My Journey through Kyoto Animation. Part 2 – K-On: the Masterpiece that’s just not for me?

Starting big (as in, this post is over 4000 words long). K-On was one hell of a series; a really pretty, cute, light and fluffy hell at that. I liked it quite a lot and enjoyed every bit of the Light Music Club members’ shenanigans, the direction, animation and music were great, how even something as dull as a classroom felt so lively, how it focused to parts of the body like hands and legs to convey the emotions of the character, how they established the main cast’s personalities with relative subtlety and how they felt so natural, like real high school girls and not like idealized versions of that so the viewer can fantasize about them (although some still do it regardless but each their own), the beautiful OPs and EDs, the concerts the girls gave in the show. Seriously, the series –especially the 2nd season, K-On!!- is carefully crafted in such a way that it doesn’t feel like otaku pandering, but as a genuinely and pure experience where we get to accompany the girls that form the Light Music Club in their little but big adventures throughout their three years of high school. I’ve heard that Yamada Naoko had talent –K-On being her first works as Chief Director- but this series surprised me, really makes me want to watch more of her work (and I will).

K-On Ho-kago Tea Time
Ho-kago Tea Time (After-school Tea Time). From left to right: Tsumugi, Mio, Ritsu, Yui and Azusa.

And on top of all that, the series takes advantage that we saw the girls spend cheerfully their years of high school, their time in the Light Music Club, to hit us where really hurts, the feels. Nothing extremely tragic happens, no one dies but something ends, their time in high school and in the Light Music Club ends; obviously it has to end, by the 2nd season four of the girls of the club are already in their senior year –their last year- of high school. But the series masterfully managed to represent how it feels when you’re in the girls’ position, when you realize “yeah, I guess this is the end, I really am graduating”. If you’re already past those ephemeral years –like I am when I finished the series-, that moment should hit you hard, but actually, by the end of it, it didn’t get me, I didn’t feel anything; well, not exactly “anything”, I was a little sad that it ended but…

At that moment, when the girls rested one besides the other on the floor of the Clubroom, tired after the end of their last concert; when they realized that it was that, their last concert at the School Festival, when that realization sank in and tears started flowing from each of the girls; at that moment, I didn’t feel anything. When the seniors sang that composition, that song filled with the seniors’ gratitude towards their underclasswoman for sharing those moments of happiness throughout those two beautiful years in high school; at that moment, I didn’t feel much, I was a bit happy and felt a bit sad too but I also, more so and strangely enough, felt uncomfortable, like I didn’t belong there, that I didn’t have anything to do with that and was just an eavesdropper, someone that was just there asking watching them and asking to myself “What’s wrong with them? It’s not that big of a deal”.

Maybe was because, by the time I got to the final stretch of the series, its last 7-8 episodes, I wasn’t going strong enough, that I wasn’t really invested, but that isn’t right, by that point I was really hooked and I liked every character to some degree. Maybe the show or its genre is not for me or maybe I can’t really feel connected to fictional characters so I can feel the things they do but that also isn’t right, Aria is my favorite anime of all time and it, along other shows, evoked strong and genuine emotions in me. So what’s wrong?

Throughout the 2nd season, the idea that the seniors of the Light Music Club –Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Tsumugi- only had that last year to enjoy their time in high school and the club with their underclasswoman -Azusa- has always been in a second plane, never addressed completely but mentioned from time to time to maintain it as a reality for them and the viewer, that these sweet times that were spent with the girls are, indeed, going to end. Instead, most part of this season is spent in the usual antics that are to be expected from the group. This all makes the emotional catharsis that is the concert of the school festival, and the moments after that, even stronger.

K-On Yui Hirasawa
Yui Hirasawa. Lead guitarist and vocalist of the band.

The show also tries to show that the characters that we know and love have grown and they’re a better version of themselves, but it has this unconscious tendency to mantain everything the same as ever, that everything that revolves the Light Music Club is still the same, that the characters develop but really don’t, and that idea is always there trying to get along with the conscious desire to make things change and allow the characters grow. K-On, starting from the end of the 1st season, have tried numerous times to establish that Yui joining the Light Music Club, meeting everyone and getting interested in music have made her want to try to give her best and aim for a better version of herself and this is indeed shown throughout the 2nd season, with Yui trying her best to take care of her sister when she caught a cold, that blink-or-you-miss-it moment by the end of of the 2nd season where we see her ironing her school uniform skirt when in another attempt in a previous episode she failed and other of the girls offered to do it in her stead, or the fact that she was able to survive the trip to London in the movie.

