It was The Secret of NIMH that made me realize men were boring.
I mean, men can have their uses, and a few of us are marginally clever, but it wasn’t until The Secret of NIMH that I began to feebly catch a glimmer of the quantum differences between life as a man and life as a woman, even when dealing with the same things.  And from that point, women began to dominate my writing, and my reading too, when I have the option.
There are exceptions; NeverNever was theoretically about Arthur and Col. Beowulf (although the strip didn’t really come to life until Mopsy showed up, and I don’t think that’s an accident). Greg has sliiiiightly more focus in the Brigid and Greg fictionlets. Michael Macbeth had a long run as a character I kept trying to write about. But compare them to, say, Tiffany Tiger or Verity Anjo, and it’s probably easy to see where my creative interests lie. And as a general rule, in any given group, I gravitate towards and generally feel more kinship with the women.
I have been told that I write women characters well, for which I’m grateful. As much as this is true, beyond the obvious “write about human beings, regardless of their gender,” I suspect comes mostly from simply shutting up and listening to what women say, not just in public discourse, but also (and more importantly) to each other. This latter can be hard to pull off in daily life– women’s behavior changes when there’s a man around just as much as men’s behavior changes when a woman is– so I do it mostly by reading things written by women for a female audience. Doing this took me a long time to get used to, as I had to overcome a lot of social programming designed specifically to prevent it. But it has also taught me many, many things.
At a certain point, however, there are barriers I simply can’t cross. I know what muscle cramps feel like, and I know how changing brain chemistry can send my moods all over the map but I’ll never have a period or PMS. I can use my imagination to picture being shorter, lighter, and more flexible, but at the end of the day I will always be 6’2″ and one of the largest people I know. I know what it’s like to have people randomly dislike you or discount your opinion for no good reason, but I don’t get told I’m “dominating” a conversation when I’ve said one thing for every four things said by someone else.
I think about this sometimes when I’m working on Suburban Jungle. I know I have women readers, but if I had to guess I would assume that my readership skews mostly male. Certainly, there is a tendency among some of my readers to want me to, as the saying goes, “cater to the male gaze.” This isn’t just things like wanting pinup poses or playing up the sexualization of any given situation (although there is certainly that), it’s also pressure to reinforce stereotypical gender roles such as wanting the men come to Charity’s rescue or attacking Langley for being “too bitchy.” It might not be male gaze so much as “want everything to fit into comfortable traditional pigeonholes” gaze, I suppose… but whatever it is, I can tell it’s out there.
I also think about a comment I read online somewhere about K-On! which strikes me as relevant. The comment, left on a review somewhere I have long since lost the link to, was that it was nice to have a show about girls that actually felt like it was about girls, and not just some guy writing his vague idea of the sort of things girls do and repeating all the usual things that sort of scenario usually leads to.
There’s a reason for that, of course. Despite being a show about high school girls, K-On! was originally created by a man for a primarily male audience. What made the K-On! anime a commercial success in Japan, and arguably one of the reasons why it is so much better than most of the other shows of its type, was that it was made by Kyoto Animation, a studio comprised largely of women, who added all that other stuff and gave the show tremendous crossover appeal. In short, K-On! was popular with women too, not just with the stereotypical moe-fan otaku. And when women get behind a thing, they go big. 😉
And really, if I could arrange it, that’s the kind of reaction I’d want people to have to Suburban Jungle. Someone once told me that despite the obvious fantasy elements “When Wally Met Mikey” from the original SJ was the most realistic depiction of a fledgeling gay relationship he’d seen in a comic– which made me very proud. I don’t know if I can hit that level again with Charity and her friends, but it is the target I’m shooting for. And among other things, that means pushing past comfortable traditional pigeonholes, and being as true to the “reality” of the characters as I can.
 See also Scalzi’s discussions of “straight, white male is EZ mode.” Not that it’s all sunshine and roses– being male in our society is a lonesome and painful business, as Norah Vincent so powerfully demonstrated. But on the grand scale of life, not being able to talk about your feelings or wear attractive clothes and constantly having to fight the effects of testosterone poisoning, don’t quite stack up to being in constant (if usually low-level) fear for your life and having to work twice as hard for 2/3 the pay and recognition. And also, any woman over the age of 12 is more badass than most men ever have to be. Ask anyone who draws blood for a living. They’ll tell you.
In 2014, I missed Suburban Jungle so much that I decided it was time to return to it. But I couldn’t just pick up with Tiffany, Leonard and the crew seven years later. Tiffany’s story was finished, and as she was the star that the rest of the comic orbited around, there was nowhere for it to go except to just sort of string along as a zombie franchise. So I decided instead to for a “next generation” idea, and Rough Housing was born.
