[Script] Is the K-On! Movie Just a Rehash?

At this point, everyone loves K-On! That might be a bit of an exaggeration of course, but gone are the days where it spelled the death of the anime industry, the proof of “moe’s” imminent takeover. Nowadays, it’s pretty well-regarded in more critical circles and for good reason.

It’s widely accepted that while the show’s first season is good, its second season is where it becomes amazing and far be it for me to disagree with this. The second season is where director Yamada Naoko really settles in and applies her skills best. Here, the show is less constrained by its source material. It’s an absolute masterpiece with one of my favorite endings in anime. Few moments make me cry as much as the club’s performance of “Tenshi ni Fureta yo” for Azusa.

But with so much praise for the show, where does that leave its final installment, the movie? It’s well-liked, certainly. I’ve never seen anyone who likes the show call the film a disappointment. But at the same time, it’s somewhat underappreciated. When people talk about the show, the discussion almost always revolves around the second season, with talk of the movie being fairly rare. Even from those who like it, I’ve often heard that while it’s great, it’s somewhat of a rehash, borrowing the themes and narrative beats of season two and using them once again.

I fundamentally disagree with this. While I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as calling the film my favorite part of the franchise, it’s up there, something I wouldn’t be able to say if it were just a rehash. No, the movie takes certain elements of season two and effectively twists them into a new product with new themes, leaving plenty of room for Yamada to stretch her wings on the silver screen. This film is a masterpiece on its own, the perfect conclusion to a show with an already perfect conclusion.

If you had to continue K-On after its great stopping point, without going into the post-graduation material or literally recapping the end of the show, how would you do so? Personally, I probably would have gone with the vacation idea which actually happened. However, Yamada not only took that relatively simple and easy to come up with idea, she managed to tie it into the main narrative to deliver some actual emotional catharsis. A problem with franchise movies is that they often come across as out-of-time, events which make sense to have happened at a certain point but which don’t contribute to the show and are never addressed as having happened. They’re fun experiences which are worth watching, often being some of the best parts of the series, but they don’t exactly fit in the greater whole. A good example of this is the Heartcatch Precure movie which is absolutely excellent but hardly seems to fit with the show at large.

K-On! could have taken that route, but it refused to do so. The film was re-centered on the making of “Tenshi ni Fureta yo”. That song makes up the most powerful moment in the show, only contested by the end of episode 20. However, it comes after a period of episodes that moved quite quickly. Yamada recognized this and decided to fill in some of the gaps while amplifying the emotions that the song already carried.

Yui is, in a sense, the protagonist of the show but I don’t think I’d be going too far in saying that as time goes on, Azusa becomes the principal character. While all of our leads develop in some way or another across the run, Azusa sees this the most and the bulk of season two is dedicated to her. This is quite a good thing, as seeing her slowly warm up to the club until she selfishly asks them not to graduate is amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s her growth which helps to ground the show’s focus on friendship over music. Her role is to make the audience come to appreciate the group’s dynamic to a greater degree, as she represents us as outsiders and thus as she comes to love them, we do as well.

But in some ways, there is an element that’s missing. We see how Azusa views the club constantly, but we don’t get quite enough of how the other members see Azusa. We know she’s important to them of course but the true depths of that aren’t fully explored in the show, at least not to the extent that I’d like.

Which is why it’s amazing that Yamada focused on that in the movie. Getting the viewpoints of the others — especially Yui — makes their final performance so much stronger. Sure, it was emotional just to see them bid Azusa farewell in the first place, but when you know how much effort they put into coming up with the song, it only becomes that much better. This is, once again, particularly true for Yui. We see her constantly stay up late trying to write lyrics and it’s clear that making this gift to Azusa was the number one thing on her mind. Throughout the show, Yui demonstrates that she loves Azusa but most of the time this is in blatant shows of affection that seem at least somewhat comedic in nature. Here, we get an honest to god celebration of Azusa’s existence, making it clear that Yui’s feelings are hardly a joke. Yui isn’t always a serious character but when she is it shines through and elevates everything else.

But that’s not all the film fleshes out. As I said, the period of time between their final festival concert and graduation moves pretty fast. The movie really helps this, as its long length makes it feel as if we’re getting multiple episodes to spend with our leads, even if its part of one narrative. A great example of this is the performances. While the final concert and “Tenshi ni Fureta yo” were great, they did leave me wanting for a bit more of Houkago Tea Time. And the movie delivered. Its got 2 performances in London, another in the classroom, and one more rendition of our beloved final song, not to mention the opening and ending themes.

That classroom performance is worth noting because it successfully helps to expand upon the school itself. Compared to the average background characters, the third-year class was already full of personality but seeing how much they love the band and want a final performance from them was great and really adds to the sense that K-On is, if not totally realistic, relatively down-to-earth for a show of its genre. While it’s hard for me to believe that a real teacher would give up and let them keep performing, it absolutely feels like something a group of seniors would do. Connecting this performance with Utauyo Miracle — easily the OP which seems the most plausible — was a brilliant move.

