Meet Oumae Kumiko, a first-year high school student. Think of her as a snarky yet lackadaisical protagonist, content to go with the flow.

Watch her get dragged into joining her school’s equally lackadaisical concert band—and getting stuck with playing the euphonium (again).

And now watch the band decide, without realizing the consequences, to aim to compete at the Nationals.

This is the story of Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium), a 13-episode series animated in 2015 by Kyoto Animation, directed by Ishihara Tatsuya and based on the novels by Takeda Ayano. It’s a story of team conflicts, of personal insecurities, of a tangled web of goals and priorities and friendships and animosity among an ensemble of musicians. But at its core, Euphonium is a story of ambition.

Ambition lies in the center of several of Euphonium’s themes:

– At the group level, it shows up in the group conflicts between the highly ambitious members and those who just want to have fun. If this conflict is handled poorly, the result is a sour group atmosphere, apathy, and even an exodus of members. Herein lie the personal insecurities of the band president Ogasawara Haruka, who tries to keep the group from falling apart while questioning whether she was the right person for the job.

– At a personal level, it shows up in the relationship between Kumiko and the first-year trumpet virtuoso Kousaka Reina. Through a series of visually breathtaking and emotionally charged scenes, Euphonium deliberately pits Reina’s ferocious passion for her craft against Kumiko’s non-committal laissez-faire attitude.

– And to put everything in perspective, Euphonium contrasts the passion for music with the other commitments in life. Through the senior saxophone player studying for upcoming entrance exams, the show pits the ambition for the band against another ambition: that of university.

Ultimately, Euphonium’s message on ambition is optimistic yet sympathetic. It shows the band aiming for Nationals, and Kumiko being influenced by Reina’s drive. But Euphonium understands that ambition can be terrifying. As multiple instances within the series demonstrate, daring to aim high means leaving oneself vulnerable to the potential anguish of failure. Euphonium understands this, but, as this article points out, it also respects those who choose not to or don’t get the chance to follow through on their ambitions: they to terms with their circumstances, or find support among friends (warning: the link is an analysis piece, so beware of spoilers). As the contrabass player Midori puts it: “Aim for moon: if you miss, you’ll [land among the stars].”

Top: "who are you calling snarky?" Bottom: Asuka studies her music
Top: Kumiko–“who are you calling snarky?”
Bottom: Asuka studies her music

Euphonium’s strength in storytelling lies in its ability to effortlessly juggle its story arcs and flesh out its characters in a brief 13 episodes. This is achieved in part through short sequences that subtly develop otherwise static characters. These sequences show the audience multiple sides of these characters, thereby changing our perception of them. Take the senior euphonium player Tanaka Asuka for example. She is introduced as a bombastic, playful section leader, who everyone seems to think should have been band president. Yet, that playful image is shattered with a single scene of her sitting with headphones, bent over a sheet of music, revealing a ferocious intensity underneath the playfulness. Later sequences, scattered throughout the following episodes, demonstrate that she only cares about her music, and has neither the willingness nor the skills to resolve social conflicts. By the end of the series, Asuka’s character has developed while remaining static, as we see her in a different light.

I think I’ve praised the storytelling enough. Let’s move on to the visual and audio presentation.

This show looks gorgeous.

It’s a different kind of gorgeous from ufotable’s flashy colours and effects. The beauty lies in the details, from the reflections on brass instruments to the dreamy city lights, to the masterful use of shots to support the storytelling. A shot of the conductor, alone in a raincloud-dimmed room after a band conflict, hints at possible insecurities beneath his authoritative confidence. A close-up of Reina smiling at Kumiko, with the background streetlights literally dissolving into each other, perfectly captures this flash of enchantment and drives home Reina’s influence over our protagonist. But I can’t claim to know much about shot-framing. For a more thorough analysis of Euphonium’s visual details, you can check out some insights here (warning: the linked article analyzes a later episode, so expect spoilers).

Clockwise from top left: reflections on instruments, dreamy city lights from atop a hill, the conductor alone, lights melting into each other as Reina smiles
Clockwise from top left: reflections on instruments, dreamy city lights from atop a hill, the conductor alone, lights melting into each other as Reina smiles

The sound is nothing to complain about. The background music ranges from pensive piano in quiet moments, to Offenbach’s racing Galop in times of excitement, to swelling violins and yearning piano during the emotional highlights. Euphonium brilliantly complements its audio with its visuals to tell its story. The most notable instance for me is a scene in episode 3, where the band has stopped practicing due to band politics. Naturally, this frustrates the fiercely motivated Reina. What follows is a breathtaking sequence of Reina alone, practicing the theme from Dvorak’s From the New World. As she finishes the yearning melody, the camera zooms up and out, and we see her in a distant bird’s-eye-view as she lets loose her wordless frustration in a bloodcurdling scream. A truly insightful moment into her passion, made possible by a superb combination of visual and audio presentation (here’s the YouTube video clip–note the fair use of clips for the purposes of criticism. All rights belong to their respective owners).

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Sound! Euphonium. Would I recommend it? Well…

I think you’ll like this show if:

– You have fond memories of a team you were part of, or if any of the above-mentioned themes resonate with you

– You appreciate a well-written set of characters

– You like gorgeous visuals

However, if any of the following applies to you, you might not enjoy this show:

– None of these themes resonate with you, or if you feel indifferent to these conflicts and characters. If that’s the case, Euphonium will likely bore you.

– You’d rather have nothing to do with two people of the same gender acting in an “are they romantically attracted to each other?” sort of way, because certain scenes seem to hint at this with no definite conclusion.

 

Sound! Euphonium is available for free legal streaming at Crunchyroll.