Ah, no more messing around. Here comes a properly good Autumn hump day show that immerses you in its gloriously naturalistic and precise world. Granted, I was pre-immersed last year, but it takes no time at all in this sprawling-yet-measured 47-minute season premiere to fall back under the spell of Sound!
Oumae Kumiko and Kousaka Reina have never been closer, literally or figuratively. Perhaps it’s a factor of Reina being satisfying with their level of success: they placed first in Kyoto and are representatives at the Kansai competition, the next step to the Nationals she dreams of winning someday. Right there with her, kind of in her wake, is Kumiko, who is more open and affectionate to Reina than anyone else, even, no especially her mom and big sister.
Kumiko and Reina are relatively steady variables in this opener: all of the conflict comes from the uneasy atmosphere being created by still-open wounds among the upperclassmen.
Specifically, one former member who quit in the great second-year purge wants back in, but Asuka won’t budge. The first years are kept out of the loop, and it hurts their focus. As usual, KyoAni is impeccable at not just telling but showing the subtle but increasingly assertive effect of the senpai drama.
Kumiko is a great protagonist because she’s so good at being in the middle of things while not dominating those events with her personality. She’s a deceptively very “normal” girl hiding multitudes beneath her exterior, brough to life with a skilled performance by Kurosawa Tomoyo (in a total 180 from her character of Sylphy in Amaburi). I love how drastically Kumiko’s tone changes when she’s talking to her fam, as if it’s a huge imposition to do so, which makes perfect sense since she’s a teenager.
But most gratifying in a sea of senpai uncertainty and a looming life-altering competition is to see the collective rock that is Kumiko and Reina. They’re far past their troubles of past years, and both value one another’s company and conversation above all others.
They are proof that previous bad blood can not only be corrected, but flourish into a beautiful friendship. As the assistant instructor (a pro in the music industry) says to the band: be more imposing. Make more of an impact. Don’t be reticent, because it all comes through in their music.
Everyone has to be more open with one another to succeed and become the best band they can be, as well as the best people. Unpleasant things like resentments and grudges and infamous incidents can’t be allowed to fester. And most importantly, life shouldn’t be a constant struggle. You gotta stop and ogle the fireworks in rapt awe once in a while.
This was a baller premiere that reminded me why KyoAni is so good with such regularity. It doesn’t just nail the fundamentals, but sweats the details to the extent there are gestures and tones you won’t see anywhere else, to say nothing of the complexity of the emotions in play. A very solid and confident start.
From the speed with which she turned it off, Kumiko wasn’t awakened by her alarm; she was already awake and alert, and ready to start the most important day of her life as a musician. From her stiff-upper-lip departure from her home, and the playful elbow-knocking with Reina on the train, to the execution of the logistics for the competition including roll calls, loading, instrument checks…and hair-tying—the Kitauji High School Concert band slowly but steadily marches to meet its destiny, and this time Kumiko is committed like never before.
Fully half of this virtuoso finale is glorious, painstaking, nerve-wracking waves of build-up as the band prepares, and it’s just about perfect. Everyone gets their moments to shine and steady themselves for the monumental task before them: to advance to the Nationals. All of the hairs on my back and arms (and there are many) stood on end as the full band tuned, making a bottle of water vibrate a la Jurassic Park. Yet through the soundproof doors is something more frightening than any beast: judgement.
Yet when the time comes to open those doors, no one shrinks or runs: Kitauji is united as one; even those not in the competition. Those who seem more nervous are comforted by others; even Shuu makes sure Kumiko, who’s never been that warm with him, is okay, and Kumiko decides she’ll at least give him a fist-bump for good luck, in one of countless subtle verbal and physical gestures that fill this marvelous half-hour.
And doggone it, even Asuka is getting a little wobbly-eyed at the prospect of a period she wishes would never end ending. Only Kumiko is beside her to assure her nothing’s over; they’re just getting started. Kumiko is no longer simply half-assedly dreaming or thinking or hoping they’ll make it to the nationals. She truly believes they can, and she wishes that they do, out loud. It’s SHOWTIME!
In the second half, we’re treated to the most sustained piece of music since the SunFes march, only here the stakes are much higher. And while the camera cuts from place to place and we get a brief interlude into Kumiko’s thoughts, once again Hibike! makes the right choice by simply letting the music breathe, not dolling it up with weird psychedelic visual effects.
I hope you watched this with some good speakers and cranked those suckers up to get the full wall-of-sound effect once they got through the workaday required piece and moved on to their stunning free play, the “Crescent Moon Dance”, which had no major errors I could hear. It was a proud, confident, and powerful performance by a band with something to prove, and they proved it. No better example of this is Reina’s clutch solo, which was so loud and pure and gorgeous it moved me and Midori to tears.
