K-On! and the Dynamics of Female Friendships

Just a bit of aniblogger navel-gazing first: one of the reasons why I’m enjoying this a lot more now is because I feel that I can write about whatever the hell I want. It used to be that I felt pressured only to post about the latest and newest anime, preferably on an episode to episode basis, and I’m sure why you can understand why anyone would either burn out or get bored really quickly. Right now, I feel that there are enough blogs that cover a wide variety of anime and manga (and more importantly, enough readers who’d read that stuff), so if I feel writing about an anime series from 2009, it’s all right.

K-On! is a series that I didn’t understand, much less like, at first. You have a group of girls who are in a club/band, but don’t really do much except sit in the club room and drink tea and eat cake.  Multiply that by thirteen episodes, and done.  I’ve watched other anime about a band trying to make it — Beck, Nana, Kaikan Phrase — and those shows had  characters extremely passionate about their music and striving towards their ultimate goal of being the next big thing. I didn’t get the same vibe from K-On!

As I was finishing up the rest of the first season last week, I realized that I was the problem, not the show. As an anime blogger, I’ve conditioned myself to think, “this anime resembles ____ anime,” “if people liked ____ anime, they would also like this anime,” etc. That explains why I had originally thought that K-On! belongs in the band anime category, when in reality, it doesn’t. I couldn’t see the forest through the trees.

What I had perceived to be K-On! weakness is actually its biggest strength. The girls of Houkago Tea Time are at their best, well, during tea time.

From the beginning, the friendships between Yui, Ritsu, Mio, Mugi (and later Azusa) felt real. There was an easy familiarity among the girls that felt genuine. They all dispensed with formalities early on; nicknames were given to you as soon as you entered the club room. Teasing was commonplace, and you could say the dumbest things and nobody would judge you (too harshly) for it.

In American media, finding a work that shows this social dynamic among females is rarer than it should be. For U.S. movies and tv shows, the use of the “Bechdel test” still feels necessary to determine its feminist qualities. The test is a essentially short checklist which examines the role of women in the work: there should be more than one female character, they should be named, and they should have a conversation, the subject of which should not be about a man. If you use that criteria alone, K-On! passes with flying colors, but then again, so most anime series actually do.

K-On! is no Sex and the City; but if you take away the conversations about one-night stands and vibrators, what remain are the intimate conversations that each girl feels she can share with her primary network of friends. As a female, I can attest to the necessity and saving value of talking to your best friends and having your best friends listening to you, no matter how inane or pointless the subject. I was thinking maybe that’s why so much time was spent each episode showing the girls just hanging out. Their friendships may have started out easily, but to keep the relationship growing, you needed to show them nurturing it.

It could very well be that I’m overthinking this. Maybe K-On! is nothing but a show about cute girls doing cutesy, silly things. Even so, I’d like to think that this show paved the way for showing relatable (if idealized) friendships among females. Feminism isn’t just about one strong, competent female in a predominantly male world, but also about groups of females who are showing that together, they can do anything.

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8 thoughts on “K-On! and the Dynamics of Female Friendships

  1. Interesting post! I agree that one thing I’ve liked about anime/manga is its willingness to have stories that don’t follow the general “one girl in the main cast” setup that so much of fiction tends to utilize. It wouldn’t hurt to have more stories that focus on relationships between girls as friends, sisters, and mothers and daughters.
    That said, K-On is an anime still geared toward a male audience, from what I understand (though I’m not an expert on the whole moe concept that K-On supposedly exemplifies). Would you say the conversations the K-On cast engages in are very realistic? Obviously it’s still a work of fiction so it’s not meant to be true-to-life, but I do wonder just how much K-On can be considered a force for good from a feminist standpoint. I haven’t watched the show myself, so I can’t say. Might give it a try one day though, since it’s so well-known in the anime community.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      As for the conversations, I don’t know if they’re realistic but I think they were consistent to how each girl was characterized. Most of the time, I feel the talks basically fell into the realm of silly and asinine, but I was a teenage girl once upon a time, and I didn’t exactly have philosophical talks with my friends either.

      I’m also not sure how effective K-On would be as “force for good,” as you said. Doesn’t Revolutionary Girl Utena serve that purpose for Western feminist thought already? For me, K-On’s appeal is primarily emotional; I was touched by how all of the girls liked and genuinely wanted to spend time with each other. It made me miss my own girlfriends and miss all the fun things that we did together.

      Give it a try one day. Like I wrote in the post, it took me a while to watch since I was so against “moeblob” anime, but then I got over myself and found that it wasn’t terrible.

  2. Where were you before here, if I may? It’d be interesting reading older stuff of yours, especially if they were as witty as your comments on Moe Sucks about Natsuyuki (that’s where I found out about you).

    I really like how you focus on feministic lenses without becoming preachy 🙂

    I haven’t watched K-ON, but I’m trying to watch So Ra No Wo To, that is very similar in design. I’m on ep.4 months now… I’m not sure I can find cute or acceptable a klutzy or idiotic girl :/ Or one that has oversized uniform at that matter and resembles a child. I feel like (Japanese) men drool over women only when they do nothing important or behave like toddlers…

    • I started with an anime blog in 2003/04 and then quit sometime in ’06/’07? My old blog has disappeared into the ether, but I didn’t write this way before. I did mostly episodic posting, etc.

      Thank you so much for all of your comments — I also can’t believe you’re reading all these walls of text. I try to write in the way that I’d want to read; most of the time I’m not successful since I can get carried away and I start being self-conscious on who’s reading and whether they’ll like it — if I pretend I’m the only one reading these posts, then the end result comes out better… if that makes sense.

      • Almost everyone starts with reviews and episodics. I was like that, too. Only this year I can say I am proud of the work put on my blog.

        My pleasure 🙂 your writing is enjoyable, the topics interesting and though I can’t deny I’d prefer more image intervals, the headings on some of posts are helpful

    • I’m not Japanese but as a dude who loves moe anime, I can tell you that there’s no trying to guess or second guess what a show panders to who and who gets the boner about what. Such things tend to be intensely personal. The specter of pandering is mostly a construct as a matter of criticism. A better way to criticize is the need to stick to certain templates that has proven to sell. I think a lot of shows hedge its potential sales figures this way, but only superficially. Once you can get over that, a whole new world awaits within.

      I think in K-ON’s case, there’s something mysterious at work, because ultimately its popularity in the mainstream score the highest with teenage girls. Older girls tend to write off that tea and cake, banal stuff. Younger girls find the characters appealing and personable, even cute. The guys, well, guys like girls. I don’t think there’s anything unusual there.

      • I hope I’m not misunderstanding your comment, so here goes: This post came out of a desire to to see if there was anything that I, Anna, would find personally unique and loveable in K-ON. I don’t dislike moe anime, but I wanted to find out if my opinion on this show would change with a fresh viewing. My initial experience of it was colored by personal drama, etc. so I wanted to be sure to be ‘fair’ to it, especially considering its popularity and seemingly good critical reception even from those who claim to detest moe.

        What I picked out of it won’t be what the majority of its fans will get or appreciate from it. I don’t even want to speculate on the whats and the whys, because I’m aware those are beyond my capacity to explain or to decipher. FWIW, I did enjoy this work, and watched it without my critical thinking cap on. The editorializing came later.

      • My comment replies to another person’s comment so maybe that didn’t come across. I think you’ve stated your case very clearly. Sorry for any confusion caused on my part.

        Moe is moe, we can’t really do anything about it. If anything, how you have reacted is partly why K-ON is popular among certain demographics. I would say you are very much not alone.

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