Anime Reviews: Sound! Euphonium
Boasting heart-achingly beautiful visuals and an entrancing high-school band story, Sound! Euphonium stands tall as another prime example of great modern anime.
Title: Sound! Euphonium a.k.a. Hibike! Euphonium
Production: Kyoto Animation
Series Length: 13 episodes + 1 OVA
Air Dates: 4/8/2015 to 7/1/2015
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language)
Summary: Kumiko Oumae has played the euphonium in school band ever since the 4th grade, but her lax attitude towards practice and cynical personality ruffle the feathers of classmate/trumpet player, Reina Kousaka, when they fail to make Nationals at the end of middle school. Now that high school has come, Kumiko intends to carry on as she has at Kitauji High, but even she can recognize that her new school's band sucks eggs. Surprisingly, Reina also attends Kitauji, leaving Kumiko at a loss as to whether she wants to commit to staying in the band or not. But when Kumiko's childhood friend, Shuichi Tsukamoto, announces his intentions on joining the band and her new acquaintances, Hazuki Katou and Sapphire Kawashima, give her the moral boost she needs, Kumiko decides that maybe this is the opportunity both she and Kitauji's concert band needed to shine...
The Good: Gorgeous artwork; excellent soundtrack; tremendous attention to detail; gripping story and attaching characters
The Bad: Reina's not as compelling a character as she could've been
The Ugly: Not a damn thing
I always find myself in this kind of situation, don't I? I walk into a show from a genre I don't usually care for with low expectations, and then my socks get rocked hardcore by another piece of evidence that my biases are nothing more than that. I went into K-On! thinking it would be absolute gutter trash, and instead I got a pretty dang decent series. And so the cycle continues, as I went into Sound! Euphonium thinking it would just be a slightly more serious version of K-On!, and once again, I was dead wrong--Sound! Euphonium is far, far more than that. The whole point of me doing this slew of shows that aired just recently is to expose myself to what's hip and new in the anime community, and I gotta tell ya, if anything else released last year even comes close to this level of quality, I would be incredibly surprised. So obviously, I'm loving this series quite a bit. Why's that, you ask? Let's find out~
First of all, as you can reliably expect from Kyoto Animation, Sound! Euphonium is a gorgeous anime series. The art style embraces a mixture between a typical anime aesthetic as well as a more down-to-earth look--the characters features are exaggerated enough to make them cute and appealing, but their proportions are still realistic enough to make them feel like fellow human beings, and the decision to coat the setting with all kinds of rustic browns and yellows and greens adds a lot of earth-y atmosphere that makes the series very warm and inviting. The usage of light and shadow are masterful as well, making each and every shot full of mood and good old-fashioned visual wonder. The animation quality is also quite wondrous to behold, making it abundantly clear Kyoto Animation (as well as a few others like Madhouse, Bones, and ufotable) is trying its damnedest to take TV animation to a much higher level than it's ever been before. And it's working. Sound! Euphonium is easily one of the best-looking animated TV shows, anime or otherwise, that have ever been made, and I say this with absolutely zero hyperbole.
Now, given that the series is about a concert band, wouldn't it make sense for the music to be fitting and, well, good? Why, of course it would, you silly sod! That's why it's a very good thing, indeed, that such is the case! Right from the get-go, opener "Dream Solister" got me pumped with its upbeat tempo and hooky pop goodness soaked in delicious orchestral flourishes. A spectacular opening deserves an equal ending, I say, and while it's not quiiiite as good, "Tutti!" is, likewise, an upbeat and addictive pop song that bounces off the walls with exuberance and joy, and it is the perfect note to end each episode on. Also, due to the show's very nature (concert band!), we're treated to some excellent already-existing real-world orchestral music like Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" as well as a great piece written by Kyoto's very own Namie Horikawa, but you'll have to watch the show yourself to hear that little treat. All in all, both your eyes and ears will be extremely pleased.
One thing I must give the highest praise to Sound! Euphonium for is something that transcends any single category, and that is its unflinching and slightly horrifying level of detail present in the production. In the animation, it's not just important movements that get special attention, but we also see characters fidget and stumble and hesitate with their gestures or avert their gaze or kick the toes of their shoes when they're bored, and every single character has their own individual quirks. Even extremely minor characters like Knuckles, the percussion section leader, has his own set of gestures and reactions, and the guy has, like, maybe a minute of screentime in the whole show. He even has a nickname! KyoAni also went all-out in the auditory department, not only giving each character a distinct speech pattern that isn't super-gimmicky (as Japanese writers and voice actors tend to do), but when the series has to concentrate on the characters playing music, they will have several different versions of specific sections of each song to account for the characters screwing up or playing the same section in a different way or getting frustrated and rushing it, and so on. I can't even imagine how many takes of Horikawa's piece the crew had to record for this series, but that dedication to realism--along with countless other examples you'll find--really goes a long way to elevate this series.