And while Taki-sensei had been a hard-ass leading up to this day, we saw him soften a bit when Kumiko came by after school to recover her phone, and that he truly wanted his band to succeed, and believed they had what it took to reach their goal. As for the band, when they finally finish their piece and rise for hearty applause, they almost seem to be in disbelief and shock that they were so good. But I wasn’t. They simply rose to the occasion and poured all of their efforts into the music.
Unlike the first episode, where a middle school Kumiko had an “oh well, better luck next time”, “dud gold is still pretty good” attitude, she, along with everyone else, looks like their lives depend on the best result…and they get it! Not only is Kitauji awarded Gold, but they move on in the competition. And Kumiko and a tearful Reina’s hands are tightly intertwined for that moment of victory.
Even if this show doesn’t continue a second season (and there are apparently seven special episodes bundled with the Blu-ray), their piece continues, and we don’t necessarily need to see how far they’ll go. They did it, and it was fantastic to behold. Any Summer shows with similar themes are going to be very hard-pressed to match Hibike! Euphonium for pure emotional power and beauty of both sound and image. I shall miss it dearly.
Watching Reina win, then win again, has lit a match under Kumiko’s bum: she wants to be special to. But there’s a tricky euph measure she’s having trouble with, and Taki makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she’d better have the part nailed by the competition or else, she’ll drag everyone else down.
So she practices, out in the humid heat until she’s dripping sweat and even gets a nosebleed. Reina is there with some water, along with her assessment that while Kumiko is getting better, she’s not good enough yet. She also makes it clear that she won’t easily let Kumiko catch up to her: if Kumiko becomes special, well, she’ll just become even more special.
Reina continues her campaign to fit into the band by apologizing to Kaori and Yuki for her smugness, catching both unaware but likely forging a new bond moving forward; not necessarily of friendship, but mutual respect and cooperation, a necessity if they’ll have any hope at the Nationals.
But despite her near-obsessive practicing of the same measure over and over again, Taki-sensei seemingly has enough and asks Asuka to play the part alone for the rest of practice, a stinging condemnation that might spell the end of the line, at least according to Kumiko, who has worked so hard yet still can’t get it right. She’s at the base of a wall she’s not sure she can scale to the top, but doesn’t want to stop trying. And she’s putting everything into band, as we don’t see her studying one bit.
Physically and emotionally spent, she breaks into a run (more nice work from KyoAni) and shouts from a bridge both her feverish desire to improve and her anger at the level she’s presently at. Shuu just so happens to be on the other side of that bridge, and joins her in the yelling, and Kumiko realizes she’s as upset as Reina was in middle school. Now she knows that anger, frustration, and pain she felt.
The question is, what will she do with them? As luck would have it, Taki-sensei is still at school when she returns to retrieve her phone, and he’s surprisingly warm and open to her, both about how his own life turned out, following in the footsteps of his father. He didn’t do it out of obligation, but because he liked it, just like Kumiko has grown to like her Euph (and, perhaps to a greater extent, Reina.)
She leaves the school with a spring in her step, having been, if not smiled upon, at least winked at by the god of fortune. She also finds that Reina tried to call her a million times, and when they meet up, Reina seems far more interested in Kumiko’s alone time with Taki than Kumiko’s quest for a Euph capsule toy.
With only one episode left that I know of, I can’t see Hibike! Euphonium ending in a satisfying fashion, no matter how many stops are pulled out. Attempting to do so would require too much speeding up of the narrative. So I’ll approach the final week hopeful that last episode won’t be the end, because I’m simply not ready to close the book on Kumiko, Reina, and the rest of this beautiful, brassy, poignant show.
Those are the words Yuko remembered Kaori saying when she first told her senpai how good she was at trumpet. They’re words she tried to put out of her mind in the midst of her crusade to elevate Kaori to the soloist’s chair, but nothing she can do can change the fact that Reina is better than Kaori. Even she can’t deny it anymore.
On the eve of the second chance she nabbed Kaori—by besmirching Taki-sensei and devaluing Reina—and Kaori’s inevitable defeat, Yuko starts to realize she’s made a mistake. As Natsuki tells her, Kaori is the one who’s going to feel the worst when she loses to Reina a second time. Asuka, always businesslike in matter of music, can’t and won’t humor Kaori.
Kumiko, just as obsessed with Reina as Yuko is with Kaori, happens to be on the right side of objectivity as well. She sees Shuu practicing hard by the water on a part Taki warned him to get right tomorrow, only increasing her desire to get better herself. But notably, she doesn’t approach him, and not just because she doesn’t want to disturb him.
