This is a real and memorable story of girls in their youth. Spring in the first year of high school. Kumiko, a member of the brass band in junior high school, visits the high school brass band club with classmates Hazuki and Sapphire. There, she comes across Reina, her former classmate from junior high.
Kumiko Oumae arrives at Kitauji High School in Kyoto determined to make a better start than she did in junior high. Back then, her music club came agonisingly close to making the Nationals in Japan. Now, she joins the music club in her new school and makes friends with Hazuki Katou (plays the tuba) and Midori Kawashima (plays the contrabass) and again falls into playing her euphonium brass instrument. At the same time, she has to deal with the legacy of her old classmate Reina Kousaka who also attends Kitauji. She unintentionally insulted Reina when they lost in the junior high finals and now can’t figure out how to approach Reina over it. For her part, Reina isn’t concerned with that. She wants to do well, to excel and to be special in her talents. In that, Sound Euphonium! has its most distinct conversation.
I wandered into Sound... without really having any expectations. I am enjoying the Love Live series and its depictions of school idols doing school idol things. But on its basic description, Sound... is like Love Live without the singing and idols. Can you separate the two concepts? Can you have a show about cute girls doing things about music without descending into the ephemera of idol worship? It’s not without precedent: K-On! did so fine without needing to trawl for another angle other than girls playing music and having tea. The melodrama of high school life is shown in loving detail as we see the children engaged in an extremely tense fight to not only qualify for the nationals but to validate their faith in the school when others have written them off for years because of a lack of engagement on the earlier classes' part.
The show does have its lighthearted moments and Kumiko jittery reactions when she realises she’s mouthing off about something Reina holds dear to her while she’s standing behind Kumiko are funny and witty but in the heart of the show, the qualifications for the nationals are where the drama is to be found. Again and again, the cast, including the music teacher Noboru Taki (who is a mixture of indifferent kindness and rigorous taskmaster), remind the students that this is a precious time and will never come again. So the story of how the previous classes simply gave up on the competition and forced the rest of the club to quit serves as the benchmark as to why the nationals are a point to aim for, not an end goal. But when Reina begins to outshine the resident third-year trumpet player Kaori, her fan in the club, Yuko can’t stand it. She publicly shames both Reina and Mr Taki by suggesting that Reina only got solo trumpet duty because she knew Mr Taki before school started. The fallout is immediate and the show spends a considerable amount of time trying to repair the damage. As for the music, it not only is part of the story but frequently is used to bridge emotional moments, convey sentiment and more. It’s alive as much as the characters feel. I never was much for brass marching band stuff but it’s not really overpowering and never out of place in the show.
Kumiko is an interesting character in that she frequently knows she’s not making herself clear to her friends or even herself. She’s happy to go with the flow but as the show progresses she begins to see why Reina was so upset when they lost back in junior high: losing a competition that you know you could have won doesn’t just invalidate your effort, it invalidates you and what you stand for. Anime usually depicts winning and losing as false idols that should not be counted on. So when our heroes lose we don’t feel that bad for them, instead, we’re proud. But here, the story tells us that if the club loses, it won’t just stop their dreams of qualifying for the nationals again, it will be the end of the line for the dreams of a lot of the kids. At 17-18, it’s a bit early to ask the existential question: "Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?" For Kumiko, this dread only slams into her near the third quarter of the show and it’s handled with great skill by director Tatsuya Ishihara and the voice actress Tomoyo Kurosawa as Kumiko and her childhood friend (and possible love interest) Shuichi Tsukamoto played by Haruki Ishiya play to their strengths as the scene turns triumphant after despair. Once Kumiko climbs over this emotional plateau, her arc brings her closer to Reina as she learns to discover her friend and what makes her tick all over again.
The only problem I had with the show is that its moments where nothing happens and we’re just left with Kumiko and her thoughts as she blabs to other people. They’re fine but for some reason, they detract from the excitement and spontaneity of the other moments. It’s almost like they wanted to just make a drama about a young girl’s transition from passive observer to willing participant in her life but had to include the "aren’t we funny because we’re anime girls!" moment as an almost contractual reason. Shame because it really didn’t need it.
All in all, the show’s implementation is better once it gets really going and while I think it could have done without some of the quieter moments in favour of some of the exciting drama between the characters (especially the interplay between Kumiko and Reina), I won’t hold this weakness against it. As for animation, Kyoto Animation continues to be at the top of their game, adding to their roster of great work, and getting the most out of the lively, still and emotional moments of the show. Yes, even the over the top moments, too. The voice cast is a healthy mixture of eternal pep (Kumiko’s immediate friends, club VP Asuka) and the quieter ones (Yuko, Aoi, Kaori, Natsuki) but all have moments of deep and light reflection.
Sound Euphonium! Season 1 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and is now available to free members as well as Premium ones.