Almost every season, a new piece produced by Kyoto Animation, one of the more notable anime production houses in Japan, is greeted with fanfare and high expectations. That is because they have produced many titles that exhibit both high quality craftsmanship and manage to go over well with a good segment of the fandom. Not everything they have done is magic, but a recent attempt to rank animation production houses by their sales “successes” (a relative term considering few, if any, of us have true knowledge of what constitutes a “hit” in Japan) placed KyoAni very high on the list.
Their latest work, based upon the novel series Hibike! Euphonium: Kitauji Koukou Suisougaku-bu e Youkoso by Ayano Takeda, tells the story of several members of a high school concert band, primarily focused upon a first-year euphonium (a type of brass bass instrument, smaller than a tuba) player named Kumiko Oumae. Initially lacking in motivation, things begin to change for Kumiko and her bandmates with the arrival of a new band teacher and a new drive to take the group to the national competition.
The production values are certainly there (the opening animation has cuts that are near-feature film in quality) but what about the story? During its original airing, the pacing was thought to be both too slow and too fast for some tastes, and in an indirect way this lead to some minor off-screen drama among viewers during the second half of the show. It also bears itself out as a good case study for how expectations form our opinions. As always, Greg Smith joins me in looking at what all the commotion was about.
GBS: So, there was certainly one part of the show that created a bit of a stir in fan circles: the “romance” between the show’s main characters Kumiko and trumpeter Reina Kousaka. Certainly caused a bit of a Twitter storm over what was really going on there. There were many who complained about how things turned out, with what seemed like a love confession, followed by Reina then admitting she loved the teacher, but then followed by what looked like a declaration anew from Kumiko that Reina accepted. If this is meant to be a romance, the execution leaves something to be desired as far as I’m concerned. All of it feels a bit tacked on, since I don’t think it’s even integral to the larger story.
BCT: I don’t believe the “romance” in this story was executed like your everyday anime. And I think this is in large part about audience expectations. Even in your comment here there is this sense of it as a collection of elements built one on top of each other: anime as formula. You have a setting like this and so, C follows B follows A; and either it’s handled convincingly or it’s not. But this is likely based on a source, given its execution, that is much more convincingly character- and theme-based, not (as much) plot- or formula-based.
GBS: That may be, but if that’s the case, that is not what I’m taking away from the anime execution of the material. It really does feel like prefabricated pieces being slotted into place.
BCT: And that may have been inevitable, given the subject matter and the production studio. Anime fans see a schoolgirl be playfully suggestive with another, or declare love to a teacher, and the formula almost presents itself. But that’s not, in this case, what Reina (as representation of the author) is thinking: she’s trying to relate to this other girl, the only person who has been to this point friendly to her, but who is herself hamstrung by insecurities—so Reina teases Kumiko while simultaneously making herself vulnerable (she is awkward interacting with people to begin with) in order to express how she feels about playing music and being in this group and in this place.
GBS: I’ll grant you that Reina is awkward in dealing with others, but I find it hard to ascribe motives to much of what she does from what they have chosen to show us of her. I’m not saying your reading of her motives is wrong (it is probably as on target as anyone can be with how little we have to work with to judge her intentions), but I guess this is a case where I would rather have things spelled out more. The obliqueness is getting in the way of understanding. Thus, why I feel like the romantic elements are tacked on: they don’t feel like they are truly a natural part of the larger whole.
BCT: Nothing is tacked on with Reina/Kumiko, I think, because nothing—or at least less than it seemed—was there to begin with. Was the production still playing with audience’s expectations? Or, more provocatively, ambivalent? Possibly. But that doesn’t add up to bad execution or adaptation, in my mind. That’s challenging the audience to look outside their little boxes; or, as one might suggest, to lift their goggles up for a second.
GBS: If it’s challenging the audience, they may have challenged me to the point where they confused me about their actual intentions.
BCT: And that may be from the second thing Reina does: her confession, also and only to Kumiko, of some kind of love (childish crush, burning lust; we don’t really find out) to their new band teacher, and an old family friend, Taki. In its context—alienated from the other students because of just such a rumor—it seemed to speak to the guarded depths of her character. It’s a major reason she came to this school, but it’s not the whole reason; she also wants to “stand out”, yet she feels she can only do that with him there. It’s very complex for her, and she doesn’t know how to relate it, hence her languid, almost defeated confession about it to Kumiko.
GBS: Okay, so, let’s say for the sake of argument that your interpretation is right. The “romance” is meant to be demonstrative of Reina’s character. But…why do this through “romance?” I know this might well sound obtuse for those who think they’ve got it all figured out, but if this romance is not meant to be taken at face value, then why did they spend some rather serious time and budget on it?
If you’re right about it just being a way to see into Reina’s personality…it makes the romantic entanglements seem less like an organic event and more like an arbitrary choice by the author. At the same time, it’s hard to reconcile that with the effort they made in presenting them. That mountaintop sequence was quite impressive, not something just dashed off by Studio Taitann…oh, nevermind. If you are right, then for me it makes the romantic elements wind up being nothing more than empty gestures. Why do it this way?
