I was busily watching my cartoons when I realised that MCM was fast approaching and I’d not yet reviewed K-On!, which is a massive oversight because I expect there are many of you out there queuing for the queue and the only question on your mind is, “is it worth getting the film just for the snazzy Oyster Card holder?” Well, let me tell you.
In case you’re not yet aware, K-On! is about a girls’ school's “light music” club (a term which is best explained by watching the damned show and hearing the music) and it’s had two runs on TV and is crazy popular. By the time the film happens the girls are getting ready to graduate (apart from the one member that’s in the year below). This film catalogues what they do to commemorate that.
Without spoiling (hopefully you didn’t look at the picture at the top), it’s a surprisingly well put together film with very little of the episodic nature that often happens with TV show films. If anything it works like an episode wrapped around another episode. It has very funny moments, it has some pretty emotional moments and it has a whole load of messing about and not getting too much done, which is what you’re after in a K-On! film. You may now skip to Artistry, unless you want spoilers.
So the film has two competing interests.
1) How do the girls celebrate graduation? (They go to London)
2) What can they do to say goodbye to the member they’ll be leaving behind? (I’ll leave that one to your imagination for the moment, but keep in mind that they are a band which writes songs about the things they like… and they like their bandmate)
What we end up with is your standard foreigners in a foreign land story, but one that’s particularly relevant to those of us who live in that particular foreign country. Much of the humour is derived from the fact that the Japanese are pretty terrible at not being in Japan. Things like not realising that there’s more than one Ibis hotel in London and somehow getting roped into playing the opening night of a new sushi bar (and still not getting the dinner they went in for).
When they get back they still want to do something special for Azu-nyan so, as well as performing a final concert for their class, they perform the song that they spend the whole film writing (and hiding from her). It’s some strangely beautiful stuff, delivered in K-On’s trademark daft style.
Clearly the story isn’t up to much and it was never going to be some sort of complex and amazing yarn. What we’re here for is comedy, banter and music, and the film delivers on all of those.
By this point the characters are all very well fleshed out so we know what to expect from them and we can just let them get on with being themselves. The incident in the sushi bar, for instance, has them realise that they’re being set up to play and their most booksmart member, Mugi the keyboardist, has a quiet word with the manager. Everybody assumes that she’s sorting things out and then we see the stage hands bring out a keyboard and realise that she’s completely missed the point of why the manager needed talking to.
The characters interact beautifully with each other and there are plenty of scenes of them just chatting away. I thought as I was watching it that the movie was doing the exact opposite of what my Drama teacher at school always taught us to do. It was showing all the mundane bits of the experience which would be the boring bit except for the fact that we’re not there for the action, we’re there for the girls to just be themselves.
As for the music, it’s there. It’s not overpoweringly there, but then I think the second season of K-On! barely managed to have three songs in the whole thing. That said, there are plenty of songs in there. There are some classics, including Fuwa-Fuwa Time because you can’t not Fuwa-Fuwa Time, there are some new songs just for the film and there are some old favourites that get repurposed for London (by which I mean Yui just starts shouting random things that she’s seen in London.
And that’s about it for the story, though I would like to mention that it’s a credit to the people that made this that they didn’t try to pretend that K-On! would somehow be attracting thousands of fans. When they play in London it’s to a smattering of people in a park and at school it’s literally in one of their classrooms. They are, after all, an extra-curricular club and, despite what some anime would have you believe, that isn’t something that tends to lead to global superstardom.
Also, in case you were wondering, this film tears apart the Bechdel Test. The only men ever mentioned are the sushi bar manager and Jimmy Page.
So this is a movie and a movie needs that extra something when it comes to art. That’s a little something which this movie delivers. I’m not sure how it does it but something about the colours and the animation just feels right for a movie. It’s still K-On! so there’s very little by way of amazing and spectacular set pieces, but it’s all got the right level of polish for you to sit back and enjoy and not worry that somebody’s skimped on the animation budget.
The real worry is with the portrayal of London. You need not be worried.
