The Quite Bearable Lightness and Fluffiness of the K-ON! Special (But It Didn’t Give Me What I Never Knew I Wanted)

While I personally experienced K-ON! on a powerful level, I make no suggestions that it is objectively a valuable piece of culture. It’s not going to rank highly on my favorite show lists and what not. That said, watching this special episode reminded me of what I like about it in the first place.

It’s silly, cute, and harmless while narrating a subject that I find interesting: the high school garage band/music club. What I want to discuss here however, aren’t the elements of the show that I’ve touched on before, but rather the character designs in this episode in particular and how it works and perhaps doesn’t work in a singular narrative.

As a long-time viewer of anime, I’m no stranger to the technique of superdeformity, or chibi, wherein the character is drawn and animated strikingly off-model while other characters remain the same (or that the superdeformed characters revert to their standard). The effect is radical, in that as a viewer, I know there is something unnatural going on.

Consider that the effects include (but are not limited to):

  • ‘Abstracted’ body parts, especially eyes.
  • Ill-proportioned body shape (head too large, limbs too small)
  • Disappearance entirely of details (clothes, accessories, and even noses and other face parts)

The overall effect, or at least objective is to achieve cuteness or at least humor. The side effect is to make the viewer (me) see something so unnatural as if to remind me that what I am watching is NOT real. It is a form of entertainment that isn’t ashamed to be so. It tells me that it can afford to warp unifying visual structures without losing my focus, or interest for that matter.

I can’t say it always works, but it is rather prevalent (if not wholly effective) in comedy series. This technique shows up a lot in manga, where it probably originated. I have not seen enough episodes of Nana, but the source material routinely uses superdeformity in its character designs for its comedic and/or lighthearted turns.

The radical shift from page to page (actually from panel to panel) seems that it should be problematic, but it somehow isn’t.

I’ve read all 84 chapters available, and own all available volumes of Nana, and I can tell you that the style is consistently like this. Fairly realistic (LOL, for shojo at least) character designs liberally ‘violated’ by ‘cartoony’ faces, though never to the extent of superdeformity.

For cases of such, here’s Slam Dunk (I don’t have screen caps of the anime, so I must do with the manga):

In this set of panels, you can see on the top right the characters are drawn in a straightforward (if not realistic) character designs. In the other cases, you see the superdeformity. In the bottom left, Akagi and Kiyota are drawn ‘animalistically’ to highlight the gag that they act like (non-human) primates.

I bring these examples up to establish that this kind of thing isn’t uncommon at all. What I saw in K-On! special episode is another thing altogether. I don’t need to tell those familiar with the show that it relies heavily on superdeforming character designs (Yui, usually). K-On! (spring 2009?) is significant in that after the broadcast of the show, subsequent shows started looking very similar to it in terms of character design.

Arguably, these include:

  • Season two of Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu (Summer 2009)
  • The Sacred Blacksmith (Fall 2009)
  • Sora no Woto (Winter 2009)

Interestingly enough that’s one show per season post-K-ON! that arguably derives their character designs to some degree from it. So what’s now even more interesting to me, is how this episode breaks its character design consistency in depicting teenage girls. I’m talking about the girls from the different bands that performed with ‘Afternoon Tea Time.’

But I shouldn’t say ‘breaks’ but rather the almost subtle differences in the design highlights how exaggerated those of the main cast are. To avoid dumping a lot of images, I’m presenting this breakdown in slideshow form (those reading this post on your feed readers need to visit the actual post to view the slideshow).

To go back to the title of the post, what am I complaining about? I say that this episode didn’t give me what I didn’t know I wanted. What is this exactly? Well, seeing the non-moeblob character designs was very refreshing. I became very interested in the characters drawn this way, interlopers in the visual universe of K-ON!

To put it plainly, I wish the episode showed performances of these two bands. I seriously want to see more of them.

Further Reading

Apparently this special is episode 14 in the continuity; episode review here (animewriter 2010/01/24)

Am I picking on Ritsu? I think not, though I don’t share some people’s appreciation for Ritsu’s beauty (animekritik 2009/04/06)

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
This entry was posted in analysis, K-ON!!! and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Quite Bearable Lightness and Fluffiness of the K-ON! Special (But It Didn’t Give Me What I Never Knew I Wanted)

  1. I don’t think that the girls look like they came from a different show, but then I can spot any hint of K-On!’s and generally Kyoto Animation’s visual style from a mile and a half away. It’s the reason people sill can’t separate A-1 Pictures shows from them mentally – same staff, same image. You ask if I’d just seen that image, would I know it was K-On. Without knowing that there were punk girls in the show, no i wouldn’t. However, if you showed me the image and told me they were from K-on, I would in no way be surprised, or if you showed me the image and asked what studio it was from, I probably would have guessed KyoAni.

