It’s 2020 and we’re all trying to find ways to spend the time.
Maybe you’re baking bread. Or learning to knit. Or catching up on an old TV show or film series.
Maybe, like me, you’ve found a sense of peace in things that are repetitive or mundane.
“Slice-of-life” is such an odd genre name, but it’s fitting. It’s certainly descriptive: these types of stories generally are just giving us little slices of the characters’ lives. The feel of the phrase, too, seems appropriate. It’s such a casual, silly, low-stakes sounding phrase to label something that’s usually so casual, silly, and low-stakes.
Although these types of stories are expressed in many different forms, it’s probably pretty well known for its popularity in anime and manga. There’s a lot of different slice-of-life anime to choose from, and these series are beloved by their fans for giving us great characters, laugh-out-loud comedy, a sense of mundane serenity, and story arcs that hit different.
As a complete surprise to me, this lockdown had me returning to an anime I had attempted to watch back when it premiered way back in 2009, “K-On!”
The show (which I’ll just type as K-ON, no exclamation mark, my apologies) has both its seasons and a movie available on Netflix. It follows a high school’s Light Music Club, a club for performing rock and pop type music. The girls in the club form a rock band, but mostly goof off, have fun, eat snacks, and drink tea.
It also might, now, be one of my favorite TV series of all time?
But maybe that’s just the pandemic talking. Maybe something so light-hearted, so goofy, so funny, and so low-stakes was exactly what I needed to just zone out and cheer up as brief breathers from engaging in a world that feels so chaotic, hopeless, and infuriating.
This summer actually wasn’t my first experience with the series. When it first premiered, way back in 2009, I had enthusiastically tried to watch it. But after three or four episodes, I dropped it in frustration.
As I reflect back in time from a pandemic-ridden 2020, the source of my 2009 frustration was deeply ironic: the show was just way too boring, following a group of friends having a normal social life.
Embracing the Everyday
I’m probably not the only person this year who has wrapped themselves up in a comfortable sitcom marathon.
While different folks cope or escape in different ways (I know in early 2020 some people specifically found comfort and enjoyment in watching pandemic-outbreak and apocalypse films), I’m sure I’m not alone in choosing to spend my downtime with low-stakes media.
Sitcoms and slice-of-life series can seem boring on the outside, or hard to break into. It’s hard to pitch someone on a specific one, and harder to randomly just dive into one. But once you get into the flow, the fun of the episodic storytelling shines through.
Without the pressure and constraints about having to write some sort of murder mystery, steamy romance, or hero’s journey, a lot of time is freed up to explore all sorts of little mini-stories with the characters. The stakes don’t need to be about saving the world or defeating a villain, and can instead just be about anything.
Plus, sometimes you’re just in the mood for goofy episodic stories and gags.
In K-ON, the characters go to school, study for tests, eat fast food, go shopping, and have sleep-overs. It’s a delight, and there’s so much value to writing a story like this even in an ordinary year. That said, it was hard to not watch this through the filter of 2020. Almost every activity the friends took part in felt like a reminder of what most us aren’t allowed to do right now. A bittersweet reminder of all of the “mundane” things that I had taken for granted in my own life.
In a sense, maybe that’s the appeal of marathoning a sitcom this year. You see everything in a whole new light.
Finding Meaning in the Everyday
It isn’t fair to say that K-ON is comprised only of goofy episodic stories and gags. There’s a story and character through-lines that bring you through the series, structured around following the length of the school year. There’s also, undeniably, emotions and themes and thoughts about life that are woven throughout the show.
(It’ll be difficult trying to parse exactly what the writers’ intentions were with the show, so from here on I’ll just talk about my personal feelings and interpretation. And I’ll focus on season 2 of the show, as I like it much more than season 1.)
Can an episodic slice-of-life show have heartfelt themes and a story it’s telling? While I feel like some American sitcoms stumble with this idea, of course it can, and K-ON delivers on that in a way that really surprised me.
What “themes” would that kind of show cover? Well…if your goal is to tell an episodic story about normal everyday life, what themes could be more powerful than a story about how we spend our time, how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves?
As far as I can see, this is the story that K-ON tells. In addition to lovable characters, great music, and jokes that genuinely make me laugh out loud, it is a story that questions and celebrates everything about our mundane lives. We all have a limited time on this Earth (or, zoomed-in to the life of the show, a limited time in high school), so how should we spend it? What should we do? How should we push ourselves? And how should we treat the others around us?
My favorite example of this in the show, and one that is a core to the series, is the depiction of a character named Azusa.
