There’s been a lot of disparity in reactions to the slice-of-life moe comedy genre of late sparked by the recent end of K-On!. A lot of its defenders have fallen back on the idea that “it is what it is”, while its critics have argued that that’s no excuse for mediocrity. My own opinion is that there’s no question that K-On! is mediocre, but there’s merit in the “it is what it is” defense provided one adds appropriate riders. The problem with the “it is what it is” defense is that, if you take it to its logical conclusions, you can’t criticize anything, because everything “is what it is”. What you can criticize something for is how well it achieves its intent. Personal preference inevitably plays a role in criticism, but the fact of the matter is that every genre (and arguably every individual title) has its own unique set of criteria which depend on a number of things, and sound, reasoned criticism is about minimizing the number of criteria which cannot be controlled or influenced by the creators themselves.
Personally, I think some of the more prominent attempts to criticize K-On! have gone to the opposite extreme of the logical conclusion of “it is what it is”, and have set unreasonable expectations and asked for things that K-On! never had any intention of delivering in the first place. K-On! is, after all, firmly entrenched as a slice-of-life moe comedy, a genre which has been well and truly established since the classic Azumanga Daioh (which I’ll get to later), and we’ve probably seen enough of these, particularly more recently, to know what the game is all about. There have been what I’ve seen as too many attempts to unnecessarily overcomplicate what is, at heart, a simplistic genre, and I’ve always thought that the appropriate criteria for titles within the genre are similarly simplistic. My view is that the most important criteria for slice-of-life moe comedy – possibly the only one that matters – is whether it’s funny or not. If you’re laughing, you tick the box, if not, you give it a thumbs down. The problem with this is that its an inevitably subjective criteria and disagreers generally have difficultly finding common ground on which to critically analyze the work and their difference of opinions in a way that, well, isn’t futile.
Its unique in that sense since so much of one’s opinion of titles in the genre are formed from subjective reactions, which makes it a rather challenging genre to review objectively. Does that mean we shouldn’t be reviewing these titles at all? Well, no, I don’t think so… but you know me, I’m a big believer in reviews (I wouldn’t write them if I wasn’t). In most other genres, you can look at things that have an internal or creative logic, or can be justified somehow… it’s much harder to do this with works that are so innately simple. I think this is why works driven by meta-humour seem to be better critically received; you can look at anime like Kannagi or Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei or Ouran Host Club and point to tangibles that can be acclaimed: “oh look at the sharp wit and the timing and the references and the self-awareness”. It’s much harder to do this with titles that have an opaque fourth wall. Then, the question is, how does one justify a positive response to Azumanga Daioh and Minami-ke and then an indifferent one to K-On! and Minami-ke Season Two, when they’re basically all trying to do the same thing. That’s a tough question. You can only talk about what you liked and what you didn’t like, but ideally you’re working within a set of criteria that are fair and reasonable and considerate of the intentions of the series. But who exactly decides what’s “fair and reasonable”?
“It is what it is” is basically what I see as a clumsy attempt to raise a reasonable rebuttal: consider a title’s intentions when criticizing it. But its use to defend K-On! carries with it a disturbing implication: the idea that slice-of-life moe comedy don’t have to have anything more than what K-On! delivered. It’s an idea which is easily refuted just by the half-dozen or so other titles I’ve mentioned already in this article in passing, all of which are funnier and more entertaining than K-On!. This has basically been my major criticism of K-On! since the early episodes: when you compare it to other anime within its genre, it doesn’t stack up. If I took a random slice-of-life moe comedy from the list of anime I’ve seen and was forced to choose between it and K-On!, chances are pretty low that I’d pick K-On!, and chances are almost as low that I’d have think about that decision for long. This is what I see as a real indictment on K-On!, since it basically points to a failure on its part to distinguish itself within its own genre. But that (obviously) is my opinion, and I’m kinda curious as to how proponents of the “it is what is is” defense consider this. Simply as a non-threatening curiosity, my question to fans of K-On! is, how does it compare with other anime within the slice-of-life moe comedy genre in your opinion?
Maybe that comes back to my own attitude that, if there are two titles that do much the same thing but one has a greater impact, then that means the other has failed to be distinctive, and thus has less chance of being deemed “good” (but, again this comes back to the idea that the response to a slice-of-life moe comedy is generally more subjective than other genres). My own opinion of the slice-of-life moe comedy genre as a whole is that the bar was set in its infancy with Azumanga Daioh and nothing since has raised that bar (although the much more satirical Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei came close). But, I’ve recently wondered whether it would have anywhere near the same impact if I was watching it for the first time today. I suspect not, and I daresay there’s a bit of a “Seinfeld Is Unfunny” effect going on with Azumanga Daioh (which is ironic, since Seinfeld was often the title it was compared to in the early days as they were both among the first in their respective media to utilize the revolutionary concept of being “about nothing”). These days the ideas that were (relatively) unique to Azumanga Daioh at the time have been copied, subsequently watered down and repeated to the point of cliche, which means that there are greater expectations now for what makes a good slice-of-life comedy (although its a credit to Azumanga Daioh that it’s still fairly highly revered in its genre after so much time has passed and so many new titles in the genre have been released, even if it is mostly by slightly old-school people… relatively speaking, of course, since it is only seven years old).
As a fan of the slice-of-life moe genre, this is what makes K-On! disappointing. It’s essentially taken things from other anime which have taken things from Azumanga Daioh, which isn’t all that shameful a thing of itself (formulas are successful for a reason) but many of the things that K-On! put in play are basically stale now. Add to that some pretty banal comedic execution, and you end up with a rather forgettable, throwaway entry to the genre. Fans may say, well “it is what it is”, implying that ambition was never an intention. My response is, with all the other funny and entertaining slice-of-life comedies being made, even now, with not a great deal of ambition themselves, why couldn’t it be something more? Never mind plot or character development or things that it never intended to have. Just “more funny” would have been enough to make it serviceable.
A collection of final reactions to K-On! here.