I freely admit, I had very little idea what I was doing with it at first, so I just tossed in a bunch of things that I liked and figured it would gel. Possibly not the best way to start a new project, but it was also true of the original Suburban Jungle and that seemed to go fine. My initial vision for Rough House was a lot more pure OTT zaniness and parody. Issue two pretty much exemplifies this, with the S.S. Plot Device and “The _______ of Cangrejo Diablo!” being typical of the kind of jokes I had in mind.
But for whatever reason… I just didn’t love it. Scripting was constantly a chore and instead of wacky hijinks I kept wanting to write shippy or emotional moments. By the end of issue three and well into the scripting for issue four it would be fair to say that Rough Housing was having an existential crisis behind the scenes. This resulted in the scripting for issues four and five taking forever as I wrangled with it.
I knew from the beginning of the “Best Bodies Contest” arc that the big payoff moments were Parker getting up on that stage, and Leonard’s final decision. But I also clung to the idea of wacky hijinks, envisioning lots of sabotage at the contest, Charity doing ridiculous things to stall Leonard and Morrison, and so forth. But while the emotional moments flowed quickly and easily, for the hijinks I ended up with whole pages of script that said things like “FUNNY SCENE HERE.” Fortunately I was able to lean on my wit to come up with gags on a page-by-page basis, but it was a frustrating way to run a railroad.
But as I was working on issue five, two important things happened. First, I began streaming my art sessions, enabling me to get real-time feedback from some of my most engaged readers and see what they responded to and why. Second, I was watching and falling in love with K-On! and examining how I responded to that and why. And when I spotted the overlap, everything clicked.
See, here’s the thing: K-On! hits the sweet spot perfectly. At its core, it’s a remarkably subtle, character-driven story about connections, loss, savoring the moments of life, and so much more– but it sneaks all this past you by being adorable and laugh-out-loud funny. But the humor isn’t the GIANT MONSTERS ATTACK humor of Love Hina or Sgt. Frog. The girls spontaneously forming a cheerleading squad for Ritsu as she tries to eat a receipt they don’t want their teacher to see gets me every time, but it’s also a completely realistic moment.
This was the eye-opener for me. The original Suburban Jungle was very comfortable with the GIANT MONSTERS ATTACK style, with its very tenuous fourth wall, aliens hiding in the sun’s corona, and all that jazz, but when people talk to me about it today, what do they talk about? How Tiffany, Drezzer, or Leona impacted them personally. The connection they felt to Mikey and Wally. How they identified with Dover’s codespeak.
The people in my streams, similarly, talk a lot about how adorable Charity is and wanting to give her a hug, being proud of Parker’s overcoming his fears, or how fun it is to see Rufo wanting to make out with anything that moves.
In other words, the parts that were coming the most easily, are the parts that work the best anyway. XD So! Lesson learned.
The influence of K-On! has already worked its way into rewrites and page layouts. This Langley/Rufo moment, for instance, was not in my original script. It was inspired by the chemistry between Ritsu and Mio and tossed in to spruce up an otherwise dull page, but it’s just as great a moment for these two goofballs.
But the lessons I learned from K-On!, and the realizations I made about Rough Housing along the way, are going to have big repercussions moving forward. Issue six will see a shift away from “this issue’s funny premise”-style writing to focus more on the characters’ goals and fleshing out generally. I also hope to move away from being quite so much focus on Charity to being more of a proper ensemble with stories about the rest of the cast. (Who is Bounce? What does he do all day? What’s the deal between Langley and Rufo?)
This may lead to eventually changing up the cast somewhat, if existing characters aren’t working or new characters might work better. We’ll see. Rough Housing is sure to evolve over the next issues, but I finally feel like I understand it now. Giant monster attacks and wacky hijinks are not and were never going to be the strength of this comic, and really aren’t the strength of my writing generally. It’s the characters and connections, and the humor that naturally arises from them, that will make or break it.
Giant monster attacks may still show up from time to time, who knows? But where before I was saying “A giant monster attacks! What do the Rough Housers do?” I’m instead going to start with “The Rough Housers want X. How does that pan out?”
You’d think after being a writer for thirty-mumble years, I’d have learned that lesson by now. I guess I just need periodic reminders.
So what do you do when your little four-panel comedy manga gets picked up as an anime series and blows away all expectations, becoming a huge hit– even if that success has more to do with the anime studio than with your own talent?
…You cash in, of course! Which is what the creator of K-On! attempted to do with K-On: College and K-On: High School. Spoiler alert: it didn’t really work, but you can’t blame the guy for trying. But what I’m really interested in here is the attempt, because I’ve found a lot of interesting applicability to my work on Suburban Jungle.
