K-On! Shuffle Volume 1 Manga Review

Does this spinoff of a beloved series hold up? Bill finds out!

Currently, I don’t have any tattoos, but I have considered getting some. One of the designs that I’ve thought most seriously about is the little teacup logo that Yui draws in an extra episode from one of the K-on! Season 1 blu-rays. I own the entire K-On! manga series in English, plus the special edition blu-ray set that includes the entire TV anime, the movie, the soundtrack, a supplementary book, and postcards. 

Not to mention that I genuinely don’t think I would be where I am today if not for K-On!, as crazy as that sounds. I happened to first watch the anime at a time when I was seriously doubting my choice to pursue music as a career. K-On! reminded me of the collaborative creative experience that made me love music in the first place. It awoke the little part of me that still dreamed of playing in a huge arena somewhere. I haven’t done that yet, but I am making a living playing music, and I have K-On! to thank for keeping that dream alive.

I bring all this up because I feel it is only fair that you, the reader, understand just how incredibly biased I am towards liking K-on! Shuffle, the newest entry in the franchise created by kakifly and published in English by Yen Press. My brain is primed to enjoy it, and enjoy it I did. But will you? That depends.

Manga cover of K-ON! Shuffle, Vol. 1

A big caveat

The biggest barrier to enjoyment in my opinion is that K-On! Shuffle doesn’t stand entirely on its own. It’s a spinoff/shared universe kind of thing, taking place in a middle school not far from the high school in which the original series takes place. The original series’ main characters appear only briefly and have no dialogue of any significance. Their names are barely even mentioned, but their existence is referenced repeatedly, as is a specific gag from the original series. 

Those new to the series will at best be missing out on some cute jokes, but may find themselves totally lost. As someone who wants everyone to enjoy K-On! as much as I do, this is a bit frustrating. The story and characters could function just as well in an entirely new, non-K-On! series. Including the original’s main cast is just fanservice that runs the risk of alienating curious new readers of an otherwise standalone story. Sure, newbies could always go back and read the original first. But as much as I think everyone should read the original, I don’t think you should necessarily have to.

The Good

If, however, you’re already deep in the K-On! hole, then there’s plenty for you to love about K-On! Shuffle. The art has improved, with slightly more detailed character designs than the original series, and a style that hews closer to modern anime and manga aesthetics. Structurally, the manga is still mostly 4-panel strips that focus on the characters with very little in the way of background art. But there are some more traditional manga-style passages where kakifly gets to flex a bit and play with color. If you go in expecting each page to be a stunning tapestry that belongs in the Louvre, you’ll be let down. But the character designs are cute, appealing and easy to tell apart. They suit the comic strip style perfectly fine.

Main characters Yukari and Kaede sit on stairs and discuss the concert they just saw. Yukari is saying "The music's still ringing in my ears".

The characters themselves are also distinct from the original series’ cast, if not necessarily super well-defined themselves. Shuffle does fall into some of the typical moe character archetype traps, like having an excitable girl, a sleepy girl, a glasses girl, etc. But beyond the superficial tropes, the characters’ goals and motivations are at least clear. And kakifly does go out of their way to make sure the characters are clearly not just rehashes of the original cast, and even makes some meta jokes about that.

On the topic of jokes, moe slice of life series often have a reputation for not actually having them at all, typically relying on being cute rather than being actually funny. Shuffle definitely trends that way, but that’s fine because it’s VERY cute. By which I mean that if you generally enjoy slice-of-life series, you’ll be in your element here, but you are unlikely to guffaw, heehaw, cackle, or otherwise laugh out loud.

The Better

Music manga is a uniquely hard sell in my opinion because it’s about sensory information that is impossible for the medium to convey. So accurate details in other areas, like the way instruments look or how being in a band works, are extra important. Luckily kakifly understands this, perhaps even better now than in the original series. One thing that I particularly loved about K-On! Shuffle was that it seems more invested in showing the process of practicing and creating music than the original series. There are fairly accurate depictions of actual drumming techniques, descriptions of how instruments are made, scenes of characters practicing realistically, and other details that reveal a genuine love for the subject. Kakifly even avoids one of my personal pet peeves in music manga, bizarrely drawn drum kits. All the instruments shown in this volume look true to life, drawn in a way that an actual musician might hold them, use them, or set them up. 

Main character Yukari watches as another character demonstrates the relaxed wrist required to quickly and easily swing a drumstick, saying "you should hold them lightly and work on snapping your wrist instead..."

The Verdict

For me, K-On! Shuffle is a heartwarming little throwback to a beloved series, and there’s a lot to like about it in general. But it has a pretty high bar for entry. If you already like the franchise, you will like this. If you already like the genre, this series will fit the bill, though you may miss out on some K-On!-specific bits. But it is unlikely to make any converts of non-fans. 

You can purchase K-On! Shuffle from Right Stuf, Bookshop, and Barnes and Noble.

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Story and Art: kakifly

Translation: Stephen Paul

Lettering: Rachel J. Pierce

Publisher: Yen Press

A special thank you to Yen Press for allowing us the opportunity to review this title. Receiving a review copy has in no way altered the opinions expressed in this article. All screenshots are from a digital review copy and may not reflect the final published product.

The Good

  • Cute and endearing, both visually and thematically.
  • Super accurate depictions of instruments and the creative process.

The Bad

  • If you're not already a fan of the franchise, this series will just confuse you, not convert you.

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