Dedicated to U: K-On!! & the Use of Shot Composition and Character-Acting to Portray Emotion

All the while I took your existence for granted
And I thought that we would always, always be together
As days go by
I’m sorry only now that I realized
That it really isn’t the case
So to start things off I have to tell you these two words
“Thank you”

-insert from the song U&I (HTT)

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Featured Series:  K-on!!, Episode 20

Episode Director:  Mitsuyoshi Yoneda

Storyboards:  Tatsuya Ishihara

Subtlety.

In trying to strike an emotional chord with an audience, subtlety in any given important moment is a concept that is generally tossed aside in exchange for more grandiose, overt expositions.  The mood and atmosphere must be set, the tension must run high, the music should be bombastic, and of course the characters must blurt out their feelings in one fell swoop, a bursting damn of epic proportions (for reference, just pick a Mari Okada series).  And while this form of creating climatic emotional catharsis is not necessarily wrong (it still is effective, for the most part), apparent through how prevalent its usage is, there is an inherent beauty in displaying the different colors of emotion through organically crafted subtleties that create a more vividly memorable moment.

And what better series to highlight the brilliant effects of carefully-constructed nuances to a scene built to forefront emotions than with Naoko Yamada’s 2010 godsend:  K-On!!, specifically the final scene of its 20th episode:  Yet Another School Festival!. Through intelligently minimal compositions, expressive character acting, and profound choice of background music and atmosphere, the scene in question is an example of how subtlety can prove to be just as, if not more, effective in rendering the highly complex niceties of adolescent emotions.

 

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Leading up to the scene, the episode focuses on the band’s final school festival performance.  Not much is to be said in terms the concert’s summation:  it was a fun, goofy performance that echoed the culmination of the girls’ efforts throughout the years, as well as their quickly-approaching dissolution, both as a band and as schoolmates.  From the authentic way in which the concert was played out, with all its personal touches that make the whole swansong seem more grounded and emotionally affecting, HTT’s curtain-call in and of itself is charmingly put together, even in comparison to the other concerts and performances throughout the series.

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And while the entire episode can indeed be scrutinized, it is the final clubroom scene that truly brings out the staff’s penchant for masterful character-acting and scene compositions, condensing a pallet of emotions into a singular scene in such a sublime manner.  Each character and shot is given utmost care in how they are portrayed, resulting in a scene that pulls at the heartstrings in the most subtle but endearing way.

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In this establishing shot of the scene, we are shown the five girls sitting on the floor of their clubroom, presumably right after their concert has ended.  From this vantage point, we see how their table still has the mess of snacks from the morning of the event, reflecting the lax nature that their group is known for.  Through the distance of the shot, the girls are seen to be seemingly staring blankly into nothing, suggesting that they are still somewhat shook by the events that had just transpired.  This shot is accompanied by silence, save for the sound of birds in the distance, allowing the viewer to partake in the atmosphere, and by extension the feelings of the five girls, by transitioning from the loud and boisterous concert to the more quiet and earnest clubroom setting.

As most establishing shots go, it then cuts to a closer shot, this time a medium-long shot of the five, confirming the idea that they are indeed in quite the state of disbelief.  They reminisce about the concert and how they were taken aback by the surprises and the overall success of the show.  Their blank stares and general inaction speak volumes as to their emotions at that moment.  Their dialogue further cements that notion, with them commenting on how the event went by in a flash, so much so that they don’t remember much of what happened; a definite indication of their adrenaline rush and the aftermath. From just the first two shots, the scene already succeeds in synthesizing the sense of shock and disbelief, as well as channeling those emotions to the viewer for us to further connect with how the characters feel.

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From here on out, certain trends appear throughout the scene, each used to highlight a certain aspect beautifully and to great effect:

 

The use of medium close-ups, used to place emphasis on the characters’ expressions, highlight the girls agreeing with Yui’s statement that the concert was indeed fun, their faces lighting up from the stupor of disbelief in the previous shot.  This is an effective way to portray an emotional shift in a very linear manner, showing how one shot leads to the next.

We then cut to the girls continually discussing the event, which I believe to be the vital aspect of this entire scene; natural conversations like this is part of what makes K-On such a grounded and personal show.  As I mentioned in my post about the importance of dialogue-delivery, both the writing and the voice-acting should carry the essence of what any given scene is striving for on a thematic level, and K-On’s far exceed that by being so nuanced in how autonomous these characters and conversations are that it strikes a more intimate chord.  Too many a time, over-the-top acting has been a staple of climatic scenes that it is practically expected of any other show, which is fine and all, but it can lead to a less organic scenario and even shake the viewer out of immersion, which results in a poorly rendered climax.  Again, this authenticity is imperative in connecting with the viewers, which makes the later emotional moments all the more impactful.

