Hibike! Euphonium – 07

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I’ve enjoyed how throughout Hibike! Euphonium’s run it’s found little moments where Shuuichi always seems to gravitate toward Kumiko, who typically acts stiff, even annoyed by her childhood friend’s presence. At the same time, I imagine she’s not just tolerating  it, but legitimately comforted by it.

As we’ll see in the very end of the episode, Kumiko may be taking her bond with Shuuichi, and the easy rapport they have, for granted, even if it’s not intentionally. Their relationship is just one patch of the complex and multi-layered emotional tapestry of Hibike! Euphonium, a tapestry I’ve loved wrapping myself in week to week.

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The band uses their collective souls and breath to create music. But those souls are constantly beset by emotional obstacles—past, present, and future—that undermine their ultimate goal of achieving the level of technical precision and group cohesion necessary to have a shot at the Nationals.

When Kumiko overhears that her longtime friend and neighbor Aoi is thinking of quitting, and Shuuichi confirms it, she won’t believe it. But then, in the middle of practice, Taki can sense her single-handedly “muddying” the rest of the ensemble and calls her out, giving her the perfect chance to announce she is indeed quitting.

She does it abruptly, but her absence from the band is like an open wound from which negative energy festers. The president, Haruka, overtakes Kumiko in running after Haruka, but can’t convince her to come back. Haruka, in turn, has a crisis of confidence that had been brewing long before this most recent setback.

She cries in front of her junior Kumiko, lamenting that none of this would have happened if only Asuka had been president instead of her. It’s Asuka who comes out to the hall with a hanky for her tears. She lays it out to Haruka in very Asuka-esque fashion: If she knew all along really wasn’t cut out to be president she should have refused, as she herself did.

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Haruka takes the next day off, and the wound widens as now two third-years are absent. The show goes on without them, but Taki now notices Kumiko isn’t playing up to snuff. Being troubled does that; and in the sea of raging hormone and emotions that is high school, being troubled is an unavoidable fact of life. But unavoidable and unmanageable aren’t the same thing.

Hibike gets more info from her fellow eupher Natsuki about the civil war that took place within the band right before Kumiko and the first years arrived.  Haruka, Aoi, and the band’s “Madonna” Kaori were combatants and still bear the emotional scars of that war. Natsuki came out of it with a greater sense of commitment to her art, while Asuka remained neutral the whole time, staying above the fray.

Natsuki’s “war stories” invokes a memory for Kumiko from middle school, in which a short-haired girl refuses to accept her. It’s something that haunts her just as her since-resolved estrangement from Reina once did, only she’s not telling anyone about it, despite the fact it haunts her still.

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Meanwhile, Kaori visits Haruka and shakes up her pity party with hot potatoes, milk, and encouragement. She speaks the truth: Asuka may have been “smart” for refusing the presidency, but that doesn’t make Haruka stupid. Well, not just stupid…it took courage, courage that Asuka, for all her perfection, didn’t have, perhaps because logic can do such a good job of legitimizing retreat.

Haruka wasn’t held back by logic. The band was in tatters, but she picked up the remaining pieces, moved forward, and put it back together. If it weren’t for Haruka, there’d be no band for Taki-sensei to conduct. It’s what Kaori believes—and it’s the truth. Aoi’s exit from the band isn’t an indictment on her. Whether Aoi’s genuinely worried she won’t be able to get into a college if she sticks with a band, or she’s just using that as an excuse to retreat, she made her own choice.

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Having obviously picked up on the fact Kumiko is troubled about something she’s not telling anyone about, before alighting from the train Hazuki tells her if she ever wants to talk, she can. Up to this point these two and Midori have largely goofed off and had fun, so it’s nice to see their frienship growing deeper.

But poor Hazuki gets to see firsthand that the universe seems predisposed to putting Shuuichi and Kumiko together again and again, and that Shuuichi doesn’t seem to mind that phenomenon one bit. Yet once he’s aboard and sitting next to Kumiko, she’s immediately scolding him for bringing up Haruka hypothetically quitting.

