When I first entered the anime fandom, it was very popular to detest Dragonball Z. All those prolonged fight scenes and stupid cuts of characters just yelling at each other and powering up. Much better to watch this quirky little shounen about ninja called Naruto. Of course, the time for hatred for Naruto came along, and Dragonball was ever more associated with the halcyon days of childhood and is now well-loved and its deficiencies ironically celebrated. I expect the same to eventually happen with Naruto. The next trend was to ignore big shounen titles and to only watch late-night anime, which were often shows about young girls that were usually based on pervy visual novels – things like Da Capo and Kimi ga Nozomu Eien. This trend melded with the successes of cute, funny slice-of-life shows like Azumanga Daioh and Ichigo Mashimaro and suddenly, the moéblob trend was everywhere. It perhaps reached its pinnacle in the season when Lucky Star, Manabi Straight and Hidamari Sketch all came out at the same time, but the show that has become emblematic of the subgenre is K-On!
The life-cycle of a notable moé anime seems to follow this pattern: great immediate success where the pretty art and likeable characters endear themselves to almost everyone watching the newest anime; a swelling fanbase of more casual fans; a lot of the original audience realising that (a) the show is going to meander along and nothing interesting is going to happen and that (b) people they feel oh-so-superior to are now latching on to the same show; a backlash in which people get on their soapboxes – often the same ones who were so keen at the beginning – and decry the series as dull, inconsequential, annoying. Then after that comes a sudden and final drop in popularity, where the more fickle fans move on and the more vociferous ones pretend to never have liked the show in the first place, leaving only a hardcore who have fallen somewhat in love with one of the characters and the casual fans who occasionally get reminded of that show they watched a few months ago. This happened with Lucky Star. It happened with Kanon and Air, and to an extent with Haruhi. But emblematic of the concept of ‘moéblob’ – syrupy cuteness with a loose art style – is K-On!
You may notice that all of those shows are from Kyoto Animation. This is certainly true, and their shows have suffered severe backlash, but that’s more a result of their success than anything else – moé shows like Kyou no Go no Ni and C3 would get at least as much vitriol if they were as wildly popular to begin with, but because they’re more obscure, people care less and thus complain less. The iDOLM@STER got off lightly because by the time it came out people who disliked shows like K-On! knew to avoid it. Other shows like Ika Musume noticed that what allowed Azumanga Daioh to be cute, have very little happen and still be well-loved was a lot of quirkiness and a lot of laughs – something Kyoto have taken notice of with Nichijou. The moéblob fad is passing because frankly, its appeal was always limited and there are better alternatives already being mined that don’t mean the cute girls who look good on body pillows disappear.
To K-On!, then – explosively popular at first, now much-derided. I watched episode 1 when it aired in 2009, and then didn’t continue until about a month ago, three years later. The fact was that it didn’t hook me in. I knew what to expect, I more or less knew how it would be treated by its fanbase, and I didn’t particularly like the art style, which was far looser than
best. When I came to watch it, I knew very well that it was a show about cute
girls doing cute things – and not a whole lot else. I had no complaints about
that – after all, so are Azumanga Daioh and Ichigo Mashimaro. But
K-On! makes two big mistakes – firstly, it ignores its gimmick, which is
music. Music is the reason the five central girls get together and become
friends, and one of Kyoto’s strong points – the concert scenes and dances in Lucky
Star and Haruhi were highlights, and K-On! has great opening
and ending themes. But other than short diversions to have band practices and a
school concert, the music club does very little music-related and more time is
spent on things like shopping, agonising over love letters and going to the
beach. It’s not until the OVA that the focus turns to music performance, and
it’s a real shame that this strong episode wasn’t in the series. But that’s
rather the point – the music club is just an excuse to get the funny little
girls together in one place and have them interact. But therein lies the second
flaw – so little happens that it just doesn’t matter. Apart from possibly Ritsu
when she wonders about her love letter, the girls never get any depth, keeping
them always on the surface – Yui is the ditzy one with the adorably responsible
little sister, Mio is the slightly stuffy one who is cute when she gets scared,
Ritsu is tomboyish and irresponsible and Mugi is classy and elegant but with a
cheeky side. Later, Azu-nyan is…just sort of there.
In Azumanga Daioh you get the heart-wrenching graduation and the hook of surrealism. In Ichigo Mashimaro Miu’s antics are extreme enough to be hilarious, but her vulnerability and loneliness make for a key scene. In Minami-Ke all the cuteness is broken up by potential romances. Even The iDOLM@STER knows to inject some healthy angst to give the series structure. K-On! stays true to the course set – cute girls do cute things – and ultimately feels utterly inconsequential, even boring.
I quite enjoyed the lightness of K-On!, the easy simplicity and the fact the brain does not need to be engaged whatsoever. But that was over 13 episodes and an OVA. Harsh as the backlash is, K-On! was still a major hit, spawning a 26-episode second season, another OVA and a feature film. I’m not too sure how much I’m looking forward to watching those, especially since the conceit of introducing a new character (usually a way to prolong interest into a second season) was used up before the 10 episode mark – but I will watch. Because, really, it’s simple and easy to do so, and it’s cute.