Moe-themed comics are a matter of taste, and K-On! walks the fine line that separates adorable from annoying. Are shy girl Mio Akiyama’s cringing and whinging whenever she's pressured into confronting anything new and unexpected kinda endearing or kinda frustrating? Is space cadet Yui Hirasawa’s inability to function without the help of her far more capable younger sister Ui an expression of familial devotion or creepy codependence? What about Yui’s constant glomping on Azusa Nakano? Is that joyful affection or a form of harassment? Humor has a subjective component, and the cast of K-On! isn't so much populated by well-rounded creations but an assemblage of foibles finely balanced for cute interactions. But if the gags fail to amuse the reader, the results are just a bunch of characters overreacting to the most mundane of things.
To his credit, Kakifly is one of the more talented manga-ka working in the highly constrained yonkoma format. His designs are appealing without being too pandering. His linework is polished. And the story told of a clique of high school students forming a pop band is sweet and mellow, even if it can be a little too saccharine at times. When the original band members graduated, it seemed like a natural place to close the series. So I have to wonder if commercial considerations convinced him (or more likely the publisher Hōbunsha) to extend the story. In any case, the tone of K-On! College will feel familiar to fans, just without a tidy conclusion. For whatever reason, this spinoff never lasted long enough to establish its own identity.
One would think that having Yui, Mio, Ritsu Tainaka, and Tsumugi “Mugi” Kotobuki in a college setting would help create new and interesting setups. They’re all inhabiting the same dorm but attending different classes. They’ve joined the school's pop-music club, which has a much larger membership than their old high school club. There are new characters, most notably a rival band composed of a talented trio. But it isn’t long before it becomes apparent that the new cast members are mostly filling the same roles vacated by the old cast members. No more Sawako Yamanaka to act as the cosplay-crazy authority figure? The club president also has a cosplay fetish. No more Azusa for Yui to glomp on? Hey, there’s this other tsundere that will do just as fine. And the manga continues to rely on old standbys like Ritsu and Mio’s boke-tsukkomi routine, Yui’s sleepiness, or Mugi’s fascination with convenience store snack foods.
Thankfully, the manga does present several moments of character development. The college setting forces the four of them to consider whether they might actually want to become professional musicians after they graduate. This precipitates a mini identity crisis in both the ditzy Yui and lazy Ritsu. The new environment also pushes Mio and Mugi out of their respective comfort zones. Mio takes a few tentative steps to conquer her shyness, while Mugi, missing her wealthy family and household servants, learns to become more self-sufficient. There's just no follow-up to these incremental changes. And the new cast members suffer from not being sufficiently fleshed-out. The one exception is punk rocker Akira Wada, the only one with a backstory, and with a love interest to boot. It’s too bad the series was cancelled before anything could get going.
K-On! College is a commercial manga, so it’s no surprise that it conforms to the formula that previously made it a huge success. Fans looking for more of the same will not be disappointed. But there are times when the world the characters inhabit feels hemmed-in by those small panels, and I wonder what would happen if they could break free from them.