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Yet in spite of her typical oh my god why do I have to deal with Shuuichi aura, Kumiko is also unmistakably engaged with him. Be it on a bench, on a bus, under a shelter, or on the train, when they’re together it’s like there’s a bubble around them and they are their whole world.

This is reinforced by the fact neither of them notice Reina’s sitting right next to them on the train. Even the camera didn’t notice. Ninja Reina! Not that she cares. Perhaps she sees what I see!

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President Ogasawara returns the next day to applause and sighs of relief, and the band continues their march towards the competition. If there’s one problem I had with this episode, it’s that it was a bit…stingy with the actual presentation of music. But that’s a small problem, and in fact, it’s actually better for the show to be stingy now, as it’s building up anticipation for the official performance, which I’m hoping will be as powerful as their march at SunFes.

Still, it’s telling that the chair where Aoi once sat remains unoccupied; the other saxophonists didn’t form up around the gap. This is a visual symbol that though the bleeding has stopped, the wound is still there. And it may not be the only one the band suffers as things get more grueling.

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Not only that, we finally get Hazuki bringing Shuuichi up to Kumiko; specifically, working up the courage to ask straight up whether they’re going out. Ending the episode with Kumiko’s simple bemused reaction to the sudden query is perfection. Just as she’s starting to put Aoi’s departure behind her and trying to play up to the standard Taki-sensei demands, Hazuki unwitingly tosses a new wrench in the works.

I don’t quite buy that Kumiko’s has never once seen Shuu as a potential love interest, only as a non-romantic childhood friend and occasional nuisance. In fact, I think part of why she typically regards him somewhat coolly is a result of feelings she’s not quite sure what to do with. Her look at the end here may not be puzzlement so much as a wake up call. With Hazuki’s heart now in the game, it’s time for her to take a position. And that’s got to be terrifying.

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Hibike! Euphonium – 06

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The sense of accomplishment from their SunFes success is short-lived, as Kitauji still has a long ladder to climb, being a school that has never scored higher than bronze, nor gotten out of prefectural stage of competition. Taki is taking the band’s desire to get to the nationals dead seriously, and he wants to field the best band he can, and that means auditions.

Auditions mean a first year can make it into the band if they’re better than a senior, but Hazuki doesn’t have any illusions about making the cut, as she’s still learning her way around Tubacabra. But Asuka won’t hear of her quitting before she tries, as it could cause problems in later years if super-talented first year tubaists join the band.

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As soon as Hazuki accidentally pulls out a piece of her tuba and panics, I was reminded of the first time I broke down my trumpet for maintenance. Like any complex instrument, musical or otherwise, it’s as important to know how it comes together and how it should work as it is to know how to play it well. The scene of the disassembled tuba also brings back happy memory for Kumiko: cleaning her (likely hand-me-down) euph as her sister cleans her trombone.

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I like how Kumiko and Reina have quietly settled into a nice friendship, though the two still seem a little embarrassed communicating so closely with one another. Or is that just the look of happiness on their faces? Clearly Kumiko was wrong about Reina holding a grudge; if anything, it seems as though all along Reina was looking for the right opportunity to reconnect with her former bandmate. Kumiko’s “payback” retort even inspires Reina to belt out a tune right there in the schoolyard, even as her senpai—now a rival in the auditions—plays up on the roof.

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Hazuki is a tough and determined one, so she decides to take her tuba home in a soft case and practice as much as possible. But she bristles at a beginner piece Asuka suggests she play, upset that it’s so slow and easy and that she still struggles with it. Determination and sticktoitiveness will only last so long when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task. She needs inspiration and motivation. Asuka thinks putting Kumiko in a “Tuba-kun” mascot suit will do the trick, but it only ends up charming Sapphire.

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As she practices alone in the hall, we catch a glimpse of a potential motivator for Hazuki: Shuuichi. Judging from the way she looks at Kumiko’s childhood friend, I’m willing to bet she wants more than anything to play at his level and be noticed by him for it.

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Then it dawns on her friends and bandmates: just as they overlooked the fact they never taught Hazuki how to properly clean her tuba earlier, she’s also never played in ensemble. She’s only been playing phrases by herself. Kumiko knows from experience—as all non-prodigal musicians do—that not sounding good, and knowing it, can wear one down and sap motivation.

