The unique thing about any "Slice of life" series is the fact that they all seem to be enjoyable despite the lack of any major groundbreaking or epic plot that results in saving the world or universe. The reason they work is because ordinary people can relate to similar events in their own lives. K-ON! is a series that simply follows the lives of four, then five, high school girls who form their school's light music club. Here's the breakdown:
The story begins with the primary protagonist, Yui Hirasawa, rushing to her first day of high school in fear of running late. After the entrance ceremony she's approached by numerous club recruiters in hopes of convincing her to join. She decides to try and join one in hopes of avoiding the image of becoming a NEET. At this same time, two of the other main protagonists, Ritsu Tainaka and Mio Akiyama, hope to join the light music club only to find out that all of the previous club members have graduated and the club itself is in danger of being suspended unless they can find at least four members. The two are quickly able to recruit a third member, Tsumugi Kotobuki, after she walked into their room and thought it was a different club but she decided to stay with that one. That just left them to look for one more member.
Yui eventually learns about the light music club and decides to join thinking that the "light" meant easy, as all she could really play were the castanets while the club needed a guitarist. Through a series of misunderstandings, the current club members find themselves thinking that Yui is a guitar prodigy and, in order to save the club, try to coerce, beg, and bribe her into joining despite her attempts to correct them. After she's finally able to tell them she has no musical talent, they try to sign her up anyway. They're able to convince her to join after she sees them perform and how much fun it could be.
Even after the light music club is officially established, the girls still have to deal with the real life problems of practicing, keeping their grades up, and making sure all of the club members want to stick around. Not practicing becomes their biggest hang-up as they spend most of their club meetings drinking tea and eating cake, but eventually they're able to provide live performances at school events and do a wonderful job.
As I mentioned above, the story in the series is nothing epic, but it's certainly not bad by a long shot. Anyone who plays a musical instrument on their own or in a band knows full well how much effort it takes to stay dedicated to the constant practice and rigors of maintaining a top-shape performance skill can be. Not only can it be easy to be distracted from practicing, but also how too much practice can interfere with other things in life, such as when Yui ends up practicing rather than studying for tests. The other charming aspect of the story is how the club members are able to grow together as they overcome these obstacles.
Because this is a character-driven series the focus remains on how they're able to overcome their own shortcomings and mature as the series progresses. Yui herself always lived a carefree life and really never got involved in any school activities prior to joining the club. She considers herself unskilled at anything she does, but she's also someone who will adamantly stick to something she puts her mind to. While she tends to remember one thing and forget another, she works her hardest for the club and, at the end, does quite a bit of growing up when she realizes that her past actions had come close to pulling the rest of the club members down with her.
The rest of the main characters are diverse and contribute their own unique brand of personalities to form the group: Ritsu proclaims herself as the club president, but can often be quite a bit like Yui in that she'll forget to do something important (especially club-related paperwork) or would rather play than practice when they're at the beach. Ritsu is the band's drummer, highly energetic and loves to be a big tease, but sometimes goes too far and ends up getting smacked.
Mio is the most responsible member of the group and also its songwriter, vocalist, and bass guitarist. She's self-conscious because she's left-handed, incredibly shy, and very easily frightened. It often doesn't take more than the mere mention of monsters, blood, or even barnacles to send her cowering into a corner and trembling for long periods of time. She's also very modest and tries to avoid outrageous outfits, but ends up being put in them anyway. While she's quite the disciplinarian in trying to get the girls to practice, but even she succumbs to the urge to drink tea and play around.
Tsumugi, shortened to Mugi-chan, is a bit of a mother figure to everyone else in that she provides the tea sets and snacks for everyone to enjoy at each meeting and is also a talented pianist/keyboardist who has an impressive record of winning competitions so it's no small wonder Ritsu and Mio convinced her to join the light music club when they were seeking the initial members to avoid suspending the club. Tsumugi herself has a very pure personality but, coming from a rich family, is very unfamiliar with the ordinary things the rest of the girls do. She is fascinated by new discoveries and one of the happiest moments for her in the series is her first visit to a fast-food restaurant and the cashier asks if she'd like fries with her meal. She is able to use her family's resources to assist the club, but never flaunts her wealth nor really even seems to care much about being rich or fortunate (especially as she once discarded a grand prize lottery ticket to Hawaii and exchanged it for a board game she wanted).
Azusa Nakano becomes the fifth member of the band and its second guitarist. She joins as a freshman in the rest of the girls' second year at school. She has more guitar experience than Yui (because her parents play in a jazz ensemble and highly influenced her in music). She was originally going to join the jazz club, but the strong feelings she felt during a live performance of the light music club steered her towards it. Azusa becomes the most bewildered as to why the girls hardly practice and end up snacking around and tries her hardest to make sure they remain on task, but ends up being the one to have the most fun- she even gets a nice tan during their second training camp at the beach. Because she looks so good in cat ears, her nickname is Azu-nyan.
