U&I: How K-ON! Helped Me Live A Lost Girlhood

image: Kyoto Animation

I’ve tried to learn guitar three different times, and I gave up all three times.

The first time came with an unremarkably average story: at age 12, I became deeply obsessed with Guitar Hero at the height of its popularity. I begged my parents to get me a beginner’s acoustic guitar and a lesson book, but they only agreed if I would stick with it and take one-on-one lessons.

What I remember of this, as with most memories in the haze of unconscious adolescent dysphoria, is faint: frustrated attempts to memorize chords and basic strumming techniques. My small hands failed to wrap around the fretboard, and my weak fingers couldn’t properly press down on the strings or keep up with chord changes.

I started skipping practice more often, and playing at all soon felt like a chore. But I never got rid of the guitar. I hung onto it, occasionally pulling it out to pretend I had more finesse with it than I did. I jotted down stream-of-consciousness lyrics set to the most rudimentary power chords on index cards and stuffed them into the guitar case. Those cards became the only record of my ambitions—my hopes that picking up this instrument would amount to some great future.

I still have this guitar—I’ve kept it through every move, no matter how tight space gets or how short I am on money. It sits in my closet, rarely ever touched, the index cards scribbled with lyrics still tucked inside the case. A part of me can’t ever bear to get rid of it.

***

“Instruments!”—the second episode of Kyoto Animation and director Naoko Yamada’s adaptation of Kakifly’s manga K-ON!—tells a different story. Clumsy, airheaded first-year high schooler Yui Hirasawa (voiced by Aki Toyosaki) doesn’t know how to play guitar—or even own a guitar, for that matter—but that doesn’t stop her from joining the Light Music Club as their guitarist anyway. Her friends in the club recommend that she choose something around 50,000 yen for her first guitar, but she’s instantly drawn to a cherry sunburst Les Paul that costs five times as much.

I never made it anywhere close to where Yui ends up: she buys her ideal Les Paul and affectionately names it Geeta; she learns her instrument well enough that she writes and performs several songs by the show’s conclusion. She finds friends like her who make her feel supported and loved in her endeavors. Yui Hirasawa feels like a version of me that may have existed in another reality—one who embraced her aspirations, kept to her practices, and found a purpose to her playing. Because she doesn’t go it alone; her friends in the Light Music Club are always by her side, propping her up onstage, never letting her go this path as a guitarist alone.

In another life, I find myself thinking as I watch K-ON! for the first time, I would have had friends like those to support my beginnings on guitar. I recognize, almost immediately, the unspoken sentiment in that wish—that what I really wanted was friends like the girls I saw onscreen.

***

I spent most of my school years a lonely kid. In middle school, something in the way I acted flipped—or, maybe, everyone else shifted—and I found myself cast out of what few social circles I was begrudgingly included in. To this day, one of my most lasting memories of 6th grade was walking into the cafeteria during lunch and finding the usual group I sat on the outskirts of—only to have them tell me that they didn’t want me around. It was the age where everyone started to get that self-conscious conception of what constituted “being cool,” and my presence was a consequence that didn’t fit into that picture. I had always been awkward, withdrawn, and a social ghost, but there was a difference between being kept at the edges of a friend group and pushed out of it entirely.

Other than a neighborhood friend from Sunday School, almost everyone I had been friends with through middle school was a boy. It was just the natural order of things. That was just the mindset drilled into someone raised to be a boy—that the “normal” way of socializing would be surrounding yourself solely with others who shared your gender. On the rare occasions I found myself trying to spend time with friends I had who were girls, it was always read into as something else, like I was developing a childhood crush. To me, these friendships were indistinguishable from the ones I had with boys my age.

The thing is, even when you can’t explain that you’re missing a fundamental way of exploring who you are, it doesn’t stop you from feeling compelled by it regardless. We’re drawn to what we need when we’re most in search of explanation. And I slowly started finding myself in search of an answer for why I felt more at home with the few friends I had who were girls than I ever was with the boys who barely paid me mind.

***

The curious thing about how well Yui excels at guitar is that she’s not a rigorous tryhard when it comes to practice. Her routines are inconsistent at best, her knowledge of the technicals all but nonexistent. Her friends in the Light Music Club—shy and jumpy bassist/vocalist Mio Akiyama (Yōko Hikasa), brash and energetic drummer Ritsu Tainaka (Satomi Satō), sweetly wide-eyed keyboardist Tsumugi Kotobuki (Minako Kotobuki), and the studious but youthful rhythm guitarist Azusa Nakano (Ayana Taketatsu)—remark and wonder how Yui can so readily play and perform while slacking off all the time. But they soon learn that the time they idly spend together—after they set their instruments down—is perhaps the most vital element of their coalescence as a band.

