Watching K-On!! for the First Time in 2022 (and Crying My Eyes Out)

Last year, I worked as an editor on two great articles: Marina Garrow’s ‘Reconsidering Moe Through a Neurodiverse Lens’ and Patrick O’Loghlen’s ‘Why K-On! Deserved Its Second Chance’. Very different pieces in aim, tone, and focus, but each with a commonality at their heart: an affection for the iconic KyoAni series K-On! and what it brought to the world of anime, even if (mainstream, internet-based, English-speaking) anime fans may not have embraced it right away. These essays got me feeling nostalgic. Ah, K-On! I remember my own feelings when I watched the series…

Wait. I’ve watched K-On! right?

Of course I’ve watched K-On! It’s a foundation of the modern slice-of-life, girls-with-hobbies-and-passions genre, and I love that stuff. I would have definitely watched K-On! No way I wouldn’t have.


Reader, working on these articles made me realise I had never actually watched K-On!

Or rather, I never finished the series. I know I watched at least some of the first season somewhere in the realm of high school. It made enough of an impression on me that I tried making Yui’s ‘Don’t Say Lazy’ dress as one of my first cosplays (with “eh” results—all the best bits were with the help of my friend Jess, whose mother was a seamstress). I have a pile of K-On! gifs and screencaps in my reactions folder (you know, when reaction gifs were a language unto themselves on Tumblr?). I had some of the songs on my mp3 player (my mp3 player!).

But for whatever reason, I let my enthusiasm wane and never continued into the second season nor the movie. Maybe because I was still in the phase where I was hopping manically from one fandom to the next, following the interests of my friends trying to keep up with what was cool, only to develop my own definitive sense of personal taste after my teen years. Maybe I just got busy. I do not have an answer for this gaping crevasse in my anime experience—and, going by the love I consistently see poured out for this series, I am genuinely missing out on something.

And lo, I decided to embark on a project: (re)watch K-On! with fresh, adult eyes, and see how it speaks to me. See if I can pinpoint where that love comes from. See how it holds up on its own terms, without a filter of nostalgia.

I come to you now at the end of my journey with tidings of oh my God, K-On! is really good! I’m laughing! I’m crying! Why am I crying?! Why is this show so GOOD?

Well, let’s start at the beginning. K-On! is the tale of five students who, each for their own reasons, find themselves haphazardly piled together into their school’s light music club—effectively, the tale of a small cast of misfits who stumble into starting a rock band. While music features in many storylines, it’s not the crux of the whole show, and K-On! is content to explore many aspects of these girls’ lives, both mundane and meaningful (while finding the meaningful in the mundane… but let’s come back to that thought in a second).

Whether it’s a live-action sitcom or a slice-of-life anime, a show “about nothing” lives or dies on the strength of its characters. You have to care enough about these people to want to watch them going about their daily lives, after all. While they might seem archetypal at first, K-On’s core cast, and the way the writing handles the chemistry between them, is its strength. They each have their own unique quirks and flaws, which the show mines for comedy without any character being the designated “funny one”.

They’re cute, for sure, and in some instances their characterisation swings towards what you might call “twee”, but generally? I was pleasantly surprised by the degree of authenticity I felt from these characters. Their experiences, emotional reactions, and shenanigans felt, many times, like a perfectly honest depiction of a teenaged girl dialled up a little for comedy. Yui messing around cutting her own hair, the frustrated but loving banter between Mio and Ritsu, the band going goggle-eyed and conspiratorial when they come into a pile of cash. All these situations are anime-fied and ridiculous, but there’s an undercurrent of realness, of “oh, same”, that keeps it strangely anchored.

As many before me have observed, the first season is plenty charming, but the second season—the one I’d never watched until now—not only polishes the humour but enhances the earnest, emotional centre of the show. Which is not to say there’s no sincerity or emotional storytelling in season one. There definitely is, and again, it caught me by surprise: when I realised the finale was mirroring the premiere’s opening scene, with Yui planting her feet rather than slipping all over the place, I felt… moved.

