The late aughts saw a number of major changes in the anime market. The golden age of experimental late night programming kicked off by Evangelion in 1995 slowly came to an end, though it partially survived in dedicated programming blocks like those of Fuji TV and NTV. There was the rise of the slice of life/”moe” genre. Though it had predecessors in the iyashikei (“healing”) genre (Haibane Renmei, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou) and the yonkoma comedy (Azumanga Daioh), slice of life shows reached their apex as a commercial form during this time. There was also a global financial crisis that inevitably affected the production and distribution of anime. Though these three phenomenon might be completely unrelated, it’s easy to see how most of us would conflate them: moe destroyed good anime. Reliable stats on attitudes and biases are hard to measure, especially in a niche hobby like anime, but in my experience this is when a number of casual fans renounced their membership. Even as the advent of streaming services have helped anime out of the hole it was in circa 08/09, lingering biases remain and seasonal charts do little to reverse this.
And I don’t really dispute that. TV anime was never better than it was from the mid/late 90s to 2007. But that simple narrative has a tendency to obscure facts about the changing nature of the industry. No studio embodies these changes better than Kyoto Animation. They’re the big winners of the decade, going from a minor subcontractor in the 90s to producing their first show in 2003 to starting their own publishing label in 2011. They’re known for having one of the if not the best work environment in the entire industry with good pay, a reputable in-house animation school, and equal gender representation in their staff. They also produced several megahits in the late 00s: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, and K-On!. All three inaugurate the studio’s move away from the melodramatic KEY visual novel adaptations that were their stock-in-trade to the mellower ‘bishoujos in a club’ aesthetic that would define their newer work.
Of those three, perhaps none has faced harsher condemnation than K-On!. By 2009 the above developments had played out and the show was seen as emblematic of what had ‘destroyed good anime’: four to five kawaii girls join a club and do nothing of consequence for a dozen or so 20 minute episodes. There was always an aura of voyeurism around it, a charge the comparatively fanservicey Haruhi never faced, as if it existed to give deviants a glimpse into a area of life they really shouldn’t have access to. Shameless merchandisers and magazines, not owned or controlled by KyotoAni, made the situation worse. More than anything, people directed their ire at the show’s banality. Many of these ‘healing’ shows, like Junichi Sato’s Tamayura series, derive their appeal from a deadening anaesthetic effect. They don’t seem to risk anything narratively or stylistically. It’s kitsch. And frankly, without doing research into the studio and having more than a few sources I trust tell me otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought K-On! was anything else. The slice of life genre has a terrible batting average, worse than the gory hardcore 80s action/horror OVA, another boom market, and the vast majority of slice of life shows are exactly as bad as their critics think. But not all of them are.
First, some interesting facts. A study by the Ascii Institute found that of K-On!’s viewers, 37% were women and 15% didn’t regularly watch anime (for comparison, the study found 100% of Madoka Magica’s viewership were hardcore anime fans). That’s just one study but anecdotal evidence suggests the show has more of a strong female fanbase in Japan than it does overseas, probably because it aired on Disney Japan rather than a traditionally otaku-oriented late night programming block. It was also the first anime production ever to have female staff for every major creative position. The director, screenwriter, character designer, and chief animation director were all women. Many of the major animators and episode directors were women as well. The participation of women in the highest levels of anime production has been a growing trend in recent years. A recent Madhouse expose revealed that most of their contract hires are women. Women consume more anime now than they ever have and shows that explicitly cater to a female demographic are becoming widespread. Before K-On!, the number of female series directors was in the single digits, but that number has steadily climbed every year since its broadcast. K-On! itself may have had little impact on this trend (although two of K-On! episode directors, Hiroko Utsumi and Noriko Takao, are now series directors in their own right) but the show can be seen as a symbol for the changing status of women in the industry.
But that on its own doesn’t prove shit. Plenty of female directors in the commercial film industry have produced utter drek. Moreover, KyotoAni’s committed focus to YA and high school settings has cultivated a fanbase among the more obnoxious and creepy corners of the forums/tumblr world, another red flag. The show should be taken on its own terms, not external factors. But what show are we talking about? In reality, there are two K-On!s to consider, season 1 and season 2 (called K-On! and K-On!! respectively). The first, a close adaptation of the original manga, is a middling Azumanga Daioh clone. Naoko Yamada was promoted to series director too abruptly for she and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida to have enough time to work their magic, and it shows. Outside of the bonus episode 13, which anticipates the tone of the second season, season 1 is thoroughly mediocre. It’s understandable why so many people wrote the series off when it debuted. Season 2 is a different story, however. The second season effectively abandons the manga and its rote yonkoma joke structure for Yamada and Yoshida’s own approach. The result is not only successful but represents the pinnacle of the slice of life, ‘bishoujos in a club’ format.