So Kumiko and Sapphire meet Hazuki in their classroom and play the simply beginner piece that initially frustrated her. It turns out to be “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which I didn’t catch when she just played her part, but that’s the point: the tuba is a team player; it only truly shines when it’s carrying an ensemble, even an ensemble of only three. You can see Hazuki’s face glow with inspiration and glee as she experiences this for the first time. She sees the light, literally (due to the sunset) and figuratively.

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She takes the tuba home that evening, but with a renewed sense of optimism and faith she can do this. Disaster almost strikes when she alights from the train and the great mass of the tuba almost sends her crashing to the ground, but she’s caught at the last second—by Shuuichi, who manages to rescue her without dropping his elaborate corn dog.

It’s kismet, I tellsya! It’s also a potential love triangle in the making, if I’m right about Kumiko not really hating Shuu. Regardless, Hazuki x Shuu would make a ridiculously cute couple.

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As for Kumiko, she takes her euph home too, “influenced” by Hazuki to wring out every bit she can before auditions, even if, after seven years, she’s all but assured a spot in the band. Aoi sees her and almost bitterly mutters to herself how lucky she is, even if Kumiko would probably argue that point.

But I tend to agree with Aoi, and not just because she has a boyfriend-in-waiting (if Hazuki doesn’t steal him!) Kumiko has arrived at Kitauji at the right time, when things are getting serious and reaching the nationals isn’t a fairy tale. Aoi and a lot of the other upperclassmen have been mired in mediocrity up to that point; their best high school days behind them. Kumiko is lucky, and young, and talented.

But like almost anyone young and transitioning to adulthood, she needs to be told that, and she needs to believe it.

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P.S. I’ve somehow resisted pulling my trumpet out from its case under my bed…until this week. After the episode I tooted out some scales. I’m sure my neighbors are ecstatic! A couple days of practice (not too much, don’t want to split my lips) and I’ll probably be able to do “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Hibike! Euphonium – 05

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That’s right, Sapph-er…Midori and Kumiko…hold your heads up high, ’cause this was one great episode of Hibike!. It built on the band’s steady improvement, and the fact that its members want to get better as a matter of pride, both personal and collective.

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With SunFes fast approaching, marching uniforms are distributed, and they’re appropriately adorable. Kumiko is initially worried that she hasn’t yet grown where she wants to, but the fact she’s not the only one cheers her up. She also manages to lock gazes with Reina, continuing the good vibes from the progress they made last week.

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With the inner turmoil among the members resolved, it’s just good to see the band out on the athletic field practicing their marching, which really is tougher than it looks. As Kumiko & Co. walk home you can see the hard work that they put in, and how well they’ll sleep. Then boom, Kumiko and Reina lock eyes again, this time on the train.

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Kumiko is as nervous as ever, and her attempts to start conversation are all shot down by one-word responses by Reina. It’s not until Reina herself asks Kumiko what she thinks of Taki-sensei.

Kumiko starts beboping about everything from his capabilities as a teacher to his good looks, and even mentions the bronze the school got last year, and Reina, gorgeously backlit by the city lights, presents her widest smile yet, which is both bemusing and heartening to Kumiko.

Reina probably has the hots for the handsome young conductor. (This probably won’t go well), but more importantly, Kumiko may have been wrong all along about Reina holding a grudge.

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When the morning of SunFes arrives, Kumiko goes over the dizzying array of logistics deploying a marching band to a festival entails, from arranging transport of the instruments (the bigger of which are helpfully handled by the larger lads) to the students themselves (by bus) and all the documentation and P.R. therein. The attention to details (like Hazuki practicing her steps) really lend a sense of occasion and professionalism and reality to the whole event.

Kumiko also ends up sitting next to Shuuichi (they’re meant for each other!), and is standoffish as usual, but he breaks the ice by professing his wish that both of them do their best today. She may outwardly resent his presence there, either as a sign of the past she left behind, but it’s still nice that he’s there; they can support one another just with their presence.

