Whenever a batch of new anime series make their seasonal debut, a handful of shows tend to have a hype train behind them right from the beginning–followed by a train of people wondering what the hell that hype is all about. Nowhere does this conflict of hype make itself more apparent than in the reactions to new shows by Kyoto Animation–a studio which is practically known for their divisiveness among anime fans in English-speaking communities.
This consistency of controversy comes as the result of the studio’s signature style of typically low-key, high school-based comedy, romance, and drama stories, with adorable, big-eyed characters and ludicrously high-quality animation. To anyone who hasn’t taken the time to engage with each of their shows and to figure out what makes them tick, it can look from the outside like KyoAni keep repeating the same formula over and over again in creating just one type of very divisive show.
Of course, anyone who actually watches each of these series will quickly realize that they convey different atmospheres, themes, and writing styles, which make each of them distinct. While the plot description of Hibike Euphonium may read an awful lot like the plot description of K-On, the actual content of the series is quite different. Both are about adorable high school girls joining music-based clubs, and both go out of their way to create a realistic, heavily-detailed setting for those girls to inhabit; but the motivations and personalities of the characters, the nature of their clubs, and the overall tone of each series is completely different.
Both K-On and Euphonium make their central themes apparent from the start of the first episode, and are driven from the perspective of the main character. K-On is a story about the idiot savant Yui Hirasawa trying to find a place to belong and something to do with her time upon entering high school, and stumbling her way into four powerful friendships and a passion for guitar playing with her joining the light music club. While the club activities are integral to the narrative in the long run, as each of the band members becomes legitimately attached to their role as musicians, the point of the story is to show how that group of friends comes together, and how they grow as people by being friends with one another.
Meanwhile, Hibike! Euphonium is a show about the different kinds of relationships that a musician can have with the activity of playing music itself, and stars a protagonist who is struggling to understand the nature of her own relationship with musicianship.
The central conflict of the series is painted right in its opening scene, with Kousaka Reina and Oumae Kumiko learning that their middle-school band didn’t make it to the national competition, even though they won a gold medal at the regionals. Reina is so upset by this that she bursts into tears; but Kumiko asks, in confusion, if Reina really thought they could have made it to the nationals, creating a fjord between them.
As we learn throughout the first two episodes, Reina is someone who takes playing the trumpet very seriously, and even takes lessons outside of school. It’s clear that she has a passion for playing the instrument and is desperate to reach some kind of success in her band career. Similarly, contrabass player Sapphire states a desire to stake her life on the instrument, and has nothing but optimism about the idea of making it to nationals.
Her determination takes a different form from Reina’s–Sapphire seems to relish in the idea of doing anything it takes to play her instrument as best she can, whereas Reina seems more propelled by a fear of failure, and is more determined to win in the sense that failure is not an option. Both of these players are very passionate in a similar way, yet exhibit their passion through the filters of very different personalities.
Kumiko, meanwhile, doesn’t have a passion for playing in band–or at least isn’t aware of it if she does. She tries to deliberately avoid joining band, but ends up doing it because the first friends that she makes in high school join; and she ends up playing the Euphonium again by way of peer pressure. Kumiko doesn’t seem to understand the way that others are passionate about performing, or is possibly afraid of believing in that passion. She sees herself as a normal person passing through life in a normal way, and doesn’t take musicianship seriously as a passion or career option. The irony in all of this, of course, is that she happens to be talented.
Not only has Kumiko been a member of a band that made it very close to national-level competition, but when she shows up at her new high school, she can instantly detect the lack of skill in their band club, even when others can’t. Funnily enough, she even carries around an enormous tuba figurine on her school bag at all times, signaling a clear interest in brass instruments; yet none of this has translated into the drive to actually perform her instrument–and that’s not surprising! Speaking as a big time music fan with a lot of big time music fan friends who all used to play instruments in high school and don’t really anymore, I’ve seen firsthand how even being pretty attached to and skilled at an instrument doesn’t necessarily translate into a passion for starting a career with that instrument.
