Rayna Denison on K-on! and the rise of the nichijo anime
The best thing about K-on! is undeniably the music, from the (cloyingly?) cute opening credits to the gothic-lolita inspired visuals of the closing sequence, whenever the Sakuragaoka Light Music Club performs, there is fun to be had in this series. Moreover, the show’s burgeoning obsession with dressing its female leads in costumes that shade from schoolgirl uniforms into maid costumes, provides a variety of copy-able cosplay get-ups likely to feature soon at a convention near you (if you haven’t seen them there already). By these various means, K-on! carefully walks the line between exploitation and a rather sweet self-empowerment-through-music storyline.
The series is built out of building blocks from series you have seen before – a ditzy female lead, Yui Hirasawa, who cannot keep more than one thing in her head at any given moment but who also has a savant-like ability to be good at things when the plot requires it; the shy girl Mio Akiyama; the tomboy Ritsu Tainaka and the dopey rich girl Tsumugi Kotobuki. But what these stereotypes have going for them is this: K-on! circles around the pleasures to be had from watching the activities of group of young women as they mature into adults. And the genre is more focused on the everday than on fantasies about magical girls. The series is born out of an emerging genre of anime called nichijo-kei, or everyday-style anime. Critics cite Azumangah Daioh! and Lucky Star as the start of the phenomenon.
One easy way to spot a nichijo anime is to check whether or not it is based on a 4-panel manga strip, like Kakifly’s manga for K-on! The impact of this Garfield-like origin narrative, with its shorter-than-short episodic “moments” building up over time into an story, is an emphasis more on character than plotting. The K-on! anime makes this a strength, focusing on the exceptional within the everyday of the Light Music Club’s time together – cramming for a test, performing for the first time and uncovering their teacher’s shady musical past. These moments indicate the passage of time in a way that would otherwise be lost in repeated scenes of tea-drinking and cake-eating. Indeed, the biggest repeated joke of the series is the fact that the Light Music Club hardly ever seem to practice and, yet, are successful. Yui picks up the guitar as if by magic, with Mio (on bass) teaching her the basics in one episode, and their academic advisor, Sawako Yamanaka, teaching her to do vocals in another. The others group members (Ritsu on drums and Tsumugi on keyboard) are shown performing in the first episode, barely scraping through the motions of a slow Love Me Tender. Then, miraculously, the Light Music Club are shown to be able to play the much faster Fuwa Fuwa Time and the brilliant My Love is a Stapler, a song that every teenage girl who’s ever indulged in cute stationery will recognise.
One of the other oddities of these nichijo anime like K-on! is that they aren’t usually aimed at the female audience. Instead, they tend to be made for male viewers, with K-on! originally published in a manga magazine for older boys. This may explain the tightrope walked between fan service and moments, like when we get a close-up shot of Yui’s bum as she klutzily falls over in the opening scenes of the first episode, or the boob close-up on a bikini-clad Mio when the group go for their first “training camp” at the seaside (Episode 4), and the story’s focus on female characters and their personal development. Chibi-moments are also dotted through the show, making the female characters behave in peculiarly child-like ways (particularly Yui and Ritsu, the tomboy drummer). However, these squashed-down versions of the girls are usually pretty funny, and may well have been intended to inspire protective moe feelings in male viewers. Despite this though, read from outside Japan, they do seem to take away from the achievements of the Light Music Club, who joke repeatedly about their incompetence throughout – especially about the fact that they are only good at playing music when there is a live performance to be done and records to be sold. Put all these elements together, and you end up with an inoffensive musical comedy that walks the line between musical fun and fan service, that will probably be more popular with women than men outside Japan, and which contains enough maddeningly catchy music to have you humming along for weeks afterwards.
K-On! season 2 part 2 is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.