The quiet magic of K-ON! is in its embrace of the moments in between, and the familiar joy of sharing these moments with those you love. Most of the episodes focus on almost anything but the act of creating, practicing, and performing music. K-ON! is much more likely to devote time to how the girls spend their holiday leisure time (“Winter Days!”), deal with extreme heat (“Hot!), struggle to run a marathon race up a steep hill (“Marathon Tournament!”), rehearse for a performance of Romeo and Juliet (“Leading Role!”), or scheme to give Tsumugi (Mugi) the subtextually intimate experience of being hit in the head by another girl (“Summer Training!”). In the fleeting spurts where Hokago Tea Time—the name the Light Music Club chooses for their band—face a specifically musical challenge, the emphasis is always on how the group holds each other close through it, and how each moment they share together inevitably deepens their bonds as friends above all else.

As K-ON! progresses, a familiar comfort begins to emerge in the way that any given episode will settle into the rhythms of the girls’ dynamics. The typical beats arrive like clockwork—Yui and Ritsu will goof off together or commit themselves to an exaggerated bit; Mugi will become enamored with something ordinary she’s never experienced in her wealthy upbringing, like fast food or novelty keyboard presets; Ritsu will tease Mio about her squeamish scaredy-cat aversion to horror stories and barnacles; Mio will get back at Ritsu with a slap or punch played for a laugh. Practices—or whatever exists in their place—will get regularly interrupted by lovingly detailed shots of the club’s desserts and teas during their downtime, taking on a similarly cozy inevitability, as if inviting us to partake in all this food and drink alongside the Light Music Club. The predictability never becomes stale, though. On the contrary, it becomes a joy to be greeted with these routine pleasures, not unlike the kinship that comes from sharing in-jokes with friends, rituals that might as well be another language to any outsider. In a way, we viewers become an invisible sixth friend, let in on these otherwise private gestures and interactions. The insubstantial becomes substantial; our observation makes it so.

Shortly after she joins the Light Music Club, Azusa finds herself perplexed by how Hokago Tea Time is able to sound as strong as they do in their live performances, despite often sidelining practices to indulge in sampling cake and going on beach retreats. Sensing her puzzlement, Mio says, “I bet there will be times where we slack off and drink tea or whatever, but I think that time is crucial for us.”

***

I tried picking up guitar for the second time during my freshman year of high school. Aware of how easily I let things slip the previous time, I took an elective class on beginner guitar that would last half the year in the hopes that a more regular discipline with keeping up for a grade would help drill the basics into me.

For a time, the consistency of these classes was enough. I found myself gaining a better understanding of scales and power chords, and my strumming technique began improving. I still struggled with chords—namely, navigating tricky changes with my fingers on short notice and arching my touch so each string would resonate cleanly when strummed. But it was more than I had managed before, and that was enough in the moment.

At home, with my redoubled attention to the instrument, I convinced my parents to let me buy an electric guitar this time—a Washburn X-12, with a wavy orange pattern that hypnotized me—and a cheap miniature amp. The guitars set aside for class—acoustic-electric models with small holes dotting the edge of the bodies—were equal parts alluring and alienating, unlike anything I had seen before. Something about the Washburn called to me as a contrast to what I had picked up at school, but its novelty soon wore off, and I began losing interest in it too.

Shortly after the elective ended, my amp at home broke. The Washburn got picked up less. I still jotted down slapdash lyrics—this time, in a notebook—and would set them to my best Nirvana-esque simple power chord progressions. I even sequenced hypothetical albums on the page, stringing together a narrative in my head through words that barely said much of anything.

As the practices began fading again, and I grew tired and self-conscious of playing the same riffs within earshot of the rest of my family, I shuttered this guitar away as well. It, too, still sits in my closet—untouched, unplayed, its strings clangy and rusty. It’s just as much a piece of what made me, even if it hasn’t felt my love for years now.

