“K-ON! Clone” and Serendipity

The anime fandom always pits itself against itself when the issue of what moe is reappears. One of the biggest cultural impacts comes from K-ON!, and so any series that looks even remotely like it, whether in cast setup or aesthetics, is scrutinized as a “K-ON! clone”, long before the first episode ever hits the airwaves. K-ON! required every element that went into it to become the success it did, and even the works that hew closer to it end up falling short in some way or another. Ever since I watched the movie, I’ve been searching around to see if there’s anything out there similar to it, and I came to realize just how tightly woven K-ON!‘s identity is, through factors both internal and external. Before this article progresses further, we need to define what K-ON! is.

Atmosphere Type

The Japanese Wikipedia article for the series lists several items in the genre box. “Story 4-Koma”, “School Manga”, “Music Manga”, “Light Music” and “Girls Band”. The first two are too broad, and more about format than content. The latter three are fairly specific, and as long as one has something musical, a music manga could be anything. K-ON! is a music manga, but not all music manga are K-ON!, is what I’m getting at. The only one missing from that list was the one in the middle “Atmosphere Type” (空気系;Kuuki Kei). This phrase doesn’t get much circulation in the western fanbase, but perhaps, it should. It encompasses what people are trying to get at when they (somewhat erroneously) think of moe as a genre. The moe feeling is part of it, but it’s not all of it.

The article defines this new genre as being told episodically, rather than serialized. (This isn’t necessarily a detriment, and as I’ll delve into later, K-ON! does still have a story), and focusing mostly on daily life in a normal Japanese city. This element could, once again, cover a broad range of series beyond this genre. It also describes Tentai Senshi Sunred, to give an example. Even if something is episodic, a story can naturally appear out of it. A story should be told in the way best suited to telling it.

Another element is girls that fit into moe archetypes, and very little male presence. Archetypes are the beginning of nearly all characters, regardless of genre or gender. There are many stories out there with a minimal female presence, and the lack of male presence is not a bad thing in itself. Once even a possible element of romance is introduced, it can easily take over a show’s plots and subplots. To some, this is satisfying, but without romance, K-ON! must run purely on the strength of its premise.

The final element is mixing reality with fiction, using name brands and locations from the real world to create pilgrimage spots. Once again, this element is not necessarily a bad thing. Shows with a more grounded atmosphere than K-ON! have used such real backgrounds, such as PA Works’s works, or So Ra No Wo To. (Wikipedia does not count Wo To as part of the Atmosphere Type, though it clearly borrows some elements from it.) Lending an air of verisimilitude to fiction isn’t necessarily a bad goal in itself.

All these are things that Kyoto Animation excels at. Backgrounds and instruments can be rendered in loving detail, giving the world a sense of depth, like you could step inside it. It feels pristine, but also lived-in, with background details like the scribbles on the whiteboard in the club room. The directing played a part in this, with lots of focus shots, interesting camera angles that create a montage out of elements of the room, and the fluid motion of the characters. Since their adapting relied on expanding the 4-koma material, it’s vague how much of this success was Kakifly’s work, and how much as KyoAni’s. It’s probably a little of both.

Now that we’ve established what the Atmosphere Type is, analysis of what makes K-ON! work so well where imitators have failed or succeeded in other ways (and why those imitators aren’t necessarily imitating what made K-ON! work) will be discussed in greater depth.


3 thoughts on ““K-ON! Clone” and Serendipity

  1. I know I’m about 3 years too late to be leaving a comment here, and you might have changed your mind about what you wrote here, but I’ll go mad if I go one more second without articulating how amazing and insightful this review was for me.

    I’m quite a big fan of the Slice of Life genre – moe or not – as well as a firm believer that having a plot is not necessary for a work of fiction to be good. If what the work is trying to accomplish doesn’t require a plot, then why shoehorn one in?

