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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

K-ON! VOL. 1 -- DVD review by porfle

Four bubbly high school girls join the Light Music Club and provide light entertainment in K-ON! VOL. 1 (2009), Bandai Entertainment's first DVD volume of the Japanese anime series based on a popular manga. 

Yui, a clumsy, scatterbrained girl who's easily distracted, freaks out on her first day of high school because she can't decide what club to join.  Meanwhile, Mio and Ritsu are crushed to find the Light Music Club is disbanding since it lacks the minimum four members.  They persuade pretty blonde rich girl Tsumugi, a talented keyboardist, to join, but are still one member short.  Desperate, they cajole a reluctant Yui to complete the foursome as lead guitarist of their band even though she can't play a note, and afterwards spend most of their time in the music room gorging themselves on gooey pastries and cakes. 

That pretty much describes the first episode, "Disband the Club!"  K-ON! (from the Japanese word keiongaku, meaning "light music") is a frenetic series of mildly comic situations done in a colorful, breezy style that doesn't place all that much emphasis on plotlines.  Basically, it's a "hang-out" show--once you get to know these characters and their particular quirks, it's fun just to hang out with them, enjoy their girlish antics, and groove to the eye-pleasing artwork and animation.

The four lead characters are your standard cute young anime schoolgirls.  Bass-player Mio is, in Yui's words, "tall and pretty, and gives off a real 'cool, grown woman vibe'."  Before long, however, we discover that she's a bundle of debilitating phobias and neuroses and often goes blank from fear of things like strange people and barnacles.  Her friend Ritsu, the band's drummer, is "a cheerful girl who's full of energy" but is also a hyperactive ditz.  Much of the show's slapstick humor comes from anger-prone Mio whacking Ritsu over the head and raising cartoony egg-shaped knots.  Mild-mannered Tsumugi, the pampered princess, is funny because of her inexperience and is thrilled when asked if she "wants fries with that" during her first trip to a fastfood restaurant.

The simple plots take a single idea and follow it to the end with all the light-comedy embellishments, screwball physical humor, and sight gags, with frequent use of fantasy interludes and flashbacks.  The second episode, "Instruments!", is all about finding an affordable guitar for Yui, with the girls taking temp jobs to help pay for it.  At first, the motivational message here is about being selfless and helping others, but eventually it becomes "you can afford that expensive guitar if your rich friend's dad owns the store." 

"Cram Session!" finds Yui barred from membership in a club after failing mid-term exams.  The girls urge her to study for her makeup test, but she just can't keep her mind on her books and off her cool new guitar.  Dropping by to help out, the girls have their usual sugary snacks and meet Yui's little sister Ui, amazed to find her vastly more polite and mature than Yui. 

The episode gets off to a weird start as Yui becomes hypnotically fascinated by how squishy Mio's string-hardened fingertips are.  Meanwhile, the easily-annoyed Mio manages to raise at least two ostrich egg-sized knots on Ritsu's head this time out.  Typical of the series, the relatively realistic design of the characters becomes exaggeratedly cartoonish whenever they experience extreme emotions, resulting in some pretty funny-looking reactions. 

The most visually-pleasing episode, "Training Camp!", boasts some gorgeous artwork as Mio organizes a trip to the country so the band can practice for the upcoming Fall Festival.  They end up at one of Tsumugi's luxurious family vacation homes on the beach where Yui and Ritsu spend most of their time romping around in the surf while Mio tries in vain to get them to concentrate on their music.

Mio's first appearance in a bikini leads to a strangely comical moment with the two girls being stunned to discover that she has--BOOBS!  Later, a nighttime fireworks display adds even more visual interest to the episode while inspiring fantasies of the girls' most cherished ambition--to perform at Budokan before high school is over.

Mio is at her most freaked-out and violent in this episode, repeatedly whacking Mitsu over the head and going nuts after accidentally touching some barnacles.  In the last shot, she hoists Yui off her feet by the neck and strangles her for taking an uncomplimentary photo of her during their vacation.  The lesson here, I assume, is that even the pretty and seemingly self-assured girls in your school can be dangerously unbalanced.

The four-episode DVD (approx. 100 minutes) from Bandai Entertainment is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with both Japanese and English Dolby 2.0 sound.  Subtitles are in English.  Extras include a ten-minute interview with Stephanie Sheh, the voice of Yui in the English dub, and trailers from other Bandai releases.  Three more volumes of the series are planned.

Yui and her friends don't get very far musically in this collection, but the opening and closing titles feature two catchy tunes, "Cagayake! Girls" and "Don't Say 'Lazy'", which indicate that by the series' end the band will finally be ready for Budokan.  Till then, K-ON! VOL. 1 catches them doing what they currently do best--eating snacks, being kooky, and having fun. 

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