I thought about splitting this ridiculously long post into two pages, then decided it wasn’t worth it.
I’ve seen a few people over the years wonder what I consider to be a good anime and whilst my standards have definitely changed with time, I don’t see the current one I’ve finalized around the Fall 2014/Winter 2015 period to endure any modifications anytime soon. I know it was around that time I stuck to the standards I have now, because that was the period when I stopped reading anime blogs and looking at my Twitter timeline in order to prevent people from accusing me of parroting my colleagues, as well as to prevent my opinion from getting swayed by others. It was also the period where I revisited some anime I praised in 2014 and found to be kinda boring because of some flaws that were more apparent now that it lacked the “surprise” factor (Amagi Brilliant Park, Witchcraft Works, Sabagebu). And then there was Detroit Metal Fucking City. Never figured that’d be the anime to trigger an eye-opening experience like mine.
But regardless of the past, my standards are pretty damn simple and I’m going to be using Sound Euphonium (and Shirobako to an extent) as an example to illustrate them since I just finished a rewatch of the show. More specifically, I’m going to go through the individual episodes in order to pinpoint how my opinions swayed until the finale finalized ’em. Hopefully, this will allow people to see where I’m coming from, and even more hopefully, it’ll cause people to think more before they explain what they like about an anime.
First, I look at the anime and see if it interests me enough to check out. I usually look at the premise and staff first because there’s a big difference between books and moving pictures, but it’s not like it would have mattered in Euphonium’s case because there was no way for me to get an English translation of it. Anyways, I was kinda intrigued that the source material was based on an actual novel, but whilst I’ve got nothing against the director despite not liking much of his stuff, I tend to dislike the writer (Jukki Hanada), especially after that godawful adaptation of Kyoukai no Kanata he gave us. Not to mention, I don’t like the cute girl genre and every promotion I saw of this show added a giant number of them to the cast with only two token males. As I was wondering where the teacher who was supposed to whip the band into shape based on the novel synopsis was aka the guy that made me think maybe this wouldn’t suck as long as he maintained a constant presence, he shows up around the last minute (at least from what I can remember).
It should be worth noting that whilst I wasn’t trusting of the show either due to KyoAni’s recent track record and the fact that the premise brought K-On to mind, the main reason I distrusted it was because it seemed like it’d be Shirobako if you focused on the characters still in high school and changed the subject from anime to music. In other words, I was afraid it’d go too far in the opposite direction of K-On and be musical edutainment, with what passes for drama being largely token as if to say “work is hard”. I don’t even like watching documentaries describing the brilliance of Saturday Night Fever because I can clearly see that for myself. Nevertheless, it was the only anime out on Tuesday that season (which is usually also a warning sign that it’s not going to be good) and I try to give KyoAni a chance despite their faults, so I decided it was worth an episode.
I have an old first impressions post somewhere detailing how I dropped this show early on and I still stand by that decision at the time because this first episode didn’t impress me at all. Distrust was a factor certainly since during my recent rewatch, I didn’t find the first episode all that tedious. But to put it shortly, it was Shirobako all over again.
Basically, what happens in the first episode is that the teacher only shows up in a short two-minute scene and aside from the opening minutes, there’s no drama besides Kumiko deciding if she wants to join the band club or not. However, the show doesn’t tell us anything about her besides the fact that she has friends and a past with the euphonium, and it doesn’t look like she’ll lose anything if she decides to not join. There’s some awkwardness between her and Reina, but it’s treated so light-heartedly that I couldn’t take it seriously. I have no reason to care about the band sucking because like with Shirobako’s animation team, they’re fictional people who don’t seem to lose too much if they fail in life. On top of that, the cutesy way Kumiko and her two useless friends talk about music grinded my gears, and the more serious talk with Shuichi fared no better because of the “no good drama” reasons I mentioned earlier.
In short, pass.
However, the fact that it was the only Tuesday anime eventually became impossible to ignore and I downloaded the second episode. It kept my attention a little better than the first because they were describing the instruments and such with more passion and less cutesy-ness, but it was still in Shirobako mode of just telling me about the subject matter with little interesting story to go along with it. Things improved when the teacher finally shows up and asks what the band wants to do: play for fun or aim for the Nationals. But I’m still noticing the fact that there’s a large amount of girls in this band and whilst that may be true in real life in Japan, it’s still jarring as hell to see.
I’m pleased to see that the teacher (who looks a lot like Cillian Murphy, which made it all the funnier) is living up to his end of the bargain by acting cruel under his kind demeanor, flat-out telling the band that if they don’t get their act together in one week, he won’t permit them to enter the Sunfes competition or even teach them anything. Unfortunately, there’s still a little too much light-heartedness surrounding the potential drama for my sake (namely, anything revolving around the Tubacabra). Even when Planetes was in light-hearted mode, it nearly killed off its main characters on a regular basis. And whilst I understand that you need the characters to slack off in order for the drama to work, how about less talk regarding Sunfes and more talk regarding their own personal motivations for being in the band in the first place?