    Now, even as a diehard Slice of Life fan, I’ve always held K-ON! in higher regard than almost every other Slice of Life anime I’ve seen, and I never truly understood why. Yes, the girls are moe, but so are the girls in other SoL anime, and it’s not like it was the music tag that hooked me, since I was never THAT interested in the music aspect to begin with. The jokes are funny, in a cute way, but I wouldn’t say they’re THE main aspect of K-ON!, despite being very prevalent.

    Ultimately I just thought I liked it better thanks to KyoAni’s wonderful production values and left it at that.

    Yes, I never truly understood why I liked it better than some of its brethren, until I read this article.

    You articulated very eloquently a concept that I’ve only ever come across in a vague, nebulous manner, and never really thought about too deeply until now. That is, the Atmosphere Type anime. First of all, the world of K-ON! really does seem to have a life of its own, all thanks to KyoAni’s meticulous attention to detail. And I must admit that that feeling of an organic, breathing setting is a trait that most of my favorite SoL anime usually share. It’s also probably what made me stick with K-ON with a whole lot of enthusiasm back when I first watched it as a person who had only recently been submerged into the world of anime and didn’t really get the SoL genre.

    I never thought K-ON! had a plot, in the strictest sense of the word, but your article made me realize that even if it’s episodic and doesn’t really have a continuous story, K-ON! DOES have a narrative. An overarching theme. A destination to which all the little, seemingly unrelated scenes were vital in leading us to. And I feel like an idiot for not realizing before what K-ON! was really about!

    It’s a coming of age story.

    K-ON! is, like you said, the story of Yui and Azusa, and what each of them takes from the light music club. There’s Yui, who gains a purpose, and there’s Azusa, who gains friendship. She also seems to gain a certain insight through contemplation; the kind that changes how one looks at the world. I feel like Azusa was the one most influenced by all the characters that surrounded her, which was fitting, as the kouhai and most ‘removed’ member of HTT.

    Like you said, K-ON!’s second season has all the ingredients to be a powerful emotional torque. It deals with graduation and saying goodbye, something everyone definitely can relate to. And it manages to do it brilliantly. Not only is it emotional and moving, it manages to be so without delving into melodrama. K-ON! always stays consistent with itself, never ever losing the warm, carefree, fun-loving atmosphere it had going on ever since the beginning. Not even in its most serious and contemplative moments, and I think this is what I love about it the most. It goes beyond that and also shows that life goes on normally. Graduation is not the end of the world, nor the end of the girls’ lives.

    Yui’s arc in the first season, while definitely less emotional than Azusa’s, also hit me really hard. Particularly in this one scene near the end, where Yui is getting ready in a rush, determined to arrive to the concert on time. I felt that the way it parallels the first scene we see right into the show, where Yui is getting ready in a rush because she’s late for school, and the way her initial scatter-brained carelessness is replaced with pure determination and a sense of purpose, as well as the way Yui refers to her past self in a knowing, more grown up way, was masterfully done. It was very subtle, but Yui really does grow a lot in the course of K-ON! And all without losing her youthful exuberance nor her fun-loving ways.

    And… I don’t really know where I was going with this super long comment.

    I’m embarrassed that this ended up being such a long wall of text. But I’m glad I let all that off my chest.

    I’ll just close up by saying that this is one of the most insightful anime articles I’ve read, and it resolutely changed the way I’ll look at anime, SoL or not, from now on.

    So thank you for that! :)

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I wrote this largely to express my own inner thoughts, in the hopes of at least opening up a dialogue. That it got through to someone, even several years after I wrote it, is the best news.

      Perhaps I should write more blog posts.

      1. You definitely should write more blog posts. I’ve also read a couple other of your articles and I always find what you have to say thought-provoking and well-articulated. Not to mention I decided to watch Milky Holmes thanks to your ‘Milky Holmes and Success Through Failure’ post, which I enjoyed and comprehended despite not having watched the anime.

        So here’s to hoping I get to read more from you in the future. :)

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