Almost anyone can tell you saying goodbyes is a painful experience. No one wants to leave behind those they care about, and Slice of Life anime frequently cover the feelings caused by goodbyes. In shows where the main draw is the characters and their relationships, it’s almost necessary to deal with the emotions that come about when the characters are separated for a prolonged or indefinite period. K-On, as an amazing slice of life anime, does more than just touch on this topic — it devotes most of the last quarter of its second season to this point, along with its movie. K-On displays the emotions caused by parting better than almost any other show I’ve seen, while saying important things about these departures at the same time.
It’s a simple fact that departures are inevitable at some point in life, and rather than attempt to preserve the order of things forever, K-On recognizes this unavoidable separation and prepares you for it early on. The ground is initially set by raising the possibility that the girls will be sent off to separate colleges. This creates the initial idea that there’s a possibility of the girls being split apart. Ultimately they decide to apply to the same college and they’re all accepted, closing this avenue for separation, but it helps prepare you for what is to come. This part of the show shows that working towards maintaining friendships can help delay departures, even if they’re sure to come some day.
Unfortunately, going to the same college as the others is not a possibility for Azusa, at least not for another year. She won’t be graduating alongside the rest of HTT, as much as she would like to be able to. It’s clear pretty early on that she doesn’t want the rest of the club members to leave her behind, but the show does a great job of showing her attempts to keep her feelings in check. Azusa has always — ironically enough — put up the most mature persona of all the members of HTT, and her feelings of melancholy over the third years’ graduation can’t change that. Even after the third years all break down in tears following the band’s final School Festival performance, she manages to remain composed and helps to console the others.
But this situation can’t last forever. Azusa is a strong person, but as much as she tried, she can’t bottle up her true feelings forever. She finally breaks down on the day the third years graduate, with the reality of the situation fully coming to her, and she realizes that this really is goodbye. Azusa surrenders herself to her selfishness — a rare occurrence — and begs the third years not to graduate. Of course, she says this knowing full well that this is not possible, but it’s not an actual request. It’s an expression of her desire to spend more time with them. And it’s this desire that allows the lead-in to K-On’s real thoughts on departures: that they’re undeniably sad experiences, but by recognizing their inevitability we can reflect on the good times of our relationships and make them much less sad.
Now given this point, a past decision should become more clear. The play put on by the third years’ class was Romeo and Juliet, and this was not a mistake. One of the most well known lines in the play is “parting is such sweet sorrow” a line that encapsulates K-On’s feelings towards separation far better than I am able to explain it. K-On’s final song “Tenshi ni Fureta yo” reflects this perfectly. Azusa breaking down and expressing her desire to spend more time with the third years results in them playing this song in what I believe to be the show’s best moment.
This is a song that sings directly about how much the band values the time they spent together, and with Azusa in particular, showing both how much they care for each other and how much the viewer has come to care for them. This song is simultaneously written for Azusa and for the viewer, much as this entire theme about parting has been conveyed to Azusa and to the viewer. This song is melancholy, containing such lines as “I guess we have to leave them all behind” but it what I would call a sad song. The title means “We Touched an Angel”, and it should go without saying that said angel is Azusa. Much like the viewer is being left behind by the end of K-On! but will continue to love it, Azusa is being left behind by Yui and the others, but she will continue to love and treasure them and the feelings she had while with them.
Juliet’s parting with Romeo was sweet sorrow because, despite the pain of parting, the fact that she was with Romeo made it worth the pain. This show is the same, because while it has a sad ending, it is not upsetting. Hearing “Tenshi ni Fureta yo” is meant to make the viewer want to hear more from HTT as Azusa did. Not because of the quality of their music, but because the way the band plays together is given value just because we care about them and their chemistry. The parting with HTT and K-On! as a whole is sweet, because all of the wonderful times that have spent with it keep it from being a truly negative experience. Happiness can be found in this departure just from knowing that this separation would not have been possible in the first place — and would not matter to you in the first place — had you not already found and come to love the show so much.
The movie — true to its form as a very well-made retread of the second season’s themes — drills this idea in even further. Shortly after completing their graduation trip, the four seniors already begin thinking ahead about what to do for Azusa’s graduation trip. This may be stretching the analogy a bit, but this could be compared to your plan’s for re-watching K-On! in the future, reading the manga, or in some other way continuing to love and stay in touch with the series despite parting. K-On! sees departures as inevitable occurrences, but not necessarily as permanent separations and the clear signs that the third years and Azusa will continue to be in contact makes this very clear.
And as “Tenshi ni Fureta yo” says, “Graduation isn’t the end.” Every departure leads to a new beginning, and allows for reminiscing about past experiences spent together, and very few separations outside of death are permanent. They’ll never be a fully happy experience — after all, there is no way to avoid the sadness which is inherent to the experience. K-On’s characters agree, as you can see by their tears, but they also know that their can be joy found in the past and future of departures, which we can see in their smiles.