Anime Reviews: Sound! Euphonium 2
Giving us more of what made its first season great, Sound! Euphonium 2 continues to prove that the phrase "great modern anime" is far from being an oxymoron.
Title: Sound! Euphonium 2 a.k.a. Hibike! Euphonium 2
Production: Kyoto Animation
Series Length: 13 episodes
Air Dates: 10/6/2016 to 12/28/2016
Age Rating: 7+ (mild language)
Summary: Kitauji High School's once-pathetic wind ensemble has done the seemingly impossible--with great effort, they have advanced past the prefectural competition and now face the formidable task of earning victory at the All-Kansai competition! Kumiko Oumae, a cynical euphonist who is coming to terms with her own genuine feelings, now finds herself--alongside her classmates--working harder than ever to chase that elusive goal. Along the way, she becomes more acquainted with some of her peers: taciturn oboist Mizore, who seems strangely disconnected from everyone else, and eager flutist Nozomi, who had stormed out of the band the previous year but has now returned. What's more, Kumiko is also told by her friend and confidant, trumpet prodigy Reina, that she has fallen in love with the band's conductor, Taki-sensei. Even the playful club vice-president and fellow euphonist Asuka seems to be abnormally serious in light of the upcoming competition. Kitauji High School's path towards the Nationals is sure to be a rough one, but Kumiko and the others are determined to give it their all!
The Good: Amplifies everything that was great about the first season; ends on an exceedingly high note
The Bad: First few episodes feel a bit clumsy; I wanted more Hazuki and Sapphire!
The Ugly: When you learn what the other name for a bassoon is...
So when I walked into Sound! Euphonium with lukewarm expectations and was completely blown away, I was excited for this second season but had my doubts that the lightning could possibly strike the same franchise twice. I also had my doubts that people in America would be stupid enough to vote for Pitch Black instead of Baja Blast (among other infuriating polling results that occurred that year), so here we are. Sound! Euphonium 2 is everything a good sequel should be: It gives us further developments on our characters, introduces new struggles to be overcome, generally does everything the previous did and then some, and adds a pool episode...except that last part doesn't help at all. Stupid pool episode! You ruined my point! And now the truth is out there--this series has my heartfelt recommendation and aliens are hiding in your attic--so now it's time to back up my recommendation with some completely objective evidence that can in no way be contradicted by anyone!
By now, it comes as no surprise that Kyoto Animation know how to make a visually-stunning anime, and Sound! Euphonium 2 is not about to buck that trend. The first season looked great already, and then this season comes along to one-up its predecessor, with more lavishly-painted backgrounds and gorgeous lighting in every scene, as well as more consistently smooth animation and even some impressive CGI river effects! Damn near every shot is lush and vibrant and infinitely inviting. The characters themselves are given plenty of extra attention in the new season, too, with more varied gestures and ticks that make them feel more "real," if that makes sense. Certainly doesn't hurt that the character art got a bump up in consistent quality, either. Add to the mix some evocative shot compositions and eye-catching particle effects, and you've got yourself a bona fide visual treat.
Likewise in the audio department, season two has outdone itself. Not only does the series come with a rock-solid selection of background music tracks, we finally get to hear the awesomely dynamic "Crescent Moon Dance," which the band plays during the competitions, in its entirety in episode 5. Because KyoAni likes us so much, we're also treated with an exceptional new opening theme, "Soundscape" by TRUE (who also did season one's OP). Like the first season's opener, it's a fantastic pop tune with brass accompaniment, but "Soundscape" has a thousand times more energy and ambition and makes the act of watching each new episode that much more exciting. Ending theme "vivace!" is performed by the four main characters' voice actresses (like last time, too!), and it also radiates boundless energy, with its playful pop/swing aesthetic (though I personally could've done without that questionable shot near the end).
If that wasn't enough, our ears have another reason to love us: The voice acting in the first season was pretty damn solid, all things considered, but with the direct order to "turn down the moé," the same actors and actresses deliver more down-to-earth performances this time around. You'd be amazed at how much of a difference a simple change like that makes to add credence to a story that purports itself to take place in a more realistic setting, but it's noticeable and it works.