I won’t go quite as far as Digibro and say that “the K-On! manga suuuuuuucks” because I don’t think it does. I mean, everything in the manga is also in the anime. It’s just that the anime is also so much more. Reading the K-On! manga feels like an outline, or a very rough draft storyboard of the anime series.
To fault the manga for this is kinda pointless. K-On! the manga never professed to be anything more than what it was: a disposable four-panel comedy strip. Imagine if Zootopia was a licensed version of a Garfield-style comic, and you might see what I’m getting at.
To that end, I don’t envy the position Kakifly (the creator of K-On!) found himself in. The story of K-On! had a definite end, and there were only two real ways you could carry on: either you follow the older four off to college, or you stick with Azusa and do the next year of high school. I don’t know if he was unable to decide which, or he wanted to hedge his bets, or what, but he went with “do both,” running two different series simultaneously with alternating chapters… effectively dooming himself to not doing either one well.
More of the Same, But Differently
Of the two branches, the High School storyline works better, if only because the characterization is stronger. Azusa, Ui, and Jun were already established by the original series, and Nao is an interesting new addition in her own gothy way. Sumire… eh… the less said about Sumire the better. But the storyline, as far as it goes, focusing on Azusa’s quest to create her own Light Music Club rather than living in the shadow of the previous one, does at least have a spark.
The College storyline, by contrast, just falls flat. The only new character who makes an impression at all is Akira, the lead guitarist of “rival band” Only Girlz– but even she was clearly created to merge the roles of Yui’s caretaker and tsundere glomp-target into a single character. It’s as if Kakifly tossed Ui, Nodoka, and Azusa into a blender to create Akira… and then had no more ideas for the rest of the cast. As for storyline, there isn’t any to speak of beyond a vague “battle of the bands” one-sided rivalry on Akira’s part that even the members of Hokagou Tea Time barely even notice.
In short, the follow-up manga series disappoint for two major reasons: the first being that the manga was never as good as the anime in the first place, and the second being that the follow-ups needed to be more removed from the original series and allowed to be their own thing. (The fact that a big Yui/Azusa reunion moment keeps being hinted at, but never appears, doesn’t help either. I’m guessing this was being set up to be the highlight of some future chapter that never materialized.)
When You Come to the End, Stop
As I say, I don’t envy Kakifly’s position… because I was in a similar one myself. When I decided I wanted to return to The Suburban Jungle, there was a lot of pressure from people wanting me to just pick up where it left off and basically do more of the same, with variations. Some people wanted Leona to become the new star, some people wanted Drezzer, many people just wanted it to keep on going the way it had.
And Suburban Jungle was a mid-tier webcomic! I can’t imagine the kind of pressure I would have felt if it had been made into hugely successful TV series.
But at the same time, I have studied enough sequels, spin-offs, and reboots to know that just tacking on more chapters after “the end” just feels anti-climactic. It didn’t work for Babylon 5 (twice!), it didn’t work for M*A*S*H or Are You Being Served? or even The Three Musketeers and it wasn’t going to work for me.
That’s why I took such pains to separate Rough Housing from Starring Tiffany Tiger. There is some of that “combine characters from the previous cast to make a new character” thing going on… Charity, besides being the combination of Dover and Comfort one would expect from their child, also has elements of Tiffany, for instance. But it was important to me from the beginning that there not be any absolute corollaries, and not simply repeating the same story or gags with a different skin.
In the case of K-On!, my armchair advice would have been first to let a few years pass in the real world in order to gain some distance from the work, and then to have made a stronger break. If you absolutely wanted to continue with those five characters, which I think could have worked, then fast forward past college and reunite them as adults. My suggestion: make them the stars of a TV show about a band, a la The Monkees, and having to deal with wanting to be For Realz Serious Musicians in a world that just thinks of them as being a corporate cash-in. That could open whole new avenues of humor and would crank up the recurring theme from the original of serious musicianship vs. fluffling off in new and interesting ways. Just imagine Ritsu trying to manipulate studio execs, or Mio finding a website full of fanfiction about herself, for starters…
Dammit, now I want to develop this show. ¬.¬ Anybody got the phone number for Kyoto Animation?
In the my first post about K-On!, I mentioned that the anime series was considerably stronger than the manga, and that it is something I do intend to post about in the not-too-distant future.
In the meantime, however, YouTuber and anime-critic-at-large Digibro has posted a video on this very topic. Digibro and I are on the same page about a lot of things in re: K-On!, and I think he covers a lot of ground here. So if you’re interested in my K-On! obsession (and why wouldn’t anyone be?), it’s worth a watch.
My own particular thoughts on the topic have more to do with the followup series (K-On: College and K-On: High School) than with the manga-to-anime journey itself, so that’s what I’ll be concentrating on my own post, when the time comes.
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.