For all the trouble she’s stirred up, Yuko isn’t quite done this week, as she tries to persuade Reina to take a fall in the audition for Kaori’s sake, reciting to her all the arguments for why Kaori should get the part, and is even willing to throw herself under the bus, telling Reina she can accuse her of bullying her, and she won’t deny it.
Kaori puts up a metered front: none of Yuko’s arguments have anything to do with her, and refuses her begging. Channeling Asuka, another no-nonsense musician, Reina assures Yuko that Taki will choose the trumpeter who plays best, even though she knows Yuko knows that, and is why she’s exploring…other options.
The day arrives, with the two would-be soloists excused from set-up duty in their rented hall to practice and get in the zone for their auditions. Tension mounts, and their respective cornerwomen pay them visits. Notably, Asuka doesn’t visit Kaori, as she probably finds this whole exercise distasteful. Haruka does wish her luck, and even asks why Kaori is so obsessed with Asuka.
Kaori’s answer is clear: she feels like Asuka can see right through her and knows what she’s thinking, so she wants nothing more than to surprise her. This second audition affords her just that chance, but having heard Reina’s playing, it’s practically certain she’ll come up a bit short.
That brings us to Reina, sitting alone in the gorgeously lit lobby of the concert hall when Kumiko approaches her. Reina’s had time to think about all of the things Yuko said about Kaori, and all of the things that will happen to her if she destroys her. She asks Kumiko if she’ll be upset if she loses, and Kumiko tells her she would: she is better than Kaori.
When Reina counters that winning would make her a villain, Kumiko promises to be a villain with her. Reina draws so very close to Kumiko, asking if she’ll really stay with her, and Kumiko tells her she can kill her if she doesn’t, stating her resolve as a confession of love, echoing Reina’s own confession up on the mountaintop.
Reassured with Kumiko beyond doubt, Reina assures her that she never had any intention of losing anyway. But it certainly didn’t hurt to hear the strongest words yet of affection and solidarity from her dear friend. All Kumiko did was speak from the heart, but she said exactly what Reina needed to hear to take the stage with the utmost confidence.
The tension builds again when the two trumpeters take that stage before the rest of the band, dwarfed by the massive music hall that still isn’t as big as the venue for the competition. Taki sets the rules: Kaori will play, then Reina, and the students will vote with applause.
Kaori really seems to rise to the occasion and plays beautifully, but when it’s Reina’s turn, the difference between them is considerable, even for these relatively untrained ears. Reina is crisper, louder, and seems far more in command of the instrument. Her solo fills the entire hall and resonates. It should be plain to any of the band members assembled that she’s the better soloist. It’s stirring stuff to boot; not even having to rely on weird trippy visuals like Violin Girl.
Yet when it comes time to applaud, only Yuko and Haruka clap for Kaori, while only Kumiko and Hazuki clap for Reina: a tie. Taki, ostensibly the tiebreaker, calls Kaori’s name, asking if she’ll be the soloist for the competition. After a few moment’s introspection, Kaori herself refuses, saying it should be Reina.
Really, how could she not? As both Kumiko and I have remarked, Kaori is a good person. She’s taken things as far as she can, and knows when she’s been beaten. Even if a hysterical Yuko still can’t quite accept it, she must, as Kaori does. As for Taki-sensei, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he knew this was exactly how the audition would go down.
While no one other than Kumiko and later Hazuki volunteered to clap for Reina, nor did they clap for Kaori after hearing how good Reina is, choosing to abstain. I’m sure both Reina and Taki would have preferred not being accused of being the recipient and doler-outer of favoritism, but in the end merit and talent triumphed over sentiment and pity.
If Kitauji’s going to have a chance at the Nationals, this is how it has to be.
Not that it wasn’t going to anyway, Hibike! got on my good side early this week by elaborating on that dark flashback Kumiko keeps thinking of. Turns out she beat one of her senpais in auditions, and the senpai chewed her out, saying she’d be in the competition if only Kumiko…didn’t exist.
That’s a harsh thing for someone like Kumiko to hear, and it’s clearly stayed with her, because when Natsuki asks to talk, she’s worried she’s going to get it again.
It’s not that Kumiko doesn’t believe she deserves her spot, it’s that she can’t help but feel in the way of a senpai. She deals with her objective supriority by recoiling almost apologeticaly before the one she beat. Fortunately, Natsuki is, as Kumiko aptly puts it, “a nice person.”