  2. Baka-Raptor says:

    The side effect is to make the viewer (me) see something so unnatural as if to remind me that what I am watching is NOT real. It is a form of entertainment that isn’t ashamed to be so.

    Dude, K-ON is totally real. It never tries not to be. You must be watching it wrong. It’s slice-of-life. IT IS WHAT IT IS!

    • Good argument boy, you win!

    • The best counter-argument for this kind of thinking is THIS BLOG POST IS WHAT IT IS. Seriously, how could it be anything else? You’re just projecting your own desires onto something that was never meant for you!

      Seriously though, I have no problem navigating opinion and rhetoric on enjoyment. I could easily say that I did NOT enjoy a widely praised show like FLCL, while I wholly enjoy something like K-ON! However, I tend to stay away from those who find problems with my experience by confronting me by supposed objective qualities of the shows.

      I can’t force people to enjoy Macross by telling them to.

  3. tangle says:

    The slide show almost suggests a spectrum that includes superdeformed, chibi, “moeblob”, and the style in which the the k-on! teenagers are drawn. Would the other end of the spectrum be something like comic book style (e.g., Monster — very realistic); or would it be the “ugly” as opposed to the “cute” deformation style? (I don’t know what this is called; I am thinking of the ugly, wrinkled cartoon faces in bakuman and some seinen comedies; ouran high school host club rather pointedly uses both).

    I don’t experience the side effect whereby these variations seem radical or unnatural (a little in honey & clover until I got used to it). But I do see what you mean about the characters in k-on! almost looking like they’re from different shows.

    • Interesting. I’m not very knowledgeable about visual techniques at all, so I don’t think I’m the person to ask. But to indulge this thinking, I suppose we can plot four quadrants:

      The vertical axis would be something like ‘attempts at cute’ to ‘attempts at disgust’
      The horizontal axis would be something like ‘attempts at representation of the real’ to ‘attempts at abstraction from the real.’

      I don’t have anything conclusive to say, only that the difference in character design gave me pause, but not to the extent that it made me reject the ‘reality’ presented to me.

  4. Emperor J says:

    Not sure where I am going to go with this, but here goes anyway. Main characters drawn with different character features from other characters has been around for as long as I’ve known. The fact that the background characters in the series have similar features is well worth noting though. In this particular episode, I don’t think they could have gotten away with moe-blob faces on the other bands because it wouldn’t work stylistically. So the character faces in this episode are dictated by the story more than anything else.

    • In this particular episode, I don’t think they could have gotten away with moe-blob faces on the other bands because it wouldn’t work stylistically. So the character faces in this episode are dictated by the story more than anything else.

      Makes good sense, but I dare say that it’s quite possible to portray moeblobby punk or even death metal performers. My memory isn’t the best, but that’s how Sawako in her band days occurred to me. Even now, at the end of the ep she seems like a moeblobby adult — as befits a significant character in the show.

  5. gloval says:

    I think the so-called similarity in character design is more of being derived from a common KyoAni/A-1 “moe template.” Based on the the three animes I’ve seen (K-On, Haruhi 2009, and Sora no Woto), the tendency to deform is prevalent only in K-on (I think a big reason is due to the source material) but is virtually absent on the other two.

    Indeed, being introduced to the other bands, you’d want to hear how they sound like. I think if these characters get as much exposure/significance as Sawako, maybe their music might be featured in a future CD the same way Sawako plays metal in her character CD, but I doubt this will happen.

  6. 2DT says:

    “Interlopers in the visual universe of K-ON.” I really, really like that.

    This episode felt odd because of that, and also because the K-ON! cast was itself moving into a different universe than the one we had seen previously. This is a new world of lived-in grody concrete, with old fliers and stickers everywhere. It’s surprisingly real in a way that the school is not.

    • It feels good to have one’s turns of phrase appreciated, thank you!

      Oh, another thing about the school, is the surrealistic treatment of the statue in each episode… which adds to lack of realness of the setting. It’s as if a lighthouse, telling us not to dash ourselves on the rocks of 2D… “this is not your world” or something.

      The world of the live house, to make a dubious contrast, is filled with a lot of technical detail… your said stickers and guitar effects pedals, and lighting sheets.

      It then becomes interesting how the keion club domesticates it by holding afternoon tea time to break the ice with everyone else. Then it becomes interesting how there enters a ‘love crisis’ between the afternoon tea time of actual tea in the afternoon, and the rehearsal which is the music that Afternoon Tea Time the band is supposedly about.

