You know, the circumstances surrounding Sound Euphonium are more interesting to me than the show itself. With the moe trend all but dead because “light-novel fad” didn’t want to play nice and share – and KyoAni proving said fad had a point when their attempts to jump in on its territory whilst still maintaining a commitment to cute were about as well-received as second-degree sunburns in the middle of the North Pole – their fall from grace in terms of the public was pre-determined the moment K-On became so big. Word of advice: nothing ages faster than an anime that tries to cash in on a popular trend. Because even the really good products to come from ‘em don’t connect well with future audiences. Or at least, that’s the reason I use for why I can’t get into Bringing Up Baby.
Unfortunately, there’s still a crowd for KyoAni’s shit, and it doesn’t help that the ones that actually do try to do more don’t sell as well. So I guess some trends just won’t die easy in the East, but the West was a different story. I’m not participating in that FAL thing this season – and I never intend to play in it again for that matter – but I can suspect that some participants were frustrated at how so many of KyoAni’s diehard fanbase pretty much gave up on the studio’s new thing prior to airing because they saw it as their version of Sasami-san@Ganbaranai in terms of them repeating themselves. Sure, we knew Euphonium would actually have people play their instruments before we jumped into it, but the lack of focus on the topic wasn’t the only reason why K-On was backlashed so hard. The fact that it wasn’t funny, had dull-as-brick characters, and no f*cking story are problems that quite frankly were impossible for me to ignore, and Euphonium looked like KyoAni’s revenge for all the shit we dished out at their shit, right down to hiring hack-writer Jukki Hanada again. It’s a never-ending cycle of despair worthy of the Vengeance Trilogy.
But then it turns out that Euphonium was less revenge against the shit and more of the studio’s determination to not let PA Works be the only studio to pull out a “darkest before dawn” surprise hit, because now the anime is considered by critics and fans to be KyoAni’s big comeback anime. It’s doing well on MAL’s top charts, it’s pretty much the blogger favorite of the season, and considering my recent record in shows with those sorts of reputations (especially when they involve cute girls like Shirobako and Girls Und Panzer), I’m sure most of you are expecting me to give it a lot of shit. Well of course I am; but in a twist that’s praise-worthy of the Shyamalan meme from Robot Chicken, I think it’s my favorite of these cute girl shows, let alone the popular ones. Because rather than dryly explaining the process like I’m sitting through a construction company meeting despite the fact that I’m an apprentice chef, or trying to cover up for your lack of substance with style like pretty much every movie Guy Ritchie has ever made, it’s a sports-like show with characterization on its mind. And considering that Ping Pong is one of my favorite sports anime, I’m all for that if it’s executed well.
That’s the thing though, isn’t it? I mean excusing the fact that KyoAni are well-known for not focusing on developing their characters, how much can you really achieve in terms of characterization with light-hearted slice-of-life to begin with? After all, it’s a genre designed by nature to have no grit in terms of goals and humor, and the notion of watching fiction in order to relax and “be friends with” is completely lost on me these days. The only way you can possibly get some good substance out of it at this point is to be self-reflexive regarding the genre, and even that has its faults, as Euphonium excellently demonstrates for good and for bad.
Sound Euphonium’s story starts off like practically every KyoAni show in that it’s pretty much exactly as it’s advertised in the summaries whilst being nothing like it’s advertised in the initial PV. On her first day of school, a young girl named Kumiko Oumae notices that her music club kind of sucks and after much prodding from her friends, joins said club with them. However, her middle-school friend (Reina) is also in the club, and due to a music-related incident in the past, she’s pretty nervous around her. But Kumiko and the rest of the “mostly-female for some reason” band don’t have time to focus on their personal problems, because the school hired Cillian Murphy as the club advisor in order to make sure that they achieve their goals of making it to the Nationals. And unlike Will Schuester (if he was channeling Negi Springfield), he’s pretty ruthless underneath his “kind” nature and won’t hesitate to stand in the band’s way if they don’t take things seriously. He’s not exactly Coach Carter or the main teacher from Whiplash, but it’s practically impossible to have a caeki~ moment around him if you know what I mean.
