For a show as innocent, low-key and void of ambition as K-ON!, it sure has garnered a lot of controversy. K-ON! skipped merrily along the road paved by Lucky Star, distilling easily consumable cuteness to its very core and inspiring dozens of shows, including those we are (not) watching as of now. After first hitting screens in 2009, the show quickly became the poster child for the entire moe genre, or the carcinome initiating the downfall of the entire anime industry, depending on whom you ask. The entire fandom had already picked a side when this movie was announced, yet the controversy refused to lay down. Would K-ON!‘s formula work on the big screen? Would this movie have an actual plot? Would people even still like K-ON!, or would they have moved on to another soon-to-be-has-been moe starlet? Salvation has come, or the damage has been done, regarding on which side of the spectrum you feel most comfortable to be on. The movie became a smash hit amongst Japanese otaku and now, it is at last available for our heathen foreigner eyes to see. Sky high!
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you will know that this movie is all about the five girls of the light music club visiting London, the capital of decent pop music. However, this being K-ON!, it takes Yui, Mio, Ritsu, Mugi and Azusa quite a while to get there. The first 45 minutes of the movie constitute what is essentially one very long-winded episode of the TV series, filled with drinking tea, eating cake and a frustratingly immense collection of trademark dim-witted remarks from Yui. Aside from a brilliantly hilarious opening gag, anything leading up to the London trip is a retread of the tiringly tried and true themes of the second season. In case those twenty-four episodes did not make it clear enough to you already, yes, the girls are about to graduate and have to leave Azusa behind, which saddens them greatly. But not too greatly. Just like the second season, the movie never actually does anything with its drama, aside from when it wants to. Azumanga Daioh showed that reflecting on the end of childhood is perfectly possible in a fluffy slice-of-life show, and K-ON! certainly has the characters to pull this off. What it lacks, however -and you will read this many more times after this- is ambition.
The film picks up considerably once the girls land in London for the second, original plot of the film. The one aspect in which Kyoto Animation always manages to deliver is the visual one, and this movie is no different. While the visuals in general are only slightly better than those of Kyoto Animation’s currently airing TV series Hyouka and nowhere near the amazing animation in The Dissappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, the attention to detail in the beautiful wintery London vistas this film throws at you is breathtakingly engaging. While not perfect, the London chunk of the film contains some great moments and stranger-in-a-strange-land gags, strengthened further by a focus on actual music and Azusa’s increased medium awareness. The flames of implied lesbianism between her and Yui rise sky high more than ever before, but in the end, they provide a surprisingly nice step in the direction of actual character development.
These sequences of awesomeness are glued together with a lot of boring drone, however. There are still thirty minutes of movie left when the girls leave London and by then, you will already have seen something that could easily pass as a finale. The K-ON! movie is a film which simply refuses to end, even going as far as to readapt moments already seen in the final episodes of the television series. When the movie finally clocks out after a whopping hour and fifty minutes, it clocks out with an adorable bang that justifies some of its more awkward and dramatic scenes; though calling these scenes build-up would be too much of a compliment. K-ON!‘s cinematic experiment could do with a few dozens of minutes less, but there is a surprising amount of actual narrative to be found in here, if you can look beyond the lack of glue to hold it al together.
What is most disappointing about this movie, however, is that it could have been so much more. With characters as beloved as the five girls from the light music club, having them feature in an actual story of sorts wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. What if the girls had to compete against a bunch of other bands in order to win a chance to perform at Hyde Park? Or what would happen if they accidentally ended up in Scotland (Thanks, Yui!) and had to hurry over to London in order to make it in time for a gig? Aside from its bigger budget, the K-ON! movie is essentially more a very, very long episode of the TV series than that it is a film in its own right. Just like the girls themselves decide they feel better with playing something like they haveve always played, rather than trying to write something larger-than-life for their graduation, Kyoto Animation decided to leave ambition for what it is and make something like they have always made.
Then is the movie not worth the effort? It absolutely is. As with the original series, the K-On! film manages to set itself apart from its many copycats with its fun characters. Sure, Yui is still frustratingly intellectually limited and some of the jokes are getting really old, but it has been well established before that interactions between these characters just work. Ritsu and Yui’s little drama performances, Mio’s bad luck, Mugi’s enigmatic joie-de-vivre and Azusa’s desperate attempts to stay above it all are all present and the constant shifting between joker, target and straight man sees some great moments thanks to the stellar voice acting. Especially Aki Toyosaki gets to bring out her entire arsenal of wackiest parody voices as Yui imitates every stereotypical layer of British society over the course of the movie. As always, the many songs featured, both old and new, are catchy as heck and the ending sequence is another stylistic hipster masterpiece in vein of “Don’t Say Lazy” and “Listen”. Kyoto Animation knows its strengths.
In the end, the K-ON! movie is a seemingly endless anti-blockbuster without a drip of ambition and a schooling in patience and tolerance, but most of all a perfect summary spanning After School Tea Time’s entire career, from the most nerve-wreckingly boring to the most heatwarmingly adorable. The value is definitely there, but you will have to accept the joyride over your entire emotional spectrum that comes with it, in order to enjoy what it has to offer. So a K-ON! movie that is perfect for those who loved K-ON! and absolute torture for those who hated it? Who would have seen that coming?