While this may show that the Yui at the end of the series is more independent than the one at the start of the 1st season, Yui is still Yui, a Yui that still depends in other people -mostly her sister- to get her life in order, a Yui that is an airhead and forgot the submit her paper with the plans for her future and if it wasn’t for her friends that reminded her about that would have never done like the Yui at the start of her high school life that haven’t decided which club to join even though one month have passed since then and just joined the Light Music Club because it sounded easy and fun. And going back to Yui’s plans for the future, she didn’t have one, she was so immersed in the fun that is the Light Music Club activities that she can’t picture a future after that and only little deliberation was given to that, we see her considering becoming a musician -or at least study something related to music-, influenced by her time in the Light Music Club, or becoming a Kindergarten teacher, a really early childhood goal, but both of them were rejected for being too vague. It wasn’t until she and the rest decided to go to the same college that Yui finally got her career of choice approved and we didn’t really get to see which path she chose! This pretty much shows that Yui the individual gets defined and mobilized by the Light Music Club and After-school Tea Time and the Yui outside of that is an ineffectual and non-developed Yui.

K-On Ritsu Tainaka
Ritsu Tainaka. President of the Light Music Club and drummer of the band.

Ritsu may be a different character to Yui, but she still gets pretty much a similar development in regard of her future to Yui. She didn’t have any plan and decided to go with the flow, getting her plans for the future paper rejected alongside Yui’s and only getting accepted at the same point as Yui’s  and we also don’t know which path she chose at the end. But Ritsu is interesting because she has deeper relationship with Mio than with any other main or minor character –other than her brother, that we see very little of-. Ritsu and Mio are childhood friends and the development of each one is intertwined with the other’s. I don’t have much issues with Ritsu’s development (at the very least, not as much as Mio’s, but I’ll get to that later), Ritsu has a well-defined and strong personality, always upbeat and extremely extrovert –which is what affected and even started Mio’s development- and that is more interested in the right here and right now rather than the later, and even then her tendency to set seemingly far-fetched goal like playing in the School Festival -or even grander, in the Summer Music Festival someday- is what gives life to the group. But even if she the most standalone character of the Light Music Club members, her future and life goals are mixed with the Light Music Club and that rubs me in the wrong way.

K-On Mio Akiyama
Mio Akiyama. Bassist and second vocalist of the band.

Mio is a mixed bag -for me, at least-. On one side, she’s the character that have a major number of scenes and episodes, alongside Yui, that try to develop her character and some of them are really good; but on the other side, they feel short-lived because her character remains the same throughout the whole series; her character says so much but very little of what it says is meaningful. Let me explain. Mio is an intelligent high school girl, at least more so than her friends in the Light Music Club, that is extremely shy and a scaredy-cat (and the show will remind you that), but is also really girly and “artsy”, and that’s shown in the titles and lyrics of the songs she writes, and also has a little complex because she’s left-handed; a really well-established character, so much that she changes so little throughout the series, even though almost every moment dedicated to her goes far and beyond to try to develop her, that it almost feels like a running gag. You see, Mio is the bassist of the group, a support role that is in second plane, not the center of attention like she likes it (and this is mentioned explicitly by the show, mind you), yet in some occasions, depending on the circumstances and the songs they’ll play, she takes the role of the vocalist and sometimes the main one when Yui isn’t, and since that is the role that stands out the most in any band and Mio is really shy, she freaks out at the idea of doing it, almost every time before the start of the concert, which would be fine as a running gag if it wasn’t that ever since the 1st season, after their first concert and some, but not all, the times they play, the show goes out of the way to mention Mio’s shyness and this may have helped her; but that’s not the case, it never is, Mio remains as shy as she was at the start, and realistically,  she should change drastically because of being able to sing in front of an audience, shyness and social anxiety don’t go away because you were able to do something once but by being acquaintance with that which causes your anxiety, so that little by little it becomes a less frightening experience –and I’m talking as someone with social anxiety-. But Mio has been part of the Light Music Club since starting high school so by mid-2nd season –where she’s in her third and last year of high school- she should be at least less frightened about being or acting in public, but the show still treats her shyness as something that haven’t been addressed, with moments that Mio passes out because the situation is too stressful for her happening from the beginning until the end of the series. Not even Ritsu’s constant “support” throughout the years they’ve been together seem to have helped Mio that much outside of those moments that were shown in flashbacks of their childhood.

