Yui against the World...
I recently decided to start watching K-On!!, the artist formally known as K-On! In anime, you see, exclamation marks are always in style, and this particular anime show even uses them in place of Roman numerals. A friend joked to me that a hypothetical fifteenth season of K-On! would be called K-On!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, to which I quipped that only one man could ever pronounce that name correctly...
And, indeed, the (in)famous raging of Captain Kirk here is somewhat representative of the rage that many anime fans feel for K-On! (with or without multiple exclamation marks). Of course, K-On! is a polarizing anime, with many passionate fans as well as highly vocal critics. How fitting, then, that the cast of K-On!! is rather polarized itself...
And that, my friends, is what I find really stands out about K-On!! to me.
But before I get into that, I want to thank 0utf0xZer0, for indirectly persuading me to watch more of an anime that I had largely dismissed. 0utf0xZero linked me to a post on Anime Suki that made statements about K-On!! which caused me to raise eyebrows, not unlike a certain close friend of Captain Kirk's. ;)
That post, and a short discussion with 0utf0xZer0, prompted me to watch some K-On!!, to see what these observations were all about. In so doing, though, I have come to make some different observations of my own.
Far from being less plot-driven than its original season, the second season of this anime feels a bit more plot-heavy to me. While still largely episodic, there is a continuous clamorous conflict lying just below the superficial sweet surface of this anime; a conflict that hence acts as a tight thread tying most of the episodic plots together into a grand overarching narrative development. We saw the slightest of shades of this conflict in the original season, but they truly come to the fore in this second season.
What is the conflict I'm referring to, you ask?
Well, as stated underneath the opening picture of this anime, the conflict is Yui Hirasawa vs. The World
Oh, what irony!
Back in 2009, I decried how K-Onified The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya had become in both artstyle and mood. I felt that while that art style and mood suited K-On! well, I also felt that it was out of place in an universe where reality itself was constantly threatened by the whims of a domineering teenage girl. In short, Haruhi Suzumiya's anime works best with a more realistic and sharper art style to compliment its inherently dramatic and suspenseful nature.
And yet, some of the drama and suspense of Haruhi Suzumiya's anime has now found itself in K-On!! Whereas Haruhi once became more like Yui, we now see Yui become more like Haruhi. Yui is becoming more like Haruhi in how she more strongly represents an unbridled free spirit trying to overcome a conformist heavily structured world. The original season of K-On! had slight hints of that, but not much of it. K-On!!, however, is simply overflowing with several fronts in this struggle.
Within the light music band of Afternoon Tea Time itself, we see an ongoing internal struggle with Ritsu and Yui on one side, Azusa and Mio on the other, and Mugi caught inbetween. Ritsu and Yui represent a more libertarian happy-go-lucky approach to the world, whereas Azusa and Mio represent an authoritarian law and order approach. And this isn't simply a matter of goofing off and eating cakes contrasted with actually practicing their music; this is about an overarching approach to life itself.
Azusa and Mio are ever formal, ever reserved and quick to embarrass, and ever organized. Ritsu and Yui are ever informal, ever transparent and impulsive. Mugi is the relative outsider, who mediates between the two sides, drifting back and forth.
In the original season, I felt that what internal conflict there was within the band was there purely for comedy, and that it usually painted Ritsu and Yui in a negative light. However, in this second season, I find the conflict much more ambiguous and hence real. I frequently find myself siding with Ritsu and Yui, and feeling that Azusa and Mio badly need to loosen up, let their hair down, and unclinch.
I think of episodes four and seven here, for two examples. While episode four left me with the impression that Ritsu and Yui are doing some heavy drugs, it also left me feeling that Mio should let herself go a bit more. If your friends are having such a good time, you might as well get in on the fun while you can.
Episode seven is similar in how it takes a lot of effort, much of it on the part of Ritsu and Yui, to get Mio to come a bit out of her protective shell and open up more to her ultimately harmless fan club. As an aside, I've never much cared for the anime trope of fan clubs surrounding a student idol (it seems overly exaggerated and even a bit creepy to me), but this episode executed that trope probably as well as possible.
Adding to this ongoing conflict is the omnipresent sense that time is fleeting. 0utf0xZer0 alluded to this to me when he referred to the theme of transience in this anime. After watching 13 episodes, I'm not sure if transience itself is the theme. Rather, I think that the anime seriously deals with the question of what is the best way to make use of limited time. We see this in how, in one episode, Yui balances studying for a test, with participating in a talent show that she badly wants to participate in; both for her own enjoyment, and also to show thanks to a motherly figure in her life. This requires Yui to make good use of her time, and perhaps a lesson here is that all work and no play would make Yui a sad and unaccomplished girl.
So... there is real depth to this anime here. Startling depth, really. I probably wouldn't put it on the level of a Clannad, but K-On!! is certainly not without some very heavy moments and deeper ideas and themes. But is K-On!! better for this? That I'm actually a bid divided on.
