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The Expectation Problem, Part 2: The Discordance of Sound! Euphonium

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sound-euphonium-episode-12GBS: Okay, I think we’ve discussed the “romance” enough. I don’t actually care about the “truth” of her affections. She could be attracted to llamas for all I care. That was not the only thing about the show that gave me pause. On about the same level of causing some head-shaking, there was Kumiko’s seemingly sudden conversion from aloof to deeply passionate about music that came rather quickly near the end. It was too sudden. I just don’t buy it.

BCT: I’m not sure why some viewers see it as a sudden conversion. I get the impression that viewers have been distracted by things that were in fact sign posts (the way the show seemed to recast particular tropes may be what’s responsible for this).

GBS: If there were signposts…I think I completely missed them. To me, it appeared earlier that Kumiko was just a follower in her older sister’s footsteps and seemed ambivalent about the whole thing. Remember, she wanted to switch instruments at the beginning of the year. I did not see any real signs of underlying passion. When the band decided to be “serious,” Kumiko just went along…as she always does.

But then—Boom!—suddenly in the space of one episode (which we’ll get to in a moment), she starts walking a path that has her burning with desire to go to Nationals by the end? Sorry, but it felt unnatural to me. If she had real passion underneath all along, they could have dropped substantive hints earlier.

BCT: Yes, even as soon as the beginning of this school year, as she reluctantly joined the band, she was still an uncommitted, even shallow follower. There is groundwork laid for the conversion, however, though through some authorial convenience. One of Kumiko’s new classmates and friends is a bass player and soon to be member of the band, and the other, Hazuki, wants to join the band as a new player (just because, it seems). Hazuki’s naive passion for playing was the catalyst for Kumiko to get back in in the first place—she’s also responsible for getting Kumiko to talk to Reina, her former middle school bandmate, again.

sound-euphonium-episode-13Next is Kumiko’s encounter with older section-mate, Natsuki, who makes Kumiko question why someone like her—a bored, uncommitted second-year—was even there. Natsuki develops a rally-like rapport though, encouraged by the younger player to try harder, and showing Kumiko that it’s worthwhile to do so even if you fail. In the midst of this, there is Aoi, an older friend of Kumiko’s in the band who decides it’s not worth it to commit more and quits, to focus on entrance exams. Kumiko, who seems to follow wherever the wind is blowing, needs Aoi’s conundrum to force her to think about why she should stay in the band. Additional points come from her childhood rivalry with Shuichi, and her envy of section leader Asuka’s ability and poise. Add to this Reina’s “advances”, somewhat strategically situated in the midst of these events, which served to express the passion for playing music in equally powerful but non-music experiences.

GBS: Hmm. You do make a good case, but I’m not entirely sold on it. That Kumiko goes with the flow and gets swept up in other people’s passions, that I can buy. That it leads her to trying harder at the band thing herself, okay. But sudden enthusiasms often are shallow and short-lived. Kumiko’s passion at the end, the presentation makes it too “genuine” to buy, if you understand what I mean. At the start of Episode 8, I’d argue she is still engaged in unthinking following. By the end of this episode, at the mountaintop, it suddenly changes to deep commitment, or at least she seems firmly on that path. And she gets there (ultimate commitment) in just two episodes. I take her “confession” to Reina in Episode 10 as the proof of real passion—for music. Two episodes? The timing is just too tight.

Yes, sudden changes of heart happen in real life, but in fiction, for me, when they occur they more often than not feel like Authorial Conveniences. Because the Author suddenly needs Kumiko to be passionate now, sincerely passionate—voilà! she’s truly passionate about the music. Fiction sometimes has to be less strange than Truth, or it breaks the illusion.

sound-euphonium-episode-12aBCT: Yes, while there were breadcrumbs, the truest beginning of her “journey to true commitment” does probably begin in episode 8, with Reina’s invitation. And more so in episode 10, where she doubles down. But I argue that her journey is not truly complete until episode 12, with her near-epiphany after being singled out by Mr. Taki for not playing well enough on her assigned section. With Reina, she had learned to fully commit to her passion—to find her passion in the first place—but until Taki’s (arguably unconventional) challenge to her well-being, she had not yet matured enough to understand that, no matter how committed, she could fail.

