Remember how I've complained in the past about how K-ON has always had a habit of depriving us of the action whenever it has come to the band's concerts and school festivals, preferring instead to focus on the build-up to and aftermath of those concerts? Not this time - at long last, this franchise has nailed the importance of live performances to the show's entire raison d'être... and how.
What this means is that this entire episode focuses on Ho-kago Tea Time's latest school culture festival performance, giving us only a brief glimpse of those final last minute preparations before the girls go out on stage and pick up their instruments. It's as the curtain rises on the band that we realise this isn't "just another concert", as we look out upon a sea of students all wearing HTT t-shirts just like the girls themselves - a beautiful moment of celebration which catches in the throats of not just the band members, but also the viewer if my reaction is anything to go by.
Recovering from that surprise, we eventually launch into the concert itself, a blend of new songs (two to be precise, or three if you count the sound of cash registers across Japan once the singles are released) and the kind of goofy stage banter which only Yui and company could pull off, complete with ever-more meandering tangents and shouts from the audience. Indeed, the audience is a key part of this concert experience which adds hugely to the atmosphere of the episode - be it the camera flashes, cheering or mobile phones used as impromptu glow sticks, you're never allowed to forget that this event is something special, a memory that you would expect to stick in the hearts of all those present.
It's only once the whole thing is over though that the truth quietly, slowly dawns on both viewer and band member... for all bar Azusa that was it, the end of a three-year journey that sometimes sped by so fast you can barely remember anything about it other than the fact that it was a whole lot of fun. The realisation that these days can't and won't last forever ends, inevitably, in tears; a bitter-sweet blend of joy and sadness that is poignantly, beautifully and (perhaps most importantly) realistically realised.
As emotional moments in anime goes, this has to rank up there amongst the most masterful - a climax to an episode which was built up slowly, carefully and deliberately by allowing us to soak up the atmosphere and the sensations of the moments depicted while also looking over its shoulder at the time and memories gone by. Our heads filled with this heady mixture of nostalgia and wonder, we're given just enough time for those thoughts to sink in before the killer blow comes - those moments are gone, and we can never truly relive them again (because you know watching this episode or even this series a second time again won't feel the same). It made me cry... it's still making me cry; it was an episode that moved me as much as it entertained me while reminding my brain of similar moments in my own life - those school leaving parties which started out as celebration but ended in tears, hugs and a ridiculous determination not to let that part of your life ever end, with the light music club girls holding up a mirror to my own feelings on those occasions. To do this in such a believable and evocative way is not far short of genius - if you thought that K-ON was a pointless show about a whole lot of nothing, this is the episode that proved you wrong.