***

Time operates at its own speed in K-ON! Though the anime only lasts two seasons and a movie, it spans the entirety of its older club members’ three years of high school. Yui, Mio, Ritsu, and Mugi’s first two years are especially slippery, condensed into the fourteen episodes that make up the show’s first season. Milestones pass by offscreen. Months elapse in the matter of a cut. With each passing episode, we find the Light Music Club growing up and grow closer, imperceptibly so. We feel the sense of time’s passage, faster than we can ever register.

In the show’s second season, the animation puts an increasing emphasis on how light pours in through the practice room windows, casting gentle shadows on the girls. Here, visually, familiar spaces get reshaped over time, taking on their own bittersweet form of warmth and fondness—a color palette of soft reds and oranges to invite us into the languid, cozy atmosphere, even as the sun is literally setting on the girls’ time together in high school.

This, in turn, is where the show’s greatest resonance lies. As K-ON! nears its end, there grows a palpable sense of looming change—four members of the Light Music Club are set to leave behind the high school that brought them together, while the younger Azusa is still there for another year. Though most of the band eventually decide they want to stay together and go to the same university, there’s no shaking that the series’s ending brings a close to this particular chapter of the girls’ lives. After graduation, there’s no returning to the Light Music Club, or to Hokago Tea Time as they made it.

If K-ON! is a series about the ties we build with our dearest loved ones just through their presence, it’s also a series about how time makes whatever fleeting memories we share with those same people all the more precious. No singular time in our lives is forever, and neither is any single memory of someone we cherish. There’s a complicated, unspoken tenderness that comes with how K-ON!’s nature—slice-of-life and comedic—is woven into its own poignance. We get so swept up in the small, seemingly insignificant moments of levity that the cumulative emotional fondness sneaks up on us only when these moments have long since passed.

K-ON! is one of the only pieces of media I’ve encountered that actually mimics what it’s like to feel memories drift into nostalgia with enough time, and its grip on my heart is only tighter knowing that the memories it’s speaking to were ones I never quite lived.

***

In the aftermath of my middle school social ostracization, I found myself pushing more aggressively into masculine pursuits, in the futile hopes that this would win back some social standing with the boys whose favor I still didn’t understand my reasons for courting. Gone were the days of me picking up my guitar or practicing the violin I spent five years incrementally learning; my days, instead, were filled with football practice and wrestling. It didn’t take long for me to feel like an outsider in these activities too, and I gave up whatever attempts I made into sports and machismo within the course of a year.

In high school, I withdrew into myself completely. It becomes especially easy to internalize a sense of wrongness about yourself when you’ve been told that those around you want nothing to do with you, and I grew cynical about myself, even as I made new friends. Two of these were girls who shared classes with me, and had similar personalities to my own—nerdy and quietly goofy, but more outgoing than I had been in years. Occasionally, our free periods would overlap, and we’d take command of a frequently empty study room in the library, sequestering ourselves from the rest of the school as we’d joke, mindlessly gab, and otherwise do anything but actually study or work on homework like we’d planned.

At some point, one of my only male friends caught me in the hallway and asked me if I was spending time with my female friends because I had crushes on them. The thought never crossed my mind before. What could I have said in that moment, when what I wanted most was simply the comfort and belonging a surrogate sisterhood could provide?

It’s a strange thing, these friendships, as I think about them now. These girls are some of the only acquaintances I’m still connected with from this era of my past self—all the others either eroded via the passage of time or those I’d silently burned bridges with shortly before I came out as trans. But I only ever really hung out with these girls at school, in the moments when we chose to bide our time. I was still far too self-conscious about myself to do otherwise—to invite them over after classes ended for the day, or to tag along wherever they may have gone after the last bell rang. We made meaning out of the most meaningless pieces of the day. And yet, I always felt at arm’s distance, like I was holding myself back from bonding with them in the truest sense I could. There was only so much I could feel like I was having girlhood friendships when no one involved—not even myself—saw me as a girl. 

***

The last time I found myself seriously attempting to learn guitar didn’t involve lessons of any kind. In the midst of packing for my first year at college and combing through all the belongings I had amassed in my childhood bedroom, I felt like I couldn’t leave either of my guitars behind, even if it had been ages since my last dalliances with them. I ended up taking both, along with another miniature amp that—before long—also broke within a matter of months. I expected to be the kind of freshman that sat in my dorm room on sunny afternoons and weekends, propping the door open, strumming out an arpeggio that entered my head or the chords to some indie song that rattled around my skull. But, as fresh meat in a space shared with a couple dozen peers—some of whom were actual, practiced guitarists—self-consciousness about my skill and embarrassment about the music I was writing gripped me again.

