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.
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.