Let’s get one thing out of the way: I frankly don’t know much about K-On! and have minimal emotional attachment to the antics of the five members making up the Hokago Tea Time. I can already foresee some furious fan, clattering away at their keyboard with indignation, saying “So why bother if you know you won’t like it? You’re just another wanna-be elitist fanboy uploading the anti-moe Otaku USA party line.” To which I counter that it’s not that I outright hate K-On!, sight unseen.
Quite the contrary, I concede that the concept of girls forming a rock band is charming and “Don’t Say Lazy” enjoys a welcome presence on my playlist. It’s just that, in a genre full of robots, magic, mystery and Azumanga Daioh, seeing yet another show about young girls’ daily lives isn’t a very high priority. Let alone one that goes for two seasons and is notorious for not having much in the way of conflict or action.
The hook is in the fact that Kyoto Animation’s previous theatrical outing, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, was hands-down one of the most beautiful pieces of theatrical animation in recent years and, despite what anyone else might say, enjoyable enough as a standalone film. With Disappearance, Kyoto Animation broke from the mold of movie adaptations looking like higher-budget TV episodes and crammed it with luscious, thematically rich imagery, even emulating the shallow focus one would find in an actual live-action movie. It demonstrated KyoAni having a knack for creating strong one-shot works and hinting at an ability to break into deeper ground.
Also of interest were the gads of promotional art for the K-On! movie hyping the fact that the gang would be going to London. Despite having never been there, there was curiosity in how the film would showcase the city, given Kyoto Animation’s track record for attention to detail (Excellent) and anime’s reputation for cultural sensitivity and accuracy (Depressingly awful). In any case, given how good the Haruhi film was, expectations were cautiously optimistic for the girls at Sakuragaoka High.
The movie opens, appropriately enough, with the lovable Yui, Ritsu, Mugi and Mio practicing, except this time the sound is far more aggressive than much of anything they have generally performed until now. The most junior member Azusa comes into the club room and suddenly the band is getting into a fight about the direction of their music and general concerns about graduating and moving on to university. Perhaps this is setting up conflict as the band must go to London to find their roots? Perhaps the movie will become a little more pensive and reflective with this? Perhaps little girls who love cake must become grown women who participate in society and find their own road in life?
Ah, psych. Turns out that they were just playing a prank on little ol’ Azu-nyan. Not a moment later and the five up and get back to work. Roll opening credits to a pleasant but forgettable number by the Hokago Tea Time. Fortunately the rest of the movie’s songs are much better.
After that, Yui is trying to cook up a plan for a farewell present for Azusa but can’t seem to come up with anything appropriate. “We should do something sempai-ish for her!” they all say. Is this what takes our group to London? Nope. The catalyst for that misadventure is Yui getting green with envy over her classmates all going on graduation trips abroad. The girls argue over destinations, including an amusing argument over London and Europe, with Mio astutely observing that London is within Europe. It’s something that would be funnier if it weren’t for the fact that far too many make that mistake. And we’re about 30 minutes in the movie with hardly a sign of crumpet.
Yes. 30 minutes in and the girls are still Japan-bound. Making matters worse, the animation, if not the framing, looks barely a step above TV quality despite some attempts at emulating hand-held camerawork. It’s a 30 minutes with some amusing exchanges but it does feel that the movie is taking its sweet time to get anywhere narratively, let alone geographically.
Fortunately, once the movie does get to the Land of Hope and Glory, the visuals take a dramatic step up. Where the movement was before merely competent, now it goes into the gorgeous shallow focus and we get several loving panorama shots as the girls bumble about. The backgrounds are loaded with location detail as the city of London is draped in perpetual sunset hues. On top of that, there is motion in almost every background as people amble about their business.
This is also where it frankly became uncomfortable to watch.
When reviewing, critics generally try to analyze a film on its own merits without bringing too much of themselves into the equation. Nonetheless, watching the scenes as the girls prepare for their London trip, I was wondering what the hell is up with all the bloody ethnocentrism. Watching the girls pack up ramen instant noodles and whine about going to eat sushi in London, I was getting bad memories of Lost in Translation and its celebratory take on people who Just Don’t Get It.
Throughout, the joke seems to be that the girls want to go overseas but without leaving their comfy little Japanese bubbles and any contact with the outside world is scary to these girls who grew up idolizing British rockers. Like Lost in Translation before it, every local is seen as little more than a smiling, winking, nameless stereotype. While this may be perhaps more “positive” than, say, showing the girls dodging riots in the streets or being held up by rowdy chavs, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth to see that a potential crossing of East and West gets reduced to nothing but pretty wallpaper for the cast to literally do the exact same thing they do except in another country.
The operative phrase here is “Wasted opportunity.” The trip is lead up to by Mio wistfully musing about the various British rockers she admires and visiting their homes, yet in the end, the girls don’t do any of it. The locals get seen as intimidating monsters when not harmless background fodder, echoing some ugly stereotypes I’ve had to put up with in my own experience and do not want to come to a movie theater to watch.
We don’t even get a token blonde-haired, blue-eyed Brit gal who will join for one brief jam session. Nope, no cross-cultural communication here and Yui and friends leave the country as ignorant they entered it. To top it all off, those expecting from the hype that the movie would be completely in London will be disappointed to find that the whole adventure only takes up a little over a third of the movie’s two-hour running time.
Alas, a lot of this armchair sociology is going to, perhaps thankfully, be unseen or at least not felt by most the audience, domestic and foreign alike. To their credit, Kyoto Animation showcase London as the cosmopolitan metropolis it is, having people of all colors doing all sorts of jobs, a far cry from the uniformly Aryan stereotype one would fear perpetuated. In any case, most viewers will be too busy enjoying the girls going about their business to think too deeply about it, as I did while watching it.
In fact, quite a bit of it is funny if one is tuned in to the deadpan, ‘you had to be there’ style of humor that has made K-On! the otaku catnip that it is. People who want to look for the yuri subtext will be in heaven seeing the interplay between Azusa and Yui that runs throughout the movie as Yui tries to write a song as the senior members move on to college. Those who like the main four will also be happy to see how they wrap up their final days of High School and, on a character level, it is pleasant and full of some fun moments even for those who are only vaguely familiar with who everyone is.
The sad fact remains that as the fluffy entertainment it is undeniably meant to be, KyoAni has made a successful picture. Between the college-aged and up otaku, the little girls watching it every Sunday on the Disney Channel and the merchandising blitzkreig at the local convenience stores, this thing is bound to rake in fistfuls of money in ways that only Evangelion could. Those who just want more K-On! on a bigger screen and (even) nicer production values will find little to fault. Those who want something truly quality would be better advised to stay home.