Sometimes, I would sneak away—to the seclusion of the campus radio station I haunted, or to an overlooked basement classroom inexplicably grafted onto one of the residential buildings—with one of my guitars in its case, slung across my back, and try to give myself more privacy to find my way around the instrument. I would pick out the barest semblance of a riff, jot down new lyrics in virtual documents on my phone, and maybe even walk away with something I told myself would be worth coming back to someday.

I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve broken out one of these guitars since my college days ended. They’re both in bad shape now, warped by countless changes in seasons, with worn-away strings that haven’t been changed in at least a decade. For some reason, though, I find their unattended antiquity part of their charm, a physical sign of them as objects of memory. They carry in their bodies the weathered marks of tokens cherished in my mind, even if my actions weren’t as attentive. In a sense, I’ve always held a bittersweet fondness of the promise they held—a version of me that has long since faded, yet indelible on the girl I’ve become.

***

There are a number of K-ON! episodes I count among my favorites: the aforementioned “Winter Days!,” which trades in the core quintet’s dynamics for an atmosphere of pure tranquility, following each of the girls on a separate adventure in the thrum of the colder season; “Summer Festival!,” where the typically shy Mio gets to be her most excitable self in the heart of a large music festival; and “Yet Another School Festival!,” where the bittersweet realization of time’s passage finally hits the girls, and they tear up as it sinks in that they’re experiencing many of their high school milestones for the last time.

But the one that always lands the closest to home for me is the third episode in K-ON!’s second season: “Drummer!” The premise is simple, as many of the show’s episodes are—Ritsu develops reservations about being at the very back of the band’s stage setup, feeling obscured by the girls in front of her—and the proceeding hijinks of her attempting to play the others’ instruments are as lighthearted as anything else in the show. But she ends up coming back around to drums in the end, bolstered by her love of Keith Moon and a knowledge that—like him—she can still find ways to stand out with her instrument of choice, even if she’s not front and center.

Though my girlfriend and I frequently joke that there’s a little bit of everyone in the Light Music Club in all of us, it’s Ritsu’s loudmouthed, hyper-passionate energy that feels the most wholly aligned with my personality. It’s her overzealous attitude toward the people and things she loves that I share. Like her, when I find a song I love with all my heart or a frantic beat that I can’t shake, my excitement overflows, and I have to let it out of my system. Ritsu Tainaka is a love letter to the girls who can’t contain their enthusiasm and don’t want to. She’s a reminder that even the biggest gestures of friendship can be achingly tender.

There’s another reason “Drummer!” is pivotal to me. Toward the end of my time in college, after nearly a decade on and off with guitars, I found myself drawn to drummers more than ever. They were all I could focus on in the music I pored over; they were where my eyes would naturally land at a great concert. I grew enamored with going out to shows just to watch the wild movements of the most energetic performers, the ways their sticks would sweep across a kit like a hurricane in miniature. I began obsessing over the finesse of the most technical players, mesmerized by the ways they could command even the trickiest song structures or syncopations. I couldn’t take my eyes off the frantic chaos that Greg Saulnier of Deerhoof brought to even the most minimal kit, or the hardcore ferocity that John Stanier applied to rigorously tight math rock in Battles. I found fixating just as much on Joe Easley of The Dismemberment Plan’s complex flurries in uncommon time signatures and breakneck tempos as I could on Mimi Parker of Low’s sparse, controlled grasp on atmosphere. A great drummer, I soon came to realize, is a magnetic force. Regardless of how far back they are on a stage, the strongest drummers hold all the energy in the room. They’re the star around which all the other players revolve, the beat by which all others follow.

Soon after I took notice of my love of drums, I found myself idly tapping out patterns and beats—at my desk, against the steering wheel, in my lap or with my feet as my attention wandered in the middle of class. I learned that my campus’s performing arts center had a practice room with a kit and offered one-on-one lessons, and I decided to sign up, with the abandon of a senior who would try anything once before the chance faded.

As soon as I got behind the kit, even with the feeling that I was shaky and rigid and still had a ways to go before I could be any kind of credible drummer, the basics—even the awkward beginner stage—felt more natural than anything that came before. Practicing sticking patterns and paradiddles, slamming out rudimentary 4/4 beats, and testing the sloppiest and slowest fills I could muster, I felt at home. Better yet, I felt eager to be there—a passion that quickly spilled into a habit of seeking out the practice room during free hours of the night to jam to my heart’s content.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried hard enough at guitar. It was that I was always a drummer at heart, trying my hardest to play my part on something never suited to my style.