I should get some caveats out the way because while K-On!! is good kitsch, it’s still kitsch. Dialogue is cutesy, jokes are heavily telegraphed, the main cast all fall into strict comic archetypes; all this comes with the territory. Even though it’s funnier than it often gets credit for, it’s not exactly a comedy. Episode 1 has an eye-rolling moment where a character makes fun of another’s flat chest, though thankfully these otakuish scenes are basically extinct in season 2. For me, the biggest problem in approaching K-On!! for the first time was the theme song. Not only do the visuals have a trace of the voyeuristic skeeze of the first season (the opening was directed by KyotoAni old guard Tatsuya Ishihara of Chuunibyou and Clannad fame, not Yamada), the song itself is an unlistenable chiptune abomination. Thankfully the in-show music is much better, ranging from smooth and subdued muzak for ambient tracks to generically pleasant pop rock for the band’s performances. Aside from that, K-On!! is completely tame and any reading otherwise wouldn’t be able to rely on the show alone as evidence (the Western fanbase, on the other hand, is as terrible as it seems but that’s a different discussion). The only real issue is it’s girly as hell, which will understandably turn off a number of male viewers, but sometimes it’s good to indulge in your feminine side between the manime gore and shounen angst. It took about three episodes for me to be fully sold on the show but once I was I had no trouble getting through the remaining 21 episodes.
K-On!! is about five high school girls (four seniors and one junior) in an after-school light music (rock) club. While the first season is relatively unconcerned with its metastructure, the second season covers a discrete interval – a single year – with the first and last episodes set against graduation ceremonies. The girls spend most of their time messing around but there’s a strong sense of the passing days and seasons. There’s a greater sense of narrative continuity too, with callbacks to previous episodes and foreshadowing in the early ones, which is refreshing since so many of these slice of life shows box themselves into a rigid gag structure. The club is utopian in a sense but by putting a specific expiration date on it in the first episode the show strikes a subtler tone than it appears to at first glance. Azusa, the junior and the one left behind with no-one when the four graduate, becomes something of an audience surrogate and a few episodes, like episode 13, explicitly riff on this outsider dynamic. The lack of typical high school drama might seem unrealistic but in many ways this captures the remembered feeling of high school best. It’s not simply a nostalgic show but a show with nostalgia as its central organizing principle, affecting all areas of the presentation. This aspect was noted by a number of Japanese critics and sociologists when the second season first aired (see here).
A major stumbling block for first time watchers is the lack of attention to the actual process of running and playing in a band. While Houkago Tea Time is never at risk of disbanding, how the show depicts the act of playing an instrument is far closer to reality than you might expect. Throughout the second season there are several scenes where characters aimlessly jam on their instruments with no particular song in mind, and these scenes see the show at its best. Through the naïve act of strumming a chord or hitting drum sticks on a table, K-On!! gets closer to the immediate experience of music than any number of band dramas that focus on everything else.
But more than any perceived skeeziness or lack of musical cred, the most commonly cited complaint about K-On!! is that it’s boring. Subjective responses are impossible to refute but the show’s mundanity can’t be held against it in an aesthetic sense. It isn’t a secret that ‘slice of life’ shows indulge in utopian fantasy, becoming thoroughly unlike ‘life’ in the process, but K-On!! is the only show of this type where a structural relationship exists between the banal and the nostalgic. Anime fans are usually fine with this style if it’s livened up with supernatural action or ecchi comedy so it isn’t surprising that K-On!!, in toning down the saccharine colors, exaggerated manzai slapstick, and bouts of romantic idealism that plague the genre, wouldn’t cater to that mindset.
