to achieve their goal of landing the same college, there is no way to stay as five. The upperclassmen will graduate, and Azunyan will be left behind. That much is unavoidable. And so they have to find somehow to say farewell.
It’s hard to discuss the ending of the series without a) giving away spoilers, and b) getting all emotional. Somewhere along the line the comedy of the show, while still ever-present, has backed off a little and the emotional content has become the driving force, and by the time that becomes clear the viewer is left to wonder when that actually happened, because it was so subtle and by degrees. There’s never a “it was comedy, now it is drama” moment, but there is a definite moment when you realize the warm and endearing K-On! you’re watching at the end, is not the same pure goofiness you were watching when it started.
The true emotional climax of the series, the festival concert, is quite powerful. All of the understated realization of the clubs’ approaching end is finally brought to the foreground. It’s an intense and moving episode… which then weirdly leaves something like five more episodes to go. This is the structural wonkiness I was referring to before. There are still important emotional beats, as the girls’ college future is decided, and they give Azunyan her farewell gift, but as important as they are, none of these hit with the same force as the festival concert episode. It’s not unlike Peter Jackson’s film version of Return of the King, which feels like it ends three times before the credits finally roll.
This problem could have probably been addressed by tighter planning in the series planning stage, but knowing how working on serial entertainment of any kind is, on top of what little I have actually learned about the anime industry, I’m not terribly surprised it ended up the way it did. And really it’s not that big of a flaw, but it is the first real gaffe of the entire series in my opinion. (The other major gaffes of the series, in my opinion, happen in the movie.)
And then… the series ends. Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi graduate, give Azunyan a farewell concert and song with her as both subject and sole audience member, and head off to new adventures in the future. Azusa becomes the new club president, with Ui and Jun as her first recruits, to carry on the club next year. The members of Hokagou Tea Time will never stop being friends, and never stop loving each other, but life must carry on in separate ways.
Encore: K-On! The Movie
The K-On! movie is kind of a weird duck. It is set during the same time frame as the latter half of the second season, and focuses on the K-On club all taking a pre-graduation trip together to England. Although it goes into more detail about the composition of the farewell song Yui writes for Azunyan, there is little actual new story. It is instead mostly a retelling of the end of the series with a slightly different focus, with quick cameos of every supporting character, recurring gag, or visual motif of the series crammed into an hour and a half.
The one new thing the movie does bring to K-On, which has until now been almost completely nonexistent… is puberty. Which brings me to the topic of shipping.
When Yuri Met Moe
So. About K-On! and shipping. Well.
I mean, it’s there… kinda? But it’s also mostly not. Sort of.
It’s hard to discuss. I mean, Ritsu and Mio are pretty much platonic life partners from childhood, to the point where they are literally shipped by their own classmates, who strongarm them into playing the roles of Romeo and Juliet for the class play. Despite the views of a thousand fanfics, the two of them don’t seem to actually be romantically inclined and are both less-than-thrilled at the prospect of being treated as if they are or forced to act as if they are, but that’s a damn shame because the two of them are so perfect for each other. Neither one will ever be as happy with a husband as they would both be just staying together as spinsters for the rest of their lives.
Then there’s Mugi, who clearly sees the world through yuri goggles (even more explicitly so in the manga than in the anime), gets all shippy when Sawako-sensei so much as puts her hand on someone’s shoulder, and kinda squicks the rest of the club by rambling about “how nice it is when it’s just girls.” But that, beyond Yui’s never-ending glompage of Azunyan, is as far as the series goes. Yui is established early on as wanting to hug anything cute (such as every dog she ever meets on the street), and so her glomping on Azunyan easily falls into the realm of “more of the same.” Yui thinks of Azusa as an adorable kitten from the minute she first walks through the club door and never stops thinking of her that way.
How Azusa feels about it, on the other hand, is harder to make out. Being the archetypal tsundere kohai catgirl, of course she objects to any form of PDA… and Yui is the club queen of inappropriate PDAs… but she also is very clearly eager to hear from and spend time with her sempais, and spends a lot of time connecting with Yui in particular as time goes on. (Early on, most notably in the manga, Azusa seems to crush on Mio, the same way half the school crushes on Mio. I think this may be a cultural thing, or possibly indicative of the manga writer’s own preferences… Mio, after all, is the only member of Hokagou Tea Time to have a fan club, the show has a strange fascination with putting Mio into maid outfits, and so on.)