The supporting cast is small but also very significant in that all of them are able to provide absolutely beneficial assistance to the girls and the club. Yui's responsible younger sister, Ui, is always willing to stand up for Yui and do anything she can to help her out- be it to provide meals for everyone, help the light music club find new members when she enters high school, or even to disguise herself as Yui and stand in for her when she gets sick and risks missing a performance. She's also quite a quick study because she learns how to play the guitar better than Yui right away. She quickly becomes friends with Azusa.
Nodoka Manabe is Yui's closest and childhood friend and the two had been in the same class since kindergarten. She is part of the student council and ends up saving the club from the administrative red tape that they have to go through in order to establish the club and perform at the school's festivals. She is calm, responsible, and very polite. When all of the original club members except for Mio end up in the same class at the start of their second year, Nodoka is happy to find that Mio is in her class and they become closer friends too.
Sawako Yamanaka is perhaps the closest tangible person in the series to be considered a bit of an antagonist. She is the school's music teacher and puts on a very pure aura, but has a secret past of becoming a wild girl and part of the light music club when she was a student. The girls find this out and blackmail her into becoming the club's advisor. Because Sawako doesn't have to put up a facade while in the club room, she very easily and very often shows the girls her real personality, which can be quite intimidating and loud. She loves to find various costumes for the girls to wear during performances and, in a few cases, uses them as means of punishment too, though the only one who ever sees it that way is Mio.
The characters as a whole in this series form a close-knit and fantastic group. All of them are likable in their own ways and plenty of attention was given to their detail and shaping personalities. A lot of the character development they do over the course of the series is fairly subtle with a few defining moments that are highly illustrated, such as Mio overcoming her stage fright to sing the vocals when Yui loses her voice and Tsumugi taking a part time job at their favorite fast food place to gain a sense of independence.
The artwork over the course of the series remains constant and visually pleasing from beginning to end. All of the character designs match up their personalities perfectly and there are only a few instances where it's easy to confuse one character for another (and even then it's only ever between Ritsu and Yui). The characters are well-drawn, the backgrounds are lively and colorful, and the crowd scenes don't rely on generic stick/white figures to show the number of people there. The only time I really thought the artwork suffered a bit was at moments when character anatomy looked a bit off during non-comedic scenes and the girls' legs had the width of pipe cleaners during a normal angle shot. Fortunately these moments were few and far between.
The animation as a whole was very smooth and visually pleasing. I don't recall any moments where the quality suffered as a result of choppy animation or different kinds of movement all over the place. Like most series, the large cheering crowd scenes are relegated to a panoramic freeze frame, but that was likely to maintain the focus on the main characters themselves. Most of the special effects were reserved for the end credits animation, which is spectacular to watch on its own.
While there isn't a great deal of fan service in the series other than the various costumes that Sawako makes the girls wear, some elements of the anime have become notoriously popular among the internet. The first being Yui's little "Un-tan!" sound when plays the castanets and the second being the catch phrase of "Moe, moe. Kyun!" when the girls discuss how Mio would look the best in a maid outfit among them. Remixes of both of these moments featuring characters from all over the anime and video game world can be found everywhere.
Overall the voice actors did some of the best jobs over the course of the entire cast that I've seen in a long time. Even though I still don't speak Japanese and have to rely on subtitles, I could tell that the actors were giving it their all and caught not only the excitement of the girls during their peak moments, but also several subtleties in their tones during other moments. I particularly liked Minako Kotobuki's performance as Tsumugi because of the calming effect of her voice and how Tsumugi herself gains a childlike excitement over her new experiences. Asami Sanada also very much brought Sawako to life especially during the moments where it seemed she had a split personality when showing her real self to the girls. But overall, my favorite was Yoko Hisaka as Mio, especially whenever she was scared or cried out in terror over something- either accidentally flashing her panties to everyone after tripping or calling out for someone to save her from Sawako.
Both the opening and ending themes are very catchy with the ending theme being more memorable than the opening, but I found myself watching both after every episode. The opening theme focuses more on the lighthearted nature of the series as a whole while the ending theme looks more into the characters. The songs that the band plays at their performances are an interesting mixture of love-thematics combined with every day objects, which sounds normal for high school girls.
I didn't really pay much attention to the little incidental music used in the episodes themselves as there wasn't too much of a need for any. Other than when the girls were actually playing their instruments, the only I recall was to accompany establishment shots of locations or a few various flashbacks/montages. The incidentals set the mood and that's all it needed to do.
I honestly didn't expect to like this one as much as I did. My taste in music is not the same as the styles they play in the series, but that didn't deter me for long when I learned how much fun the characters themselves are and how the series focuses more on them than the music they play. For anyone who likes the slice of life genre, this is definitely one I can put on the "Must see" list, most especially if anyone reading this also knows what it's like to learn how to play any musical instrument.
*This and other reviews can also be read at my blog: http://gunarmdyne.blogspot.com