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.
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)