The premise of Sound! Euphonium is just the sort of slice-of-life story that might baffle those who are not familiar with the world of anime. In the Western world in particular, we are used to our tidy little genres that everything fits into, whether that be drama, sci-fi, crime, soap, or whatever. What we don’t really get is slice-of-life. As they go, this is one of the more accessible ones. Unlike, say, K-on! where basically nothing much ever happens, there is a progression here, and plenty of dramatic plot beats.
Our point of view character is Kumiko Oumae, a first year student at Kitauji High School who decides to join the Concert Band Club, and makes some new friends there. It quickly becomes apparent that there is some bad blood between the second and third years, with a whole bunch of students having left the club under a cloud, the first of several gentle mysteries the series explores. The school has had little recent success in band tournaments, but a new teacher/mentor/conductor for the club has been appointed, and he has ambitions. He has personal reasons for that, which is another mystery to be solved. By a combination of his drive and influence and the students’ hard work and dedication, the impossible starts to become possible for them.
The first series focusses on the lead up to a qualifying tournament, while the second takes us through a higher tier of qualifying before peaking with the national championships, with a one-episode coda at the end. All sorts of issues are explored along the way. Some of them are the usual suspects: love triangles, family issues, that sort of thing, but there is also a very strong focus on the importance of friendship. The band can only really achieve success when everyone is working together and supporting each other, so this is a story of how vital a support network can be in life. Individual brilliance will only get them so far. Jealousies have to be set aside for the greater good of the band, such as who gets to play the solo parts. It has been traditional for the third years to do that, but the new teacher is immediately keen to shake that up and prioritise talent over seniority. In a country that focusses so strongly on respect for elders, that makes for an awkward vibe.
There are so many great characters in this series, and the characterisation is so strong that we get to know many members of the band very well over the course of the two seasons, despite them being only 13 episodes a piece (just over 20 minutes an episode, apart from the double-length opener to the second season). The cast is overwhelmingly female (well, this is an anime), and there is a strong sense of attraction between a few of them bubbling under the surface, which can be frustrating to watch as it never goes anywhere. Kumiko’s best friend (eventually) is a fascinating character named Reina, a melancholy girl who is incredibly gifted at the trumpet (her back story is examined in the second series and it’s brilliant). They are clearly drawn to each other in a way that comes across as more than just a friendship, and in one powerful scene they come very close to confessing their love to each other in an intimate and romantic moment at a beautiful viewpoint, on the night of a festival. And yet it all leads to nothing, with Reina instead going after the teacher (which also leads to nothing). I’m not keen on these things being thrown in to provide moments of drama if they then get ignored later on. I love a soppy romance, but this series just keeps teasing them without ever following through. It’s a common problem in anime, as if everyone’s afraid to break the status quo when they’ve come up with a good premise. A series that moves forward such as Clannad is a rarity. Sound! Euphonium, at least from the point of view of romances, goes nowhere. But that’s the only area where it doesn’t progress. In all other respects it’s fabulous with the characterisation.
It also has an amazing standard of animation. This is Kyoto Animation, after all, but they’ve outdone themselves with this one. They seem to have found a way to make the characters almost take on a three-dimensional appearance while retaining a traditional animation style, just by careful shading of the cheeks below the eyes, and the characters in profile look amazing. The backgrounds are as gorgeous as you would expect from this studio, utterly enchanting. As an added bonus, due to the nature of the series, there’s some great music. My personal favourite is the concert band version of The Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Rydeen (from 1979), which is accompanied by a fun bit of animation of some of the band members dancing.
The two seasons of Sound! Euphonium are far from being the end of the story. By the end of the second series the first year is complete and the third years are leaving. There are two films, Liz and the Blue Bird, which takes place before the end of the second series (and I will be writing about that next week), and Sound! Euphonium The Movie, which only premiered in Japan earlier this year and I am yet to watch. A third series has been announced, so I’m delighted to see that this is clearly a popular franchise doing well. Kyoto Animation deserve every success for this, which really represents in my opinion the pinnacle of their animation skills. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, even if the answer to that question, in line with the slice-of-life genre, is not very much at all. RP