Quotorium Reviews: Sound! Euphonium

Welcome to the 2019/2020 Year of Anime! Each month I watch an anime and do my best to review each in turn. I’m kicking off the year with Sound! Euphonium, something that’s been on my to-watch list for a while. You can look at my lineup for this year on my YOA page. Alright, let’s get this review going!

Sound! Euphonium is the story of Kumiko Oumae, first year high school student and a longtime euphonium player, as she finds purpose and identity in her instrument and those around her in the concert band club at Kitauji High School. Along the way, she uncovers tensions between club members, navigates complicated feelings of family and friendships, and is ultimately spurred by the advisory teacher and conductor to consider what she truly wants to get out of her time with band, but more broadly, with high school and all of its ups and downs.

A Character Balancing Act

With all this talk of character motivations and self-discovery within a group, it’s no wonder that Sound! Euphonium asks quite a lot of its characters. The show takes on the difficult task of having an entire concert band as its cast, which is almost too much to work with! The story handles this by devoting arcs to groups of band members that are all associated with each other; eg. the third years, the bass section, etc. So rather than trying to lump all of the band into one big story, Sound! Euphonium becomes several little stories that all work together to build up to going to nationals. Sometimes this setup makes character development pretty unremarkable and forgettable, since each arc is simply not relevant after it’s been resolved, but for the most part, once a problem is addressed, future parts of the show will remember its impact. I have to give props to Episode 8 and its lasting consequences on the relationships between Hazuki, Shuichi and Kumiko. That episode more than all of the other ones really knew how to handle the awkward and miserable consequences of communication.

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Sound! Euphonium accommodates dozens of characters by grouping everyone into arcs across the series.

Kumiko is our POV character, and we get to see the various groups of students through her eyes. Kumiko is important because she can blend in fairly easily with people outside of her friend group, and each arc introduces more people into her social circle, which develops her as well as them. One particularly good example of this is Reina, who rarely talks to anyone else. Reina’s rival-friend dynamic with Kumiko is perhaps one of the strongest points of the anime, and their special bond has some of the most raw and beautiful animated sequences as well. Midori and Hazuki are central to Sound! Euphonium at the start as the main trio alongside Kumiko, but I was disappointed in how little screentime they got after Kumiko became a mediator for conflicts in the band.

The “Haruhi Effect” and How Kumiko Solved It

Something that will happen a lot with interpersonal drama in anime is how the protagonist can somehow be perfectly aware of their friends’ feelings at any given time. Sometimes, this awareness is never actually communicated in an episode until a reveal at the end is necessary, making the protag seem like they have some kind of omniscience that is never really paid off. I like to call this the ‘Haruhi Effect’, named after Haruhi Fujioka in Ouran High School Host Club. Haruhi has an uncanny ability to just sense how her host club mates are struggling without the narrative ever working to help the audience feel the same way, and it’s always been something that really bothered me about her character. As great as she was, episodes sometimes felt like they bent to her will in order to make her maintain her perceptive and level-headed characteristics.

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Kumiko slowly learns what makes her club mates tick as she uncovers more of the drama between them.

Why bring up Haruhi in a Sound! Euphonium review? Kumiko is one of those rare characters that is able to use the Haruhi Effect, but does so in a way that is fully supported by the story and builds her up as a character. Kumiko’s friends recognize her neutrality in most conflicts as well as her skills at empathizing with others, and this in turn allows her to approach, console, and encourage people who she has a hunch might not be as okay as they say. It’s acknowledged in the show that Kumiko is perceptive and attentive to people’s feelings, and the show visually fixates on this with great editing, so it didn’t ever feel like she was pulling a conclusion out of nowhere. The narrative always made sure that a character’s unease was visible before Kumiko acted on it. Her selfless nature means that when it came to deciphering her own needs, Kumiko has to rely on her circle of friends, which continues to grow as she bonds with more of the concert band. Essentially, Kumiko fills in the cracks and heals bonds between those in band because of her empathy, and this fully realizes the Haruhi Effect in my eyes.

Ambition, Goals, and Keeping it Real

While Sound! Euphonium focuses on a concert band, it very clearly uses that setup to explore character goals and how they handle their futures. For some, band is secondary and a few characters do actually quit or consider quitting, something that helped to refocus the stakes of the show. In a similar way, the conductor and advisor, Taki-sensei, challenges them to take going to nationals seriously, uprooting the typical band structure to get the point across. Going to nationals is a very predictable goal in high school club anime, so this emphasis on actually putting in the work required to get there was really refreshing to see.

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Natsuki is an excellent example of a character whose goals and ambitions change after taking nationals more seriously.