Azusa is one of the main characters of the show. She’s a girl who’s in the year below the other four protagonists, and joins their Light Music Club as a freshman. She plays the guitar and is good at it. Although she isn’t quite a stick-in-the-mud, she can be a fairly serious and focused person, especially as a musician. Throughout season 2, she often acts as the audience stand-in character, the relatable “normal” one with whom we watch the more exaggerated antics of the other four girls.
If this was all there was to Azusa, as may have been the plan in the early episodes, there would be nothing noteworthy about her presence in the show. Her existence would simply be one more vector for comedy to bounce off of. A “straight man” that exists solely to make fun of the other characters for being wacky. But instead of settling for this easy way out, the show actually dedicates a lot of season 2’s screen time to allowing us to see the school year through Azusa’s eyes.
Azusa likes her new friends of the Light Music Club, but she wishes they would practice more. She wishes the club would actually focus on music, and that their band would take honing their craft and preparing for their performances much, much more seriously. On the flip-side, the other four girls of the club are completely content with just taking each day as it comes. Drink some tea, eat some snacks, have some laughs, and just do whatever comes naturally.
The irony of all of this is that Azusa wants exactly what my younger self in 2009 wanted. He was frustrated by these girls’ tea parties and banter and wacky antics. He wanted the show to take itself and its premise seriously. He wanted the show to be ABOUT rock music, being in a band, and the specific technicalities and struggles of that endeavor.
In the minds of Azusa and my younger self, an hour spent on drinking tea and reminiscing about childhood is a waste of time. Joking around with friends with no “meaning” or conflict is boring and self-indulgent. A band that doesn’t hone their skills isn’t a real band. A story without a plot isn’t a story worth watching. A person who doesn’t push themselves in pursuit of a goal is a person who is wasting their potential.
It sounds harsh, but in a corner of my mind, this was how I felt as a teenager. I had taken an interest in art and storytelling, especially in making comics, and it gave my time outside of class purpose. Time spent on art and comics was “productive”, time hanging out with the kids on my block was “unproductive.” In fact, I subconsciously looked down on the kids who spent their weekends enjoying time with friends, because I viewed that as goofing off. This wasn’t a mantra I held in an intentional way, or was fully aware of, but that type of thinking colored everything I experienced in the world. Life was about deciding what you were (“artist”, “musician”, “athlete,” “top student”, “programmer”, etc.) and pursuing that specific role so that you could improve your skills, find success, and earn inner fulfillment.
What would be the point of a whole TV show that had high schoolers join a band and then mostly just hung out?
K-ON is heavily episodic and comedic, so it’s difficult to even tell at first, but the show steadily develops a central “character arc” throughout the entire second season. It’s the character arc of Azusa, what she thinks about the Light Music Club, what she thinks about herself, and what it says about how we judge our own value.
At first, Azusa can’t stop criticizing and badgering the Light Music Club for not practicing more. They waste time, hoard junk, goof off, and should be getting practice with their instruments. But, as you might expect, she realizes over the course of the school year that she really loves these friends and that they brighten her day every day. It’s a simple “appreciate the loved ones in your life” type of arc, where Azusa realizes that stopping to smell the roses isn’t so bad. The things they do for fun together are really quite meaningful to her, in a way that makes her feel confused and even embarrassed.
[Minor spoilers for the ending of K-ON below]
Even as she begins to accept this, she beats herself up over it. Spurred on by occasional teasing from her friend in the Jazz Club (which is more formal and straight-laced of an ensemble than the Light Music Club,) Azusa spends the whole season torn by confusion over what it is she really wants. Does she really hate that the Light Music Club has a “slacker attitude”, or are their mundane everyday antics what make it worth getting out of bed in the morning? She waffles between whether she should vocally scold her clubmates for their laziness or whether she should go with the flow and accept how she’s changing as a person through high school.
In the end, as her four friends rapidly approach graduating high school and leaving for college, she realizes just how dearly she appreciates them. Her time with the Light Music Club meant everything to her, and it wasn’t important if the five of them were “good musicians” or not. She pleads that if the hands of time could freeze and they wouldn’t graduate and leave her, she would never take them for granted or scold them for being themselves ever again. She would just want to live this happy everyday life with them forever and ever.
And as moments like this nearly bring me to tears at my desk, I think it’s more than just a pandemic that has erased all of “happy everyday life” from us that makes this story resonate so deeply with me.
As a teenager, I could only see the world through the lens of pushing ourselves towards goals, passions, and skill sets. Everyone picked what their “thing” was and should push themselves towards that goal. I didn’t really have an appreciation or understanding of what life outside of school and work was, unless it was a specialized hobby like “playing video games.”