Nevertheless, Kumiko is almost haunted by her history as a euphonium player. She remembers her older sister teaching her how to play, and remembers the performances that she was a part of to earn the school’s gold medal. She even takes some enjoyment out of watching her novice friend Hazuki excitedly purchasing and practicing to use a tuba mouthpiece, without even understanding what it is. It’s clear that Kumiko has a fond attachment to music and performance, yet can’t get over that moment when she had to face off against Reina’s passion.
It’s possible that Kumiko is afraid of Reina’s passion–or, simply, that she doesn’t want to become passionate about performing in band. She doesn’t want to put stakes on her enjoyment of playing the euphonium, and would rather live casually without getting properly invested in anything. As we can see from the people around her, it’s really the dour commitment shown by Reina exclusively that’s so scary. Everyone in the club clearly cares about their instruments, and all of them but one raise their hands when asked if they’d rather play with the goal of competing nationally, even though it’s hard to imagine that many of them would be nearly as crushed as Reina would be if they didn’t make it.
The only player who raises her hand to keeping the club casual is Kumiko’s former elementary school bandmate, Aoi, who reveals later that her decision was made as a somewhat cynical defense mechanism. She explains that she doesn’t expect the others to take their commitment seriously based on her past experiences, but admits as well that it’s partly out of fear that she, herself, might not care that much. Again, it comes from the fear of being let down–to be crying their eyes out like Reina was when they find out that they didn’t make it–to sincerely open their hearts to something and to give it their all, knowing that they could possibly fail.
What Kumiko fears is authenticity. Just as she can’t bring herself to sincerely apologize to Reina, she can’t sincerely admit to herself that she wants to play the euphonium; or, that if she really did give it her all, then there’s a chance that she could win. She fears emotional investment. This girl, who chose her high school based on which one had the cutest uniforms, describes her first day of school as “meh,” and agonizes over having caused a pain that she either doesn’t want to understand, or doesn’t want to admit that she understands, is being put face to face with an overwhelming opposition of sincerity from all of the people around her–and I’m willing to bet it’s only a matter of time before she slowly gets turned around to the other team.
Unlike Kyoto Animation’s high school comedy manga adaptations such as K-On, Lucky Star, or Nichijou, all of which are typically paced around scene-by-scene gags reflecting the four-panel nature of their source material, Hibike Euphonium is paced around complete episodes, and integrates its punchlines more naturally into the flow of its scenes. While the show is rife with hilarious moments, largely created by its most comedic character, the heart-stoppingly beautiful Tanaka Asuka, it would be difficult to regard it as a comedy show in the same way as the other three that I mentioned. Euphonium’s comedic and dramatic moments rise naturally out of the situations that it presents, but the show isn’t structured around them. Instead, it’s structured around the subtle melodrama between Kumiko’s inner conflict and the attitudes of the people surrounding her.
The uses of fluid animation, consistent depth-of-field cinematography, and high-detail backgrounds, are all typical of Kyoto Animation; though Euphonium isn’t as showy or dramatic with its use of lighting and effects as shows like Kyoukai no Kanata or Hyouka. If anything, it’s probably most visually comparable to Free!, though it comes off as restrained in comparison, due to the lack of fanservice. The character designs have a bit more sharpness and complexity to them than those in K-On or Tamako Market, and with more curliness in their hair and eyes than those in Hyouka, but without quite getting into the realm of overwhelming hotness that Kyoukai no Kanata went for. It’s the perfect combination of saccharine cute and grounded realism, which keeps the show feeling relatable on top of being pleasant to look at. Little touches like the hard-ass teacher chastising girls for rolling up their skirts do a lot to position the show squarely in real life, and out of the fantastical realm of most high-school anime; and the series makes great use of earthen tones everywhere without feeling like it’s an Attack-on-Titan-esque nightmare of browns.
With likable characters who seem to have sparks of excellent chemistry between them, fantastic visuals, an interesting storyline which takes the unique stance of following a character who is talented, yet lacking in passion and authenticity, and excellent pacing in its comedic and dramatic elements, I think that Hibike! Euphonium is something worth being hyped about, and is certainly the series that I’m most excited about to come out of the spring 2015 season.
If you’ve watched the first two episodes of this show, then let me know what you thought of them in the comments below. Subscribe to see more videos like this, and consider supporting my channel via patreon or paypal, or by sharing the video around. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!