That is, she doesn’t hold it against Kumiko for winning the seat. On the contrary, she’s only been playing a year and didn’t expect to win, and knew she wouldn’t be able to hide either fact from Taki-sensei. So while she’s her senpai in age, Kumiko is her senpai in Euph experience, by six years!
While I believe Natsuki when she says she didn’t have high hopes, Kaori is another story entirely. She really wanted the solo part in her final year, and while it’s clear she hasn’t made her peace with the fact she didn’t get it, she’s willing to accept the decision out of respect both for Taki-sensei, Reina, and the system.
But then rumors spread of Taki and Reina knowing each other, introducing suspicions of favoritism. Yuko relays these rumors second-hand to Kaori, and while I know she’s just trying to be a loyal and caring friend, she only made things worse in terms of Kaori getting over things, because things may not be on the straight and narrow.
What’s disappointing is how indelicately Yuko brings the issue before Taki-sensei, in front of everyone. He doesn’t deny knowing Reina, but insists he showed no favoritism. When Yuko presses, Reina can no longer hold her tongue. Both she and Taki make things worse by refusing to to anything about it.
Reina storms out, followed closely by Kumiko, but rather than find Reina depressed or crying, Reina is simply frikkin’ PISSED OFF, unable to stand Yuko’s presence any longer. She gathers Kumiko in a big warm hug, seeking assurance that she’s right about being the best trumpeter for the soloist part. Kumiko gives it to her, not just because they’re friends, but because she believes it herself.
And because these two are so close and open now, Reina also informs Kumiko that she attended this school because she knew Taki would be directing the band. She probably knew rumors would surface, but they’d come from what amounts to sore losers, and she’d simply barrel through them and press forward. (Does this confirmation of her love for Taki mean Reina and Kumiko don’t have a yuri future? I guess we’ll see.)
But that’s going to be tricky. As good as Reina is, the controversy has had a profound effect on band cohesion, with people taking sides all over again, and talking about everything behind Taki’s back. The bassists send Kumiko to try to get Asuka’s opinion on the matter, but off the record (and in confidence) Asuka admits she doesn’t care either way; insinuating she’s focused on her own path. Kumiko can’t tell if she’s putting up a facade; neither can we. Asuka remains wonderfully enigmatic.
Less enigmatic but still wonderful is Haruka, who can’t rely on Kaori again (since Kaori is mired in the middle of this) nor the ever-neutral Asuka. She knows that she, the president, needs to get the band back on track. So before Taki arrives, she addresses them, and gets a show of hands for those with problems with the auditions.
She gets a number of hands, but can’t do anything with them as Taki-sensei enters, having just gotten a brief talk with the faculty adviser, who also happened to know his father. She knows that he can’t help but be honest and only care about music when it’s good enough. But in this situation, he has to be more than a greatness detector: he has to regain his band’s trust, even if it means screwing over those who already won.
To this end, he too breaks the silence about the controversy, and offers a second audition to anyone who wants one, only this time it will be held in the concert hall he rented, in front of the whole band. The first to raise her hand is Kaori, which we know has nothing to do with her thinking she’s better than Reina or believing Taki played favorites. I don’t think she believes either.
This is, as her friend said, about accepting herself, something she won’t be able to do if she doesn’t take this opportunity. Reina’s disappointment is clear and justified, but knowing her, she’ll take this as a fresh challenge on her path to become truly special. Even if she doesn’t care what others think of her, she can’t get to the nationals without the rest of the band.
I don’t think she’ll ever win the love Yuko and others have for Kaori, and it’s possible she’ll beat Kaori so badly they’ll still be against her. But who knows, perhaps this time, out in the open, she can convince them beyond doubt she deserves the solo part. It isn’t something she should have to do, but she has to all the same.
Last week was a beautiful and highly memorable episode oozing with romance, love, heart-swells and heartbreaks and confessions and rejections, and ASUKA DON’T GIVE A SHIT. She is the voice of the episode that brings us back down to earth from those indelible images of a sore-footed, one-piece-dressed Reina lugging a Euph up a mountain, or the perfect duet played high above the shimmering festival. Fun Time is over. Gotta practice!
While Asuka’s objection to “issues” getting in the way of her practice time is presented in a semi-comedic tone, it’s nice how her very objection and complete lack of patience on such a subject is also an indication of her issues, which remain internal so far.
The distracted girl Asuka all but kicks out of the room is Midori, who still feels bad and possibly guilty about Hazuki getting rejected, believing she played a part in her failure. Her depressed mood is translating to noticeably poor play.
Hazuki keeps her frown upside-down, even though we know she feels bad too, she wants to be happy, and is taking the well-worn path of acting happy first. Her strategic (and very graceful) change of direction when Shuu enters the train is proof she wants to move on.
