Plato tells us that for every object and concept in the universe, there is an ideal form. Somewhere out there is the ideal form of a table, an object whose table qualities are so perfect and exact that every other table we experience is nothing but a shadow—an insubstantial, transitory illusion of the real thing. If we extend this idea from concrete objects to abstract concepts, then somewhere out there is the perfect, ideal form of delight, and if I were a betting man, it would look exactly like K-On!.
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the first disc in theK-ON! Music History’s Box Set (out of twelve), and it’s great. The music is definitely part of the magic of this show, but (as I mentioned in my actual review of the first season) I can’t really tell you why this show works so well. I used the metaphor for alchemy in that review, and it still applies. I’m obviously being hyperbolic when I say that K-On! is the platonic ideal of delight, but, man, this show just makes me happy. It did when it came out ten years ago, and it does today, and it will continue until I’m a toothless old man.
K-On! began as a four-panel seinen manga written and illustrated by Kakifly and published in Manga Time Kirara and Manga Time Kirara Carat in May 2007 and October 2010, respectively. It was adapted into a thirteen-episode anime in 2009 by Kyoto Animation and an OVA was released in 2010. It follows the adventures of the Saduragoaka Girl’s High School Light Music Club, whose members include drummer Ritsu Tainaka, bass player Mio Akiyama, keyboardist Tsumugi Kotobuki, guitar prodigy and space cadet Yui Hirasawa, and Azusa, who also plays guitar. The girls have big ambitions (“Next stop, Budokan!” as Ritsu likes to say), but to the constant irritation of Mio and Azusa, the band mostly just wants to drink tea and eat cakes after school. It doesn’t help matters that their sponsor Miss Sawako Yamanaka encourages the tea breaks more than she does practice. When they can be drawn away from their teatime, they’re exceptionally good, but that often requires a forklift and dynamite.
And that’s really it in terms of plot. This is a character-driven show, so not much happens in the episodes. This might be a drawback in other series, but it works perfectly well in this one, because the characters are so damn likable. They’re fun and silly and cartoony, while still displaying moments of real heart. They can also play the hell out of a song. This is one of those shows that gets your toes tapping while you watch, grinning like an idiot.
I’m sure there’s a cool Japanese word that sums up the genre K-On! falls under, but I prefer to classify it as cute-high-school-girls-doing-cute-high-school-girl-things. It’s not only accurate, but it also sounds perverted, even though it’s not. The king of this genre is, of course, Azumanga Daioh (or should that be queen?), but you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a title in this category. Most of the titles (Love Lab, Love, Elections, and Chocolate, and even Love, Chunibyo, and other Delusions) are cute but forgettable.
K-On!, on the other hand, is anything but forgettable. The characters, the basic plot (what there is of it), the music, the animation style, and the overall tone makes it stand out in this sea of sameness. I know I’ve used this word too much, but it’s delightful. It’s a joyful, silly show whose elements come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s alchemy. It’s turning lead into gold.