Who I Was, Who I’ll Become: Sound! Euphonium’s Two Love Affairs

confession

This essay was commissioned by Sinclair. You can find out more about commissions at my Patreon page or contacting me on Twitter or Tumblr.

Sound!Euphonium is a show about two girls bonding over high school band. What kind of bonding? Well, that is ever the question, and there are many complicating factors when trying to come up with an answer (even more than the usual issue of Japan’s fraught relationship with earnest LGBT representation). The show walks a fine line in arguably playing to and at times subverting elements of the Class-S genre (which emphasize “pure” emotionally intense relationships between young women that are confined to high school/”practice” for heterosexual relationship), studio KyoAni’s usual infatuation with mixing beautiful animation and baseless fanservice, and moments that feel frightfully close to sincerity.

In the name of appreciating the delicate, dangerously close to ship affirming ambiguity of these first 13 episodes before the sequels arrive, let’s look at Sound!Euphonium’s central relationships.

The Ensemble Imperative

Sound! Euphonium bears the structural imprint of its content; that is to say, while it’s technically a story of individual pieces, each occasionally given their chance to rise to the spotlight, in the end it’s the collective sound that rises to prominence. The character beats – Reina and Kaori’s struggle over the solo, Hazuki’s crush on Shuichi, Asuka’s inscrutable mask – are the equivalent of sectionals, brief peeks and rehearsal sections that contribute to or detract from how the band functions as a group. This is important to remember in any discussion of the show’s relationships and the significance of who is given prominence and when, particularly given the fact that anime generally and KyoAni infamously have a reputation for playing on marketable queer subtext while treating less developed heterosexual attraction as a case of plausible deniability.

That worry usually centers around the case of protagonist Kumiko’s relationships with Reina and Shuichi respectively; with an occasional token nod to Reina’s token, one-off comment about having a crush on band instructor Taki (no more token than the comment itself, in fairness). Because there is no romantic finality to the end of the series, things turn instead to reading moments: who had the biggest part, who had the spotlighted interaction during this or that climactic moment in the plot. This isn’t an entirely misguided approach, given that a lot of media will block out scenes for a romantic subplot to add emphasis right before a major occurrence in the main plot (think of Madoka comforting Homura in their last moments together, or the last conversation with a love interest before the final battle of any Mass Effect). Those beats are very common in “hero’s journey” stories, and we’ve been trained by a lifetime of media to look for them.

But for SE, relationships are things we are given a peak into before returning to the group dynamic – sectionals before the ensemble. And this is true of both opposite and same sex relationships. Goto and Riko’s relationship, for example, is an “open secret,” and while they are always together and others occasionally comment on their romance, there are only two occasions of romantic dialogue passing between them – and one of those has to do with why they’ve joined a particular section of the band. Yuko’s devotion to Kaori fuels an entire arc of the series, but the psychology of that bond is never so important as the way it causes the characters to affect the group dynamic.

And so on. While this can sometimes be frustrating, calling on the viewer to fill in a great deal of backstory on their own if they have interest in a particular character, it also means that one must put away the automatic mindset when exploring what makes an “important” character interaction.

fist bump

Shuichi: Acknowledging the Past, Struggling in the Present

At the beginning of the school year, Taki asks the band whether they want to have a good time and make memories or strive to make it to the Nationals. The students choose the latter, but the tension of those two ideals never fully disappears, particularly as each student hits their own walls of playing ability. And for Kumiko, the process of finding her limitations and striving for greatness often shows itself in her relationships with Shuichi and Reina respectively.

Kumiko’s relationship with Shuichi is characterized by dissatisfaction with the status quo. On the one hand he represents the “before” of her fresh start, the thing that she didn’t manage to break away from (he’s still at her new school, and she’s still playing the euphonium). At the same time, they’re in a place in their lives where even trying to stay the same is impossible: Kumiko has to grapple with Shuichi’s crush, and Hazuki’s insistence that they have feelings for each other even after Kumiko’s turned him down in favor of preserving their friendship. Even if they choose or fall into the same path as before (as with Kumiko and the euphonium), the context of adulthood, puberty, and the more complex challenges therein demand to be dealt with.