Kumiko, meanwhile, is still wrestling with the fact that people are telling her she likes Shuu, when she’s never given much thought about it, and can neither confirm or deny it. She can craft a defense against such allegations—”I didn’t want to lose a friend”; “we go way back.”—but they don’t tell the whole story of her true feelings, because that story hasn’t been written in a language in her head she can understand yet; it’s all out of focus.
This show does a fine job emphasizing how different Kumiko, Midori, and Hazuki are, which is I think why Kumiko has accepted them as friends. They’re not all trying to be the same, like the rhetorical sheep Reina blasts; rather, they’re embracing their differences to gain new insight.
Midori is probably a little surprised when Kumiko says they should just act normally, since that’s where she believes Hazuki is trying to get. But she respects and goes along with that idea.
Of course, things aren’t normal for anyone right now, and not due to any love triangles, but because there are only 55 seats and more than 55 tushes, which means even those who have played beside one another have suddenly become their rivals for those limited seats.
It’s something that weighs on Kaori, who gets more screen time this week. I love how Haruka reassures her the way Kaori reassured her during her crisis of confidence. Kaori wants to become better so she can keep the peace in the band and prevent another incident like last year. There’s also considerable pressure on her from her peers, particularly those junior to her who idolize her as the band’s madonna.
It’s interesting that our first good look at Reina since her big breakout episode is crossing paths with her fellow soloist, the clearly intimidated Kaori.
I also love how in so many animes, we always hear horns practicing somewhere on the grounds, and Hibike! finally focuses in on those musicians. Kumiko looks particularly isolated—by choice—in her little corner of the schoolyard as she practices her piece. When she hears another Euph playing the piece very well, she runs over and is surprised to find it’s Natsuki, who earlier in the show was dozing during practice.
Seeing Natsuki there, giving it her all, Kumiko suddenly snaps out of her complacence: her seat on the band is not assured; no one’s is. And she’s not the only one working hard to become better, so she’d better get back to it!
Those nerves won’t do her any good in the audition (it might have been better, if less dramatic, had she not heard Natsuki prior to her audition), but she can’t shake them. At least, not until Reina enters the storage room, ignores whatever Kumiko mutters to her, and takes hold of her cheeks, so her their faces and eyes are locked into each other.
I’m going to do my best, so you have to, as well.
She doesn’t let go of Kumiko’s cheeks as she parry’s her “buts” with a repeat of that mantra-like line. Suddenly, Kumiko calms down, then puts her hands on Reina’s cheeks and agrees. It’s great to see the camera cut to their feet as Kumiko’s weight pushes against Reina’s.
Zero hour: Kumiko’s audition. The atmosphere is so deliciously tense. I loved how Taki’s impressed reaction to learning how long she’s played one instrument made her worry she set the bar even higher for herself.
I found my breathing patterns change as I listened to each note of the first bars she’s told to play. And she plays it well. Not perfectly, but not badly, either. Then Taki asks her to play a bar she hasn’t practiced as much.
It’s a bar we don’t get to hear (the show is as great at knowing when to withhold music as when to use it for dramatic effect), but I knew she played it well, too; because while she initially panics a little, she remember’s Reina’s words, and the feeling of her hands on her cheeks, and does what she has to do.
That being said, the announcements of the parts was as nerve-wracking as the audition, especially the seemingly cruel way their advisor lists the names of those who got seats, then simply saying the total afterwards.
At the sound of those totals we always see someone suddenly burst into tears, one by one; it’s like a battle, and they were unlucky enough to get hit by enemy fire; only they’re all friends and, in a way, family. The discomfort of that scene, and the lack of visible celebrations from the winners out of respect for their comrades, is all perfectly pitched.
That goes for when Kumiko is announced right after Asuka, as the only two Euphs who got seats. Kumiko seems almost guilty she snatched the second seat from Natsuki, after watching her transformation from apathy to devotion. It even reminds her of when that girl in the past asked her “Do you think this is funny?” which now sounds like a rebuke to Kumiko’s own apathy about music at the time. But the true meaning of those words, and the identity of the person who said them, remain elusive.
Midori gets a seat as the contrabass, but Hazuki fails, but takes it rather well, at least on the outside. Reina makes it too, then surprises the entire band (except for herself and probably Kumiko) when it’s also decided she, and not her senpai Kaori, will play all the solos.
But whatever social fallout such a decision has on Reina, I’m certain she’ll keep moving forward…will want Kumiko to keep walking beside her.
P.S. MAL remains noncommittal about the episode total of this show. I don’t wish this often, but I truly hope this gets the second cour it deserves. Anyone know for sure?