K-On! Volume 3

By Kakifly. Released in Japan by Houbunsha, serialized in the magazine Manga Time Kirara. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Time, believe it or not, keeps marching on for our girls, as they enter their senior year in this volume. Of course, trying to think about their future plans is just a little bit too hard right now, so they continue to do what they do best – drink tea, glomp each other, do boke/tsukkomi routines, and occasionally play music.

By now Azusa is fully absorbed into the cast mix, and there’s no new people introduced here. The amusement comes from watching the girls behave the way we want them to, and occasionally subvert our expectations. (In fact, I noticed that’s how Ritsu tends to work a lot of the time – she’s crafty enough to know how folks will react to her doing something, and takes advantage of it. Thus when it doesn’t go the way she planned, she’s more upset than usual.) This is typified by one of the earlier stories, where the cast decide to try to help Mio get over her stage fright by working at a maid cafe so she can open up more. Naturally, though, being terrified of performing is one of Mio’s ‘cute’ points, so it’s doomed to failure.

I also really enjoyed the chapter devoted to Mugi and Ritsu. Mugi usually gets the short end of the stick when it comes to developed appearances – in fact, the moment Azusa arrived, she started to do more and be seen more than our yuri-loving keyboaardist. So seeing her go around town with Ritsu was nice, and shows us a more serious side. Even if it’s played for laughs, it’s quite clear that Mugi is desperate for interaction with other girls her own age, and that much of her own obsession with the girls hugging and occasional yuri fantasies are due more to her completely sheltered upbringing. To Mugi, Mio hitting Ritsu all the time is a sign that they’re the closest of friends. To Ritsu, it just hurts. And Mugi gets the perfect capper here as well, saying something so oblivious that it actually provokes the aforementioned ‘friendship hit’. This was probably my favorite part of the book.

Although the final story comes close, where we see how Mio and Ritsu met, and the story of their unlikely friendship. This was a special chapter, so manages to break out of the 4-koma format, and it’s better for it, feeling a lot more relaxed and nostalgic. Mio and Ritsu as children are much the same as they are now, but we start to see how Ritsu can get Mio out of her shell, and how Mio is a better person for it. Though Mio may not see it that way…

Again, Yen’s translation is mostly excellent. Azu-meow continues to niggle at me. There’s also a class trip to Kyoto, which brings us to the dreaded Kyoto dialect translation. This is next to impossible to convey without jarring somewhat, especially if the gag is to show it being said by someone that would not normally use such a dialect, such as Mugi. That said, the choice of ‘urban New York’ and seeing Yui and Mugi swearing… feels really off to me. I think I’d have preferred the usual southern drawl instead.

Some noise was made in this volume about thinking about the future, and we see Yui struggling with a future career. But that’s all for Volume 4. For now, there’s tea and cakes, and sometimes music. And there’s cute 4-koma silliness. K-on! is not winning any awards, but it remains a light, fun, breezy read, and has some loveable cast members.

K-On! Volume 2

By Kakifly. Released in Japan by Houbunsha, serialized in the magazine Manga Time Kirara. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Another volume of K-On means another volumes of cute characters doing cute things, four panels at a time. I will assume that if that aggravates you, you never would have bought the manga in the first place. Therefore, everyone else knows what they’re getting.

What they get in this volume is mainly the introduction of the last main cast member, Azusa Nanako. Our four band members are now second-year students, and are anxiously trying to recruit new members who will be able to carry on the tradition. They’re mostly out of luck, but fortunately Azusa saw their performance at the festival last year and was totally smitten. So she ends up joining the club, despite a slow sinking feeling as she realizes there’s far more tea-drinking than practicing, the faculty adviser has a cosplay fetish, the other guitarist has a tendency to like hugging, and she’s easily the most skilled musician of the group.

Azusa manages to, believe it or not, be even more moe and adorable than the other four girls, and rapidly became the cult favorite of the cast. The author, of course, has no issues with pandering to this, and quickly has Azusa wearing cat-ears and dressing up in yukata. As I noted before, this is a moe manga, make no bones about it. She quickly takes over the serious-minded taskmaster role that Mio had in the first volume, leaving Mio free to stress out about things and be the tsukkomi to Ritsu’s boke. Mostly, however, this is about a group of close-knit friends who quickly add another to their ranks, band or no, and seeing how they try to make Azusa open up and become one of the group (even if she is reluctant much of the time, mostly due to Yui’s skinship) is rather nice. 4-koma moe comics do tend to have a lot of cute girl groups of friends, something you don’t see as often in other demographics, and it can be quite refreshing.