highway gulf

Following the festival episode (not coincidentally, the same moment when Reina declares her desire to be special and her intent to become closer with Kumiko), Shuichi is mostly seen from a distance. Kumiko glances at him from their separate places in the band, sits at a distance on the train, or glimpses him from the street as he works to master a difficult stretch of music. Even when they interact, there’s an imagery of “distance” between them, be it Shuichi’s glimpse of Kumiko’s frustrated breakdown from the other side of the bridge (separated by traffic), or the pair of them playing a duet from separate banks of the river. They can still reach each other, and do so in moments where Kumiko hits a wall with her playing, but the effect of Kumiko’s changing goals is evident in the art direction. Even when that distance is closed again, just before they take the stage at the competition, it’s blocked with the pair facing the same direction rather than toward each other; while the fist bump that follows becomes a sign of Kumiko acknowledging her past as part of her growth rather than running from it. He’s still important, in other words, but he’s not the future (or so it would seem – we’ll return to this in the conclusion).

side by side

Reina: A Leitmotif for the Future

A leitmotif is defined as “a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.” I mentioned before that Kumiko and Reina’s duet (a piece called “The Place We Found Love,” if you were interested) forms the halfway point of the series, complete with full end credits, but the importance of their bond is far more entrenched than that. The series begins with the divide of passion between Kumiko and Reina at their last band competition, and ends with their newfound triumph, hands entwined as a culmination of that “confession of love.” Kumiko’s “all is lost” moment on the bridge breaks when she realizes that this was how Reina felt during the last competition. Reina is in close proximity during Kumiko’s moments of growth. Without Reina, there wouldn’t be a series (I’m going to leave off discussion of Reina’s crush on Taki, beyond noting it as her own version of “the past” to be acknowledged and overcome, with an additional note of how much it reminded me of the crush-versus-actual-love-interest dynamic in Card Captor Sakura).

Every time Reina and Kumiko’s bond is spotlighted – not constantly, given the structural concerns, but not unlike the solo Reina fights so hard for – it becomes a love song within a larger piece. Not just because of emotional bonding, or even the physical attraction Kumiko voices during the festival, but because it encapsulates the philosophy of playing as an ensemble in miniature. Kumiko’s relationship with Shuichi is about individual struggle, the prerequisite for relating to others and building something new – you can’t play together if you don’t know your own part, after all. But Reina and Kumiko play duets, a process that involves struggling both separately and to find the overtone that’s made when instruments come together.

And of course, there is Reina’s desire to be “special,” the motivation that goes on to inspire Kumiko. As much as Reina is unusual, special, the soloist, at the end of the day “specialness” relies on others. Even if it’s a small, chosen audience, there still have to be onlookers who notice that you’re different or better than the rest. Reina is originally granted a solo by Taki, but she keeps it and cements her place by proving herself in front of the band as a whole. She shines through. Tying structure into interpersonal bonds once more, she might be chasing the idol from her childhood, but she finds someone to share specialness with in Kumiko. It’s continually tied in with the future and who they’ll become – if nothing else, it kicks Class S to the curb as far as cementing the bond as eternal.

hands entwined

The Next Piece

While conjecture has flown fast and thick since the finale of SE ended, there are two particular wrenches that must be discussed: the novels on which the series is based, and the upcoming sequel series and film. The original four novels saw Shuichi and Kumiko become a couple, and while the anime has certainly already adjusted itself in terms of favoring Kumiko and Reina’s relationship (that momentous handholding scene that ends the series, for example, involved Shuichi in the novels), that’s no guarantee that either cold feet or creator insistence won’t eventually force the series back into reasserting the firmly heterosexual romance over even the ill-defined intensity that defines the current state of Kumiko and Reina’s bond.

It seems almost inevitable that further hemming and hawing is the best that can be hoped for from future installments. Certainly, while Kumiko and Reina’s relationship is strongly tinged with romance and forms the beating heart of the single available season, enough that the series could only build from distinguishing itself as a separate story in adaptation, nothing is set safely in stone.

Though oddly, even the original author, Ayano Takeda, describes it as such. “Before Kumiko met [Reina], [Shuichi] may have been her special guy, but now her relationship with Reina is eternal.” And just before that, series director Naoko Yamada chimes in that “From [Kumiko’s] point of view, she sees Reina somewhat sensually.” That tension of slightly off-matched mentality between author and adaptation might prove interesting in future media as the series follows its own pet themes and points of emphasis. And while it might be foolish to expect from KyoAni (though with knowledge of the original work, it feels unusually like the creative team is trying to imply a romance within the bounds of their adaptational guidelines rather than simply trying to make a quick buck from merchandise), and from a source material unwilling to back things up…I can’t seem to stop holding out hope.