(On a side note, K-On! also had a lot of the same kind of great attention to detail. Maybe not so much in that they recorded the songs a dozen times each to account for mistakes, but definitely in the setting and animation. This has nothing to do with anything, I just wanted to give credit where it was due and put words into why I gave that series the rating it has despite all my complaints.)
Okay, so we've established that the aesthetics of Sound! Euphonium are essentially perfect, and this would, by itself, make it a noteworthy series. But they didn't stop there. The story presented to us is, on the surface, one we've seen a million times before--a failing institution (in this case, a school band) gets a new leader and some new blood and, through hard work and force of will, rises through the ranks and shines brightly. That basic structure is not new, and is also not what makes the story great. I mean, it's not a bad story, and it's paced well and it's packed with the aforementioned attention to detail, but it's because of the characters that everything comes together so well.
Kumiko is a very cynical girl who has talent, but lacks drive--partially because finding motivation involves having to care, but also because caring eventually leads to heartbreak, and so she protects herself by being hands-off and sarcastic. And given that she's the main character, this internal conflict shapes how we see the world she lives in. Kumiko's bass-section partners, Hazuki and Sapphire, act as a foil to her cynicism--Hazuki is very much a determined go-getter who won't settle for anything less than success, and Sapphire is a more easygoing and gentle character who embodies pure passion for the thing she loves (the string bass, which is a superior instrument for superior people, if you ask me). These three characters play off of each other beautifully, not just in terms of their fun personalities, but also in their beliefs and ideologies, which you wouldn't expect to see in a high-school drama series.
Of course, there are a lot of other great characters to be found, as well. Taki-sensei is a soft-spoken conductor, but his vast musical knowledge and determination to take the band to the Nationals (which they agreed to, by the way) also makes him very strict and merciless in his approach despite his gentle demeanor. Asuka is the vice-president of the concert band, and her vivacious and oddball behavior reliably lightens the mood and boosts morale, but whether or not her playful disposition is an act is a mystery to Kumiko (and by association, us). Haruka, the actual president, is a very shy and quiet girl with little self-esteem who doesn't seem like the president type, but she has a strong will that sees both her and the band as a whole through many crises. Shuichi is Kumiko's childhood friend, and he's brash and a little bit socially awkward, making it a bit of a struggle for when he comes to the realization that, as he watches Kumiko open up a little more, his feelings toward her change in ways he wasn't prepared for. And there's also Goto, who plays the tuba alongside Hazuki. He's a man of few words, and he's great. (D'ya like that? I did a thing where I did the thing the character does. I am so clever, you guys.) And there's Natsuki, and Aoi, and Kaori, and Yuko, and Kumiko's older sister Mamiko, and Michie-sensei, and I could just go on and on. I love these characters.
Now, those of you who've seen the show or have a good memory (or can read) will notice there's someone I left out: Reina. That's because she's probably the only character I never really "got." Some things about her make perfect sense--she wants to be special, she wants to be talented, she practices the trumpet obsessively so that she can be special through sheer skill, and she wants to fly high which is why she was absolutely crushed when their middle-school band didn't make the grade. I get that--her goals and aspirations are perfectly understandable and work well for the series. What I don't get, however, is her personality. She acts like a robot, basically. Reina tends to speak in a monotone, and she does some very sporadic things with almost no explanation (though sometimes they make narrative sense, like loudly practicing her part to proclaim that whatever current drama is boiling means nothing to her). Her relationship with Kumiko is awkward, and it can be read as being a romantic one, but Reina's just so drab that the moments they share together feel...empty. If she was just a little more engaging--maybe if we saw more of her frustration or if her desire to ascend to greater heights translated into more of a personality, this paragraph wouldn't be here, but that's not what I got. I got a character who talked big about being special, yet was probably the most static and boring out of the entire cast. A major wasted opportunity.
It's sad, but Reina's literally the only thing I could find fault with in this series. It's the very definition of "so close, yet so far." Sound! Euphonium is just so freaking great, and yet one of its main characters feels half-baked, and it frustrates me. You were so close! But I just can't stay mad, because even though Reina felt undercooked, I really had to sit and think for a few minutes to find any fault with this series, which should be a testament to how much I enjoyed myself and how great this anime truly is. I've said it before, and I'll say it again...or at least in a slightly different way: Anyone who loudly proclaims that modern anime can't be great clearly isn't looking hard enough for the good stuff, because here's an anime that is only barely a year old, and it picks its teeth with the bones of many, many older series.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Bursting with excellence in every aspect and whose only flaw is that one among its cast is just not quite as interesting as the rest, Sound! Euphonium is a truly brilliant high-school drama deserving of a spot on just about any anime fan's shelf.