If you ever read my post about KinMoza! or if you’ve ever seen anything in which somebody visits Britain, you’ll know that everything seems to just become this ridiculous village of cockney accents, red buses and Big Ben (sic.). This does nothing of the sort. It has the buses because they’re in London and London has buses, but it’s very faithful to what the actual experience would be like for a Japanese person in Britain. They’re confused by the taxis, they visit Camden Market for shoes, they ride the London Eye and they go to see what Sushi’s like in Britain.
All along it’s clear that they’ve gone to great pains to make sure that they’re getting everything right. Things aren’t a ridiculous pastiche of London but rather they’re accurate representations of what they should be. You’ll see them walking around and recognise the actual scenery and it’s all pretty spot on. The important thing is that I’m saying this as somebody who spends a lot of time picking tourists up from Heathrow and then taking them sight-seeing in London. It’s always the people that understand a subject well that are going to most dislike it if it gets that subject wrong and I’m absolutely fine with this.
Of course, this is K-On! so we have to mention the music as well and I’m a fan. That second season annoyed me because there wasn’t enough of them actually playing some damned songs (I sympathise greatly with Azu-nyan) but that wasn’t the case here. Of the top of my head they play no less than four gigs and they spend a lot of their time composing (and one odd bit where they sing the can-can but singing jakka-jan instead. And we all love some jakka-jan). They also have an opening and ending song, with the ending being a music video and the opening being a montage which fits the movie opening vibe very nicely. Also, the first song we see being played has the band trying to be metal and is pretty hilarious to watch.
So we know the artwork is good and we know the music is good. What about the artwork of the music? A couple of years ago I would’ve said it was amazing and wonderful, but now I’ve seen Sakamichi no Apollon so I’ve been spoilt. Even if they take the time to get fretboard movements about right and make sure Ritsu’s hitting the right cymbals (which they do) they’re still clearly shying away from showing hands for noodles, trills and fills. There’s nothing wrong with that but I’ve seen what animated music can be and now everything else always feels a tad hollow. Though being said, if you like seeing your favourite instruments being wielded by little girls then you’ll be in heaven.
And now we get to the tricky bit.
Normally translation comes in two flavours, sub and dub. The K-On! Movie throws in the extra problem of actual English being spoken. I’ll start with the latter.
Japan has this odd tendency of not really caring at all what their English sounds like so the fact that this film has actors who clearly either are Anglophones or who have very good English is very much to its credit. The only problem is that those actors invariably have completely the wrong accent or are just plain wooden actors. Of course, that initial tendency of not bothering with English speaking means that Japan isn’t a particularly great place for English speaking voice actors to be, so it’s understandable, but it’s still somewhat annoying.
The benefit to listening to the Japanese, however, is that you get to see what DVD subs should look like. This is a banter heavy show and these tend to be the shows that kill DVDs, they just don’t have versatile enough subs to handle it. Luckily, the people that made this DVD discovered that you can change the colour and the size of the subs which means we suddenly have clear indications as to who is speaking and when you’re just reading a translated sign. It’s a beautiful thing, especially when you’re simultaneously seeing karaoke and translation of a song (which, you can imagine, happens frequently).
The problem with that Japanese, however, is that it’s also very Japanese. It’s a movie about people being Japanese in London so it makes sense that there’s going to be some very cultural references going on and the translators here have decided to play fast and loose with the translation. We’ve sent his happen before and go very wrong, but here it works fine. They’ve translated things to make sense in English and very rarely keep in Japaneseisms just for the hell of it. Honorifics are all dropped (apart from Azu-nyan, because Azu-nyan) and puns are reworked to make sense in English. It’s a bit annoying because I want to know what the actual joke was when they cover up a discussion about flunking the year by saying they want to visit the town of Flunken in Germany, but the translation worked well so I can’t fall it.
What I can fault is the dub.
I’ll get the basics out of the way. I’m not a fan of English dubbing and one of the reasons is that English voice actors tend to massively exaggerate their parts. This is understandable for kids shows but, however it may appear, K-On! is not a kids’ show (its demographic is, worryingly enough, adult men). I can understand why you would give a group of high school girls whiny teen accents, but that doesn’t make me want to hear it any more. The only characters who benefit from the dub are the Occult club, just because that exaggerated accent actually works in their favour.