      Is K-ON! a show about music? Is it really about girls who enjoy sipping tea and eating snacks more than anything, and happens to like writing songs about things like that? A case can be made for both, the soul of these girls hang in the balance.

      A ‘Love Crisis’ indeed. This band, with their level of seriousness and polish, is the provocateur of the keion club’s own resolve. A ‘reality check’ consistent with the details in the setting that you astutely noted. If one looks closely at these little details, one sees the second season set up not quite so lightly, and not quite so fluffily.

      LOL I somehow ended up writing the post I wanted to write in the first place in response to your comment.

  7. Ningyo says:

    That’s the most insightful K-ON slideshow I’ve ever seen.
    Granted, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen, but still, kudos. Srsly.

    Now all we lack is an expansion series with nothing but moeblobby death metal performers. Maybe that would make it interesting enough for me.

  8. animewriter says:

    Nice post, the slide show was a nice touch that highlighted your observations. I think that 2DT is on to something with his observation about the girls entering another universe, which I think is quite right.

    Since the start of the series almost years have passed, and the girls are about to start their senior year of HS (making them around 17, almost adults, loli’s no more) but we’ve seen no visual changes to their appearance. But, I think this episode signaled that the girls’ are at least venturing out into the “more” adult world even if they still look like 14 year olds.

    I didn’t find the visual changes between groups of characters at all jarring or out of place because all the characters we’ve ever seen have been “in universe” with maybe the exceptions of the music store employees and maybe a few other minor people.

    About 15 years ago I took a manga drawing class and the instructor taught the basics of character design (cute vs realistic, head sizes and body ratio by age, and so forth) and the punk girls are pretty much drawn like full adults while the K-On! are pretty much drawn to the teen cute girl standard. But, what I’d really like to see in the upcoming season is for the girls to look like maturing young women by the time the series end. Also, I think that Baka-Raptor is right, this is a slice-of-life show with music finishing in second place behind drinking tea and eating snacks as important life goal.

    • Thanks!

      what I’d really like to see in the upcoming season is for the girls to look like maturing young women by the time the series end.

      Yes, I would like to see this too. If there could be a mono-no-aware kind of epilogue similar to the post-finale in the first season, only with older characters. A time skip would be nice as well.

  9. Gorilla says:

    Really great post. I love how you write a rather long post about character design, its purpose and significance in K-ON and you manage to end it so easily with a single sentence. It makes reading your post very exciting.
    Your observations are spot-on and the slideshow is pretty detailed but I think that in the comparison shot between the K-ON members and the technisian, his face seems smaller than the girls’ faces, because he is leaning forward a bit.

    Well K-ON is a slice of life series about the ideal life of 5 ideal highschool girls and it is natural that the character design reflects this. The other bands are older and are not the main characters so their character design is different and makes them seem older and more mature.

    • Thank you very much.

      If the technician was leaning (slightly, he has to be) forward, there would indeed be some foreshortening of his face. However, the slightness of the said position does not override the fact that he is still nearer to the viewer than any of the girls, even Azusa.

      Contrast this with the previous slide 8’s image, where there is effective foreshortening (i.e. Azusa’s smaller face seems just as large if not larger than Mugi’s face).

      What I didn’t consider is if there simply is some kind of illustration/animation failure. But since I give the production the benefit of the doubt especially since this is an OVA/one-shot, I’m not inclined to ascribe the face size observations to technical failures.

  10. Hmmm so I have a question now. What makes K-On moe good versus Binchou-tan moe? The follow up to that would be to ask if K-On were more like Binchou-tan would you want to blow up the club room?

    • If you’re asking me about categorical distinctions, I don’t think I have anything useful. But I do like K-ON because I do feel moe for the characters. I want them to succeed. They have a specific goal, and are into very specific things I am interested about (food, goofing off, music playing).

      Bincho-tan cleans her house, cooks her one meal per day, travels to town to find work. Gets paid her pittance… so she can cook her one meal per day and so on. One can consider this a very essential existence to contrast with the frivolity and perhaps excess of the characters in K-ON!, but my dislike for Bincho-tan’s anime (not Bincho-tan herself; she remains only quite uninteresting) is rather due to my being forced to watch it by my own arbitrary rules for our Christmas anime exchange.

      If I were to watch her show in a vacuum, I merely would’ve dropped it after 2 eps and remained indifferent. Oh, and Bincho is technically a child associating with mostly children — an actual loli, as contrasted by a mere loli aesthetic from the teenagers (Yui & co.). As to why I’d enjoy watching an 8-12 y/o girl dress herself I truly wonder — I really don’t. Never did at that age.

      I do remember being a teenager, and was very much interested by girls my age too. So K-ON! also works as a nostalgia vehicle, for those years I too learned to play the guitar and had a band in school.

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