And of course, it’s impossible to talk about the film without mentioning its visuals. Naturally, all of K-On looks great, which is somewhat of a given considering it’s made by KyoAni. But the movie stands out and I think the reason why, other than the fact that movies always look better, is the amount of care which went into the setting design as well as the amount of time it gave Yamada to focus on visual storytelling.

It’s hardly unheard of for anime creators to set their works in real places which they’ll use as a reference for background art and smaller details. But few have the production ability to truly bring whatever setting they go with to life. The London of the K-On! movie feels absurdly real. At no point did I ever think it wasn’t accurate. Now, I’m not English nor have I spent all that much time in London, so I could be wrong on this but it certainly felt like the same city I’ve visited before. Because of that, it’s not only easy as always to imagine that the band is a real group of girls, but it’s easy to vicariously take a trip with them. To some degree, it feels like I’m on a vacation in London as well, only amplifying the fun of the movie. I also have to thank KyoAni for not making literally every person in the city blonde with blue eyes and recognizing that not all Westerners look the same.

And oh boy the character animation. Again, this is to be expected from a KyoAni work but I can’t help pointing it out. If one word could describe Yamada’s works, it would be sensitive. Sensitive to motion, sensitive to sound, and sensitive to feelings. Not only do they care far more about detail than other anime, they possess a certain subtlety to them, a certain kindness towards all the characters. You can see this just as easily in something like Tamako Love Story or A Silent Voice. Half the scenes in this film just wouldn’t work well if they were made at another studio or even by another director at the studio. This innate sense of how people move is something not found all that often in anime but I absolutely love it and love Yamada for understanding it. Of course, every KyoAni work captures this to one degree or another but Yamada is clearly the master of it and this movie is an excellent demonstration of that fact.

Another theme in the film is the idea that the band’s connection is eternal. This is emphasized in a few ways. First, by leaving Japan for London, they show that their bond extends beyond the simple fact that they all lived in the same place and went to the same school. They might’ve accidentally stumbled into becoming friends with one another but that doesn’t reduce the fact that their bond is based on more than proximity. This makes it clear that even though they’ll have to separate at times in life, such as in their upcoming graduation, they won’t lose their connection because if it could survive outside Japan, it can easily survive within it.

Second, the entire theme of Azusa giving them wings is brought up. This is of course connected to the famous ‘Tsubasa wo Kudasai’ but the meaning of this metaphor is deeper than that. While HTT was certainly a great group of friends in their first year, it’s Azusa’s arrival that truly made the bond eternal. She not only improved their musical ability, she improved the actual dynamics of the group as friends, not just as musicians. The group was ascendant in their first year, but Azusa absolutely completed them just as her arrival completed the show for us and brought it to another level.

I already said that the ending to this film is somehow an even more perfect version of the show’s ending. ‘Tenshi ni Fureta yo’ made me cry harder here than it did in the series. Interspersing it with moments of the four making the song greatly adds to the power of it and the fact that the film was centered on it makes it work even better as a final pay-off. But there’s one other important part of the ending, the part which is probably the most quintessentially Yamada shot that’s ever been made. A nearly minute long tracking shot of the girls’ legs as they walk home, never again to attend Sakuragaoka Girls’ School.

It’d be easy to dismiss this scene as just another Yamadaism. After all, she’s well known for her intense focus on legs to the point you could call it a fetish and this scene demonstrates that better than anything. But her use of leg shots always has a clear purpose in mind. Yamada believes that the legs are a fantastic way to portray body language and show a lot more personality than people generally believe. This scene proves that. Even ignoring the stockings, it’s easy to tell who’s who. Yui’s bouncy movements, Mio’s more restrained ones, they’re all obvious. And it’s also obvious how their feelings change. Just in their legs, you can see the happiness at having graduated, the contemplation of their futures, and the sadness of leaving both Azusa and the rest of the school behind. This mixture of emotions purely through showing how these four girls walk along a path is absurdly well done. This is probably one of my favorite shots in all of anime and again it’s something that literally no other director would have or could have accomplished. While Yamada came into her own as a director with the show, this movie truly demonstrates her intense talent and is the best indicator of what her future projects would look like.

The K-On! movie is excellent as a standalone piece and I’d be willing to show it to someone with no plans of ever watching the show. It’s great as a long episode, showcasing almost all of the show’s strengths and having a nice overarching narrative with lots of cool events strung in between. And most of all, it’s amazing as a conclusion, as something which amplifies the feelings that the show already delivered by paralleling and adding to them. Under the somewhat reasonable assumption that we’re never getting anymore K-On!, this is the best place I could ever think of to end it. The idea that it’s a rehash is absurd and frankly insulting to its brilliance. This is not a movie that feels out of place from the series that surrounds it, nor does it feel like a dressed up recap film. This is not just a good part of the show. It’s a masterpiece in its own right and it deserves full respect.

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