A essay for the KyoAni skeptic, past or present musical ensemble player, the Sound! Euphonium fan, and last but not least, the curious. Some mild spoilers ahead.
It is easy to see any Kyoto Animation-produced series as a collection of distinctive labels that consistently emerges in most of its works. Moe, ‘cute girls doing ordinary things and going about daily life’, ‘scenery porn’, exquisite detail to animation, are just but a few of those that are associated with its repertoire, which includes the iconic titles of K-On and Lucky Star. Its tireless employment of this winning formula has garnered a solid fan-base who is rarely disappointed as they reside in the comfort that their expectations are mostly rewarded. Yet, it is also due to such an entrenched reputation that the eyes of those who think ‘moe slice-of-life’ is not their ideal of good entertainment immediately (and unconsciously) glide over it while they scan through every season lineup.
Needless to say, I was one of those people. When Sound! Euphonium first aired, I never thought twice about watching it. The fact that it was about ensemble playing and classical music ironically worsened my impression of the series. Being embalmed in a false sense of superiority and insistent on not watching anything that had to do with what had been my way of life throughout the majority of my childhood and teenage years, I was confident that there was both nothing that could surprise me, and believed that it could never be as interesting as how sports was portrayed in anime. Even when Takuto was emphatically recommending it to all classical music practitioners, I was doubtful about whether it would be to my taste. It was only because of my end-of-the-year goal to finish all major 2015 anime for my 2015 impression series that I decided to include Sound! Euphonium in my watchlist.
Sound! Euphonium can certainly be said to be a proud ambassador of the KyoAni brand. It parades proudly with the aforementioned characteristics – breathlessly beautiful scenery, camera panning techniques that show painstaking detail to its storytelling efforts, subtly changing facial expressions that showcase emotions and personality of its cast. Yet, even if one strips those away and looks at Sound! Euphonium from a broad perspective, it is not only a story about a group of cute girls making high school memories in playing in a band together. Personally, it was not the above mentioned, albeit impressive and highly appreciated elements of the series that made this the first anime I have rewatched 3 months after my first watch. It was how relatable the series is, especially to those who have been in musical instrument ensembles or orchestras in school. It was how the very same emotions and thought processes are portrayed that, kudos to KyoAni‘s superior artistic direction, spins a genuine narrative full of heart that also evokes similar feelings even in those who have not had such experiences. And so, this essay lists 5 ways Sound Euphonium mirrors reality in school ensembles, and why even non-fans of KyoAni should watch it.
Technicalities of Music Making in an Ensemble
As part of its attention to detail, one aspect of the series is its focus on organisational specifics as a way of providing context, including those leading up to practice, performing events and competitions that demarcates the mini-arcs in its one-cour time frame. Not only has the series gotten all the necessary details of the organisation of a school ensemble down, it is explained clearly in the series’ narration in a clear and logical manner. Such explanations include how seniority dictates the type of roles students play within the organisation – from rules on how the first-years have to move desks to clear out classrooms for practice, to how sectionals and committee meetings are conducted (like how the biggest and heaviest instruments get to remain in the ‘main room’ while the more mobile ones move elsewhere), to how coordination on performance days must be thoroughly planned before hand and temporary roles assigned and adhered to to ensure efficient operation. This makes it easy for first-timers of the whole ordeal to get a good picture of how a school ensemble functions, and also proves to be nostalgic for those who have been in one before.
There is also some emphasis on the realities of music practice and making good music as an ensemble that is littered throughout various points in anime. In the early episodes, the strict and systematic methods of foundation training is shown and explained, ranging from breathing and blowing exercises to enlarge lung capacity, to running training to build stamina. Common mistakes in practice are also shown, for example not practicing with a metronome and hence playing messily. The joys of playing in an ensemble while playing alone seems bland and uninteresting were also explored for new players like Hazuki. KyoAni also deserves credit for the different renditions of a band which is not together and out of tune at the start, and the slow progression to more palatable ensemble music.