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14 comments on “Who I Was, Who I’ll Become: Sound! Euphonium’s Two Love Affairs

  1. I’ve had a lot of weird coincidences regarding you. I found out this Anime exists surfing tumblr yesterday and became curious about it, and now you’re talking about it.

  2. Sinclair says:

    What an eloquent articulation of the beautiful cognitive dissonance that is Sound! Euphonium. Thank you; I couldn’t be happier!

    I had somehow managed not to hear that Kumiko and Shuichi wind up romantically involved in the novels. One can only hope Kyoani holds their ground on this one, not just for the sake of preserving a well-depicted queer romance but because it would seem completely token after nearly every interaction they’ve had thus far being framed by Kumiko’s complete disinterest. It’d turn into another When Marnie Was There. (Still not over that. Probably never going to get over that.) I’m looking forward to seeing how they handle it, but not without a certain amount of trepidation.

    Incidentally, I don’t know how much reading you’ve done on the history of the Class S genre, but it’s actually pretty fascinating, especially the works of frontrunner (and open lesbian) Yoshiya Nobuko. The tropes of purity and transience were used both to avoid censorship by providing plausible deniability and subtly condemn the society that viewed such relationships as inappropriate, while emphasizing the importance of female bonds. It’s absolutely infuriating that none of her work’s been translated into English! Of course trying to claim any of that applies to modern Class S is absurd, since the social context is completely different and you can show girls kissing without causing some kind of moral panic. Sorry to ramble; I may be the only person who cares about this sort of thing, but I make up for it with enthusiasm, haha.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      That is FASCINATING. I’m always eager to do more reading on the history of queer artists and theorists in Japan, though the language barrier often becomes a tripping factor.
      I’m half tempted to hang back on the new material to see about the soul crushing – though I imagine if they must go through with the Shuichi route it’ll be in the planned movie?
      Regardless, I’m so glad you’re pleased with the piece

      • Sinclair says:

        Isn’t it though? Half the reason I’m learning Japanese is so I can fuel my oddly specific fascination with Taisho Era girls’ culture, and I’m fully intending to translate some of Yoshiya Nobuko’s work when I’m able. There are some great papers out there if you’ve got access to academic databases, but that’s really the extent of it, sadly.

        I’m so invested in this mess that I feel compelled to see it through to the end, even if they do completely drop the ball. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for punishment, who knows. ^^ I’d certainly understand the reluctance to get involved; going for a straight romance now would devalue much of what made the original so enjoyable.

      • Ayanami says:

        Has anyone asked you to review Yurikuma Arashi yet? Because the Anime News Network reviews of it are really well-researched and shed a good deal of light upon homosexuality (particularly lesbianism) in japan: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/yurikuma-arashi/.83208. I am assuming that you are not Gabriella Ekens, but I think that you would get along with her. 🙂

        • Vrai Kaiser says:

          I’ve had a few requests, and it’s sort of on the potential docket for a Consulting Analyst down the line. I just needed a) a break from Ikuhara after I finished Utena and b) some time to separate from Dee Hogan’s excellent posts that ran while the series was airing (over at joseinextdoor.com)

    • hecker says:

      [My apologies for the late comment, but I just got the Patreon email about this post today.]

      “It’s absolutely infuriating that none of [Yoshiya’s] work’s been translated into English!” Actually that’s not quite true, but it might as well be. Yoshiya’s story “Yellow Rose” was available in Kindle format on Amazon, translated by Sarah Frederick. I say “was” because when I looked just now it appears to have disappeared from Amazon. I recall someone (Erica Friedman?) writing somewhere that Yoshiya’s family was blocking translation of her works into English. Certainly they would have inherited her copyrights, and in her notes for “Yellow Rose” Frederick writes “Thank you to Yoshiya Yukiko for permission to publish the story…” Perhaps that permission was withdrawn? If so then it’s my understanding that Yoshiya’s works won’t enter the public domain until 2023 (50 years after her death, under current Japanese copyright law) or even 2043 (if Japan extends copyright terms as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement).

      P.S. If you’re lucky enough to find a copy of “Yellow Rose”, don’t read the introduction before you read the story itself; it spoils the plot.

      • Sarah says:

        Should be available again soon. Do you think the intro should be an afterward for said reason? In any case, you shouldn’t have to wait for 2023.

