The Power of Context – Brief Discourse on K-On! and Black Rock Shooter

ゆめろぼ Azusa K-On

The power of context in creating epidemics has often been the focus of social dynamic studies. This is hardly a new concept. Comedies are almost always funnier with friends; thrillers more enjoyable in groups. Similarly, the contexts in which we watch anime are bound to affect our experience. I love Aria not only because it is amazing, but also because it came at a right time. Furthermore, the power of context goes beyond the personal experience to affect collective opinions.

にわとりこけぞう Kuroi Mato Takanashi Yomi Black Rock Shooter

Recently, I finished The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell presents a compelling case study to illustrate this idea: the epidemic of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Within two years of its release, Ya-Ya Sisterhood sold 2.5 million copies, became a bestseller, generated multiple articles in magazines, and propelled Rebecca Wells to celebrity status. Its first epidemic momentum coincided with Well’s book reading tour in Northern California. The Bay Area has one of most vibrant reading group cultures in the US, and Ya-Ya Sisterhood is, in the words of publishers, a “book-group book.” Gladwell claims that what tipped this book into a social epidemic is the context in which many readers read it. In a group, readers tend to enjoy the experience more. Furthermore, collective opinions propagate easier and quicker from group to group, which makes a particular idea spread exponentially.*

左折 Hyakko Suzume Tatsuki Torako Ayumi Hitsugi

It might be interesting to take that concept and apply it to certain anime. Of the myriad of slice-of-life anime released each year, only a few reach epidemic success. Compare K-On! to Hyakko. Both are anime adaptations of a decent manga. Both feature four to five high school girls with distinct likable personalities, a strong supporting cast, and a fun relaxing episodic story. Yet only K-On! has a large following and a strong presence in almost every facet of anime. It is not necessarily because K-On! is better. In fact, when I first read both manga, I actually found K-On! manga to be rather bland. K-On! anime’s later popularity certainly took me by surprise.

かる K-On Don't Say Lazy Mio Yui Mugi Ritsu

Perhaps K-On!’s success hinges on its accessibility to the group experience. Like Ya-Ya Sisterhood, K-On! is a character-driven, emotionally sophisticated, and highly relatable story, the kind of story that can generate casual talk among friends, in forums, and on image boards. Furthermore, the distinctive looks and various outfits of the band are easily picked up by various fan art and cosplay communities, as well as figure collectors. These different outfits and band accessories are a seemingly inconsequential gimmick, but may be just the thing that Hyakko, Gokujou Seitokai, Minami-Kei, and others lack. This accessibility compels watchers to be part of a community, and prompts K-On! to become a social experience. The social experience, in turn, influences the collective opinion, which then shapes our personal attitudes toward K-On!

Huke Dead Master Black Rock Shooter

A parallel can be seen with Black Rock Shooter. A visually driven short OVA, Black Rock Shooter quickly gained widespread popularity soon after its release. In contrast, the similar Cencoroll also stuns viewers with its stylistic animation and conceptual designs. Yet, although both are short, beautiful, loosely “indie” works, Cencoroll remains in relative obscurity. The key difference is perhaps in Black Rock Shooter’s origins in Pixiv. As Huke becomes a hero to many aspiring independent artists, the designs and the anime are also quickly adopted by the Pixiv community. In fact, BRS is featured on the front page and the first article of the first volume of Quarterly Pixiv. With Supercell’s music and memorable character designs, Black Rock Shooter fits easily into the conversation of a wide variety of influential communities (Pixiv, anime music, figures, cosplay…etc.). Just as K-On! has, Black Rock Shooter became a social experience and a social epidemic.

ぐさも K-On Akiyama Mio alternate costumes

Of course, this is a frivolous conclusion based on hypothetical associations.** Context is just one part of the numerous influences that make K-On! and Black Rock Shooter huge hits. Still, recognizing how collective opinions can influence our own may be a nice exercise. This is especially valuable when re-watching a particular series. It may also be relevant to see how our opinions change over the course of a long anime. I might have loved K-On!! and Black Rock Shooter even more after I dabbled in blogs, figures, artbooks, magazines, and various communities surrounding these anime.

*”Power of Context” and the Ya Ya Sisterhood example taken from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
**Association/ causation, anecdotal evidence, weak conclusions, incomplete research, and over generalization are only some of the problems.

This entry was posted in Anime/ Manga, Black Rock Shooter, Cencoroll, Editorial, Hyakko, K-On! and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to The Power of Context – Brief Discourse on K-On! and Black Rock Shooter

  1. radiant says:

    You raise an interesting thought here, Yi. I have, for the longest time, wondered what makes things go viral, and I think you’ve sort of hit the nail on the head, or at least withing close approximation of it.