Without having shipping goggles on, it’s hard to read more than the weird pressure-cooker of being a teenager into the ship-teases in the series. But then the movie comes along and, basically… Azusa puts on her shipping goggles. Yui spends most of the movie trying to come up with lyrics for the band’s farewell song to Azusa; at one point, Azusa catches a glimpse of Yui’s notebook which has the words “Azusa” and “love” on the same page, jumps to the conclusion that Yui is crushing on her, and she spends the middle part of the movie in an extended freakout.
From the standpoint of “that kind of thing happens in real life,” well, yes it does. I’ve been in those “Do they or don’t they?” extended freakouts myself and Azunyan’s thoughts and behavior were very relatable.
However, from the standpoint of “is this a good story for K-On!“… I’m not so sure. To be quite honest, it feels more like a fanfic than an actual K-On! story. The main series, up until the last graduation arc, is characterized by its light and fluffy, almost-all-jokes-all-the-time approach. The only time anything in the series comes close to touching on romance is in a bonus episode when Ritsu thinks she’s received a love letter and broods about it, only to discover it was actually just song lyrics from Mio the whole time. To delve into shipping, comes across as just putting in what the writers assume the audience expects this kind of show to contain, while missing what K-On! is actually about.
So What IS It Actually About, If You’re So Smart?
K-On! is a thesis on zen, cleverly disguised as a moeblob slice-of-life– the same way Groundhog Day is a buddhist parable disguised as a romantic comedy.
Despite the surface gloss of being cute and silly antics of some hyper and ditzy high school girls, K-On! is really about being engaged in the moment. Yui begins the series floating along detached from everything, and doesn’t really come alive until something catches her and makes her want to engage. Ritsu goes off on silly imaginary adventures in her head for fun, and has her own mini-crisis when she wants to forsake her drums for something that will bring her more attention… but then when she stops, digs in, and actually experiences the moment, she becomes inspired to take them up again. The majority of the second season is a study in “Let’s enjoy the now, because soon it will be gone!”
This is why “nothing happens.” Because the show is not about things happening. It’s about these characters going through various experiences and how it shapes them. Super-focused Yui, rocking out during the first moments of the second season premiere, is in a perfect moment of zen, where her sense of self and all the worldly distractions are released, and only the truth of the moment remains.
This is why shipping particularly is a misguided addition. Because what is shipping, besides attachment? That yuri feeling of longing, that rambling obsession with what could be, what might be, what ones wishes were true, these are not what is. Yui and Azusa’s awkward, embarrassing, and largely one-sided confrontation doesn’t lead to any kind of enlightenment on the subject, either. Azusa’s illusions collapse in on themselves, but she doesn’t learn anything from it… and Yui barely even registers what happened.
Granted, I’m prone to wearing shipping goggles. Heck, I ship my own characters. ¬.¬ So naturally this part of the movie had me intensely interested while it was happening, but even then I felt like it was off and would probably have been left unsatisfied by anything they did with it, just for this “it’s not what the show is about” feeling. But it also broke the cardinal rule of comedy by not being funny. So what seems to have been largely intended as the centerpiece of the movie just doesn’t work, and it undercuts the payoff of seeing the “upperclassmen sing to Azusa” episode repeated in high res at the movie’s end.
All of that said, the movie is still beautiful to look at and does remind you of all the warm and fuzzy feelings the series generated in the first place, so to that extent it does the job. But I would definitely say that K-On! The Movie is something that only has appeal to people who already love (and have watched) the anime series in the first place.
And Still More Blather to Come…
This post is already way longer than anyone is likely to read– so if you have read to this point, you have my amazed gratitude! I have more to say about the topic, in particular going into the manga, the differences, and the attempts at sequel/continuations, but also about how the show has impacted the way I look at and approach Suburban Jungle, but I think I’d better put all that stuff in another post… later. Until then, I invite you to check out the video below, on how the animation brings the characters of K-On! to life.