Not exactly the most engaging drama I’ve ever seen and the characters still haven’t been very fleshed out, but it’s functional because it actually challenges the K-On formula in a direct manner, and Taki-sensei (aka the only interesting person so far on account of his contradictory nature) gets quite a bit of importance whether it be through direct involvement or the students talking about him, so I’ll take it. Still not expecting too much from this show though. Since the main character hasn’t been more than a passive observer so far, it’s hard to feel for her conflict with Reina. And aside from being defensive around her teacher, we don’t know a thing about the latter either.
Ignoring the crappy boob jokes in the first few minutes, this episode focused on the band’s Sunfes exploits was a disappointment. Someone said it best that it felt like the episode wanted to keep its identity as KyoAni fluff whilst aiming for a more intense sports drama field and the combination wasn’t meshing very well. I mean that’s all we see of the Sunfes event? I may not like the movie Drumline, but at least the drama was present during the musical bits. There were also some hints thrown in regarding future plot points, but I have no reason to care about them because the show still hasn’t given me a reason to care. Who cares if the band makes it to the Nationals? Who cares about Reina’s school situation? Who cares about Aoi’s cram school stuff? You can’t just tack relatable problems to a character and expect me to be interested, Euphonium. It didn’t work for Shirobako and it doesn’t work here.
Boooorrrrriiinnngggg! This was pretty much what I wanted the show to NOT be. A little hinting at upcoming events and then focusing on the lackluster problems of a boring cute girl character who has not contributed to the story in any significant manner. Oh, and a potential love triangle? Bleh!
It wasn’t just Euphonium though. Practically every episode the week this thing aired suckedballs bar Punch Line’s (which ended up sucking the week after). I understand that a lot of shows like to put a halt to the story at the halfway point so they can set up their second halves, but their are ways to do the latter without doing the former, y’know?
As I was going through this episode for the first time, I kept begging for the show to not wimp out in the end and breathed a giant sigh of relief when it didn’t. Whilst it didn’t fully convince me that Euphonium could be a show I’d actually enjoy, this episode was the point where it finally got out of that Shirobako mode that it was dragging around like a Tokyo man with banana peels in his pocket (it is fucking hard to find a trash can in that area). You see, my biggest problem with Shirobako’s (and Euphonium’s before this episode) drama is that I never once believed that anything bad would happen to these characters. They could talk about firing Taro all they wanted, but even though you wished it would happen, you’d know the show would never do it. Euphonium, on the other hand, made sure Aoi stayed gone after she left the band. And it wasn’t for a weak reason either (oh hi there Chuunibyou). She generally had college to think about, and band practice was getting in the way of that.
I know the conflict between school and band was talked about prior, but since they never actually “did” it, I didn’t have a reason to pay attention to that plot point. Like I said many times, there’s a difference between saying problems exist and actually having them be a part of your story. And if you’re going to do the latter, go all out. Make me feel like it wasn’t a waste of time. Make sure Aoi sticks to her word and doesn’t come back because “we need you” or something I’d expect to see in a Shonen Jump adaptation. Don’t make her like the Aoi from that other anime I’ve referenced so many times by now.
But it wasn’t just Aoi’s drama that was engaging. It was the drama she caused everybody else. Kumiko’s realization that she can’t treat the band’s practices lightly. Haruka’s breakdown regarding how she can’t be a good club president. Asuka revealing a darker side to herself. It was all mostly setup, but since it was being anchored to something I could take seriously, I actually found it engaging. Finally! Real drama that challenges the characters and makes me feel importance from the story! More episodes like this and less like last week’s please.
I know a lot of people consider this episode the turning point for the series, but I honestly liked the previous one better. The love triangle elements were lame, had nothing to do with the band’s progress, and involved characters who had no story line significance prior and didn’t gain any after. But the way it tied into everything else this episode was about made it tolerable. Although there wasn’t much musical drama this week, this episode still managed to hold my attention well after Kumiko accidentally invites Reina to go to the Agata Festival with her because it took the time to develop the individual band members and why music matters so much to them in a serious manner, with Reina in particular getting a substantial amount of focus to the point where I was actually starting to care about her role in the show. Okay maybe the pretentious yuri-ness was a little overdone, but I’ll gladly take it over the standard KyoAni fluff. Not to mention, that music segment reminding me what animation was capable of accomplishing was a nice way to close things off.
I was very disappointed with the way this episode started off with Sapphire moping about her part in the love triangle stuff. For one thing, that plot thread still wasn’t and never will be important to the music-related stuff. Second, Sapphire (and Hazuki for that matter) has not contributed anything of importance to the story at all and it felt like this part was written just so she’d have something to do. A little too late into the show to make me care for this girl, Euphonium. It reminds me of those episodes in Steins;Gate when Okabe had to date the trap and the cat girl in order to fix the timeline and the show suffered in quality for it because no one gives a shit.
Thankfully, unlike those episodes, Sapphire’s plot thread ends halfway in so that other more interesting ones could take over. The auditions for the major band competition were underway and I was pleased to see Hazuki get cut, along with some potential drama surrounding Reina getting the solo trumpet parts to emerge at the end of it all, showing that Euphonium was going to stick to its more serious tone for a while longer. Don’t fuck up now, KyoAni. I’m actually starting to like one of your shows in what feels like forever.