The plots here are nothing really groundbreaking. We get a beach trip (where we see Azusa tans incredibly quickly and easily), exams, preparing for another concert (which ends up going horribly, mostly as Yui gets a bad cold a week or two before it and they can’t practice). And, as I said before, what you see is what you get in terms of these characters. Mio will not learn to conquer her fears onstage, Ritsu is not going to learn responsibility, and Sawako is not going to stop being a ‘dirty old man’ female teacher. But the jokes are funny, if not laugh-out-loud funny – they’re designed more to put a smile on your face than anything else. My favorites were the early stories introducing Azusa (who makes Yui 225% more hyperactive), and the hysterical episode where Yui ‘gets over her cold’ and returns to practice – but is it really Yui?

Yen’s translation, with a couple of niggles, continues to be smooth and well-done, with endnotes where needed. The niggles do annoy me, though. Yen mostly uses honorifics in their normal way, however, when they run into complex or invented honorifics, they sometimes translate it instead. So we see ‘Miss Tsumugi’ rather than ‘Tsumugi-oujosama’, which is very strange given that we see ‘-san’ the panel before. Worse, Yui’s nickname for Azusa, ‘Azu-nyan’ – a combination of the ‘nya’ meow of a cat and ‘-chan-‘ is translated as ‘Azu-meow’, which just messes up the flow of the speech, I think, and doesn’t really explain the joke of it being ‘meow+honorific’. In both those instances, I feel using the original (as is done with -san, -chan, etc) with an endnote to explain would have been a better choice.

Despite this, however, this is a fun volume of K-On! People who are buying the anime when it comes out next month will want to get this as well. A few scenes from the manga, especially towards the end, were never animated and are quite fun. It’s a relaxing cup of tea manga.

K-On! Volume 1

By Kakifly. Released in Japan by Houbunsha, serialized in the magazine Manga Time Kirara. Released in North America by Yen Press.

When K-On!’s anime burst onto the scene in 2008 (and, like most manga series that run in Kirara, no one had heard of it in North America before it got an anime), its popularity was almost immediate. And, after a brief wait to ensure that yes, this was going to be more like the popularity of Haruhi and not like the popularity of, say, Doujin Work, the manga was licensed by Yen Press. It seems like forever since that happened, but now Volume 1 is finally here, and for fans of the series, it’s worth the wait.

The manga itself is a typical 4-koma, which is to say we get a lot of short gags. We’re introduced to hyperactive Ritsu and her put-upon friend Mio, who want to join the Light Music Club (well, Ritsu does, and is dragging Mio along). Finding the club has no members, Ritsu quickly drafts a passing girl, Tsumugi, who plays keyboards and enjoys watching people be ‘interesting’. Given Ritsu plays drums and Mio plays bass, all they need is a guitar player, who turns out to be Yui, a young and somewhat ditzy girl… who has no experience playing guitar. Not that that stops her from joining the club anyway.

It should be noted that the character designs here are clearly meant to play to the ‘moe’ crowd, and some may find them a little too cutesy. However, while the cast do have moe traits, they manage to be fleshed out enough so that they feel like real people to me. Ritsu, for example, loves to tease her friend Mio, and pretty much does it to the point where Mio strikes back with beatings. It’s a typical double-act that we’ve seen many times in anime and manga before. Unlike many of those acts (Azumanga Daioh, I’m looking at you), we don’t wonder why in the world anyone ever hangs around with Ritsu. Her teasing never gets to the point where *we’re* annoyed – only Mio. And we can even see why, despite Mio’s irritation, they are best friends. She also has odd moments, when she’s not flaking out, where she does get to be the responsible leader of the band. (I will admit, she’s my favorite.)

K-On! is scheduled to be four volumes long, and I will admit that if you’re wondering how the characters grow and develop over the course of the next three volumes, this is likely not the manga for you. Characters in this type of manga are there to be comedic and cute, and no doubt by the end of the series Ritsu and Yui will still be flaky, Mio will still be shy and twitchy, and Mugi will still enjoy fantasizing about the other girls being yuri in front of her (except they aren’t). But for this series, that’s OK. It’s what I want to see. The girls playing their instruments, eating snacks, and having one joke every four panels. It’s a warm, comforting feeling. I like this manga as it makes the characters real and likeable.

I note that this franchise is quite popular with young males on the internet, something which, as manga publishers know, rarely translates into sales the way it does with franchises that are popular with young females on the internet. So, for the guys who will have their excuses out: Yes, the honorifics are all present and correct, including Rit-chan and Sawa-chan. Yes, there are color pages throughout. Yes, the translation is smooth and readable while still staying true to the original and endnoting when necessary. Yen has done a great job here. You have NO EXCUSE not to buy this if you support K-On! in any way. Buy it. Support authors and publishers in ways that don’t just correspond to ‘Your torrent is 57% complete’.