This show wasn't even on my radar when the spring season started and now it's a lock for my top anime of the year list. It's funny, so far it's felt like a weak year (although fall looks amazing so far) since there haven't been as many shows that I want to watch but for the shows I am watching so many of them have ended up being ridiculously strong. Now to pray that the PonyCan release isn't ridiculously expensive....
Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium)
In middle school, Kumiko was part of a concert band that didn't advance even far, even if they won a gold medal for their efforts. When her classmate Reina expresses how unhappy she is Kumiko tactlessly says "but did you expect us to do any better?" and she's sure that's ended their relationship. Now she finds herself in high school with no intention of joining the band (especially since they're terrible) but after some pushing from some new classmates and the reappearance of Reina, Kumiko starts to remember that she didn't just play the euphonium, she loved it too.
I didn't care about this show during the preview season because Kyoto Animation has already made K-on! and moe blob excuses for high school girls is not my thing, why watch that even if it has a nicer art style? But instead Kumiko is one of the most-realized high school characters I've ever seen in any medium hands down, it was refreshing to see emotions that I've had finally expressed by someone else. I've never been a part of band or any very large group like this, but I have been part of group projects and large circles of friends so that inner-band conflicts immediately clicked with me and I never felt left out of the story because I'm not familiar with music at all so that huge barrier of entry is missing and I would honestly recommend this to people who aren't even huge anime fans but love character-driven storytelling. Kumiko is a mixture of KyoAni's two big archtypes, she has some of the girliness and fluster that you see in their more moe shows but also an Oreki-like snarkiness and directness which never seemed unintentionally at odds with each other. It's clear to the viewer that parts of her "girly" persona is to try and make and keep friends, so she doesn't rock the boat and push them away like Reina, but it's certainly not all faked and the story never tries to say that her snarky moments are more "true" and "better".
In fact the show is remarkably good at simply presenting the characters and letting the viewer create opinions on them without a "well I feel like they're X" spiel from another character (audibly anyway, the visuals for the show speak tons). All of the side characters are wonderful in this regard, from the fellow eupho player who admits that she does love it but she's caught up by the crowd, not a deeper personal motivation like Kumiko, to Kumiko's older, aggressive sister who prods Kumiko in a mean way until Kumiko snaps and says to the effect Look at you, you gave up what you loved and didn't even achieve anything for it. All of these relationships are complex and varied but they aren't the kinds you need a character chart to navigate, it's a show where you think "oh this was made by real people who know other real people who really understand life."
For all my praise of the show, it's going to be one of my favorites of the year, I also have an equally large concern about it, it has rather blatant queer-baiting. To give a full explanation: Kumiko is invited to a summer festival by a boy she's known since childhood and she doesn't want to go (she finds them boring in general and knows he's hitting on her but she's not interested at all) so she panics, points and says "I'm already going with this kid!" and it turns out to be Reina. Reina is also such a fascinating character, Kumiko is practically terrified to interact with her since she's come to realize just how cutting her last words to her were and desperately doesn't want that kind of drama. But Reina takes this rather seriously, she shows up dressed very nicely for their "date" and proceeds to lead Kumiko up a mountain away from everyone else (uttering wonderful lines along the way like "Yes, they [her dress shoes] do hurt. But, I'm not afraid of pain") and they have an especially charged conversation filled with the wonderful, subtle character animation that KyoAni is known for before the episode ends. I can attest to the fact that I have also had very intense, late night encounters with people I'm not romantically interested in (that also mysteriously seem to never be brought up again) but this is fiction, not life, and if Reina had been that boy this would have been read as romantic for sure. So what then, Reina mentions her own crush later (another misstep, although this one is strictly a source material one and I have to wonder if this mountaintop scene was as charged in the novels) but she continues to have little moments like this with Kumiko and it almost feels like Kumiko's friends know and ship it. Far from hating her, Reina is attracted to Kumiko's bluntness, Reina is the passion to Kumiko's distance where music is concerned and we see both of these elements grow in both girls after this moment (Kumiko tunes down her girly self a bit and falls deeply in love with her music and Reina makes an effort to reach out to their band mates more). And that's why this is frustrating, it's hard to clearly state how charged that scene was and why I immediately read it as romantic not platonic, considering it never advanced that way it certainly felt like queer baiting and I feel like the series deserves that warning now so people can at least expect a broken heart from that.
Moving on, the show is surprisingly good at ultitzing it's full, ensemble cast despite how much of the focus remains on Kumiko. When I first heard that Asuka (the third eupho player and section leader for the brass instruments) becomes more of a focus in the later books I was a bit confused. As the series went on (and the show broadened) I started to understand why, she’s complicated in her own way that the show never quite addresses and instead just lets the viewers notice that something is, different about her, possible special possibly not. Her expressions and movements in the last episode seemed rather telling as it matched up with her personality through the rest of the show, that she has this seemingly boisterous and bouncy personality and yet she purposefully keeps herself removed from everyone. She's distant from even the club's president, who I would call a friend, and almost doesn’t seem to care about the others as long as she keeps moving forward (Reina’s own bluntness is a bit different, while she focuses on herself first she does later show that she does view this activity as a group one and doesn’t want to have bad relations with her section mates, she’s proud and balancing those two is tough). There’s a very quick, one-off line that I think helped sum this up where some other members from other sections note that Asuka should really be helping Kumiko more as she struggles with a new piece and that backs what I saw in some outside posts from other fans; that it’s the upperclassmen who know the individual instruments the best (better than even the teacher especially in large groups) and that she should be providing more guidance than simply playing the piece for her a few times (and the other upperclassmen have noticed this). I don't think I want her as a main character, there doesn't seem to be enough "conflict" in her personality that makes Kumiko so likable, but if there's another season I would love more insight into her mind.
While this is okay as an ending, it wrapped up the plot threads with a great emotional climax, I hope it’s not for two reasons. One is the “of course I want to see what happens next!” aspect but also because for a series that feels so close to life, life doesn’t just end like that. Even after good moments there is still the up and down, contentions and crises of self-doubt, and I want to see how these characters, these other people, happen to handle that since I don’t see that often in stories and people are rather quiet about how they do it in real life! Seeing some small moments in here that were so close to my own (like Kumiko’s run in the penultimate episode) it’s reassurance that my own life isn’t so different and that there are other people I can look to for examples to consider, I want more of that. It's stunning that the show was only 12 episodes as it is, I feel almost greedy for wanting even more than what they crammed in but since I know there are more novels in the original series I'm not going to have too many qualms over this request.