    The definite similarities between K-On! BRS/Miku and other such do seem to stem from the community involvement and identifiable traits. But I’m still not sure exactly what makes it compelling enough to get involved? What gets people sharing? The psychology of it still baffles me. Perhaps The Tipping Point may help me figure that out?

    • radiant says:

      Actually, another example of this tipping point is Twilight.

    • Yi says:

      The Tipping Point and some, like the social psychologist Milgram, have proposed the “law of the few”. Gladwell suggest that what makes something go viral involves the context, the idea itself, and very importantly, the actions of connectors, mavens, and salesmen to promote that idea. It’s a fascinating read, but it’s also based on a lot of speculation. There is probably no easy answer.

  2. Ryan says:

    Great thoughts on the idea of experiencing in context, and I have to agree that the social experience really can boost certain works either directly or peripherally. As for K-ON! I’m not sure it’s much of a straight comedy like Minami-ke, and maybe Hyakko (I only watched an episode). IMO, there’s a good deal more texture in the K-ON! animation which is might be directly generated through the situation (school/club->graduation), but relies highly on character interaction and development for sure.

    Nice to think about these things 🙂

    • Yi says:

      There are some notable and important differences between K-On! and Minami-ke, and the comedic nature is one of it. I guess this kind of goes to the point that K-On!, not being a straight comedy, allows for both easier, casual conversations, as well as in depth discussions of characters and interactions. On the other hand, Minami-ke. being a straight comedy, will limit itself because the humor sense of the audience will have less common ground.

      (p.s. I actually haven’t seen Minami-ke. Hyakko felt a lot more like K-On! though in terms of comedy.)

  3. AXYPB says:

    I know too many people who are put off by anime for various reasons, but I believe that they all got started the wrong way. So many of the fan favorite series, i.e. the so-called gateway anime can only be appreciated fully by those who are already familiar with the conventions of Japanese media. There are so many things in such series that rightfully fill those ignorant or unaware of the quirks of contemporary anime and Japanese culture with contempt. I don’t know what those people want in anime, but the medium is diverse enough that it can cater to every taste imaginable. It’s a shame that those that aren’t vested in shallow fanservice or prevalent trends like moe are relegated to niche within a niche status.

    As you can see, some of their influence is rubbing off on my posts.

    • Yi says:

      That’s a really good point. To those unfamiliar with anime, many of the common tropes and themes will come off awkward, confusing, and weird. Unfortunately, these things (like fan service) that tend to drive people away from anime are often also the most flamboyant and memorable characteristics. It’s kind of interesting that a “niche” series can sometimes be more easily accepted by non-fans. For example, consider Amagami SS and a straight love story like Book Girl. Which is more ”
      “representative” of anime? Which would you recommend to a colleague who has never seen anime?

  4. EmperorG says:

    Speaking of Hyakko and Gokujou Seitokai, I never quite understood why neither took off since I loved both shows and like you said, the premise is similar to K-ON!’s (Hyakko’s I mean). Then again, I thought K-ON took off much easier because of the omega moe factor. My word, never in my life have I seen a show that unleashed the full power of moe as successfully as K-ON! had. Cencoroll is merely an obscure indie to me. Maybe it suffered from obscurity since I’ve only heard about it thanks to your review. I feel ashamed for having passed by a hidden gem such as Cencoroll.
    No wonder both Gokujou and Hyakko were discontinued, it’s a real shame.

    Why I stopped following Minami-ke? Because the changes made to the character designs and because the 2nd season didn’t feel as awesome as the 1st one. I haven’t seen the 3rd season yet. Maybe I should in the future.

    As for BRS, well in my eyes it was just so darn badass and had yuri subtext between the two main protagonists. It had nothing to do with Hatsune Miku. Also, the Other World animation blew me away because it would easily fit into a video game, hence why I think they decided to make an upcoming BRS-RPG, (Please have an English version).

    You raise a good topic here Mr./Miss Yi.

    • Yi says:

      I thought Hyakko had its fair share of moe characters too, but K-On!’s Azunyan and Mio wins in that department by far. The moe factor is probably one of the biggest (if not the biggest) reason the anime took off, whereas others didn’t. It’s a shame though because I loved Hyakko.

      As for Cencoroll, it suffered from a couple of things. One is that there were barely any promotion for it. Another is, as I wrote in the post, its inability to really generate community and talk.