Internal teenage crowd manipulation tactics
Apart from the technical arrangements that enable basic functionality, the series also somewhat explores the use of passive-aggressiveness. The prime example here would be how the instructor, Taki-sensei, subtly manipulates the ensemble, a previously disinterested one, into setting a high bar for their goal as an ensemble under the pretext of majority-based decision-making. Using such a tactic is controversial not only because its target audience are mere high school students, but also because it creates a facade of free choice and process impartiality while aligning the ensemble’s interests with that of Taki-sensei. While uncommon in anime due to a minimal tendency to focus on technical explorations of organisational management, it is a highly used method in corporate negotiations in reality, though it is admittedly less seen at the school organisation level. Rather, it features more in personal relations, especially in mutually beneficial associations and companionship. The fact that Sound! Euphonium has employed this in its stride adds nuance to both the character development of Taki-sensei, as well as provides some relevant real-world applicable knowledge that is relatively difficult to find in other anime.
Adding to the fray is Sound! Euphonium’s portrayal of teenage attitudes in a context of an initially disunited and disinterested school band with no clear goals to work towards, that is, until the arrival of Taki-sensei and his manipulation tactics. Sound! Euphonium shows how disorganised and apathetic the band’s members were at the start, from talking and playing instead of practicing during sectionals, to their rude and annoyed reactions to Taki-sensei’s blunt statement of how bad their music sounds. All depict a clear picture of self-complacency and generally unappreciative attitudes to his attempts to whip the ensemble into shape with hard-handed means. However, this helped (as was intended) in uniting the band against him in the first mini-arc of the series as all strove to prove him wrong, which ultimately resulted in their just reap of rewards as it was clearly proven that he has their best interests at heart.
The Seniority vs Talent Conflict – School Ensemble Politics
In one of the truest rendition of school ensemble politics, Sound! Euphonium also shows the relatively unsavoury aspects of teenagers trying to one-up one another in figurative brawls of what, to most who have not been in similar positions, must seem to be rather petty concerns. It is no secret that in any skill-based club, sports team or musical group where its internal hierarchy is partly dominated by how proficient one is in the skill, some form of politics would always be present. This is mostly because there is a limited number of positions on both the field and in stage, and positions are demarcated in such a way to constantly remind one about how he or she fares in comparison to one’s peers. In Sound! Euphonium, the limited number of participating students in the national competition means auditions, as well as a fight of who plays the solo part. (Another major point of contention in reality is the place where you sit in an orchestra.)
It is perhaps unfortunate to say that Sound! Euphonium does not actually escalate or exaggerate the drama involved in any way. While seniority is of some importance in the Japanese social fabric, and anime watchers would generally be familiar with the politeness and deference that is expected to be shown to those even one schooling year above, here, it simply runs into a headlong clash with another familiar aspect – talent and skill. The frustration of being replaced by another, who undoubtedly is innately more talented and evidently has amassed longer hours of practice, is painful especially when it is more a case of the former. While most sports anime have expounded on tropes of how talented juniors would deprive certain hardworking seniors of their otherwise rightful places on the main team, there is an additional level of politics and suspicion that is unique to the subjective nature of music as opposed to objective judgment of physical prowess in sports – that of subjective bias or prejudice in judgment. One has to simply blindly trust in the good judgment of the assessor, which involves both his musical prowess as well as his silent promise of objectivity. It is precisely because there is no objective marker of ‘better’ and ‘not as good’ music making that when it comes to auditions, it quickly escalates into feral and outright suspicion once that delicate balance of trust is broken. Tying this with the nature of ensemble music – where internal harmony has a direct and proven impact on the quality of music made, this becomes an imperative concern that is far from simply ‘overblown drama’.
Such a scenario was aptly demonstrated in a few pairs of people in the cast of Sound! Euphonium. Intensified by irresponsible rumour-spreading and gossiping, one of these conflict snowballs into a major showdown towards the second half of the series, and results in quite a few emotional and heated exchanges between the persons involved where the intensity of the drama involved was reminiscent of high tension points in romance comedies when misunderstandings or admissions of feelings occur (e.g. Toradora). As somebody who has been previously embroiled in disputes that are almost a carbon-copy of what is shown here, to me, Sound! Euphonium aptly captures the motivations and desires of teenagers desperate for that one opportunity on stage, no matter whether it is the one is fighting for oneself, or one fighting for another that one feels deserves it more, or the onlookers who are quick to jump to conclusions or express untactful opinions that sway their other easily influenced teenage peers.
