Helen McCarthy grabs the mic for K-On!

K-On!

We grew up with them: Garth, Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes. The comic strip has a long history. Four-panel strips have been around in Japan since at least the early 1900s. Classic comics like Sazae-san and modern hits like Axis Powers Hetalia all started as four-panel strips, and K-On! grew out of the same tradition.

K-On! derives its title from kei-ongaku, the Japanese word for light music. Four teenagers join a high school club at risk of being disbanded, and the clueless rookie turns into a star, leading them to success.

Central character and lead vocalist Yui Hirasawa is one of a long line of clumsy, hapless anime and manga heroines.  Dopey enough to need mothering by her kid sister, she is only average in class and can’t play an instrument or read music, but when properly coached and motivated she displays astonishing innate ability. Her main gift is to communicate a sense of optimism, fun and joy to which audiences never fail to respond. Despite this, she still forgets lyrics mid-song.

Her band mates fall into familiar anime stereotypes – rough girl, shy girl, rich girl, needy outsider – with teachers, siblings and friends to broaden the potential audience appeal. Carrying on the wish-fulfilment motif, the girls all play top-notch instruments, from Yui’s Heritage Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul guitar (the 2005 re-release, not the 1958 original) to drummer Ritsu’s Rick Marotta Signature Yamaha Hipgig skins.

Creator Kakifly, a male Japanese artist born in Kyoto, has contributed short works and illustrations to a handful of professional and fan anthologies, but K-On! is his only known original work, starting in Manga Time Kirara magazine, it ran until September 2010.

It was successful enough to be collected into four volumes, the first of which sold over 25,000 copies in its first week in May 2009. Sales were boosted by the debut of the first 13-part anime adaptation from Kyoto Animation on TBS. They built steadily: collected volume 3 sold 120,000 copies in its first week in December. Another 26 episodes and a standalone short followed, with a movie planned for December 2011, all directed by Naoko Yamada.

Secrets, unsuspected talents and the hard-won loyalty of a peer group tie K-On! to classic high school tales like Kimagure Orange Road and Slow Step, but its total focus on girls and their world, combined with its guitar geekery, signal its true genre: “moe” – anime’s ever-present pandering to the male gaze. This is a show about girls, not for them. The target audience doesn’t want them to grow up and away. Even when they go to college in the manga, it’s the same local college. They are cute, endearing and frozen in time: like the music of our teenage years, forever young.

K-On! is out on 29th August 2011 on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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