Aside from being disappointed that Taki backed down and allowed a second audition for the trumpet solo parts, this episode was great. Intense internal conflict the entire way through, and the cattiness of the band members never felt forced. I know a bunch of people rioted when Reina expressed her love for Taki, but I wasn’t going to touch those discussion boards with a ten-foot pole. Fans ruin everything, guys! Unless you run a blog dedicated towards examining the fanbase itself like Frog, I just don’t see what’s to gain from paying attention to them.
Great conclusion to the auditions arc. Kaori’s conflict between being screwed in the past along with someone being more qualified than her in the present versus her goal of playing the trumpet solo before she graduates (she’s a third-year, so this was her last chance) really carried the episode and all the other characters’ roles from Asuka’s indifference to Kumiko’s continued support of Reina (although seriously, enough with the pretentious yuri dialogue) to Reina herself exclaiming that what Kaori has gone through doesn’t affect her in the slightest. Was kinda worried when Kaori was ultimately chosen for the role, but her handing it off after realizing that she doesn’t want her dream to come from sympathy cleared those worries up. You’ve got two episodes left Euphonium. End strong!
Kumiko finally gets her own personal drama in this episode, allowing her to become interesting in her own right. Up till now, she was always an observer who was trying to find the personal motivation everyone around her had, with any semblance of personal drama dedicated to brief flashbacks that we don’t have enough context to sympathize with. That sort of “find your own motivation” story works when you’re surrounded by more interesting characters, but they’re not exactly going to hold you up forever, you know? Thankfully, although it gets a little over dramatic for my taste, Kumiko realizes in this half-hour installment just how important music and the Nationals is to her after realizing how outclassed by Asuka on the euphonium she is to the point that she’s crying the same way Reina did when they only got bronze back in middle school. The revelation that you can get emotional about music just because you really enjoy it was a nice breeze of simplicity after the more complex/intense issues that Aoi and Kaori had to face whilst still functioning as engaging drama thanks to everything Kumiko has experienced prior. And of course, that beautifully directed run scene along with more screen time for Taki didn’t hurt either.
I’ll also admit that now that the last few episodes have allowed me to take the characters seriously, their brief moments of “hanging out” are nowhere near as tedious as before. I even find them kinda cute.
The epic conclusion to Euphonium’s first season was here, and whilst you’d have to be dumb to think they wouldn’t make the Nationals considering there’d be no more story otherwise, thanks to all the sacrifices that came prior, I had become invested in the band’s goals and how if they lost, said sacrifices would have been in vain. We get some callbacks to Kumiko’s ponytail woes in the first episode that are woven in well here, and whilst I would have preferred the final orchestra scene to not have had so many interruptions with confirmations/future plot points for the next season it was beautifully animated and went on for long enough to be an engaging work of art. Ending the series right after the reveal of the competition’s results along with a credits sequence showcasing the band’s journey culminating in a happy picture of the group was a nice touch too. Honestly, how much you like this episode depends on how much you liked the previous ones. But since the show had managed to successfully engage me overtime, I came out of the finale with a smile on my face.
So what exactly did we learn from this incredibly long post? Well, we learned that I really like it when a show has an interesting point, and that I like said point to be told through flawed characters whose personal drama drives the story. I only sympathize with characters when I feel like their flaws are important to what’s going on and whether or not they change at the end of the journey, I want the characterization to have impact throughout. And of course, I like how animation is capable of achieving things you couldn’t do in live-action.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy light-hearted antics, character interactions, edutainment, or setup for its own sake (unless it’s funny, which it never is). This is why the first few episodes of Euphonium were a bit of a snore and the latter half mostly scored positive with me, not unlike the critical reaction to the first season of BoJack Horseman. And just like BoJack Horseman, I’m hoping that now that Euphonium has found its groove, the second season can deliver something worthy of a critical acclaim and not end up like Sidonia 2 or basically any sequel to a light novel adaptation ever. Basically, if it stays focused on the character drama and makes said drama come off as important at a more consistent rate next year, then I’ll eat it up fine. I can handle a little Tubacabra antics/barely connected relationship bullshit as long as it doesn’t dwarf a majority of the run time (I enjoyed this show more on rewatch now that I knew it had every intention of taking its subject matter seriously). If the latter happens though, then it’s getting the same pass I gave Shirobako. Really not my speed.
What it all comes down to is that based on my grading system, Sound Euphonium is a decent-at-best (emphasis on “at-best”) show that suffers from what I’d like to call “Steins;Gate-syndrome”, except its shorter length means that it gets to the point a lot faster. Because of how it actually challenges the “cute girl/K-On” formula in a way that isn’t gimmicky and even makes me forget that the majority of the cast are school girls at times, it was able to achieve what I thought impossible for every anime focused on little girls that aren’t named Haibane Renmei, and that is no mean feat. Give it a chance if you haven’t and what I’ve written appeals to you, but I won’t blame you if Episode 6 makes you want to drop this show into a cannon and fire it into the sun.