BCT: I think it’s the show having a central theme—”passion” in this case—and using its characters to represent, explore, and execute it. Romance among the characters (a natural condition with adolescent characters) is a most convenient way of expressing such a theme. It leads to intriguing characterization for Reina, especially, and how the more timid Kumiko is influenced by her. Most of the other characters are likewise complex and unpredictable when used as tools, in effect, to express passion in several facets of life (especially the older players who each in their own ways decided how and when, or when not, to commit to the band).
GBS: Alright, I can see that. Passion as the guiding theme of the story overall.
BCT: The elements that feel slightly tacked on, perhaps, for me, are the routine pair of close friends to the lead. Bass player, Midori, and new tuba player, Hazuki, seem more by the numbers; but even then, maybe to some purpose, with the usual and expected “rejection” moment expected in a story with romance off-loaded onto the latter, and early on, as if to demonstrate this story’s certain indifference to such things. Same time, Hazuki, at least, shows the passion of the newly converted, as a rookie member of the band.
GBS: Interesting that you bring up Hazuki, since that leads into something I noticed when looking back at those three episodes in question, as we are presented with a parallel love triangle right before the fireworks involving Reina, Taki and Kumiko.
Most of Episode 8, which is titled “Festival Triangle,” is concerned with the deliberately averted love triangle involving Kumiko, her childhood friend the trombone player Shuichi, and Hazuki, which is played fairly straight with no hidden meaning. Isn’t it only natural for viewers to see the Taki-Reina-Kumiko situation in similarly simplistic terms, coming as it does immediately after? Expectations on the part of the audience are being primed in a certain direction. Yes, I know, playing with expectations is something creators ought to do, but there are dangers to going against the grain too sharply or too quickly. You can leave the audience adrift.
BCT: If those audience expectations are related to tropes that have been elevated to memes, then there’s real risk. And I think it’s a case where segments of the audience are taking too convenient a short-cut (and where creators may be trying to be provocative). I don’t believe the two love triangles have any direct bearing on one another. They seem, in fact, more in counterpoint. The Hazuki-centered triangle is exactly what it seems to be—Hazuki’s the naive innocent in the story, in love as much as in music. But Reina’s little suggested triangle is more fraught.
GBS: So, how is Reina not playing into the standard expectations then?
BCT: The two attractions, if we can call them that, in Reina’s life are for her tied up in the same package. She can’t fully understand, let alone act, on her naive feelings for the teacher, Mr. Taki—all the more because they are mixed up with her passion for feeling special through playing music, a condition that he enables for her. So she basically uses Kumiko for a sort of release. This is not an uncommon literary device, after all. I find the sudden Reina/Kumiko “love” scenes fascinating, because they feel more at home in other mediums: two people able only to express or experience the new-found, tumultuous passion of adolescence (whatever their preferences) with each other, because there’s no one else in the world at that moment who could understand.
There’s a foundation for the theme established, in fact, in the tenth episode, where we see that the older Kaori (trumpet) and Asuka (euphonium) have or had the same type of relationship. (Kaori seemed still struck by and dependent on it, but perhaps no longer confused; Kumiko, however, is in thrall—but how it leads in some small part to her understanding Reina’s passion, it helps Kumiko’s development the next episode.)
GBS: Okay, I can see the parallel pairs that Reina/Kumiko and Kaori/Asuka form, though I think Asuka kind of lets Kaori down a bit, so that Haruka has to pick up the slack.
BCT: Though on the theme of passion Asuka seems straightforward (all about music; the rest is distraction), parts of her story feature the biggest blanks: she mirrors Reina, but she seemed to have turned out colder and even harder to read, even with Kaori and Haruka still with her.
GBS: I think what throws me off about Reina is the way her actions shift direction so suddenly. We have the mountaintop “confession.” It may well be that most viewers, myself included, read far, far too much into that scene than was there, but it was just too intimate the way it played out. Then, straight into the revelation that she loves Mr. Taki. As if it isn’t enough to have to wrap our heads around those two things immediately after each other, the next episode shows Kumiko giving us her “confession.”
BCT: In a peculiar way, the very starkness and immediacy of Reina’s actions—from her first confession through her seemingly impulsive course corrections—and more importantly how they were portrayed (up close, humorless, unweighted by melodrama) are what made me feel, almost immediately, that the story was playing against formula. There was a suddenness and rawness I was not familiar with in anime of this sort.
GBS: I know we might argue about this, but I still feel that first event followed standard formulas for a certain kind of relationship just too closely for it to be less than it seemed. The third one did as well—except that the middle episode shows us something is not quite right. Using formulaic elements and settings in an innovative way is nice, but you risk confusing the audience—or worse, alienating part of it—if you play too fast and loose with them.
BCT: I can agree that is most certainly a risk, especially with this sort of material (high school-based anime). Because most of that audience may come in expecting things to follow a certain pattern, and if that’s not there, they may overlay it onto the work—or jam the work into that wrong-sized hole. But also given that this sort of material seems to have become so predictable that the slightest deviation in execution is met with confusion or derision almost seems, in a perverse way, to warrant it.