      I can’t actually comment too much on Minami-ke since I haven’t seen it. Honestly, I threw that title in that sentence because I needed another “slice-of-life” anime to make the post flow better. Haha.

      BRS drew me in because of all those lovely elements too! But it’s interesting to note that there are plenty of other works that also do similar things wonderfully, but that never took off like BRS did.

  5. Smithy says:

    Very interesting read and valid points. Would like to add to that what EmperorG also mentioned and which I find quite interesting.

    Out of the series mentioned, “K-ON” has thanks to Kyoto Animation’s work definitely the most solid, often splendid animation, visually enticing viewers and also hamming the cute/moe factor up for all its worth. Consider the anime character designs are far more drawn in the popular, trendy moe style than they are in Kakifly’s original manga. This may also have had an influence in its popularity (quite sure it did).

    “Hyakko” and “Minami-ke” did suffer from less good, sometimes below average production values, something that surely did not help these series take off. But looking back, in terms of slice-of-life comedy, they surely near equal “K-ON!”. Personally really liked “Hyakko” but its short run with a plot going nowhere and poor animation may have held it back from success.
    While “Minami-ke” knew more success than “Hyakko”, the inconsistencies between the different seasons and studios soon became the main point of attention most viewers focused on, becoming often oblivious to the excellent comedy. And by the time new characters like Hitomi appear they’re barely able to shine. (Hitomi was co cute and such a hoot.)

    Yet, both the “Black Rock Shooter” and “Cencoroll” OVA’s have solid animation production and only BRS really took off. Then again, it was already a popular concept before the OVA and from most reviews and opinions online I read at the time of its release was that the OVA appealed more to non-BRS fans than to those who were already avid fans of the BRS lore.

    • Yi says:

      Thanks for the long, detailed, and well thought out comment!

      The things you mentioned about K-On! – the animation, high production qualities, moe factors – are definitely the more direct and simpler answer to why K-On! took off and Hyakko/ Minami-ke didn’t. It’s kind of a shame though since the other ones have solid stories and characters as well. My post could merely point out another possible addition to the influences that led to K-On!’s success.

      As for BRS and Cencoroll, I think context makes a larger difference. Considering that most positive reviews came from people who were already fans of the franchise, it’s a bit indicative of outside influences (different communities, pixiv, figures…etc.) have on personal opinions. This is perhaps a better example of the power of context and the effect of collective opinions.

  6. Ningyo says:

    Whoa, editorial in full force! Well, that section of your site did crave population.
    So I see the Listless Ink has been running fantastically since my disappearance. Great stuff.

    I’ve attempted to write a similar piece on the mood around viewing a series that would make analysis of it subjective, but it wasn’t at all as fleshed out as what you have here. But I can only agree; seeking innovation in narrative isn’t always the road to success within our subculture, or even just pop culture in general. With an industry this fleeting, works cater to fashion, visual styles and all sorts of contemporary emotions possibly even more than plot direction and characters. Broad stroke to paint with on my part, but the scale of everything that’s already been done means everything to be done will inevitably be built on tropes.

    Well, Dr. Seuss himself sent his manuscripts to like what, sixty different publishers, before one thought it’d be a good idea? I hate to think the mood of the masses amounts to more than the genius of narrative ever will when it comes to something’s success, but.

    As for Cencoroll and BRS: I wonder if one-shot OVAs are doomed to forever have plots mired in obscurity.

    • Yi says:

      Haha yea. I tend to not write longer essays because these don’t come as easily to me as they do for other… and I’m kind of lazy. It’s nice to do commentaries once in a while though that’s not just reviews about anime.

      Exactly. I think anime is a pretty fleeting and dynamic industry. As such, so are tastes. Much like in fashion, pop culture, contemporary art, our tastes in anime are so dictated by the trends and the collective opinions, which simply feed on itself. It’s not all about innovation. If enough people call feces in a jar art, people will find it beautiful. Similarly, if enough people love moe, many of us will come to like it as well.

      Cencoroll seems to be forever obscure… Kind of like its plot. Not sure about BRS though. I thought the story was decently coherent, and if there were ever a full blown season, things should make even more sense.

  7. shinra says:

    K-ON! is of course better than other animes, 1) Full of Boke & Tsukomi, 2) High classed Seiyuus and most importantly 3) Its from KyoAni. BRS is also from KyoAni so its perfect.

    *Sisterhood is nice but I still prefer Yuri instead….

  8. Valence says:

    >BRS is from KyoAni

    Hell, I didn’t know that. I suppose I forget.