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It’s just Kitauji’s luck that they’ll march in between the top-ranked Rikka “Light-Blue Demons” and another elite band. Some of the returning members immediately worry they’ll be trampled. Then Kumiko goes over to a Rikka musician she knew from high school, who is glad to see her but has no idea why not only she went to Kitauji, but why Reina turned down Rikka to go there as well.

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Kumiko doesn’t know…at least not until the Rikka girl tries to lead her to some other friends from middle school. She realizes she’s about to fall into old habits and her old casual, half-committed attitude with the band, and realizes she should be with her bandmates, preparing to march. Then she knows why Kitauji: a clean break; a blank slate; a new start. And she doesn’t regret it.

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With that, Rikka starts its ridiculously elaborate, technically perfect, and disgustingly charming performance, which immediately intimidates and demoralizes Kitauji. They all snap out of it thanks to Reina, who breaks taboo by making noise during a march. But hey, it worked!

Taki-sensei didn’t really have any inspirational or motivational words for his band when they first arrived, but rather chooses to give them those words just when they’re about to march out there, sandwiched between two powerhouses:

Music is not something you do to show off your abilities to your rivals. But the many spectators and students of other schools still don’t know what Kitauji is capable of. So I believe today is a good opportunity for them to learn.

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He says those words as calmly as everything else he’s said to his band, but they make a powerful impact. You’ve shown me what you can do, he’s saying; Now show everyone…make them remember. And doggone it, they do. Kitauji shows they’re not a joke or a footnote in the high school band world anymore. It’s a powerful scene.

This is their coming out party, and they don’t screw it up. They have a beauty at drum major and a rookie on trumpet who rejected the mighty Rikka. They’re a motley bunch made up of students with all manner of reasons for being there, but they march and play as one, defiantly, purposefully, strutting their stuff, turning heads, and changing minds. Kumiko, Reina, and Kitauji are on the march.

This was a gorgeously animated and felt episode, in the finest tradition of KyoAni. Keep it up, Hibike!

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P.S. This episode was directed by Miyoshi Ichirou, one of KyoAni’s finest talents, who is responsible for standout individual episodes in Free!, Hyouka, Chu2Koi, Haruhi, and Tamako Market…and that’s just what I’ve seen.

Hibike! Euphonium – 04

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Things couldn’t get much lower than they got last week, with the band unable to play together and various factions disputing whether to continue complaining to Taki or give in to his very new way of doing things.

Perhaps demonstrating her future as a diplomat, Haruka manages to work a weeklong ceasefire, during which time they’ll practice and attempt to get to a point where Taki will at least call them an ensemble, and only complain if he still doesn’t allow them to go to their precious SunFes.

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While all the negotiating takes place, Reina pretty much floats above it all, blasting her trumpet for all the school to hear. As narrator Kumiko puts it, this is Reina’s way of expressing her apathy for all this political bullshit…and I’m with Reina! They’re a band, for crying out loud; not a social club. If they want to go to SunFes, they need to be good enough to go, and the only way to do that is to knock off all the nonsense and get playin’.

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The accord thus reached, the more whiny of the band members are subjected to more of Taki-sensei’s abrasive tutelage; having them run laps before playing to build up their hearts and lungs; giving them semi-meditative breathing exercises, and singing solfège prior to creating overtones in group practice. In spite of their resentment for the man dishing out all this work, the band steadily gets better.

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Did I mention how much I love the relationship between Kumiko and Shuichi? She’s surly with him on the surface as usual—especially when he gets a dig in about her being cynical…which is true, by the way!—yet she still goes with him and hears him out about Reina getting into trouble with the seniors.

They do this in a very romantic spot, like that bench in the first ep, and even if the content of their conversation will never be accused of being lovey-dovey, the simple fact they can interact so casually and comfortably speaks volumes. There’s something there, but unlike other things this week, it’s left unsaid; whether it will remain unsaid all season remains to be seen.