Leadership of an organisation is known to be more effective when complementary personalities are in charge, and musical ensembles are not excluded from this adage. The leadership duo here of the Haruka Ogasawara, the President and Asuka Tanaka, the Vice-President, aptly demonstrates how successful enterprises are often run in reality. (The introvert-extrovert power duo of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak is a real-life example.) While Haruka plays a more pacifying role here, giving empathetic talks and generally organizing, her presence is certainly not as loud as Asuka, who is an outwardly funny natural-born mood changer, and ‘lives with abandon’ as she wholeheartedly demonstrates her love for music production and whose main goal involves pepping all the members. Haruka’s voice is mild and pales in comparison, a point which is both deliberately shown and highlighted subsequently as it is revealed that she is insecure in how well she is suited to the role, but it is gradually seen that her role is equally important precisely because of her empathetic traits, even if her presence is, at first glance, drowned out by her loud-mouthed, attention-grabbing co-leader. Such balance between the two leadership styles also serves to benefit the ensemble especially when conflicts arise and Asuka’s indifference to non-music related goals is unmasked.
A Multi-Dimensional Main Character
Last but not least, or perhaps the most important of all, the ones that carry the series are really the characters involved. The main protagonist, Oumae Kumiko, is arguably one of the most accurate portrayals of modern day teenagers around. Being both secretly cynical and slightly detached, she often feigns niceness and pleasantness around people whom she is not overly familiar with, like when she first meets Hazuki and Midori, while letting her mask fall and her indifference appear when she’s around those who ‘know’ her, like her childhood friend, Shuichi and her family. While that at first blush seems to point towards an annoying character, yet, she retains a part of her innocence and charm when she inadvertently blurts out her ‘real’ thoughts in a blunt fashion. She also presents the paradox between wanting to fit in at the start of the series, as seen from her skirt-adjusting actions in the first episode and efforts to be more like a ‘high school girl’, where she is gradually changed when she gets to know Kousaka Reina, an individualistic girl who is very clear on what she wants and is driven to become somebody special.
The relationship between Reina and Oumae enables Oumae, especially, to grow as a person as their vastly different personalities come into contact, an importance that grows beyond the yuri teases that only superficially defines the purpose of their relationship. In fact, far from any shoujo-ai or yuri implications, it is precisely because Reina’s independence serves to motivate Oumae’s subsequent actions and inspire her, that it is possible to merely classify their relationship as a very special friendship. While on a less positive perspective, it may not often that people do form such special bonds with others they meet (some term this as ‘lucky’), the type of influence that Reina enacts on Oumae is not exactly unique – inspiration to be better and growth can be drawn from anybody one meets in life, and it is in such a context that Sound! Euphonium presents its truest gem.
What is most impressive in Sound! Euphonium is its attention to detail in constructing a story which forms the building blocks in creating impeccable execution of what may otherwise seem a pretty boring premise. Here, music and the teenage psyche are brought to life as the series constantly reminds us that it is based on very real emotional states, as well as technical and musical research – though some of the writing should be credited to the original novel, more so than the anime. Admittedly, my viewpoint may be a biased one since having more personal experience directly translates into more intensive feelings of relatability on many emotional levels and nostalgia – which may not resonate with those who do not. Nevertheless, it is clear that Sound! Euphonium is a work of excellent artistic direction that should not be overlooked – because contrary to previous impressions, there is a treasure trove of a purposeful story, waiting to be uncovered.
I apologise for the lack of posts in the past month due to dealing with school and being busy in general. Incidentally, it has come to my attention that the timing of this post also coincides with the announcement of a new Sound! Euphonium series this fall, so hurray for the great news! Thank you for reading as usual, and feel free to like and/or comment 🙂