Of course, all the lovely animation and catchy tunes in the world won't save a sequel from its own demise if the material being added to the franchise is weaksauce. The first season gave us a slew of excellent characters embroiled in a compelling drama, even if one of the major players wasn't quite as interesting as the others (I am, of course, bringing up my gripes about Reina). It was always going to be a tough act to follow, but Sound! Euphonium 2 rose up to meet the challenge and, in many ways, reached the same dizzying highs and bumped its knee on the same coffee table. But more on that later! For now, suffice it to say that my problems with Reina in the previous season have been largely smoothed over and she now has more to work with as a character, and season two also spends a huge chunk of time fleshing out the always-amusing Asuka, turning her from being merely a show-stealing and hilarious comedy character into a complex and three-dimensional person.
In fact, Asuka's character arc facilitates the series' greatest strength: its last 3-4 episodes. I mean, this franchise was great from the word "go," but the final episodes of season two are just in a league of their own. Without giving too much away, the series ends with the third-years' graduation, and while we've seen this kind of ending before, the execution of it here is nothing short of masterful. Literal tears were shed, people. A certain plot thread from earlier on comes back like a boomerang, and with it one of the greatest final scenes I've yet seen in anime. Too many anime have no clue how to handle their endings, but let it be known the world over that Sound! Euphonium 2 is not one of those anime. The ending is nothing short of glorious.
As far as this season's negatives go, I would consider them to be very few and very minor. One beef I have is that the first 2-3 episodes feel just a little bit off, like KyoAni slipped out of their groove from the last season and needed to requisition it back. We're hurriedly introduced to some new-ish characters, oboist Mizore and flutist Nozomi, before being rushed into their stories and arcs so that they can be concluded in time for the Kansai competition. It's not a bad story arc, but obviously being forced to resolve itself quickly led to its impact on the viewer being hamstrung.
Another bizarre occurrence in these early episodes is the utterly baffling pool scene. For some reason, KyoAni took a tip from the 90s Anime Playbook and had the characters all put on their swimsuits and head to the pool in episode 2. This is baffling for three reasons: First, the conversations the characters all have at the pool could've been had anywhere else, so the pool wasn't even a necessary setting. Second, this tactic from the 90s Anime Playbook was commonly used when a series started to have flagging ratings and needed a quick boost--which makes zero sense in this case, because Sound! Euphonium was one of the most popular anime of 2015 and its ratings were consistent and solid, making such a motive unlikely. Finally, even if you take the cynical path and assume this was just a bid for some cheap fanservice, that doesn't have a leg to stand on, either, as KyoAni are typically very reluctant to do that kinda thing, and the shots in the pool scene are tastefully done and didn't feel cheap or exploitative at all, so why, KyoAni?! Why the pool scene?! I know it doesn't mean anything to the series' overall quality, but why?!
Probably my biggest--and most petty--gripe with season two is the distinct lack of Hazuki and Sapphire. I loved these guys--er, girls! Their dynamic with Kumiko was part of what made the first season so great, and now they're just basically gone from the spotlight?! This is another reason why those awkwardly-rushed episodes with Mizore and Nozomi annoyed me: It was more time that could've been spent with Hazuki and Sapphire! Again, I know this has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the show, but they're my favorite characters, and I wanted more of them! WILL SAPPHIRE EVER COMPLETE HER KEYCHAIN COLLECTION?! I HAVE TO KNOW!! AND YOU WON'T TELL ME, KYOANI!!
So if my problems with Sound! Euphonium 2 are this minor and petty, you can pretty safely assume that I give this series (and its prequel) a very high recommendation. And then I'll wonder how you missed that same recommendation back in the first paragraph, but that's neither here nor there. What is here, and possibly also there, is the simple fact that you can watch both seasons right now! For free! On Crunchyroll! Largely because I doubt this series will ever receive a physical release outside of Japan! I mean, this review has a pretty big spoiler for the first season in plain sight, but don't let that stop you if an anime about high school band sounds like it's up your alley! Anime may be filled to the point of hilarity with shows about high school, but I can guarantee you that very few of them are anywhere near as good as Sound! Euphonium.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Meeting and often exceeding the astoundingly high visual and storytelling quality of its predecessor, Sound! Euphonium 2 is a triumphant conclusion to one of the absolute best franchises in modern anime.