It’s something so simple, but the visual language and the heightened emotional state drove her character arc home in such an effective way. There was a character arc at the heart of this silly little show, there had been the whole time—an arc about Yui finding something she’s passionate about, finding people to be passionate with, and thus finding her place in a world where she was usually adrift. It was heartwarming, and I don’t use that word lightly. It nearly made me tear up! And oh boy, did that set the tone for season two.

Season two of K-On!! broke my little heart. Its doubled length and sharper writing let it delicately balance the goofy, musical club adventures alongside a solemn and sometimes downright stressful plot thread about growing up and graduating. Season one breezes through two years, but season two slows down to let the passing of time hold more weight. The looming threat of adulthood—and the inevitable breaking up of the band—runs as an undercurrent throughout the whole show. At times it almost made me want to stop watching. Each episode that went by was one more step towards the finale, the day where younger bandmate Azusa would be left alone, the day that these girls would have to step out of the idyllic, fun world of their club room and into greater responsibilities.

There is a scene where the band is sitting together in their practice room, drenched in the golden light of a fading day, exhausted but elated after their performance at the school festival. They begin to chatter and plan for the next one—bigger, better, wilder, more fun. But it dawns on them that this was, in fact, their last school festival. This time next year, four of them will be graduates and Azusa will be on her own. They realise that this, this moment here, in the happy, fading golden light, is a moment that will never come again. This realisation passes across the group like a shadow, and they’re laughing, and they’re crying, and they’re huddling together because what else are they supposed to do except try to make this moment last?

And I cried. Stupid big globby Studio Ghibli tears beaded on my eyelashes and tumbled down my face. There’s just something about this scene that encapsulates all the beauty of this series: the way it captures a relatable sense of teenaged euphoria and goofiness, transitioning seamlessly into a relatable sense of teenaged despair. The story has centred itself so effectively around the interior lives of these girls that these personal stakes feel massive.

Maybe, as a grown-up, you know this isn’t that big a deal; but you are drawn so deeply into the understanding that this is a big deal for these girls, at this moment, that you forget all of that. This scene manages to be funny and sweet and devastating all at once, hitting you over the head with the realisation of just how much you’ve come to care for these fictional kids. Like the big emotional revelation about Yui’s character growth in season one, it snuck up on me: deep sincerity hidden among the goofs.

I expected to give K-On! some props for being a really good hobby show—and it is that!—but I didn’t expect to also be praising it so highly for its strength as a coming-of-age story. It recognises the emotional weight of moments like this, of the sense of doom that impending change like graduation can bring, while not configuring itself as a drama. It’s a lighthearted slice-of-life comedy first and foremost, and it’s the acknowledgment of these emotionally fraught adolescent moments that make its celebration of the happy ones stand out all the more.

The overall effect is incredibly sweet. This show lets its girls be goofy and cute and zany while also hammering home that they are people, young adults with complicated emotions who know they can’t exist in the cosy cocoon of the school club setting forever. It interrupts the escapism, but it adds a layer of realism and earnestness that I feel is crucial for the show’s impact.

Why do people love K-On! and K-On!! so much? I think I get it. It’s fun and sweet, a fluffy comedy you can get sucked into, forgetting your own troubles while you watch these friends navigate a music festival, or try to wrangle an air conditioner out of the student council, or hang around eating cake avoiding their responsibilities. It’s a nostalgic, or maybe even vicarious experience, watching these teenagers have a nice time at high school, in a tight-knit group of friends who accept each other despite their differences and flaws. It’s a finely-crafted chilled-out slice-of-life experience. I can see why it was so genre-defining.

But a series cannot thrive on chill vibes alone. It’s K-On!’s sincerity that gives it such a lasting impact. Its kind treatment of its teenaged characters, recognising both their anxieties and their joys as the biggest deal in the world. Its commitment to giving all its characters layers and never making anyone the butt of the joke. Its sweet and earnest depiction of adolescent friendship and how those ties feel unbreakable and precarious all at once.

K-On! is frequently silly, but it’s never dumb. Every plot element and character moment is carefully placed to create a warm and welcoming world that provides goofy fun and escapism while also feeling strangely real. Like a good piece of music, it all flows together, and it gets thoroughly stuck in your head.

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Filed under And I Think That's Neat

5 responses to “Watching K-On!! for the First Time in 2022 (and Crying My Eyes Out)

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