Of course, this would all be for naught if the direction and animation weren’t up to par. Thankfully, KyotoAni’s talented production staff were up to the task and K-On!! ended up as one of the best-produced TV animes ever made, only surpassed by KyotoAni’s own Hyouka two years later. Toshiyuki Inoue, star animator of the films of Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Oshii, has called K-On!! the pinnacle of television anime from a technical standpoint and praised character designer Yukiko Horiguchi for avoiding the unrealistically pretty female body types common in anime. KyotoAni’s character animation is the closest anime comes to the American full system (as explained here), to such an extent that you tend to forget that what you’re seeing are drawings. I also appreciated how it integrated its physical comedy into the motion itself rather than rely on stiff “funny faces” like most shows in the genre (compare that to S1 which, while looking fantastic, is more visually predictable in this sense). Though subtle, the level of detail in the motion is very impressive and anyone with a technical interest in animation ought to check it out for that alone. It’s this fastidious attention to detail that pushes K-On!! above its peers.
Experiencing K-On!! firsthand has made the overblown reaction to it all the stranger. A few indicative reviews from the time of its release:
“K-ON! is another entry in the moe slop-bucket of shitty anime. Once again, all the girls are totally cute, and we get to see their adventures of daily life. Nothing much actually happens. We really just have a voyeuristic sensation as we watch the teenage girls. That must be why it is so popular. It can’t be the plot (it doesn’t have one), it can’t be the action (it doesn’t have any), it can’t be the incredible acting (it doesn’t have that), and it can’t be the amazing character growth (it doesn’t have any). If the writers/director/animators had put one tenth of the effort into storytelling that they did into making cute character designs, then this show could have been good. It would be better if it ended like this:[picture of K-On! character Yui having murdered her friends with a guitar]“
“Look, the basic gist of K-on! is that Kyoani has lost its soul. Every studio caters to fanservice to some extent, but nothing could feel more “by the books” than what K-on! demonstrated in its twelve uninspired episodes. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi had its fair share of moe, but it was, at the very least, self-aware of its harem qualities. You could even call it meta, but that might be giving Kyoani too much credit. K-on! is unabashed in its moe glory. […] K-on! is just dumb. You can have moe and be smart about it. You can have fanservice and be smart about it. Haruhi was somewhat clever about it; Maria+Holic was clever about it. K-on! is just dumb. It’s like getting a big puff of pink cotton candy and cramming it all down your throat in one go. So what if Kyoani made it with the best of sugar. At the end of the day, its content is pure fluff, fake and absolutely bad for your health. But man, how little boys eat it up.”
“And this is one of the biggest reasons why K-On is a giant piece of pigshit; watching a few episodes of it will give you a shockingly accurate idea of K-On as an entire series. Characters do not develop, personalities do not change and jokes are constantly reused. So in the end, what you get is a shitty anime, with a shitty story and shitty characters, which tries its utmost best to stay shitty. Also, Yui’s clumsiness and silliness is way, way overdone. I’m presuming it’s meant to be cute, but it’s not. It’s just bloody annoying. Every time we’re forced to endure Yui’s antics, I feel nothing but the unquenchable desire to reach into the screen and punch Yui in the face. And then kick her. Continuously. For about an hour.” [This guy’s review had a rape joke in it]
Maria Holic? Are you shitting me? Anime fans love taste wars but in their zeal to land a hot take they forget to be consistent. A whole host of mainstream or accepted anime (to name a few, Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, Haruhi, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Gunslinger Girl, Sailor Moon) are far less innocuous than K-On!! and many of K-On!!‘s peers in the genre (Hidamari Sketch, Aria, Non Non Biyori) are far more susceptible to claims of frivolity and voyeurism even though they never face similar scrutiny. K-On!! is not only the best ‘all-rounder’ of the slice of life camp, it’s the only slice of life show to fully succeed on its formal, technical, and narrative grounds. It’s the Gurren Lagann of moe.
Though its compromises to genre limit it somewhat, for an anime it does a fine job and as the later episodes build towards an honest-to-god emotional climax you might find yourself surprised at how attached you’ve become to the group. The overwhelming impression I got from K-On!! is that it was made for its creators’s own satisfaction rather than for a presumed male otaku audience. Apparently Naoko Yamada spent much of her school life in clubs and anyone who belonged to a close clique of friends in high school will see some of their experiences reflected in the keions. This quality makes it uniquely suited to the weekly episodic medium of television: unlike those binge-ready cable dramas on AMC and HBO, K-On!!’s snapshots of the club’s activities over the course of a year make it best seen spaced out, as routine. As a matter of principle you should never trust “despite appearances, it’s really good!” from an anime fan but when it comes to K-On!!, despite appearances, it’s really good!
Now someone please murder me for writing all these words about K-On!!.