Then they get in trouble when Shuichi blames Taki for not defending Reina—just when Reina is passing by on a bike on her way home. This is a bit of a coincidence, but I’ll allow it, because Kumiko realizes she made the same blunder she did back in that flashback that started her “rift” with Reina. She knows she can blame Shuichi for stating the behind-the-back talking, but she can’t deny that she agrees with his doubts about Taki.

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Kumiko’s fresh error vexes her during her parent-teacher conference (where we learn she followed her older sister into concert band, but her sister eventually quit), and when Reina asks Kumiko to join her in a dark and secluded corner of the schoolyard, she’s afraid of vicious retribution for that error.

Thankfully, Reina isn’t that kind of person. She apologizes, in her curt way, for saying too much. But that simple honesty broke the ice, allowing Kumiko to come out and say a lot of things to Reina she could never get around to saying until that moment: she’s sorry; she won’t say things about people behind their back; she’ll practice hard; she was inspired to work harder and aim higher by Reina’s Dvorak.

Kumiko saw the opportunity to say these things, and while she fears Reina will think she’s creepy now, she still feels good about saying them. For her part, Reina seemed moved by Kumiko’s sudden torrent of spoken feelings. Two episodes ago she made initial contact; now a dialogue is open, and they’re on their way to something resembling friendship.

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Kumiko decides not to keep quiet again in practice, encouraging a sleeping bandmate to join them in playing together, and surprised when she agrees. The rest of the band is able to channel the energy from their mutual dissatisfaction with Taki-sensei into becoming a better band, which may have been Taki’s intention all along.

When their week is up, the ensemble doesn’t sound perfect, but it does sound like an ensemble. They’re playing together. They can hear each other, and they’re playing like they have something to prove. The school hears them too, and are impressed. So SunFes is on, complete with a grueling, no-holds-barred practice schedule. I know it won’t be smooth sailing from here on in, but the progress both Kumiko and the band showed this week was very heartening. And hey, no one’s dying of an unspecified illness!

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Hibike! Euphonium – 03

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Watching Mikagura and Hibike! back-to-back is a study in contrasts. Eruna enters her new school looking to become its dashing hero, and when she’s knocked to the ground, jumps right back up, dusts herself off, and vows to carve her own path. Kumiko, on the other hand, has kept all of her fire within, and continues to allow herself to be stuffed into a euph-shaped hole despite not being particularly enthusiastic about it. Eruna believes she’s the best, while Kumiko never had any strong desire to be the best.

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Kumiko’s older sister greets her coldly, and while part of that may be emotional distance between sisters at different stages in their lives, perhaps her sis is a little disappointed Kumiko has “settled” for the euph “again”, knowing Kumiko herself isn’t that invested in it. “You don’t like the euph; I don’t like the euph…so what’s with the euph?”

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Be that as it may, hearing Hazuki toot her first note on “Tubacabra” lifts my spirits somewhat, as does her dutiful circular breathing practice-by-blow tickler. Kumiko may not be into this, but Hazuki is a lot more like Eruna; eager to learn and make the most of this opportunity. Then again, she got the instrument she wanted.

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This episode is half concert-band procedural, with Kumiko narrating how things work in a band, and giving said band a very professional feel, what with the sectional practices and lead-up to a rehersal as an ensemble. But little details here and there indicate that there’s a reason this band sounded so bad the first time Kumiko heard it: the band itself doesn’t quite work.

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Things are made painfully clear when the band pres Haruka summons their conductor Taki-sensei, perhaps against her better judgment. He gave them a simple beginner song to practice – “The Marine’s Hymn”, but it only takes a few measures of rough, uncoordinated play for him to cut the rehearsal short and call into question the band’s general understanding of what an ensemble is, before requesting they not waste his time.

Kumiko knows the band deserves the scorn, but the second years, who seem to be goofing off anyway, don’t react well to the tough love and stage a revolt of sorts.

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For the third time in as many episodes, Shuuichi approaches Kumiko to talk, only she’s flanked by her new friends and fellow bassists. Midori’s momentary misunderstanding about why Shuuichi was there was pretty cute, but Shuuichi is really there to confirm Kumiko’s concerns: as hard as some in the band may work, getting to the Nationals just may not be in the cards. Not with the way things are now.

