Manga pioneer Hideo Azuma had some harsh criticism for K-ON!, proclaiming memorably "It was empty. It was nothing."
While I hadn't seen K-ON! at the time of Azuma's statement; I was perplexed; what does that mean, anyway? Does he mean the show is empty because it lacks an interesting narrative, or sympathetic characters? Even though I'd already heard tons of complaints about K-ON! (and what the moe phenomenon is allegedly doing to anime as an art form), that particular criticism seemed somehow unfair to me. In part because of Azuma's mystifying comment, and partly because the second season premiere is around the corner- on April 7th, my birthday no less- I figured it was time for me to finally watch this sucker.
So, now I've watched K-ON!. Silly? Yes. Frivolous? Maybe. Empty? Does not compute. Hit the jump for why.
Ritsu is the president- YOU WILL RESPECT HER AUTHORITY
In fairness, Hideo Azuma is entitled to his opinion, and as an accomplished manga artist, his opinion deserves some credence. However, even if no one else has put it quite as succinctly, the idea that K-ON! is devoid of value (aside from the sale of PVC figures) is a popular one in the otakusphere, and I would probably have wanted to address it even if Azuma had never mentioned it. While I'm still a tad puzzled by some of his comments (how do the jokes in K-ON! "make no sense"? They're simple, clean jokes.), Azuma's use of the word "empty" was just a convenient place to start, not an attempt to make this about him.
Girls in a band, and me
Can Mugi really fit a keyboard in that bag? I thought she just kind of, you know...left the thing there.
It's one of the major regrets of my life thus far that I never got into music. As a kid, I didn't have the patience to learn anything that didn't come easily to me, so all of my attempts to learn to play an instrument ended in failure. I can sing, and I still love listening to music, but I feel like I missed out on something really special. Yeah, there's nothing stopping me from walking into a music store right now and buying a guitar, but it still seems like a huge missed opportunity. I sustain myself by thinking that- if the theory of infinite alternate universes is true- somewhere out there, there's a version of me who's cool enough to play guitar and sing at the same time. People who can do that are so cool.
Needless to say, the idea of a kind of aimless, underachieving girl getting hooked up with the right people and learning to be a musician holds a lot of appeal for me. I wish there were a bunch of people at my high school who would have force-fed me delicious sweets until I agreed to join their band (and honestly, that's probably what it would have taken to get me to move my lazy behind.) Like all fiction, sometimes anime is about wish fulfillment, and K-ON! gives me a taste of an experience I wish I'd gotten to have.
It's not empty when you bring yourself
Episode 13 was one of the better attempts I've seen to show all of the characters basically doing nothing, in part because of imagery like this.
After what I've disclosed, it would be easy to make the argument that I come into all of these sorts of shows with a positive bias; if it's about the trials and tribulations of school-aged girls, I can probably relate on some level. I relate to shows like Chu-Bra!! because they remind me of what my school experience was like, and shows like K-ON!! and Azumanga Daioh because they represent what I wish my school experience had been like. My objectivity concerning a show like this is questionable; I don't deny it. However, is there any real alternative?
What should I do- try to obliterate my sense of self while I watch K-ON!, in the attempt to view it truly objectively, as though such a thing were even possible? I don't totally subscribe to the idea that everything is subjective, or that you can't make any definitive statements about quality, but we don't experience these things in a vacuum. Everyone comes into a story with their own set of experiences that make certain themes and characters more interesting, and that's as it should be.
However, it's not as though K-ON! got lucky because I happen to like the subject matter- shows generally are more relevant to people who can more easily relate to the characters and situations. You could say that I like K-ON! just because of the subject matter: "It's not like it's good or anything, she just likes it because she wishes she was in a band." There's no "just" about it; that connection is part of what makes the show good. If you don't feel that connection, how do you know whether or not I'm seeing things in it that aren't there- making the show better in my mind- or really seeing things that you could not or did not see? If you don't know what I'm seeing, are we really even talking about the same show anymore? Sometimes I wonder.
Themes, Meaning, and other Serious Business
Gotta love Mio for writing a song called "My Love is like staples."
K-ON! doesn't have to answer any deep questions about life; it's a pleasant little slice-of-life show, and that's all it needs to be. Everything about the show, from the lack of any big stakes (the biggest problem is Yui forgetting to bring her guitar), to the earth-toned color palette makes it seem light and relaxing- in fact, it's similar to Kimi ni Todoke in that respect. They could have given the characters pink hair and brightly colored uniforms to make them more bright and cutesy, but no: everything is brown and dark blue. The fact that the name of the band is "Afternoon Tea Time" says a lot.
However, I was surprised to find that K-ON! isn't completely devoid of musings about life, the universe, and everything. One moment that stopped me in my tracks occurred in Episode 2, when everyone had decided to work part-time jobs in order to get Yui the guitar she really wants. Everything was business as usual, until Yui decides that the plan is a waste, and decides to buy a cheap guitar she can afford instead. Rather than fixate on the dream of the perfect guitar she could have in the future, the immediate here-and-now was more important to Yui- every minute they were out earning money was another minute they could be spending practicing. Yui may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer- to put it mildly- but the decision she made was actually a mature one. Yui ended up with the nice guitar anyway (hey, it is still about wish fulfillment), but I was pleasantly surprised that they made the point that your big, romantic dream can sometimes be counter-productive- something most anime, and too much of fiction in general, ignores.
And it wasn't a one-time thing; when Yui says "This is our Budokan" in Episode 12, the show is making a point about valuing what's right in front of you, as opposed to something further down the line. Playing a show at the school festival may be nothing compared to the Big Dream of playing at Budokan, but it's not nothing; who's to say this won't be the last time they play together? Who's to say that out of all their performances, this one won't end up being the most fun, the most memorable? The reason why Azusa stops nagging everyone to practice more is an extension of the same theme- to become better musicians, they really should be practicing instead of drinking lots of tea and eating cakes. However, is becoming better musicians really that important? They want to play at Budokan, but it doesn't have to consume their entire lives.
So often, the emphasis is on being the best at something- K-ON's not about that. It's about the fact that sometimes, you may not be the best- in fact, you may be a little bit crap- but it doesn't matter. It's about the fact that people who struggle to be the best might just be missing the very best that life has to offer. Yui may be a bit, er, special, but she knows certain things intuitively that I only wish I had realized at that age. I wonder if the show's massive popularity doesn't have as much to do with the themes of acceptance and moderation as it does the cute character designs. Isn't it nice to think that the standards of achievement that other people hold you to might not matter that much, because the real achievement is to enjoy life?
The Most Important Point of All
Thank you Ritsu for having the only Love-Letter plotline in recent memory that didn't annoy the hell out of me. And your hair looks fine that way.
For those of you that were too lazy to read the whole thing (although why you'd get this far in the post in that case, I couldn't say), let me just put this out there: If I were a guy, Ritsu would totally be my waifu. She's crazy in almost the same way that Sailor Venus is crazy, which means AWESOME-CRAZY. In fact, I'm sure there's an alternate universe out there somewhere where I'm a guy (probably named Karl GARllender), and Ritsu is my waifu and does awesome drum solos for me all the time. Perhaps all this K-ON! hate is just poorly disguised jealousy that I get Ritsu in that universe and you don't?
At least that makes sense.
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