Well hello there, and Happy International Women’s Day! If you’re reading this on the day it was posted…or you know, annually since then.
My day’s been pretty standard as it is, and I’ve felt, as someone who strongly identifies as a feminist, and who believes society’s gender roles are a restrictive, throttling obstruction, I feel I should make some small contribution to this day. Obviously there’s no obligation, but it feels right to do so. Soooooo, this post, whilst serving another purpose (made obvious by the title) does kind of connect to the theme of today in a convoluted way that makes sense in my head at least. Please note that I may be doing more anime reviews, or indeed film reviews at a later stage, and if this is well-received, feel free to comment on what you want to me analysing.
A bit of background – Sound! Euphonium, also known as Hibike! Euphonium (the exclamation marks are present at that point for some reason) was originally a Japanese novel, which was then adapted into a manga, and more recently into a 13-episode anime series produced by Kyoto Animation, which I started fairly recently and finished only a few days ago. I have to say, I was wonderfully impressed by it. I had seen other music anime before – Love Live! School Idol Project is one that springs to mind immediately, and I had also seen a bit of K-On! before getting bored and stopping…sorry, K-On! fans…
The genre itself is one that I think, in many ways, you either like or you don’t. I happen to love musicals (except maybe Grease), and even jukebox musicals, the genre which makes use of existing songs for it’s musical numbers, can have a charm to them if used in the right context, in something like Fox’s musical dramedy Glee. But more on that another time. In the case of music anime, they tend to be focused around certain genre of music – K-On! was about light music, whereas Love Live was very explicitly and obviously about idols. This one concerns classical music and concert music, which is something I haven’t immersed myself in before, but I do enjoy the genre of music, so I was willing to give it a go. But what really grasped me is the story itself.
Our protagonist is a bright young spark, a first-year high school student called Kumiko Oumae. She has a history of playing brass instruments, specifically the euphonium, but questions her dedication and ability to be swayed by the opinions of others. She joins her school’s orchestral music club along with two friends she makes – one, a chirper beginner at music with a slightly tomboyish style named Hazuki Katou, and a soft-spoken contrabass player named Sapphire Kawashima, though understandably she prefers to be called ‘Midori.’ However, a few problems are afoot with the club – firstly, Kumiko is reunited with Reina Kousaka, a girl she knew from her old school who was reduced to tears when their concert band was unsuccessful in a competition and was highly indignant at Kumiko’s dismissal. Kumiko is uncertain how to act around her, and is seemingly reminded of her own issues with her personality when encountered with her. Reina herself seems to act aloof and indifferent, and focuses on her trumpet expertise. The other issue concerns the new instructor to the group – a professional who seems very serene and smilingly polite, is revealed to be very blunt and unapologetic about his criticisms and the groups rustiness. Most of the story concerns the band ascending to improve themselves, partially in indignation, and also for many of the members to resolve any personal issues they may have throughout the process.
One thing that really stands out to me about the quality of this show is the characters. Let’s start with Kumiko herself. Knowing what I did about music anime and female characters in school-related anime in general, I was expecting Kumiko to be cast from the same mould – the high-pitched, cheerful, naive everygirl who has a ditzy personality and the strong intent to never offend, who gets bad grades on top of that. All anime fans know the type of character – people like Yui Hirasawa, Honoka Kosaka, Nagisa Aoi, Madoka Kaname, all very much the same archetype. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad or unlikeable characters. Madoka, I think, has a character type that works very well for the series she’s in, but I’m indifferent to Yui and whilst I don’t really dislike Honoka or Nagisa, they’re far from the most interesting characters in their respective series (Love Live and Strawberry Panic). The problem is, as I’ve said, you’ve seen this character so many times you just find them boring. In this sense Kumiko was a pleasant surprise. I think I first noticed her distinction when she first arrived at her new school and saw the concert band giving a performance outside the school to welcome new arrivals. They gave a fairly standard display of their talents, and Kumiko’s first reaction was to say to herself: ‘Wow…they suck.’
Perhaps is because she’s based off a character from a novel, but Kumiko’s character strikes me as a lot more three-dimensional than a lot of other protagonists. Whilst she’s not entirely well-spoken and is swayed by others, she nevertheless knows her own mind and is far from polite when she needs to express it, and whilst she’s quick to judge the quality of some people and how the perform, her own insecurities come bubbling up to the surface in a very realistic way. She doesn’t just say, ‘oh, I’m no good’ and apologises a lot, she’s quite angry and adamant about it and seems to convince herself that there’s not much point in getting other people to help her – that this is a mountain she should climb herself. Self-determination and the goal to be the best sets her apart from the aforementioned female protagonist archetype, who don’t tend to have much of a goal at all. For this reason, she’s very entranced by Reina, who’s another interesting character.
Kumiko’s and Reina’s relationship is definitely one of the main selling points of this anime too…and when I say relationship, well…
I didn’t edit this, this is an actual screenshot from the series, subtitles and all.
It’s interesting, because in the original book, Kumiko has a romantic subplot with a childhood friend of hers, a guy named Shuichi, who’s also part of the music club and plays the trombone. It seems obvious to me the that the overseers of the anime and possibly the manga too had a very different ship in mind. And…yeah, I ship it too. Shuichi’s role is reduced to supporting and it bigs up the romantic subtext between Kumiko and Reina, so much so that Sound! Euphonium is firmly in the ranks of those anime which aren’t technically yuri (female-female love), but much like Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Love Live, the subtext is so strong that it might as well be.