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Things go from bad to worse when the second years’ revolt results in practice being canceled, which is not good for a band in desperate need of practice. As Kumiko, Hazuki and Midori start to head home with their heads hanging low, they suddenly hear a trumpet in the distance, which Kumiko recognizes instantly as Reina. As

She’s playing Dvorak’s “From the New World” – a piece that, beyond having it’s own anime, is something Kumiko knows the composer wrote when he was far from the home he knew and loved. There’s longing in the piece, and the pain of what’s been left behind, but there’s also hope; and enough feeling in the performance that the dusk almost looks like a dawn.

Reina’s lovely rendition, punctuated by a scream of frustration, made for a spirited, optimistic finish to what was, looking back, a pretty gloomy episode.

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Hibike! Euphonium – 02

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Everyone’s subtly hiding their true feelings and gathering in the safest direction.

Kumiko has a clear picture of the ideal scenario in which she and Reina make up, but rather than approach her and say anything, she procrastinates. Hazuki and Midori don’t want to interfere too much, but it’s starting to get ridiculous.

Kumiko’s hesitation makes sense: she believes Reina expects some kind of apology, but doesn’t feel like she’s in the wrong. She’s worried her true feelings will create conflict, so she avoids contact. Mind you, avoiding Reina forever is simply not realistic when the two are in the same band.

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As the newly-assembled band is introduced to the instruments and asked to choose which one they’d like to play, it’s a case of Kumiko not wanting to take the safest course, but rather looking for something new.

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It’s never been that she’s loved the Euph; the Euph was simply thrust upon her in grade school and middle school because no one else would play it. And while she may be simply messing around, the energetic senpai Asuka seems to see that long-standing relationship with the Euph in Kumiko’s face.

When Kumiko’s neighbor Aoi lets slip Kumiko’s an old hand at the Euph, her fate is sealed, but on the bright side, Hazuki (who is chosen Cinderella-style by the Tuba) and Midori (contrabass) will be in the same section as her.

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Speaking of neighbors, I continue to like how standoffish with Shuuichi Kumiko is, as if she can barely stand his presence…especially when he relays his interest in switching up his intrument. Like the Euph, he’s an example of something that just fell in her lap in life and she ran with it, without seriously weighing her choices. For his part, Shuuichi seems to want to remain on cordial terms with her—after all, he’s the one who’s approached her both times now.

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Then Taki-sensei, the band’s director, shows up and gives his students a choice: will they go for the Nationals, or just play to have fun? It’s up to them; he’ll support them either way, but won’t go easy on them if they want to compete.

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They put it to a vote, and suddenly Kumiko finds herself looking Reina’s way. Not surprisingly, Reina has her hand raised to go for the Nationals. Suprisingly, Aoi, raises her hand to have fun. Unlike the Euph or Shuuichi, here’s a non-circumstantial choice being given to Kumiko when she has the agency to make it…and she abstains, again worried either choice has its risks.

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That nice line up at the top is spoken by Aoi after the band meeting. It’s the third year the band has voted for the Nationals, and they’ve never gotten close; a little cynicism on her part is understandable. But she also knows why so many people voted for rather than against, which is the same reason Kumiko doesn’t want to tell Reina she doesn’t want to apologize for being less emotionally involved when they lost back then, and the same reason Taki asked the kids what they wanted to do: it’s all about finding those safe places of minimal conflict.

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But not all conflict is bad; some conflict breeds creativity and innovation, and greater things than could have been achieved in those safe places. So Kumiko, hiding behind her bookbag, finally approaches Reina at the sink. Reina simply asks her if she’s playing Euph again, and Kumiko says she is…and that’s it!

Now, this encounter is far from the perfect yet impossible scenario Kumiko envisioned, but that scenario only lived inside Kumiko’s head. Here, she’s not in her head going around in circles about how Reina might feel or how things might go. Instead, she’s taking one small baby step outside of that safe zone, as herself. As Aoi says, three years can flash by all too fast…and she knows Kumiko will regret spending them hiding in her head or behind her bookbag.

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