Kyoto Animation has a track record of producing titles that go on to become mega-hit franchises. Haruhi, Lucky Star or their multitude of adaptations of Key's visual novels; no matter what they put out, odds are it'll go on to become a hit. But on top of that, they've historically struck an emotional chord with their excellent scripts, and wowed audiences with their lavish animation. K-On!, an adaptation of Kakifly's 4-panel manga series, is their most recent hit series. With such a pedigree to compete with, does this simplistic tale of a high school band rise to the levels of greatness seen by the studio's works, or fall into the trappings of other slice-of-life moe series? The answer is more mixed than you might think.
We join the protagonists as they all descend on a high school group known as the Light Music Club. On the verge of being disbanded, this club's intention is to make music that is enjoyable and pleasing to the ears. But the only problem is that, despite the fact that three of the four are well-versed in music and can indeed play instruments, they're... just "not very good", according to the group's guitarist. She's in no position to speak though, because she can't even play guitar yet. Yes, with this type of dysfunction, on top of school exams, summer trips and other hindrances, the future of the Light Music Club is uncertain.
Their comedic struggles, though, provide a nice four episodes' worth of entertainment in this first volume, however vanilla it may be. These episodes start with each character confused as to what exactly this club's intention is, and end with them having formed a bond and set in motion a solid plan to perform at the school festival. Nothing too challenging in terms of content, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.
This series' main strength lies not in it's plot, though, but in the tone that the writers set. As a reader of the original manga, I have to say that KyoAni did a better job of establishing these characters than their own creator did. Despite the fact that shy rich girl, keyboardist and excellent cook Tsumugi feels like a carbon copy of Miyuki Takara minus the irony, these characters feel like real people that you'd meet in your day-to-day life. Any viewer of Lucky Star can attest to the fact that this studio's storytelling specialty lies in the field of believable characters, but this time, I have to say they've done a better job than in their previous works. I was sucked into these characters' chemistry, and was frequently reminded of my relationship with my own friends. This attention of detail to personality really puts K-On! ahead of so many imitators.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the plot. While it is fun to watch these characters go about their day-to-day affairs, the fact remains that many of these affairs are typical things we've come to expect from this type of show. Beach trips to the rich girl's summer home, shopping trips which include a montage of looking a pretty/cute/fun things, the very concept of forming a dysfunctional club that gets into comedic incidents... these are all things we've seen before. It doesn't make the show any less enjoyable, but those expecting a total deviation in formula from Lucky Star-type shows might feel a bit disappointed.
But to those expecting KyoAni to hold up their excellent quality of animation, prepare yourself for one of the best demonstrations of their work. This could perhaps be the most attention to detail they've paid to a series since the first season of Haruhi. Every piece of background art, every ripple of the characters' clothing, and every movement of the characters themselves are all delivered to us in painstaking detail. This is the type of stuff that only KyoAni's budget can achieve, and it's damn beautiful to look at. While what they're showing us isn't exactly fantastical, the studio proves that paying attention to your everyday surroundings may reap more rewards than immersing yourself in imaginary worlds.
The voice-acting is top-notch as well. KyoAni's past megahits have boasted fantastic casts (in both their English dubs and original Japanese voice tracks), and this show is no different. Especially great are Stephanie Sheh and Aki Toyosaki as Yui, the ditz of a lead guitarist whose personality shifts every 0.5 seconds. Both actresses convey a perfect sense of ADD when voicing this fragile girl, one rarely achieved by V.A.s when voicing this type of character. Not to take away from the rest of the cast; everybody here is on their A-game.
Hajime Hyokkoku's score is the tidy ribbon which wraps up this neat package. Encompassing a wide range of musical styles (rock, pop, orchestral, techno, synthpop, etc.), this man has come a long way from his Voogie's Angel days (five points to anybody who'd heard of that series before having to look it up in the link!). This should cement into the realm of top-notch composers of mainstream anime.
Bandai USA's American release of the show is fairly bare-bones, but that can be forgiven considering it's just not feasible to release the limited edition versions we saw of Haruhi and Lucky Star (whose last volume didn't even get a limited edition release because of then-collapsing anime DVD industry.) There's an entertaining interview with Stephanie Sheh, and a handful of trailers, but nothing too special. If you have a Blu-Ray player, though, getting this show on that format would be your best bet to appreciate the animation in it's highest quality.
K-On! isn't KyoAni's best work, not by a long shot. But their most polished? Definitely. It doesn't reach the depths of Haruhi, nor the emotional highs of Air, but sometimes, we all just want to relax with some shiny fluff. That's exactly what this show is, and that's why I love it.
Voice-Acting (both languages): A+
NOTE: This is the same review that I posted on my blog, so if you run across it on there as well, be aware that it's not plagiarism. I just didn't want to write two separate reviews for the same thing! ;P