Series Review: Sound! Euphonium

Kyoto Animation and novelist Takeda Ayano make beautiful music together.

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Sound! Euphonium is the story of a high school concert band trying to figure out who it wants to be. Are its members content to hang out for a couple hours after class, making friends and fooling around? Or are they willing to set and work towards goals, to find something they want and go after it with everything they have?

New conductor and band teacher Taki poses this question to the group in the second episode, but it’s really the question for the story’s protagonist, the seemingly apathetic and directionless freshman Oumae Kumiko. A euphonium player all through middle school, she begins high school uncertain if she’ll even join the band, and when she does, she shies away from her old instrument. Kumiko spends the first half of the series struggling to commit, to figure out if she wants to be a euphonium player or someone who just happens to play the euphonium. If she, like Reina, the trumpet player with whom she develops an increasingly intimate relationship, wants to be “special” or not.

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And this, in essence, is the story at the heart of all the characters and conflicts: What is the band to you personally, what are your goals as a member of it, and what are you willing to do in order to achieve those goals? In many ways Euphonium reminds me of Ping Pong in its focus (although not its tone), as both are shows interested in that moment in adolescence when we start to think seriously not just about what we’re doing but about why we’re doing it.

Not everyone arrives at the same place. Some quit to pursue other interests, some focus more on the group than their individual performances (or vice versa), and some learn the difficult lesson that hard work doesn’t always lead to success. But they take similar paths to get there, and Euphonium handles them all with sensitivity, intelligence, and a fair amount of grace.

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Euphonium nails the feeling of being a part of a concert band (or really, any group activity), handling issues both social and personal and never shying away from monotonous realism, often devoting large portions of its episodes to Kumiko and her friends struggling through long, repetitive practice sessions. Yet Eupho is never dreary, but instead pensive and wistful, its instruments forever shining and its characters frequently bathed in golden sunsets and lengthening shadows meant to evoke dreamlike nostalgia. It’s a high school memory, but a fairly honest one, focusing as much on the moments of frustration or failure as it does the bursts of joy, human connection, and success.

While the background and instrument art is lovely, where KyoAni really shines is in the character motions and expressions. Euphonium is a story that trusts its audience to read physical cues and subtext, and a tremendous amount of information is conveyed through pointed looks, hand gestures, and even tiny shifts in posture.

It’s a deeply physical, almost sensual story, and image blends with sound to the point where you can practically feel the brass in your hands, the bouncy ponytails at your back, and the sweat dripping off your chin. Credit the animation team for putting so much time into making everything dynamic and natural, and credit to director Ishihara Tatsuya (Clannad, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) for knowing how to portray a character through their movements as well as their words.

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Euphonium struggles in its middle episodes as it falls into KyoAni patterns of semi-aimless cute girl shenanigans, losing focus and momentum in the process, but it kicks back into overdrive beginning with the hypnotic Episode 8, a festival story that builds to a frank, intimate, and gorgeous scene between Kumiko and Reina, as the two come to better understand one another and realize they have far more in common than they once thought.

The renewed focus on Kumiko and Reina gives the series (and Kumiko herself) much clearer direction in its third act, as conflicts carry real weight and character interactions crackle with tension both explicit and implied. It also doesn’t hurt that Kumiko and Reina’s own relationship is downright electric, charging all of their scenes with an intensity as sensual as everything else in this lushly drawn series.

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Euphonium is on its A-game from pretty much there to the end, rarely skipping a beat as it propels its story, characters, and adolescent themes through conflicts, confessions, and eventually the competition itself, an extended performance that dominates the final episode and leads the story to its conclusion.

And yes, I’m sticking with that word: “conclusion.” A lot of people suspect we’ll be getting a season two or a film somewhere down the road, and we might. But, personally, I hope we don’t. I’m happy with this ending, as I think it wraps up Kumiko’s (and the band’s) central character arc(s) without feeling the need to tie a neat bow on everything. High school and band (and romantic) life will go on for these kids, with all the highs and lows that entails, and that’s as it should be. The piece goes on but the movement has come to a close. A few stuttered notes aside, it proved to be a memorable one.

Series Grade: A-

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19 thoughts on “Series Review: Sound! Euphonium

    • Because of when and how the story ends, it actually reads more like the two girls are in the beginnings of a legit romantic relationship than like typical KyoAni queerbaiting. Yeah, one of them admits to having a crush on the teacher at one point, but the next few episodes are so rife with sexual tension and flirting between her and the other girl that her “confession” doesn’t feel like a sunk ‘ship so much as just an indication that she might be bi/pan or have varying levels of feelings for multiple people (which, you know, is a thing that happens).

      YMMV of course, but for me, it was a really fascinating and more-or-less explicit romance, very different from anything I’ve seen in anime before. I think you’d be okay to watch it. Plus I’d love to hear your opinions on their relationship, as it’s been quite the hot topic in the ol’ animeverse recently.

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      • I agree with your characterization of their relationship. They are far more intimate and frank with one another than most canon couples in romantic anime series, and their relationship is certainly far more developed and sincere than other queer-baiting instances in KyoAni shows I can remember.

        The adaptation is probably holding back from outright stating a gay relationship because the story isn’t entirely their own (readers say the direction of the LN is far different from the one the anime is pointing towards) and the studio is generally risk averse and would shy away from treading in truly controversial topics.

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  1. Curious, is the main relationship enough to make this into the Turk column, or is it just Deep Platonic Friendship? I’m a bit over the latter largely, tired of getting invested with no payoff. ;)

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    • Hah, this is gonna be the question everyone’s asking, isn’t it? You can see my above reply to Vrai for a few more details, but I interpret it as an open-ended but fairly explicit romance, or at least the beginnings of one. Interpretations have been all over the map on this one, though, so you’ll probably just have to watch it and decide for yourself.

