Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring 2010 - K-On!! (Season 2)

It's been hard to get a good reading on the K-On! phenomenon in the US. Recently, I had done an informal poll of an audience of around 200 people at Anime Boston 2010, only to get about five people who had heard of the series. Considering that the Internets practically weep happy tears of moe over the series, it was a bit of a shock that those sobs hadn't been heard by the average US fan yet.

However, there is evidence that even the non-otaku crowd is flocking to the series in Japan. While sales of the manga haven't exactly gone through the roof, the anime's first season and its soundtracks have driven the series to unexplored territory. The anime-character CD for the series became the first of its sort for fictional characters to score a #1 album on the Japanese Oricon rankings, while the Blu-ray disc rankings have had the anime series near the top of the record list for an animated TV series.

It's only natural that this success has spawned a second K-On!! TV series (distinguished by its second exclamation point). The show based on Kakifly's manga still keeps contact with Kyoto Animation as the main studio that has experience with animation for Full Metal Panic, AIR, the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise, Lucky Star, and Clannad. The show keeps the all-female helm that worked with the first season: direction from Naoko Yamada, composition from Reiko Yoshida, and character designs from Yukiko Horiguchi.

To describe what makes Season 2 any different from the first season would be hard to do, but there is a little more urgency for the members of the Sakuragaoka High School Light-Music Club (keion-bu 軽音部) to seek out new recruits. The core members of "Hôkago Tea Time"--Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Mugi--now find themselves staring at the ultimate break-up as graduation looms for the seniors. While it is nice to have the endless lazy days in the club with tea and cakes provided for them, if the group can't find fresh blood for the club, the fifth member Azusa gets stuck with a defunct organization, and the problem that the original Light-Music Club faced would resurface.

That seems to be the main motivation for K-On!!, as the rest of the series resembles a "show-about-nothing" program. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the motif has shown success in Azumanga Daioh and Hidamari Sketch, allowing for a smooth ride that combines the nostalgia of high school with the occasional bursts of comedy. K-On!! still has some good approaches for music, as the songs are dynamic, the artwork is pretty choice for some of the instruments, and the nods to guitar rock are there, from Ritsu's appreciation for The Who to the careful naming of the characters after members of the bands P-Model and The Pillows.

The strike that K-On!! seems to have against itself is that, on the surface, the characters don't appear to have been changed by the realism that all "salad days" must come to an end. Granted, this is all occurring in the earliest stages of the third year, but I'm not sure if the characters will change. We see a lot of the "lazies" that Osaka and Tomo gave us in Azumanga Daioh and the absurdities that we saw from Miyako and Torako in Hidamari Sketch and Hyakko, respectively. Time appears to be passing in the series, but it's hard to guess if any of the characters will mature, whether it be in the direction of being less goofy or less rigid.

With all of this being said, it's hard to really determine if K-On!! is a good series just from the initial episodes. To say that there is no substance to the show would be a risky dismissal of similar shows from the past as being empty, as well. However, it appears that the show was made to cater more to music otaku by introducing the moe factor, not the other way around. It's as if the show was built around the concert scene from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

While Beck likely rode the wave of garage rock in Japan, K-On!! appears to be trying to handle the softer ripples. A half-decent show, but I'd like to see a guitar smashed for an encore, not polished and placed back in its case.

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