    But I think KyoAni alone generates some notoriety. People know their studio for their works, reputation is built, thus shows that come out tend to have slightly higher viewership. K-On! wasn’t instantly famous the moment it came out, but K-On!! built upon the first season’s success, and the continued success built and established an entire market on K-On! alone. BRS – who honestly has heard, or became a fan of her, before the music videos or the OVA came out? The very idea that something linked to Vocaloid being published and broadcast was good enough reason for people to watch it. More so for those who already knew about BRS. Similarly, those pre-existing fans who would have so loved to buy some goods would have the chance now. Building upon its success, its success increases and it , like K-On, starts to build an empire.

    Furthermore, you have to admit, Otaku create interest too. From all the creepy, lonely photos to bloggers, to general talk builds interest. That’s what got me into watching K-On to begin with.

    And KyoAni has great production quality. Never mind K-On or BRS wasn’t one of their best works, but nevertheless, it is popular.

  9. Nopy says:

    I have to agree with you on K-ON and BRS becoming popular because of the community. I watched K-ON, Hyakko, and Minami-ke, and out of the three I thought Minami-ke was the best, yet K-ON is the series that gets all of the attention.

    As for BRS, I admit that huke’s illustrations are great and the character designs are cool, but I was disappointed when the anime came out. Everyone was touting how great the high-quality animation was, but I simply did not see it. While the fight scenes were decent, the rest of the anime was of poor quality. I wrote an article on Forever Geek pointing out some of the numerous problems, but I still only saw people praising the animation. It seemed the mentality that BRS is a detailed and artistic series blinded people to the deficiencies in the anime.

    • Yi says:

      Opinions on BRS may have been very strongly influenced by the mood of the masses. The artwork was already extremely popular, as were the figures and the designs. The community around BRS was already built and impressions set that by the time the anime was released, many people would automatically love it.

      It is perhaps a very appropriate example (more so than K-On!) of the power of context to our viewing experience.

  10. Brett says:

    Really nice article. A lot of good points, a lot of things I can agree on completely.

    It’s pretty amazing what determines what is popular and what’s not among the anime/otaku community. To date I am still trying to figure out what it is about pixiv, Touhou, Haruhi, K-On!, and Vocaloids that have such a big influence and impact. I still don’t really understand why, but I do understand the enjoyment found in them.

    • Yi says:

      Popularity is a really complicated issue and probably involves more factors an nuances than anyone can ever realize. Like you, I don’t really understand exactly why these are so viral either, but I’m swept up in the epidemic nevertheless.

  11. lovelyduckie says:

    I’m considering watching BRS as well, why? Well I enjoy anime figures and BRS has had such a commanding presence in the figure world for so long that I’m curious to see this character in motion. I’ve never even heard of Cencoroll but then again my world is more focused on manga and figures over anime lately. BUT first a foremost the next anime I want to watch is Summer Wars! I’m beside myself with frustration that I can’t play any of the torrents I downloaded. I wish the darn movie was released on blu-ray officially over here so I could just buy it!

    • Yi says:

      I think a lot of people were really excited for the anime because of the figures, including me. There is such a large figure community, and BRS does have a commanding presence.

      By contrast, Cencoroll has little support from outside communities.

      • lovelyduckie says:

        I just finished Bakemonogatari and one of the episodes had a commercial for Cencoroll. I plan on watching Summer Wars THIS weekend, it’s taking me so long to watch this because there is someone I want to watch it with and our schedules haven’t been meeting lately.

        • Yi says:

          This reminded me that I should pick both series up soon. I have heard a lot of good things about both Summer Wars and Bakemonogatari. They’re on my list, but I just haven’t gotten a chance to watch them.

          Kind of neat to see Cencoroll in Bakemonogatari though.

          Anyways, hope you meet up with your friend soon to watch Summer Wars. ^ ^

  12. scantling says:

    As always, great article and I keep a lookout for them 🙂

    It’s sad that Hyakko gets left out because it’s a great anime series, I think it just didn’t have the push behind to get it on everybody’s radar.

    The key to K-ON! is it’s ability to draw viewers into the their world and let you make a connection to their daily lives.

    K-ON! popularity, also, stems from the ability to shape the content and be able to interact with it through music, video or art in your own way. There’s no denying the fact that K-ON! has almost 115,000 videos on YouTube. The series art and music is everywhere on Internet.