Still continuing with Mio, she also suffers that for the fact that her future is decided based on maintaining the Light Music Club members united as much as they can. Her career path of choice was never really established and she also didn’t show any kind of passion outside of music and composing songs so maybe she’ll study something related to music? She was also originally planning for going for a recommendation for a public college before swiftly changing her mind and decides to apply for the same college as the rest. What would have been of Mio if the Light Music Club would have never been formed? What would have been of everyone else for that matter?

K-On Tsumugi Kotobuki
Tsumugi Kotobuki. Keybordist of the band.

I almost feel bad for Tsumugi, she’s pretty much the means by how the series moves, themeans how the club gets all the fancy sweets and tea cup set that looked so pretty throughout the series, the means which Yui would get such a pretty-looking guitar without resorting to breaking the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, the means of getting a nice place where they could enjoy their summer training camp in the beach while also having access to the instruments to practice, she’s the one that had the plan to go to an all-girls –and most likely, private- college which later everyone agrees to go to. Ok, I’m making it sound worse than it is, the series tries its hardest to not resort to the “rich girl” card that Tsumugi has unless they could get some laughs in the way and it actually succeeds in a pleasant way; what the show uses more than it should is the “sheltered ojou-sama” card, Tsumugi can be summarized by those two words. Tsumugi’s development doesn’t goes too far from the Light Music Club members, they’re the means by which she can experience all the antics that normal high school girls do and the few episodes that are dedicated to her are about how she could get even closer to other girls. Outside of that, there’s not too much to talk about Tsumugi, like I said earlier, she’s from a rich family and must have a really sheltered upbringing, judging by how she reacts to things that seem common knowledge for everyone else, and that she practiced a lot the keyboard and –I assume- the piano if the ojou-sama image is something to go by.

K-On Azusa Nakano
Azusa Nakano. Rhythm guitarist of the band.

Azusa is tailor-made for the Light Music Club, she didn’t find any other group as appealing as the girls’ group, she comes from a family of musicians and doesn’t seem to have anything more interesting in her life than being with her friends from her class and the club, to the point that an episode is dedicated to the idea that outside of school, her thoughts, ideas and even her dreams revolve around the club, and that the topics of conversation that she brings out the most with her friends in the same year is, you guessed it, the club activities.

But why do I have such a problem with the fact that the Light Music Club’s members – that After-school Tea Time- remain the same?

Isn’t it natural that if you have such dear friends like the After-School Tea Time you’d want to spend as much time with them, stay as close as them as possible and not want to separate from them? -Yes, I would like to share moments with them as much as I want-.

Isn’t it beautiful that such a group of friends exist, that they can depend on the other so easily and that they share such a close bond?  -Yes, it’s quite charming-

So what if the characters are made to be that way? The story is about a bunch of girls that wanted to have a fun time, that developed a deep friendship and that when it was the moment to separate, they obviously felt sad. The point of everything is to comment about friendship in high school, to represent as genuinely as possible how it is and the feelings that surface when the inevitable moment that it ends comes. –Yes, I get what you’re saying, but still that doesn’t feel right…-

It’s just a story that only represents a part of the human life, a short one at that. What is the problem with letting everything stays the same, that no big changes happened, that everything outside of high school is blurred out so that you can focus in the important stuff? –Maybe there isn’t one…

No, wait, that isn’t right-

Our years of youth, especially the elementary/middle/high school years, have their own special beauty because they’re short-lived, our limited and comfy way of viewing the world, when we could idealize and fantasize about the future as something to look forward but also not something that we really see coming along with the harsh realities of the vast, adult world. That’s something that K-On tries to address but doesn’t really get the whole picture out of it. The process of having to adapt to those inevitable changes and how hard can they get, leaving someones and somethings behind so one can move forward, K-On almost prefers to stay in the convenient and easier times of high school, even though it wants its characters to take the next steps in life. Tsumugi is going to an all-girls university, Ritsu and Yui never stopped once to think what they’ll do for the future and quite easily went along with the idea of going to the same university as the rest so they can still be together and Mio rejects going for a recommendation for a public college to go along with the rest, without really going too deep in how the process of her deciding for that was, leaving the impression that it wasn’t really that hard of a choice, and Azusa is most likely to follow them after she graduates. They vow to maintain After-school Tea Time, to still hang out together, to play more concerts in the future. There’s no doubt that even if the current Light Music Club is no longer, the group will stay together, that their bond is that strong, and that they’re practically made to always be the After-school Tea Time. But the series starts and ends in the Light Music Club, their lives don’t go further than high school, within that limited, comfy and familiar space. Everyone grows but they really don’t, the current Light Music Club disbanded but really hasn’t, high school ended but really didn’t.