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  2. You know…I didn’t even realise that “KyoAni baiting” was an already controversial topic before I watched this show…and found myself rather frustrated with the discussion in the weeks after episode 8.

    Personally, the way I would describe Kumiko and Reina’s relationship is that they’re on the level of ‘soulmates’. I guess where I differ from the majority of the Western fandom is that I don’t see any ‘eros-type’ attraction (to use the Ancient Greek word for that kind of love) on at least Reina’s part at the moment, despite–or perhaps, because of–all the supposedly ‘romantic’ actions that she’s taken. I’m not sure I see any on Kumiko’s side either–I just see her reacting to the type of person Reina is. And I think that having lived in Japan and taught in a Japanese school, the things that some other people might see as indications of romantic/sexual interest, I see as ‘normal’ interactions between close (girl) friends. There are two exceptions, which you can probably guess. But honestly speaking, whilst I don’t disregard an eventual ‘eros’ type of love as a possibility because of the deep connection the two of them have, I feel as if most viewers are imposing their own frameworks of ‘this is what this action means’ on the characters, instead of trying to figure out what those actions actually mean to those characters.

    Just my two cents on the Kumiko-Reina relationship, anyway. ^^

    I personally found the issues that the two of them were struggling with vis-a-vis their society far more interesting, so I don’t think any of the episodes were wasted, not even those middle ‘cute girls doing cute things’ ones.

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    • I didn’t think the early episodes were “wasted” so much as just less focused, shifting around characters and conflicts and story lines as they did. The structure actually fit well with Kumiko’s own mindset as she’s a bit directionless in the early going as well; I just personally found it harder to stay focused and invested in the story at that point. Plus there was that… I dunno, “clinical” sense that some KyoAni shows get, where it feels like they’re going down a checklist of Things People Expect From Their Shows and ticking boxes along the way. I felt like that fell off significantly as the series continued and the team spread their creative wings more, and the whole story seemed more genuine and real because of it.

      That’s a valid interpretation of their relationship, and I do agree that we’re by nature inclined to look at these things through a western lens. I think it’s okay to critique media based on your own view point (hence why I can look at a Victorian novel and say something is racist even if it wasn’t considered so at the time), but you’re right, it’s also important to take the culture creating the media into consideration as well. It’s one of the reasons I deliberately avoided slapping a label on their relationship in the review, in fact.

      That said, I do think queer baiting and queer erasure is a significant problem in Japanese media and reflects the general cultural/social practices of sort of treating queerness as a “phase” or even pretending it doesn’t exist. Yurikuma Arashi was scathing in its critique of that, and since that series only just finished airing, I think a lot of western anime fans (self included) are now hyper-aware of that cultural concern and more critical of series that seem to feed into it or normalize it. Hence why Euphonium generated way more discussion and critique than it might have previously.

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      • That’s actually what I thought at first. I remember really liking the episode where Aoi and Kumiko talk about how the public vote meant that most people would go with the flow, and then found myself a little disappointed that it was resolved so quickly (because the students all started being really serious about it). But after Reina’s spiel about “I don’t want to be the same as all the people who just go with the norm” in episode 8, I felt that everything was actually connected with that theme. Not that anyone else seemed to be interested in discussing it by that point… (^_^;; )

        May I ask what is on that checklist? I’ve seen more than half of KyoAni’s shows, but I don’t recall ever having expectations beyond “fantastic animation”…

        Hm…I personally cannot comment on the issue of queer baiting / queer erasure in Japanese media — or in any media, for that matter. In fact, the discussion on the animesuki forums was the first time I’ve seen people making such a huge fuss about it. Part of the reason is probably that I tend to avoid most series that use such baiting (Free!, K-ON, most harem shows). That said, I feel that the significance of cultural differences are being underestimated by a lot of viewers. I’ve found this especially true with a lot of the things that people seem to go on and on about, like characters in ACG (in particular) glomping each other, or girls holding hands. I’ve seen it happen in real life – always amongst friends. By way of contrast, actual couples in Japan — at whatever age — tend to keep things really low key, at least in public. Having seen this firsthand probably heavily colours the way I interpret such ‘displays of affection’ when I see them in the shows I watch.

        But I did come across an interesting comment by someone about this, which goes into another reason I’m hesitant to comment on it myself: to me, the issue isn’t just about queer baiting, because there is a heap of shipbaiting in Japanese media in general. Basically, there are a lot of layers to be considered that I simply don’t know enough about…

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  3. Usually, school animes don’t even bother giving name to ‘secondary characters’. Not this show.This show treats all the members of the band with care and attention (they have personalities, relationships, and even parents!). Because in Eupho, they are not really ‘secondary characters’. A bit like in real life. I remember my high school years, and I didn’t talk only to my friends, I talked -more or less- to the whole class. And I knew -and talked to- people in the other classes in my grade, and in other grades. And to the teachers. There were a lot of people. I think this is one of the things that Eupho gets right about the whole ‘high school experience’. This school feels like a real school.
    There’s and old animator rule when designing characters that says all they should be recognizable by their outline. In Eupho, when you see the outlines of the caracters at the end of the opening credits, you can recognize who everyone is. You may not remember their names (I don’t), but you know who they are. And there are more than sixty!
    In the ending, Kumiko and Reina have they little fingers linked by a red string which in anime is, as far as I know, a sign of *wink wink* *nudge nudge*. When I saw this I didn’t think they would do this openly in this kind of show… and they did-ish (or not-ish). Well, I’m with Josei with this. More than friends, less than lovers. For now. Fair enough.

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