    All it took to start was Mio and “Don’t Say Lazy?”and now you have a potential $100 million dollar anime franchise

    I did a podcast and said how the K-ON! girls, basically, became like daughters which is pretty close to the definition of the “M” word.

    note: Black Rock Shooter was produced by Ordet, not Kyoani

    • Yi says:

      I agree with all the things you mentioned about K-On! It was just so accessible to all fans. It has aspects to cater to almost every kind of anime watcher, such that K-On! can easily become a huge franchise.

      “I did a podcast and said how the K-ON! girls, basically, became like daughters which is pretty close to the definition of the “M” word.”
      Ooooh, that sounds interesting. Link?

      You’re right about Ordet and BRS! I am so lost with productions and stuff. Thanks for the correction to the above comments.

  13. ~xxx says:

    I think this one was not that bad after all…

    *even though I have even watched black rock shooter*, I guess K-on! was not that bad of an anime at all despite of many bloggers hating it…

    Well, I think what people will never appreciate about k-on! was the lightness of the whole plot and story itself and even though I too was a bit disappointed because of few music inserts… I guess, in the end I really love k-on! at all.

    [so I think I need to try Black rock shooter].

    p.s. I liked k-on after I watched 2 episodes over the net.

    • Yi says:

      I love K-On! I see a lot of bloggers hate on it (for reasons like moeblob, mindless rotting… etc.) but I think the general reception to K-On! has been positive. I don’t really understand why there’s a lot of really vocal hate though.

      Anyways, I would definitely recommend checking out Black Rock Shooter. It’s a pretty rocking anime.

      • scantling says:

        A lot of the K-ON! hating comes from the anime industry mouthpieces.
        They talk positive about 4 year old anime series because they’re drawing ad revenue from Funimation and all the other anime licensing companies.
        I’m sure when they get their K-ON! review copies from Bandai, they’ll tell everybody how bad the anime is to watch and how the dub sucks etc…..

  14. AS says:

    I think one reason why something is more popular than the other is the connection it has. Kyoani made some of the most popular animes that are highly marketed and BRS was associated with the extremely hyped Miku before it’s showing. So something brand new can’t compete with something similar in terms of popularity but could get a cult following with people who go out to learn more about the less popular thing rather than go with the hype. Big companies like Kyoani also have the money to market something before their release and know how to market afterward the release as they have experience for it from their previous success.

    • Yi says:

      Yea, K-On! being made by Kyoani has a lot of huge implications. Marketing, hype, and production quality all come with Kyoani. K-On’s popularity definitely benefited a lot from simply having KyoAni’s label.
      As for BRS, its ties to Miku helped to put it on the radar for many. That alone generated much hype.

  15. necrocosmos says:

    I like this article it really touch the spot of popularity of some titles, and K-on! is queen among them by offering almost nothing gettting insane popularity. Whats the cause to this is kinda mystery, thou huge hand for it had marketing and for sure good direction of anime as well as choosing pop motive in that case moe characters which really drawn people by their charm. And for BRS obviously Hatsune Miku did all work and really good graphic motives whic i loved and many people did enjoy watching.

    • Yi says:

      The pop motive is something I didn’t consider before. K-On! does have this really fashionable charm to it, partly because of the band and partly because of the clothes. That direction certainly helps in its image and in making it relatable to a wider range of people.

      Thanks for the thought. ^ ^

  16. Reltair says:

    It’s all about the community and the viewers. Without us, anime would serve no purpose.

    After reading this, I am reminded of when I watched an episode of Gundam 00 with some friends. Definitely felt different than watching alone.

  17. Ninjovee says:

    This post actually raises a good point. Sometimes a series tends to grow on you especially if you can share the interest with others. I can certainly attest to the fact that the less you are able to share an interest with others, there will be times that the intensity of your interest will fade over time.

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  19. StayCold says:

    Man, I watched K-on! and K-On!! and re-watched them for, I think, about 5 times. Hyakko was killer, and Black Rock Shooter was one of my favorite OVAs out there. The idea of a parallel universe/dimension in which your other selves struggle to keep the other dimension in place is really a great idea. K-On is a light-hearted and hilarious anime that’s full of cute and heart-warming moments (too bad it ended T_T)
    The songs in K-On/K-On!! made my overall opinion of the series go way up. The songs add a lot of (how do I say it…), I guess emotion (?) in the story. Hyakko was not as good as the other two, but it was an OK watch-light-hearted with lots of friendship and comedy.

    • Yi says:

      I watched K-On! more than once too. I love the series. BRS is also wonderful. Both are amazing and I like the music in both. Hyakko is decent. I liked it a lot too, but it just seems like it didn’t catch on with most anime fans like K-On! has.

  20. Pingback: K-On!! – Best for Last | Listless Ink

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