Seeing as how only one novel was released by the time this anime was put into production, you know what that means right? KyoAni once again expanding/changing the source material in their own ways in order to get a decent runtime out of it. I’m not sure what they changed considering I never read the book, but something tells me that the yuri undertones weren’t part of the original package. Yes, the very thing that finally caused the show to get out of its “oh KyoAni are making another anime? Whatever” phase was when something I can only refer to as “that episode” occurred, more than halfway in. “Wait then, Mr. Flawfinder? If the turning point was halfway in, then what about the stuff prior?”
Rightfully so too, because the parts of the story that did interest me was any of the drama focused on the third years. Why? Because being on the verge of graduation, they actually had to struggle in regards to whether their participation in getting to the Nationals was worth sacrificing school and possibly their future for, and when you combine that with Cillian’s teaching methods, it makes for something I can really sink my teeth into. Since all of the main four are in their second year, this means they don’t have said worries and thus don’t have as much stake in the band, causing the initially huge focus on them to be kinda iffy. The main two do get a compelling reason regarding their own participation eventually, but before then, they’re so tight-lipped about their true agendas that I wondered why Kumiko was the main female to begin with other than to be the female version of the typical KyoAni snarky lead who doesn’t even get involved in the actually interesting personal turmoil most of the time.
For the record, like most people, my favorite character was the Vice President, Asuka. Not because of her chipper attitude, which didn’t do too much for me in the beginning and has been known to annoy both the other characters and even fans of this show. I liked her because said attitude functioned as a good contrast to a darker side that does whatever it takes to avoid drama whenever possible, which works as a well-rounded complement to the fact that she’s the most talented and honest member of the band. Unfortunately, what makes her the most (only?) interesting student character is also the very reason why she doesn’t have much screen time, especially when the story kicks into gear. You can’t have tension in your drama if someone who can cut through all the bullshit is readily available, now can you?
Thankfully, the drama never gets too heavy to the point of slipshodness. The finale in particular shows great restraint by not throwing in anything at the last minute and letting the character’s personal journeys and what they learned from ‘em ultimately make up the substance of the final musical climax. It even ends the story right at its highest (well, second-highest) point in order to provide a compelling conclusion that doesn’t outstay its welcome whilst giving a sequel hook that I’m open to receiving whilst not necessarily needing it. See that, ufotable? This is how you end a well-animated personal journey. What? Waver’s appearance was so important to the die-hard continuity fans that you just had to make that last episode just to show him and everyone else’s non-story related roles? Well I don’t give two craps, because that sort of epilogue has not and will never be compelling.
That said, I still think the show holds back a little too much at times. One of the central conflicts in the story is rendered completely pointless by the fact that all the problems were one-sided on their end, and both parties involved just brush it aside once said realization occurs, which makes me wonder why it went on so long in the first place. And for god’s sake, why are none of the male members in the band the least bit interesting? I only remember two of them and they might as well have not existed for all the story importance they had. This especially becomes troublesome during a short love triangle interlude that I would have disliked regardless, but I would have been more forgiving if it had added anything to the story or the characters. Yes, I liked that it was brushed aside as quickly as it came. But if you’re going to include it anyways, you might as well give it the same treatment you gave Asuka’s limited time.
So whilst I can concede that Euphonium has its good points, the drama to fluff ratio isn’t in its favor enough to be a great show. For starters, you’d have to remove all the fluff, and there’s no way KyoAni was going to do that. Second, the drama could have been paced better. Maybe the execution of Ping Pong was too much to ask, but if you had mixed and matched the heavy stuff in the second half with the lighter conversations in the first half ala a Persona game, I wouldn’t have smashed more than two guitars over the show’s head. Instead, I have to sit through a bunch of middling episodes that even the majority of the fans agreed weren’t all that considering the point in the series when it increased in popularity. That makes it one of the better shows of the season for sure, but considering how low a bar that’s been for this Spring in particular, that’s like being awarded a gold medal for getting first place in a soccer competition when all your teammates are three-year olds in broken wheelchairs. I’d personally rather just give it the “decent-at-best certificate” and call it a day.
PS: I don’t think Reina even interacted with Hazuki or Sapphire all that much, which makes the ending video look kind of weird.