As difficult as it is, I have to admit that I’m enjoying K-On. Not because it’s intelligent, thought-provoking, original or a work of art. I’m enjoying it despite it not really being any of these things, mainly because something that’s so intentionally dumb is undemanding and therefore the perfect thing for unwinding with at the end of a long day.
Yes, it’s shallow, commercialised and derivative but truthfully as long as it makes you smile, who the heck cares? I’ve done at least three drafts of this post before wiping the whole lot off the screen and starting over; this is by its very nature a show that’s difficult to write about because there’s not much to it beyond the obvious observation that it’s cute, undemanding fun. That was before my word count began to mushroom…
2DT beat me to the punch in highlighting its celebration of transience, which really hightlights how it’s a production that’s wildly popular now but years down the line won’t be as well remembered as the more, how should I say, sophisticated examples of animated TV. I actually think the fact that it’s so disposable is very much in keeping with what it’s portraying (a short phase in the characters’ lives), but also what it’s paying tribute to.
Seeing a commercially-governed animation studio using contemporary music – a hobby that I’ve invested a significant amount of my spare time, money and enthusiasm in over the past decade or so – and sending it up with moe could I suppose have me feeling annoyed. “Why are these moe girls skipping gleefully over the graves of Hendrix, Moon and Bolan?!” Maybe I’m too old to really understand K-On, in the same way that I look ruefully at what’s on MTV and the radio these days and start to sound like my dad.
As a tale of how a bunch of kids form a not-at-all serious rock band it’s a cute pastiche of what rock and roll is all about – for sure, my own tastes lean towards music that’s more, well, serious but at the end of the day rock music is, and always was, for the kids. It’s music by and for young people, marketed to make money and is concerned with short-term popularity; Light Fluffy Time is no My Generation but it’s very much in this rock and roll tradition!
I got the reference immediately…then felt really old all of a sudden
I’ll leave the arguments about how shows of its ilk are having a negative effect on the quality of the anime industry’s output as a whole for those who know more about it – there’s still enough stuff made that appeals to me and I don’t know enough about the Industry and its issues to speculate on that. But I am a music fan so I can’t help but (over-)think about how it fares as a show about music.
An anime about a rock band is doubly Relevant To My Interests really. Beck is a more realistic potrayal of this theme but K-On is after all a comedy rather than a drama. Being able to play well without much practice or haggling with a shopkeeper so you walk away with a Les Paul Standard for the same price as a Yamaha Pacifica are comedic but highly improbable, whether you’re familiar with musical instruments or not. It certainly doesn’t carry the dramatic weight of, say, Koyuki and co getting their first gig.
That’s not to say that it’s a series whose characters are completely lifeless archetypes all of the time. I’m able to accept its sillier moments because of this, which means I appreciate the character study that does happen: I recall how I intended to take up bass before deciding to learn the guitar so I can relate to how Mio made her choice of instrument through wanting to contribute without being held back by self-consciousness.
Conversely Ritsu, usually the energetic and most positively-minded member of the group, had a moment of self-doubt in the third episode of the second season after feeling left out of the spotlight. Given how negativity is never a problem to her, it’s interesting – yes, interesting! – to see a previously hidden side of her character emerge. We also hear that story about why Mio took up the bass and see Mugi inspired by Ritsu’s attempt at playing the keyboard to write a new song…a lot happens in that episode.
In the same way that Lucky Star shamelessly name-dropped and made obscure otaku-centric references, K-On makes some obvious nods of its own. More interestingly for me it goes further in a way that I’m not sure your typical member of Kyo-Ani’s audience cross-section would notice; unless they were a musician themselves…surely a minority group in the viewing figures. Given how notoriously calculating the writers of this show are in aiming their products at the consumers I can only assume it’s deliberate but still…although employees at Fender commented on the show quite honestly, would the fandumb notice?
A bit more recent, to cater to you youngsters
The more serious moments are true-to-life for anyone who’s tried to get together with friends and perform music live but excempting that swiftly-rectified guitar headstock gaffe early on, the little things are spot-on too. Now every anime fan knows what a left-handed Fender Jazz Bass in sunburst looks like, although I daresay most people would already be familiar with the iconic image of a Les Paul Standard and know full well how those beauties cost more than the equivalent to $500US from new.
I’d say K-On is around 90% mindless moe froth but maybe it’s that other 10% that makes the difference; namely the little details that needn’t have crossed the writers’ minds, but did. Who wondered whether Azusa plays a Mustang because it’s a suitably affordable, short-scale model that has a cult following in Japan, or whether it’s a reference to something else (Solanin perhaps)? ‘Guitaku’ is a niche kind of fanservice in itself when you think about it.
The unbelievably moe nature of K-On has a side-effect of making it completely inoffensive to serious music fans and it’s still more Perfume than Pink Floyd, but in some ways it’s as rock-and-roll as any other.