No spoiler policy: The following review will not mention important plot points or describe scenes in detail. It will only analyze themes and contents in broad terms.
Those interested in spoilers are welcome to visit the plot summary page instead.
With this movie, the K-On franchise begins a new chapter in its conquest of fans’ hearts. The words ‘a new beginning’ get thrown around a lot for every franchise that enters a new medium, but the significance of the event is much greater for K-On than for almost any other recent anime title. The reason for this is twofold.
First, the challenge K-On faces here cannot be denied. The series has charmed many with its loose storytelling, disposing almost entirely of cliffhangers, twists and climax scenes present in other titles. The plot progression has always been as carefree as the lives of the five girls it follows. But the transition to the silver screen, commonly seen as a ‘step up in the world’, imposes limitations that may be particularly hard to swallow for a slice-of-life series. Can K-On, a story about ‘five girls having fun’, meet the demands of scale and pacing… and yet preserve what made it special in the first place?
The second reason is what the series stands to gain if it plays its cards right. The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi was an excellent movie by KyoAni, but it was also nearly inaccessible to anyone but followers of the original series. The storytelling style of K-On, on the other hand, offers it an incredible opportunity to broaden the ranks of its fans. The simple premise of the show allows anyone to dive right into it without preparation. Few people are willing to watch midnight anime shows, but taking a stroll to the nearest cinema might be a different matter altogether. This would mean nothing if the movie were to be dismissed as just another ‘otaku movie’, of course, but this is K-On, the series featured on children’s news programs and the originator of the ‘tehe-pero’ buzzword spreading among female middle school students.
The two points need to be remembered when reviewing the K-On movie, as they leave their imprint on every artistic decision therein.
As with any other K-On installment, the music in the movie can be divided into in-universe music, played by the characters, and the insert songs present in your usual anime. The movie’s timeline is set before the HTT group’s graduation ceremony, and so the in-universe performances are a reprisal of songs already familiar to fans from the first two television series, with nothing new added to the repertoire. The movie’s soundtrack, on the other hand, includes three new songs: “Unmei wa Endless” with Toyosaki Aki’s Yui singing the opening theme, “Ichiban Ippai” as an insert song, and “Singing!” with Hikasa Youko as Mio in the ending theme.
The tracks known from the main series are used expertly to reestablish HTT as a band with its particular style, as well as to show the characteristics and relationships of individual members. The first HTT piece we hear is “Curry Nochi Rice”. The track is carefree enough in itself, but the circumstances in which it is played make it seem even sillier, reminding us never to underestimate the unfathomable depths of Yui’s psyche. U&I returns as Yui’s most heartfelt creation, showing her gratitude towards the important people in her life. “Tenshi ni Fureta yo!”, the song forming the centerpiece of the movie’s plot, represents the bonds between all the HTT members. At the same time, the old tracks are used to cover new ground and develop the characters further. The HTT members experiment with English translation of their songs, Yui and Azusa exchange their parts mid-performance, and Yui dives into the audience to personally address each of her friends with her vocal part. The creation of “Tenshi ni Fureta yo!” becomes as much a journey in search of the essence of HTT musicality as it is a token of gratitude for Azusa.
The soundtrack songs contain the same duality. Despite being all-new content, the tracks will make all fans feel right at home with the OP/ED structure known from the original series. Yui’s bubbly and hectic vocal sets the mood for the movie and acts as a theme for the HTT itself, accompanied by shots of the characters’ daily lives. Mio’s ending performance offers a more impassioned performance, reminiscent of the second season’s “No, Thank You!” and contrasting strongly with HTT’s lighter tracks. A staff interview mentions that the ending theme of the movie can also be considered to be the theme of the K-On franchise itself – it presents the feelings the girls hold toward their group and music in general.
The challenge put before director Yamada Naoko by the producer side could be summed up in just a few words: a scale befitting the silver screen. The idea put forward was “London” – five girls up against the world in what Yamada referred to as a ‘complete coming of age story’.
But anyone expecting the usual Hollywood structure out of this movie is in for a surprise. It seems not even London can win against the ‘my pace’ spirit of the HTT girls. If the travel preparations would normally be considered no more than cinematic ‘necessary evil’, K-On finds delight in showing the process. The graduation trip idea comes about as a result of a misunderstanding, picking a travel destination involves hours’ worth of shenanigans and Yui packing her things is a worrying sight…. Before the girls set foot on foreign ground, the viewers will be well-reacquainted with all their personality quirks.
Even when they finally reach Britain, Yui and her friends have no intention of conforming to any standards. It helps that all of them are virtual trouble-magnets, making it completely unnecessary for them to seek out great adventures on their own. They face the adversities of London with great aplomb, forcing their own brand of common sense upon the city.
It soon becomes obvious that London is just another stage for the interplay of the zany personalities that we all know and love. Yui romances with her guitar, Mio is torn between her passions and defense mechanisms, Ritsu takes potshots at her friends, Mugi gets lost in her own little world, while Azusa should honestly get paid for playing the caretaker of the group. Same old, same old.
It is therefore something of a surprise when the journey turns out not to be entirely meaningless. With the backdrop of a vastly different nation on the other end of the globe, the HTT members realize that they can be themselves regardless of the circumstances around them, and that it is up to them to decide their own goals in music and life.
The box office results so far are enough to call K-On a financial success, unrivaled by any recent late-night anime adaptation. K-On achieved this through tapping into the otaku resources (encouraging repeat viewing by handing out commemorative film strips for every three tickets bought) while remaining fully accessible to a much wider demographic. This was a huge battle for director Yamada, one full of difficult choices. She mentions the character designs were altered ever so slightly for the movie by making the characters’ eyes smaller, and explains that she wanted “characters that female viewers could easily identify with, not ones focused on appealing to a male audience”. On the other hand, the director made sure not to stray far from the roots that made the series popular in the first place, commenting that she was “careful not to make HTT’s performances too successful”. K-On, she explains, is not a story about the way to stardom. “The girls never played for a nameless crowd, but always for somebody important to them.”
All that’s left is to thank the staff for their hard work and recommend the movie to anyone willing to give it a chance. It’s a new step in the journey of After-school Tea Time – a must-see for old fans and a possible starting point for many new supporters.