The thing is, their relationship does really work. Kumiko has big ideas, but nevertheless feels tied to people’s perceptions, and whilst she wishes to break free from that, still feels guilty if she thinks she’s upset someone. Reina is single-minded in her ideas of self-improvement, and whilst talented, she seems to know that she’s an elitist. She admits that she likes Kumiko because she has a ‘horrible personality’ but was concerned about being awarded the solo trumpet part at their upcoming competition, as she’ll be depriving a much loved popular third-year student of that opportunity, and that she’ll be ‘a villain.’ Kumiko’s response? ‘Then I’ll be a villain with you! Also Reina, I think I really want to finger y-‘
Are they bad for each other? Well, maybe not – Kumiko constantly tells Reina that she wants to be ‘special’ like her, and is an obvious point of accomplishment for her. Perhaps in more ways than one…
What’s more, Reina becomes a lot less frosty with everyone as the series progresses, largely because she has Kumiko as a morality pet, someone who’ll shut up and listen for a few minutes and who is willing to do what other people want of her, even if she’s not shy to give her opinions. Whilst I’ll be the first to admit I wished they kissed at some point, perhaps a very strong platonic bond is far better for terms of a decent, developed, female character. See me trying to make a loose connection here…?
Kumiko rejects most of Shuichi’s advances in the series, displaying, first and foremost, that she has interests outside of getting a guy, which is sadly a flaw of many female leads in anime (and everything else really) in the past. We’re looking at you, Sakura Haruno. It’s not just Kumiko and Reina who are different in this regard – the majority of the members of the music club are girls, and most character development seen from their perspectives are unrelated to the few boys in their group. Hell, Shuichi is the only guy that ever really does anything. And this, to me, reflects an evolving world. Debatable? Well, feel free to say what you think, but I love Kumiko and Reina’s ambition, and I love everyone else’s habit of not being tied down by what restricted their gender in the past, both in fiction and reality. There’s even a scene in which Kumiko’s close friend Hazuki, whom I briefly mentioned, invites Shuichi, whom she has a crush on, to one of those staple Japanese festivals that seem to crop up in a lot of anime series. (Kumiko, of course, was up the hill with Reina.) She confesses her feelings to him at this festival, to which he awkwardly replies he doesn’t feel that way. Her reaction? She sucks it up and says, stubbornly, that with that out of the way, she’s going to try and get him and Kumiko together, as it’s obvious he’s into her. No moping, no anger vented towards Kumiko, this girl reacted a hell of a lot better than I would have done.
Most of the other characters are reasonably standard, but they’re all likeable enough. There’s no character I dislike, and some really stand out as being very memorable and some of my favourites. I’ve already talked about Kumiko and Reina, but there’s also Taki, the music instructor I mentioned. What’s interesting about him is his blunt delivery – he wastes no time on telling anyone who’s struggling or not keeping up that they should practice or else they won’t be good enough for their competition. He’s kind of ruthless in this regard, and yet at the same time, he’s polite, soft-spoken, unabashedly democratic and fair, and, nearer the end, expresses a great pride at how far everyone’s come. And he is a main driving force as well – naturally, many band members feel resentment towards him, and resentment that drives them to improve themselves.
Another character that really stands out and might be my favourite is Asuka – she’s the vice-president of the music club, and, much like Taki, you never entirely know what she’s thinking. At first, she’s quite loud, energetic, and very eager to induct girls into her section of the band, in a way that once again brings to yuri undertones bubbling to the surface. It really doesn’t help that she keeps on talking about fingering. In regards to holding brass instruments, of course…
But as time goes on, it’s revealed that she’s a little more complex than that. A lot of people constantly ask why she doesn’t opt for president of the group, as she has the kind of charisma. She replies that such a position doesn’t interest her, and it seems to me that her reasoning may simply be she’s very good and noticing people’s strengths and insecurities, and prods them in the right direction ever so subtly. She just enjoys it that way. Whilst she is a cornerstone of the band, she’s definitely not someone to cross.
What else can I say about the series? The art is gorgeous and very real-looking, the musical moments are wonderful. I still listen to the opening theme constantly. I also love the tone of the story. Things like Love Live were very much about comradery, and whilst there’s definitely elements of that, there’s much more of a steer towards the message of perseverance and personal accomplishment, something that you feel in both the characters you’ve got to know, and the atmosphere created. When they’re performing in front of an audience, I feel the ringing nervous silence proceeding the performance in the same vain, thrown back to my recent performance in a showcase, and my not as recent performance in a musical – I feel this as the characters do, it captures it very well.
I can’t think of much wrong with this series, other than occasionally it does move a little slowly. I found some story points in some episodes being milked for a little too long, but this is nullified in the later episodes, and the fact that I rushed to finish is telling that it certainly isn’t boring. Ultimately, I would recommend this to anyone, particularly if you like music anime. In my opinion, it’s 13-episodes-worth of your time worth giving up.
So, thanks for reading this, give me your opinions in comments either here, or if you’re coming here from a link on other social media I have, that’s also fine to comment on there. And as a special treat, before I finish off here, here’s more of Kumiko and Reina:
All images belong to their respective owners.