Sometimes anime and manga as a whole are criticized for having too many stories take place in high school or involve high school students, and indeed there are a lot of titles, both good and bad, which fall into that category. While explanations range from “that’s how old a lot of readers are,” “there is a certain ideal to high school, the moment before you become an adult,” and even “so they can sexualize teenagers,” I have to wonder if it has anything to do with high school as a point of commonality among Japanese people.
Most young people in Japan go to high school (if someone can argue otherwise, please do), but once they go beyond high school their lives start to branch out more. Some go to college, some enter the work force, some go to technical training schools, and so on. This is even a plot point in some manga which make the transition out of high school such as Initial D. What this means is that, as a writer, if your aim is to have a position in life that the majority of your readers can directly relate to, then that period becomes harder to manage because not everyone will have that roughly similar experience post-high school.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that people cannot relate to characters outside of their own experience, or that people will reject heroes in unfamiliar settings, but that you end up losing that simple and easy connection. Such a loss can be overcome and frequently is, but high school perhaps remains that time people can look back to and say “I lived in that.” They might not have the magic powers or have gone to the rich school where everyone eats diamonds, but there is the thematic shorthand nevertheless.
The second season of K-On! begins with the girls of the light music club heading to their clubroom. Already there, Yui plays a quiet tune on her guitar evoking a feeling of renewal and change tinged with nostalgia. The subdued nature of this first scene then carries over into the rest of the episode and beyond. As K-On!! has progressed, there has been a distinct overarching focus on the the idea that high school is almost over for the founders of Houkago Tea Time and that things will never be the same.
While present to a certain extent in the manga, Kyoto Animation’s adaptation seems to be focused on showing the subtle magic of the senior year of high school, before the girls become adults and get that much closer to the real world. A semi-running gag in the manga about the ex-student council president turning out to be Mio Fan #1 now features that same character as a mature college student looking fondly on her high school memories. An entire episode is devoted to Sawako, the club supervisor and closet former metalhead guitarist, and her recapturing some of the passion of her youth. In general, the lighting in K-On!! is very soft, again hinting at a strong feeling towards the ephemeral. The message from Kyoto Animation is loud and clear.
I’m not sure how I feel about this, as I think it’s an attempt to add a bit of depth to K-On!, but I’m not sure how much K-On! needs or even wants it. I understand that high school is a big deal and all. My memories of high school are among my most cherished, and it’s because I had very close friends with whom I could be myself, which is also the case in K-On!! However, because it was only somewhat there in the source material, some of it works, some of it doesn’t, and the end result is that it kind of feels forced in.
What are your thoughts on the direction K-On!! has taken?