The real issue, however, is that you just can’t dub this movie into English. Half the film is spent trying to speak or understand English. The first bit of English is on the plane when Yui declares that they must thenceforth speak English and starts by calling Azu-nyan Azu-cat (I realise that’s an incorrect translation but it’s not Yui we’re criticising here). The dub had been calling her Azu-nyan all along anyway and calls her Azu-meow here instead, which is a perfectly valid translation but then makes no sense when the rest of it is just spoken in regular English.
This is how most of the interactions go, with the girls speaking the same English they have been all through the film but having problems communicating for no apparent reason. Ritsu is the real problem for them because she speaks English the way English people speak other languages, which is to say she’s mostly just speaking Japanese so the dub just has her voice actress poorly pronounce some Japanese as if that would make any more sense.
This gets even worse when it comes to the singing. Thankfully, they had the good sense to just leave the songs in the original Japanese, but when they’re coming up with lyrics to the songs they’re composing they just do it in English, which means that the song they’re writing will have no bearing on the song that you end up hearing sung.
Credit where it’s due, the dub tries as best it can to get the job done, but it was a job that shouldn’t have been done in the first place. Instead the DVD should have had subs on by default so people could properly understand the humour.
When I saw two DVDs land on my desk for one movie, I was excited. I’ve been waiting for months to review something that had a genuinely decent DVD experience and a second DVD meant that my time might have finally come.
I’ve already mentioned that the subs were fantastically rendered and I can only imagine what the Blu-Ray subs look like if they’ve had the same effort go into them. More importantly, I wanted to know what the bonus disk held.
What it held was, in fact, a couple of original trailers, a documentary about touring london to find all the scenery that would be used in the film and then a whole load of interviews, press junkets and promotional TV shows for the film. They make for something of a bizarre experience and serve as an insight into how the Japanese handle celebrity and marketing.
You know how when a film’s being plugged in the west the actors are hidden away in hotel rooms and have interviewers thrown at them for five minute stints? Apparently they don’t do that in Japan, or rather K-On! didn’t. What happens instead is that they have the actresses stand up in a replica of the classroom in K-On! and then address questions to the group which each member of the group than has to answer in their own individual way. This makes for not a lot of questions as each question takes forever to answer and, worst of all, they’re all very much fluff questions where the answers end up being how great the fans are, how much everybody should enjoy the film and what great guys their corporate sponsors are. Also lots of apologising, thanking and bowing because it turns out that the Japanese really are like that.
The TV shows are also a strange thing where career TV presenters sit down and pretend to like the show while blatantly reading their script and hamming up their feigned affection for each other. They also try to make out that this is a show for girls when it was really never meant to be that. That said, it was in that TV show that I discovered that the director of the film is a young woman and actually hotter than any of the actresses (also ridiculously more shy). Really the only saving grace of the TV special is that somebody actually took the time to edit it, unlike with the scenery documentary or the odd little friendly chat with the voice actresses (which does let us see how rock, paper, scissors and tongue twisters work in Japan).
Talking about that odd little chat, I was really hopeful that it was going to be a behind the scenes look at how voice acting works, but actually they stopped any of that after five minutes and got onto gabbing away because girls (seriously, all the women in this seem to be hilariously sexist toward themselves).
The crowning jewel of the Bonus DVD would have been the video of the director walking around London to find locations as it’s the reason why London is so well represented in the film, but the fact is that I fell asleep during it because it really did have no editing at all, it’s just half an hour of people muttering to themselves. There are some quality moments in there, but they really need sieving to get rid of all those bits that would only have been interesting to the people there at the time.
As DVDs go, this is pretty spot on. It’s a great movie in the first place and there’s plenty of bonus features to sink your teeth into. The only problem is that the bonus features get very repetitive and are just pretty sloppily thrown together. Despite that, everything else was well done and I would recommend picking it up when it comes out on Monday or, even better, laying down your hard earned cash for it early if you’re at MCM so you can scam yourself one of those snazzy Oyster Card holders (and I’ve already started seeing photos of hauls from people who turned up Friday, so they’re definitely there).
Very nearly the ultimate DVD, it just needs more care on that second disk.
So, you go watch that and I’ll go see what else is on.