For one, K-On!! has made it clear to me that this show relies a great deal on Ritsu and Yui for basic entertainment purposes.
If Homer Simpson was a pedophile,
this would be his wet dream.
As colorful, dynamic, and energetic as this twisty trio appears in the above picture, they really can't carry an episode, in my opinion. Episodes 5 and 13 barely held my attention, and the reason is that without the eccentricity of Yui and Ritsu around, the amusement level of this show goes down faster than Botan listening to one of Kotomi Ichinose's violin recitals.
Don't get me wrong, Jun, Ui, and Azusa are not bad characters.
But they are complimentary ones. They are at their best when they serve as contrasts to the more whimsical and unpredictable Ritsu and Yui.
So, by going more serious, K-On!! gives more time to other cast members (such as Jun). With all due respect, I'm not sure if this has served the anime well thus far.
On the other hand, though, the more serious tone and feel of K-On!! has given us this...
I found it both interesting and cute to find out more about the background between two of the key friendships of this anime: the friendship between Yui and Nadoka (pictured above), and the friendship between Mio and Ritsu. That was a nice touch, particularly in the case of Yui and Nadoka as the two are so vastly different personality wise that it's hard to see how they became friends at all. Thankfully, the anime provides a believable answer to just how that friendship began and blossomed.
That being said, Nadoka's presence in the anime is frequently a heavy one, as she acts as a voice of concerned authority, hence coming to represent the burdensome responsibilities of Japanese school life. In some ways, she is the oil to Yui's water.
Also, Mio seems rather ungrateful to me, in how she treats Ritsu. Ritsu did a lot to help her out of her anti-social shell, and Mio does not seem to be thankful for it at all. Indeed, my take on Mio has soured a bit while watching K-On!!
My take on Ritsu and Yui has improved greatly though.
Oh, the two are not without their flaws (Ritsu is hardly the most responsible club leader around, as the lack of an air conditioner in the club room during the Summer shows), but they manage better than their friends give them credit for.
No, Nadoka, getting straight As on the finals is not "dumb luck". One A might be, but five As represents something a bit more concrete than that: either Yui has more school smarts than she gets credit for, or she really did put a lot of study into those tests, or both. Yui is truly the Rodney Dangerfield of her circle of friends; the girl has some very nice accomplishments and personality characteristics, but nobody seems to be able to see beyond her goofier aspects. Who cares if you doze off in class if you're getting straight As? I doubt the teachers care.
As for Ritsu, the sense I get is that her genki girl playfulness, while not an act, is merely one side of her personality. Ritsu can be serious when the need arises, as we frequently see her carry on mature conversations with others which point to just that fact.
A few more brief observations before I clue up this Part 1 Review, dealing with the first 13 episodes of K-On!!:
1. The anime does have strong, more than sufficient character development, which gives the plot greater depth and significance. Aside from what I've already mentioned, I like the episodes that focus on Sawako-Sensei. Her character, and her background, are very nicely fleshed out in K-On!!
2. K-On!! does feel tighter, and hence more realistic, than K-On! By that, I mean that the plot and settings are a bit more structured, the transition of in-canon time is a bit smoother and less jumpy, and the characters are generally more conscientious of themselves and their surroundings.
3. The OP has great visuals, but an Alvin and the Chipmunks in Japanese song. It grew on me over time, but its hilariously high-pitch with fast lyrics grated on my ears at first. The ED is pretty cool.
4. The line-work on K-On!! feels better, as far as artwork is concerned. It's not a major difference, but it is enough to notice.
5. While actual musical performances by the Afternoon Tea Time band itself are sadly lacking, the anime actually does a good job of keeping true to its music premise. Music, in one way or another, tends to play a central role in the events and plot of one episode after another after another. This is true from the detailed value assessment that a male cashier places on Sawako's old guitar to the expertly presented massive rock concert that Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi attend.
Given all of the above, you might conclude that I find K-On!! to be vastly superior to K-On!
And, when it comes to sheer technical merit, that is almost certainly the case.
However, in watching K-On!!, I can certainly see why some may prefer the original season. The second season is far less lighthearted than the original season is. Its conflicts are more real; its ideas and themes more raw and not necessarily comforting. K-On!! has more of what could be called "literary merit", but K-On! is a "comfort food" anime if ever there was one. If one is looking for pure escapist entertainment, you'll definitely find it in K-On!, but I don't know if you will in K-On!!
Still, this does make K-On!! a much more intellectual anime, and perhaps its a natural progression of where the original left off.
Right now, I'm still divided on whether or not K-On!! went the right way. I can see both sides of the issue.
However, I look forward to finishing off K-On!!, to see where it goes with its ideas and themes, and how it addresses the various conflicts surrounding Yui (and Ritsu, to a lesser extent).
A solid 8/10 for the first half of this colorful anime, where poignant ideas and themes lie just beneath the sugary-sweet surface.