17 Aug 2011
No matters your feelings on the individual series they produce, you have to hand it to Kyoto Animation when it comes to cherry-picking and maximising the popularity of the works that they choose to adapt. From The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya through to Lucky Star, the studio's recent track record in creating astoundingly successful anime is unrivalled. Cue the latest massive hit to make its way from Japan to our shores, the musically flavoured K-ON!
The premise of the series is simple enough, as we join the beginning of a new high school year and the new batch of students which it brings - a group headed up by the cheerfully ditzy Yui Hirasawa, as her high school life soon becomes dominated by the question of what after-school club she should join. Meanwhile, long-standing friends Ritsu Tainaka and Mio Akiyama find themselves faced with a similar situation, as the former's determination to join the school's "light music club" (the keion-bu upon which the show's title is based) leaves the latter dragged along in her wake. With the light music club initially sporting exactly zero members, can Ritsu find another three willing members (or victims perhaps) to make the club a going concern? The answer, of course, is yes, with well to-do Tsumugi Kotobuki joining Ritsu and Mio before Yui eventually caves in and also signs up for the group.
With its source material existing as a four-panel manga (available from Yen Press in the UK incidentally), the modus operandi of the series is clear from the outset - to offer up light, fluffy entertainment in a slice of life style as we follow these girls through their mundane, everyday adventures. In the case of this opening gambit and the four episodes on this first volume this involves bringing the light music club's four members together, finding a guitar for Yui, some traditional mid-term exam anxiety and failure, and finally a training camp for the group courtesy of Mugi's "modest" summer house.
Before anyone shouts "spoilers!" in response to that last paragraph, one of the joys of K-ON is that it isn't at all reliant on plot and little more so upon circumstances as it goes about delivering its saccharine, idealistic view of high school life. Although some will loathe this lack of any notable character and story development, on this occasion it's part of the package as everything about the series exhibits a lightness of touch from the oddly catchy yet inoffensive background music through to the characters themselves - yes, they're all very much archetypical anime characters, but never in a way that is overly "in your face" or irritating to watch.
What really sets these early episodes of K-ON out from the pack of bland, identikit slice of life anime is the care and attention afforded the whole experience by Kyoto Animation - the animation quality is largely top-notch, switching from the expressive to the fluid as required with ease, character designs are spot on and rarely go off model, and no corner has been cut when it comes to the realistic portrayal of musical instruments and the like (even if they are rarely used in these episodes). On top of it all, watching the series up to this point is genuinely fun - laugh out loud moments can be few and far between but there's enough of a sense of entertainment and amusement to carry the series on its otherwise vacuous shoulders.
In terms of Manga Entertainment's DVD treatment of these episodes, the overall quality of the release is pretty good, even if the show's animation quality will undoubtedly benefit from its eventual planned Blu-Ray release. The rabid hardcore fans may complain about a small piece of music replacement in one episode (Tsubasa wo Kudasai is switched out for Love Me Tender for whatever reason) but the gloriously catchy opening and ending themes are left intact, even if we only get a stereo Dolby Digital track against uncompressed LPCM audio, which again isn't going to faze the majority of would-be buyers.
These minor gripes certainly aren't enough to dissuade us from praising the release - love or hate it K-ON is a hugely popular and successful show, and to see it arrive in the UK in relatively short order after its introduction to the US can only be a good thing, via single volume releases or otherwise. As we've already discussed its low-key, fluffy slice of life outlook will be anathema to some, but if you don't break out in a rash (or simply doze of) from watching such series then these first episodes of K-ON demonstrate an expert eye for their subject matter - this is a series that knows what its viewers want, and delivers it in a blitz of sweets and saccharine shenanigans.