Sound! Euphonium (S1)

(Neo Magazine, Uncooked Media) Kumiko, a euphonium (brass instrument) player, wants a fresh start at her new high school. With a couple of classmates, she joins the school’s apparently hopeless orchestra. But both Kumiko and the orchestra will be electrified…

Sound! Euphonium is amazingly good, exceptional in its production, writing and characters. It doesn’t welch on its selling points: it’s funny, cute and bursting with pretty girls. But it’s also layered and sophisticated; it conjures its story from an escalation of exquisite detail.

Its start is pure simplicity. Three girls – two perky, one passive – have just joined their school orchestra when it enters an inter-school competition, starting a series-long countdown towards the final performance. Long before then, we’ll see characters scale emotional and literal mountains. There’s an intense summer night encounter between girls on a hilltop, spiritual and sensual. There are conflicts between the students, driven by budding attractions and painful rivalries; and there’s even friction between them and their soft-spoken boyish teacher.

The characters may be young, sometimes naïve, but Euphonium shows they’ve already lived through big experiences that they’re still working out. Rarely relying on flashbacks, the show makes clear its characters aren’t simple types or blank slates. Kumiko, the passive-seeming viewpoint character, seems haplessly carried along by events – there are hilarious scenes where she’s manoeuvred by other characters into doing what she wants least. But Kumiko is being quietly watched by another character who sees not weakness but substance in her. Another girl, the show-stealingly funny Asuka, brims with cruel humour, but then deepens into a true enigma.

Euphonium comes from Kyoto Animation, which is based outside Kyoto in the town of Uji, where Euphonium is set. (Many scenes take place on Uji’s riverbanks, looking out to waters that shine gold in twilight.) Kyoto Animation gained new admirers with its cinema film A Silent Voice, but older fans praise it for lifting TV anime, injecting an often crass form with lyrical art and nuance, especially in its animation of girls.

Yet Kyoto’s depiction of girls caused controversy. The Anime Encyclopediadamned the studio’s K-ON! and Haruhi Suzumiya, finding its girl characters “as objectified as any porn victim… constructed for the male gaze, but because they were constructed very cleverly, they can attract and deceive their own kind; decoy ducks for the patriarchy, and with such fine feathers.”

This is not the place for recapping old flamewars. But note the hardline attitude; if you’re a female who liked the girls in these shows, then you don’t just have different tastes from the Encyclopedia writers, but you’ve been tricked by the patriarchy! That might be seen as pretty darn patriarchal, both to female viewers and to K-ON!’s woman director Naoko Yamada, who went on to direct Silent Voice.

Between making those titles, Yamada was “Series Director” on Sound! Euphoniun. The separately credited “Director” was the male Tatsuya Isihara, who’d helmed Haruhi. Euphonium might be their joint reply to attacks on their work. While their critics refuse to compromise, Euphonium blatantly has things both ways.

Yes, most of Euphonium’s characters are schoolgirls, often emphatically cute in their comically earnest conversations. One girl stands apart from them; she’s a quasi-adult with a seductive magnetism, self-possessed rather than coquettish as she hooks Kumiko. The girlier girls are sometimes framed in clearly sexual ways – a “marching band” episode, for example – over and above the baseline suspicion of how male viewers watch a show full of bobbing skirts and bare legs.

Yet if Euphonium is a decoy duck, then it’s tricking the male viewers, not the females. In part one, the first moments feel cringingly clichéd and creepy. Kumiko walks to school through a blizzard of spring blossom, reflecting in voice-over on her breast size and her school uniform. Does this set the tone? Hardly; there’s just one more boob joke in the whole series. Again,Euphonium’s first episodes are full of cutesy screenwipes involving little balls and stars. But by the later episodes, these wipes are themselves wiped.

Some fans will still argue with Euphonium, and not just for being a schoolgirl show. It also highlights same-sex attractions in the normal anime manner. That is, it refuses to confirm that girls who passionately express their love for other girls could be gay… which doesn’t stop these scenes from being hugely affecting and non-prurient, like Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There.

Beautiful as it looks, Euphonium’s animation doesn’t reach the liquid lusciousness of Kyoto’s Hyouka. Rather, Euphonium depends as much on storyboards, framing and voices – apt for a story of the different parts of an orchestra finding harmony. One scene, in part 12, is feted by animation fans for its technical and visual excellence; it has a running girl. But the scene’s real force is on the audio side; it comes from the girl’s desperate cries as she runs, counterpointed by a mild, neutral piano.

The series’ worst flaw is its final only-good episode that can’t cap the running girl (or top the climax in the “extra” OVA episode which cleverly expands on the TV ending). Still, the last episode has a superb bit of viewer manipulation, again depending on sound. Even if you see people react to a piece of news, that won’t always tell you if the news is bad or good if you can’t hear them.