***

Watching K-ON! as a transfeminine adult is a glimpse into another life I could have led, like being let into the adolescent girlhood friendships that were always just out of arm’s reach. The way others perceived my gender hovered over every bond I shared with girls growing up; K-ON! simply let me live those ties through observation. Yamada’s invitation to sit in on these girls’ time together is like sharing sacred little rituals. Here, I could indulge in the things I never got to share with female best friends in my teenage years—tea time and dessert samplings, giggly chatter and teasing in-jokes. Shopping trips and vacations. Warm hugs and comfort through shared tears.

As trans women, our presence among cis women as we grow up is fraught by nature—a question of our intentions, as if we don’t merely want what any other woman wants in platonic companionship. We try so hard to find ways into these alien bonds, ones that we’re raised to see as abnormal for our gender, and we’re so often met with judgment for why “boys” like us would want any part in the particular—often, more overtly intimate—ways we see girls interact in their friendships. K-ON! lets us live these moments without any judgment. Its kind-heartedness and eagerness to depict the unexceptional provokes an unexpected side effect: the show becomes a vessel for vicarious inclusion.

Not long after I started transitioning, I began seeing trans women online sing K-ON!’s praises, waxing poetic about what it meant to them and how it felt like rekindling a lost girlhood. The woman who would later become my girlfriend was among this crowd, and, when we started dating, she quickly convinced me to start watching the show after she sent me the song “Fude Pen ~Ball Pen~.” I immediately took to it, loving how playful and unapologetically girly it was. At that time in early 2021, I was in a tenuous place with my transition. It had begun just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and I found myself at a stark social remove, my ability to form female friendships to make up for lost time effectively kneecapped. In K-ON!, I not only got to feel like I was living those friendships in spite of my isolation, but I also felt a connection—a deeper, personal understanding—with the trans women I’d come to know online and associate with the show.

I recognize my experiences with K-ON! as a trans woman are anything but unique to me, and in many ways resemble the same fawning words from many trans women that spurred me to watch the show in the first place. It’s this kind of shared bond with the same anime that only sharpens K-ON!’s power, and so I found myself reaching out to other transfemme friends to better understand what made the series so special to them. (After all, isn’t it fitting—when talking about a show centered on the intimate bonds between girls—to hold space for the girls in my life who helped teach and guide me to be the woman I am now?)

The resounding response was one of enthusiastic passion; I could feel just how treasured and dear K-ON! was to everyone I messaged, just from the eagerness in each friend’s tone—the reverence with which they told me how much it had meant to them. Writer Willow Catelyn Maclay messaged me the following about the show’s place as a kind of shared experience:

When my friend Carol Grant, who is more like a sister, visited me for the first time, she was desperate to show me K-ON! because she believed our relationship to be close in the same way these girls are close. That evening we had a sleepover, because she had never had one, and truth be told, neither had I, and we watched the sleepover episode (“Staying Behind!”) to christen that evening. K-ON! is a fantasy of girlhood. It is warm, dreamy, perfect, but contains realistic notes of sadness in the way it uses nostalgia. For myself, and probably for other trans women, K-ON! acts as a substitute for a displaced girlhood that was compromised due to closeting. We live vicariously through their memories, and sometimes, make our own by reflecting back the images in that series in our own lives.

It occurs to me that I haven’t written at all about the music of K-ON! In a sense, that’s fitting for a series about the meaning beneath the music itself—how music is just one conduit for bringing people closer. But one song in the series lingers with me, because it’s about this very idea.

Toward the end of the series, Yui’s younger sister Ui—the de facto caregiver and cook of the two of them—gets sick, leaving Yui to reflect on what her sibling means to her. The song that results, “U&I,” is one of K-ON!’s sweetest—more than just a touching ode from one sister to another, carrying a tenderness that fits any bond worth celebrating, any person you want to hold tight in your life. In Yui’s lyrics—“Just having you by my side / Always gave me the courage I needed / I wanna be with you forever and ever”—I recognize the tangible ache I’ve felt about my closest transfemme friends, the perpetual urge to keep them as close as possible. I had gone so long without them that their mere presence feels like a revelation.

It’s never too late to find our closest friends—our sisters—each of us wandering all our lives, in search of the girls with whom we share the most harmony.