Even when Kitauji fights tooth and nail to secure the best performances, their success isn’t always guaranteed. The fighting spirit that emerged from this was really rewarding to watch, as characters shifted from being indifferent to incredibly passionate about whether or not their school won. This extended to characters’ lives outside of school too, especially Kumiko’s older sister, who has a side plot concerning what she wants to get out of college. Sound! Euphonium didn’t hesitate to drag characters through unpleasant possibilities, and it used those possibilities as a way to encourage some kind of forward momentum in both the narrative of the show, and the characters’ emotions. While Kumiko isn’t confronted with life goals and their consequences, she is slowly seeing how these things play out in those older than her. Maybe with more seasons, these life decisions will weigh more heavily and complicate band.

Animation and Sound

Kyoani pulled out all the stops for Sound! Euphonium. This anime has some of the most beautiful uses of animation the studio has to offer, and I was constantly blown away by the level of detail in each shot. From lens flares, reflections and creative lighting, to imitating a handheld camera and doing some really great CGI shots, Sound! Euphonium explored a lot of creative choices in its animation that I wasn’t prepared for, but loved all the same. This animation style helped to emphasize the band instruments, since the detail work on the lighting side of things made them appear hyperreal. Adding onto this, Sound! Euphonium made good on its concert band promises by animating the actual instrument playing extremely well. In true Kyoani style, the fluid-yet-structured way of animating hands was the most rewarding part of watching the instruments being played onscreen.

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Sound! Euphonium uses a variety of animation techniques to make its concert band shine.

In terms of sound, I really appreciated how Sound! Euphonium was able to demonstrate individual sections of a piece, have us get to know those parts, and then do the big reveal of combining them in the final performances. Characters face and overcome various challenges while they learn their parts of a piece, and watching them practice over and over again meant that I developed pride in watching the characters learn those parts and triumph at competitions, especially since I had learned where each character struggles in the piece. Perhaps even more interesting for the sound in Sound! Euphonium is how they even pay attention to distinguishing between good and bad playing, in subtle ways not just in keysmashing vs autotuned. Starting from Episode 1, Kumiko notices that Kitauji’s band is awful, but their music is still entirely passable as a high school band, and it isn’t made incredibly obvious that their playing is an abomination. There is a level of finesse in what is portrayed as good vs great in the instruments and I loved that.

(A Little Something Extra: Quotorium x Piano)

Now for a little music appreciation. I’ve been playing the piano ever since I was little, much like Kumiko and her euph. And like Kumiko, I went through an acceptance and appreciation of the instrument I was learning. At some point in high school, playing the piano became fun. Admittedly, this is partly because homework was more overwhelming than before and I had enough of an excuse to escape doing it by practicing my pieces, but I definitely also noticed a shift in my skill as a musician during that time. Something clicked, and I realized how amazing it was to be able to play music and have the training necessary to just sit down and play without worry. I’m well out of lessons by now, but I still have a keyboard with me that I play whenever I’m stressed (so, a lot).

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Kumiko grows with her instrument, becoming someone who suits it even when she had her doubts beforehand.

Perhaps the most important thing for my purposes here, music is also a key way for me to connect with media, much like this blog. If I’m enjoying an anime, I’ll often hunt down sheet music of its OST -especially if the songs won’t get out of my head. After coming back from Japan I was saddened by how unresponsive my fingers were after months of not playing. My relationship to the piano has been with me my whole life, much like Kumiko and her euph, and it’s gotten to the point where playing the piano is a natural response for me. I’m not really even that good at piano anymore, but I really enjoy playing!

So What? 

Sound! Euphonium was a delight to watch! It expertly used emotional beats to its advantage and tied a very large cast together with its dedication to exploring ambitions in a concert band setting. For me, Sound! Euphonium was everything I had wanted from K-On!, which I have written about in its slice of life contexts here. There were moments when the arcs would drag, and characters would drop in and out of relevance in unpredictable ways, which tended to be resolved by the end performances weaving things together again. The narrative had a push and pull that made it interesting, even if most of the arcs may have felt predictable. For Sound! Euphonium, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

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Reina and Kumiko share several impactful and touching moments throughout the show.

One of the reasons I appreciated Sound! Euphonium so much was its ability to connect the music in relevant ways to the character relationships that each arc explores. When an anime can devote equal attention to the goals set by its characters and the complications that rise up between characters along the way, the stakes are so much more appreciated. The detail not only in the animation but in the way the anime sounded and presented its sounds was top notch, and pushed Sound! Euphonium from good to great in my books. If you haven’t watched Sound! Euphonium yet, I highly recommend doing so, even if you have no experience with music.

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