And while maintaining the idea that the group will remain together seems of utmost importance for the series, which is not bad, I would have liked if they could have given more independence to the girls to have a live outside of high school, to have dreams and goals outside of the club; I think it was possible to deliver the same story with the same –if not more- impact than the one that was told. In fact, there’s a character that went through much that what After-school Tea Time did and had more to it than just being in the Light Music Club and being with her friends. That character is, obviously, Sawako.

K-On Sawako Yamanaka
Sawako Yamanaka. Music teacher and advisor of the Light Music Club.

Sawa-chan-sensei is, in my opinion, a more important character than most fans of the series –and maybe the series itself- think she is, she represented and foreshadowed a lot of things in the series. Sawako is the music teacher in the high school where the story takes place and became the Light Music Club’s advisor after the members of the current club discovered that she was also part of the Light Music Club back in her high school years and was part of the rockband Death Devil as guitarist and main vocalist, a past that Sawako wants to forget and erase, a past that the girls take advantage of to make her the club advisor; from this point we already take a hold of the connection that Sawako has with the girls, but this goes further beyond. You see, the reason why the past Light Music Club that Sawako was part of was a rockband –with such a hardcore name, nonetheless- was that because Sawako had a crush on a guy that rejected her because she was not “wild” enough, this made her want to change the group’s image, which she take to the extreme, and while the band had quite the following she still got rejected because now she was too wild; the Sawako during high school had other things going in her life outside of the music club that also defined her current character, but it doesn’t stops there. Death Devil had experiences similar to the ones that After-school Tea Time had: the time spent in the clubroom practicing, their first time playing in the school festival, their first time playing outside the school, their playing for their classmates before graduating, and them graduating and leaving high school and the Light Music Club; all of this are memories that Sawako, even though she wants to deny that time as part of Death Devil, still cherishes and reminiscences about throughout the series.

But Death Devil and Sawako mirroring After-school Tea Time and the girls don’t stop there. After she was no longer part of high school and the Light Music Club, her times there help define her future self, but they don’t do it in her entirety like with After-school Tea Time. Like I said earlier, she becomes the music teacher in the same high school where she once spent her youth but her time in the Light Music Club isn’t the only reason why she chose that career, the major reason for that is that the guy she had a crush on also wanted to be a teacher so she followed him in that path; a weak reason if you ask me, but one that isn’t directly related to the Light Music Club.

Another aspect that Death Devil and After-school Tea Time share is their desire to remain as close as possible. While we don’t know if the Death Devil members decided to go to the same college, we do see that they still remain as a really close group. Although the adult life gets in the way of doing it as much as possible, it’s shown that Sawako is at least maintain constant contact with another of its members, Norimi Kawaguchi, former guitarist of the group; it’s also implied that the Death Devil members go to the Summer Music Festival each year, they all visited Sawako when they heard that she had become ill, and the group agrees that the best gift that they can give to a former Light Music Club member that is getting married is to play as Death Devil in her wedding –although Sawako refuses to do it because she doesn’t want to get associated with her former self, but at the end she does it-. That sounds like a pretty darn close group of friends, if you ask me.

What I want to say with all this is that, even if they want to across the point that the Light Music Club is one of the most important and meaningful things that has happened to these girls, it’s not necessary to make it the most important and meaningful thing that has ever happened to these girls, less that is the only one. The idea that communicates the series that only the moments that happens during their times in the Light Music Club, during high school, this illusion that everything starts and ends with the Light Music Club, that everything else is simply not worth telling, it doesn’t simply sit well with me. Maybe that’s why the emotional peaks of the series didn’t really get me; the notion that the times of the Light Music Club –the times of After-school Tea Time- are going to end simply didn’t register with me. I simply can’t see the Light Music Club ending, and the series can’t either, we don’t see the girls being something else than high school girls, than Light Music Club members; I can’t see them as more than that. High school is eternal for this series, even if it wants to believe that it isn’t; the Light Music Club will stay as it is forever. Things change, but they really don’t, do they?

…And yes, I know that in the manga there is a chapter(s) with the girls in college. I’m talking only about the anime.

Next, I’ll tackle a work that I didn’t let speak to me fairly. I couldn’t get in its entirety what it tried to tell me because I didn’t listen to the complete story first, and I know that what it was, it was really important. I couldn’t get its story of love and growth if I didn’t knew anything about those who were in love and who they were before. I’m talking about Tamako Market and Tamako Love Story.

Until next time.

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