  3. vilsal says:

    I don’t know if you followed them, but the online discussions when H!E was airing got really anxious and prone to swings from elation to despair and back again. It wasn’t just the shipping as such; people were bewildered because they had no idea how to read what was happening. Reina and Kumiko’s relationship has way too much sexual tension to be even remotely believable as a romantic friendship, and it’s too important to be just fanservice, yet Shūichi is used more like an agent of plausible deniability than a corner in a love triangle. I find it amusing how KyoAni’s attempt to be sincere just might end up being so insincere it breaks the show.

    That said, I don’t see them going back to the source and having Kumiko and Shūichi start dating. It would just piss off the part of the audience that likes Kumiko/Reina (there were significant spikes in pre-orders after the romantic episodes 8 and 11), while their more reactionary fans generally prefer their female characters single. If they care about what Ayano Takeda thinks about their changes, I’d imagine they’d have asked her before season one. If they do get cold feet, they’ll probably just leave everything eternally ambiguous.

    The element that most makes me think KyoAni just might be serious is darling Hazuki, who follows her promise to support Kumiko with Shūichi by doing nothing of the sort. Instead, she tries to include Reina in their group, makes sure Kumiko can spend time with her before the second audition, is the only person who isn’t friends with the performers to applaud, and makes Reina and Kumiko matching charms, a fact she points out to them. I can’t see all of that as anything other than her apologizing for making assumptions and expressing support.

    Also, same-sex friends with palpable sexual tension. Artistic skills as a sign of superiority to others. Eroticization of the idea of one party killing and consuming the other. A promise to be villains together. A climactic duet performed at a high place out in nature. Hannibal and Will or Reina and Kumiko?

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      Honestly, I avoided the show while it was airing for precisely that reason. I’ve got a heavy dose of cynicism when it comes to KyoAni products (I was around when Free! originally aired. that did not help), and it took a fair bit of recommending from friends whose opinions I trust AND the commission to take the plunge. In fact, my pleasant surprise at the show’s general attempts to be sincere with the central romance probably illustrates how VERY low the bar is set.
      MURDER HUSBAND COMPARISONS are always the way to my heart. Frankly, wouldn’t that be interesting if it went the same way in a meta direction (I DID follow Hannibal while it aired, and there was an awful lot of Fuller, bless him, lying through his teeth about being interested in the relationships of heterosexual men and then just kind of gradually moving the goal posts until we got ominsexual Hannibal and romantically hooked, sexually “a pack of beer” from taking the plunge Will). Apparently “promise it’s heterosexual and then let the text become increasingly, unambiguously homoerotic” is the new to do.

      • vilsal says:

        KyoAni’s such a frustrating studio, isn’t it? They’ve clearly got talent, and not just in the animation department (that brilliant and thematically appropriate sound design! Kumiko and Reina’s private way of using language!). Many of their key personnel are women, which is vanishingly rare in animation. They are not lacking in ambition. Yet, most of their work makes you a little sad. It would help so much if they could use a business model that didn’t require quite as much calculated otaku appeal.

        There’s a certain logic to that method, I guess. Aside from slowly boiling the network and more conservative elements of the audience in the pot of acceptance, it adds a sorely needed level of complication to the played-out but still lucrative question of “will they or won’t they?”. It is however a little unpleasant to implicitly call the people who can see what you’re doing delusional, particularly when there’s bigger questions than shipping involved. I don’t know what the devil it means, but it is curious how Takeda, Ishihara and Yamada don’t mention the changes to Kumiko’s relationships with Shūichi and Reina at all and imply they’re the same in both versions.

        “taking the plunge Will”
        Too soon.

  4. Bright Chen says:

    I am also currently in the process of composing a piece on this title: which has recently climbed to the top of my favourite list. Your piece offers some very lucid and intriguing insights into a show that I thought I knew so well. Thank you for the enjoyable read.

    As a former ensemble member myself (sang and vice-captain to a high school choir as a tenor soloist), my interpretations on the various thematic elements and relational climates Hibike! offered are much more soundly directed towards the various different attitudes and ideologies of different musicians present in one ensemble, and how a collection of individuals have to work together, compromise and retune themselves (pun intended) in order to make a piece of music sound amazing.

    I guess the many different ways one could look at a KyoAni work just simply makes my appreciation of the studio even more. I am very much interested in what Naoko Yamada has in store for us in A Silent Voice.

    • Vrai Kaiser says:

      Fascinating! I was a pianist myself, and involved in ensemble work only briefly, so I’m not the expert I could be on musical group dynamics.
      I do hope things go well with the piece.

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