GBS: So, Taki was the final “test of faith” before she reaches the final state of commitment?

BCT: That’s maybe one way to put it. But what made that actual point of epiphany feel abrupt is I think a more credible critique of overall pacing and space. It’s not, I think, the plot point that was abrupt, but simply the execution (within four episodes) or placing of it, contingent partly on the length of the season.

GBS: Whether the plot point itself (Kumiko’s conversion) is abrupt or not is a thorny issue that we might never agree on, but I do agree entirely about the pacing being the central problem. The list of “hints” you’ve listed above for showing Kumiko’s path to passion, if we can call it that, does create a logical pathway…but perhaps one that is too subtle and that has serious problems with it because it deliberately got twisted up into Romance (let’s not reopen that can of worms, but it has to be mentioned).

This is, unfortunately, an indication of poor adaptation or writing, in my opinion. Yes, having the girls’ passion for music be likened to romantic passion, having Love stand in as a metaphorical way of expressing the love for music…okay, I get that…

BCT: Either one is drawn to the surface, story points, or to the thematic, character-driven structure. That more viewers don’t pick up on the latter may indeed be a valid criticism of the show’s writing and direction.

sound-euphonium-episode-07bGBS: …but I think that anime, with its heavy baggage of romcom tropes, is not the best medium for attempting to tell it like this. Notice how much hand-wringing was done by fans over Twitter with the On-Again/Off-Again “one true pairing” of Kumiko and Reina. All of that discussion was about Romance…or baiting…none of it was about Love of Music.

Innovative storytelling is wonderful…leaving your audience confused or distracted is less than optimal.

BCT: Yeah, that’s the shame of it, to me. Charitably, I’d say it was experimental and provocative, using a “traditional” set of formulas but displaying them in a way that is uncomfortable.

GBS: Ahh, that brings up a different, but interesting, tangent: “comfort.” There were those, I think, who were made very uncomfortable by Reina’s confession of love for Taki-sensei. And then probably made uncomfortable as well by Shuichi not going away. Playing with expectations can be a dangerous game for creators.

BCT: Good point about medium, in fact, if we might guess what the original novels did. (They are currently not available here.) Novels—even teen-focused ones like this; but not “light novels”—would be an almost unquestioned place for telling a story like this. Anime is indeed a harder sell, at least in stories about this demographic. (Were they college students, or adult professionals, maybe it’d be taken differently…and it might have failed miserably.)

GBS: So, this is just another example of unimaginative fans, their narrow tunnel vision, and how it interferes with audience reception?

BCT: I don’t think most viewers are unimaginative, but they can (ourselves included) box themselves in with preferences that only make themselves comfortable. And that’s fine to do—it’s what allows us to be entertained instead of thinking all the time—but if something seems to break the box open I think it’s worth taking a look at (even if takes doing it from a different angle than usual) just to open up new opportunities for being entertained.

sound-euphonium-episode-07GBS: I think I know how a novel can do this properly: internal monologues. You get the characters’ inner thoughts, so there is no lack of understanding. But anime is at its best when you “Show, not Tell.” KyoAni knows this, and followed through on that principle for the most part…but this is, I think, a case where it’s backfiring. Because we get so very little about the inner life of the characters. This is what makes them at times almost seem more like an author’s sock puppets and not living, breathing persons with hopes, dreams and desires.

BCT: I don’t see them as sock puppets (anymore than usual), but that’s probably right. Because while something like anime can do something truly outside that box, it still has natural limitations that audiences can’t be blamed too much for expecting. Or it seems to have limitations. We’ll have to wait until the next director or writer or animator finds some new way we can’t imagine at the moment.

GBS: So…can I go have my coffee now? You dragged me into this discussion before I was able to be properly caffeinated this morning. I’m not used to being ambushed in the office parking lot and then engaged in long critical analyses before I at least get one latte in me.

BCT: Chapter three of The Art of War includes a lesser known section on coffee. Only way to win the argument.


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