It took me many, many years to expand my point of view beyond this really limited lens.
In fact, what drew me to the show in 2009 in general was that I was beginning to participate in music ensembles in middle school and high school. In the end, most of the ensembles and music classes in my school leaned closer to that “slacker attitude” that Azusa detested so much. We were goofy, friendly, sociable, and honestly not all that great at our instruments. When I got into college and heard about other people’s experiences with much more hardcore, strict ensembles, I was kind of embarrassed of my school. But with adult hindsight, I am so grateful that my time doing music in school was focused on having fun and being silly (and being reasonable with our expectations for skill level.) There is no way I would do high school all over again for a chance to be 20% better at playing the tuba but with less happy, carefree memories. By the end of K-ON, it’s equally obvious that their high school experience wouldn’t be “more complete” if they pushed themselves harder on music.
It is dearly important for us to recognize that there is worth to life outside of school and work. Knowledge, skills, recognition, and money dictate a lot of things, but seeing life as a treadmill we run on in pursuit of those four things leaves out everything else that makes life beautiful and fulfilling. It leaves out the beauty and serenity of nature around us, the peace of mind we experience in our most quiet moments, our connection with our loved ones, and it leaves out the fact that everyone around you has a life that is just as complex and worthy of respect.
Life isn’t a meritocracy where only those who push themselves to aptitude or recognition are deserving of happiness and pride. Most of the time, life is just life and we’re all just living it.
Whether you’re an anime high schooler trying to enjoy each day of their senior year, or a person who feels trapped, spinning their wheels in place during a never-ending 2020.
People are not just a spreadsheet of skills and accomplishments, they’re human beings who can be kind, loving, quirky, social, and empathetic. And they can spend their free time however makes them most happy.
These are things that my 2009 self may have just been too young and close-minded to understand.
Living Your Best Everyday
Would it sound like pandemic-fueled exaggeration if I claimed that this show changed my life?
In addition to lovable characters, good gags, beautiful animation, and a core story arc, it has another secret ingredient that I so rarely see in media, especially the media I’m used to in the US.
Throughout the show (specifically the second season and the movie), there are all these little moments of warmth. Just random little nuggets of human kindness and empathy. Most of them have no bearing on the plot whatsoever, and aren’t set-ups for jokes. Just human beings showing kindness and care for each other in ways big and small.
Is this even a thing in other TV shows? I am hard-pressed to come up with sitcoms, live-action or animated, in the US that go out of their way to show that the characters genuinely care for each other and the people they encounter.
And because the show is so painstakingly rendered and animated, I know in my heart that these little moments are not sprinkled “improv” but instead have to be scripted with purpose and commitment. It’s an extra touch that says a lot, to me, about the world the show is trying to create and what it wants us to take away from it when we’re watching. This is a show (especially after season one) where everyone sincerely cares for one another and treats each other with love.
No joke, I watch it and ask myself with real sincerity: why aren’t I like this?
Why aren’t I?
Of course, the world is infinitely more complicated than this anime and in most situations we can’t all be selfless to everyone. And we shouldn’t be, especially in the face of cruelty and injustice.
But in the specific situations where we can be, or we should…why do we so often choose not to?
Upon re-watching the show, these moments struck me so powerfully, more so than the “main plot.”
Twice, the dessert-loving Light Music Club saves a sixth cupcake for Azusa so that she could eat a second one, for no reason other than that they love her as a friend. A character pushes herself past her comfort zone to cook and care for her sister (who falls sick with a fever) because she is so appreciative of her everyday kindness and wants to reciprocate. Friends put time and care into doing each other’s hair, or reassuring them that they look great today. A character reminds her best friend to breathe in a moment when she’s nervous and self-conscious. Characters congratulate each other, thank each other, and compliment each other, even to strangers, when it has no important bearing on the progression of the scene.
And while it was surely not the point of the show, and the show doesn’t preach any sort of moral, it leaves me walking away wanting to be better. There are friends and family and people who I hold dear in my life. I should look deep inside myself and find the warmth to treat them this way for nothing in return, simply because it’s the right thing to do and it makes everyday life so much more worth living.
This year is a lot of things to a lot of people. One thing it can be, for me, is a period of sincere reflection about myself and what my place is in the world I live in.
I haven’t learned to knit a blanket or bake a mean sourdough. But I have found my peace in watching and endlessly re-watching a slice-of-life anime about girls who drink tea, goof around, and eat snacks every day.
Beyond being just enjoyable fluff and good gags, it surprised me with a glimpse into a world so much warmer than the one I know.
And a stern, loving counter-argument aimed at the person I used to be.