 

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Notice how Azusa does the same thing to her guitar when Mio displays affection to “Eliza-bass”, reflecting her profound admiration for her upperclassman (Above).  A classic example of “Yamada-ism”, where we see the characters’ body language used to  portray their emotions (Azusa on the far right shuffling her feet as she talks about wanting to eat cake, Mugi waving her legs up and down as she comments on how she bought her own cake and didn’t use the club’s budget) (Below) .

 

The scene then cuts to medium close-up shots of the girls already planning out what to do next.  This is the final shot size used before the more emotional part of the scene, placing a focal point on the characters’ enthusiasm before the reality of their situation sets in.

 

After a few more shots of the clubroom, Yui’s enthusiastic comments about what comes next is interjected by Ritsu saying that there’s nothing else that comes afterwards, with a tear in her eye.  The use of the medium close-up to underscore not only Ritsu’s bittersweet expression, but her body-language as well, literally waving off Yui’s remarks about next year’s agenda, is impeccable in this scene, showing such an emotion in just a couple of frames (also note how we see Mio beside her in this shot already slumped).

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The slow transition to a more wistful air is only accentuated by this shot of Yui in tears, saying how they will be better next year, continuing to be hopeful despite knowing that their time is coming to an end.

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We then cut to a medium-long shot of the five of them, now with more somber looks as the weight of the situation continues to dawn on them.  It is here where character-acting becomes a much more prevalent idea in conveying their varied personalities and responses; Ritsu trying her best to joke around, Mio trying to hide her feelings but ultimately failing, Azusa concernedly looking over, and the normally calm and carefree Mugi being more shaken by her troubles than any of them.  This simple set-up contains such a cavalcade of emotions, all highlighting each of the characters’ respective personalities while at the same time unifying them.

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I personally found Mugi’s reaction to be the most affecting, as her refusal of change and wanting the group to remain is indeed warranted.  Her being selfish for once in the series is a testament to her developed feelings for the band; it is a very important part of her life, and seeing it slowly come to an end must be painful.

As the scene continues, we see Azusa being the one who handles the situation in a mature manner, Yui breaking down, Mio still huddled in her sadness, and Ritsu trying her best to console her friend despite herself being distressed as well.  Again, this emphasizes their own character traits and how these characters would react in this specific scenario, while also being represented as organic living beings with genuine emotions.

 

As the BGM reveals itself to be a melancholic rendition of the song U&I (the last song they played on-stage), the girls’ feelings are in full bloom as they express how they did well, the concert was indeed a success, and that it was an amazing experience playing in a band with all of them, culminating in a group hug that honestly bookends the entire scene with aplomb.  This should be THE climatic cry-fest emotional outburst if this was any other series, but instead, K-On does it in a manner that is not overplayed and is built up carefully throughout the scene with intelligent shot compositions and character-acting, prioritizing the very real responses that ground the scene in reality, creating a visceral and vivid scenario that creates a more lasting impression.

 

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The scene ends with a shot of the girls’ schoolbags nestled close to each other on the bench, bathing in the warm light of the setting sun, mirroring not just the girls’ borrowed time with each other, but also themselves being a tight-knit group. Keep in mind that the girls still joke around until the scene fades out, maintaining the naturalistic dialogue that was partially what made the scene work.

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In revisionists’ history, this scene is a textbook example of the “nothing is wasted” ideal that Yamada employs in her work.  Every detail, from the way the characters act and react, to the lovingly prevalent employment of varying shot sizes to accentuate not only their facial but also their bodily expressions, to the picturesque use of the warm yet melancholic sunset to create atmosphere (echoing both the girls’ fervour about their experiences as well as their waning time with each other), to the naturalistic dialogue that make the interactions endearing and the emotions heartfelt, to even the OST used (refer to the fragment of lyrics from U&I at the beginning of the post); every single bit is lovingly crafted, and for such complexities, nothing less can be given.

This scene broke me when I first watched it 5 years ago. Now, I didn’t think it was possible, but I have gained a much greater appreciation of its brilliance. Out of all the moments that defined K-On for me, this was the one that truly made me love the show not just for its technical ingenuity, but for simply how emotionally affecting and evocatively heartwarming it is.

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Some of our more lucid moments in life can parallel this scene: there will be scenes of bittersweet pang when our happy times come to a close, but in the end, we will hug it out, wipe the tears (and snot), and remain grateful for the memories made, treasuring them forever as we move onward.  The sun might set for now, but just wait a few hours and it will rise anew.

You will still have all those memories moving forward as you create new ones.

Therefore, if you think about it, nothing is wasted.

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