A topic that I sometimes bring up when people discuss how certain characters in the latest novel adaptation to anime isn’t fleshed out sufficiently is that they’re not supposed to be fleshed out, because they’re a supporting character, only there to help the main character’s fleshing out as they interact with them. In most novels, it’s very clear who the protagonist is, and it’s often clear that other characters not only aren’t protagonists, but they might not even be main characters at all.
In anime, these novels, and often manga (where ensemble casts are slightly more common), get posed as stories with a handful of main characters, often between three and five (three is a particularly common number for romantic series), but let’s take a look at Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium in Japanese), where if we go by popular site MyAnimeList (MAL), then we have four, and those are also the first four appearing on the Wikipedia page for the show. All is content added by private individuals, but considering these four appear on the anime’s poster (and are four of the five characters appearing on the first novel’s cover as well), we could go by that.
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for the entire show.)
Look at Katou Hazuki and Kawashima (Sapphire) Midori, are they main characters, as they are listed on MAL and going by the anime poster? Are they important characters who not only appear but act, change, and move the show onward, or are they mostly there as the backdrop for Kumiko’s story, mostly there to help her on her journey, owing much of their screen time to the simple fact they spend time with the point of view main character? It’s mostly the latter, but not only. This is where it gets messy.
Supporting characters are allowed to have their own arcs, and in fact, it helps them feel as actual people rather than paper cutouts, but it’s a question of focus. Hazuki has her own arc, where she asks Shuuichi out, gets turned down, but keeps up her good spirits, and especially the appearance of said good spirits. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that supporting characters often get more romantic conflicts, which get some form of resolution, in anime, because they’re allowed to have it without it being the focus of the show, whereas for the main characters, the resolution of the romantic conflict is also the resolution of the show.
Hazuki has another conflict, or character arc, that she goes through, where she is the main actor, which is about the same character trait – she tries to pass the audition to perform as part of the band during the competition, but gets cut out. So, two conflicts, same personality trait, but is this done mostly to flesh her out, or to help flesh out other characters? And here it’s definitely the latter. Through Hazuki’s conflicts and the ways in which they interact with other characters, the show imparts two of its most important themes, and morals.
The first is that Hazuki is a beginner. She’s just joined the band and used to be in athletics-oriented clubs prior. Though we may all wish to root for the plucky and happy beginner who comes out of nowhere and surprises everyone, and many shounenonsense shows are predicated on this, Hazuki’s failure should be a foregone conclusion. Effort matters. Hazuki’s presence revitalizes Natsuki, who is originally shown withdrawn from the club and from practice, but gradually grows to try her hardest as well, who also doesn’t make the cut for the competition. It’s not just about talent, it’s about dedication, it’s about callused and bloodied fingers, it’s about chapped lips. And yet, there is progress to be made, there is always next time, so long you keep working hard.
Midori, through whom Hazuki’s second conflict is made manifest, is a more perfect example of a supporting character, as she’s there to actively voice other characters’ joy and sorrow. Midori doesn’t have a personal arc, she doesn’t even have any proper conflict in the show. Her “conflict” comes from when her friends should be sad, are sad, but aren’t voicing it, and she has to voice their sadness and be comforted by them, rather than provide the comfort, because she’s hurt by their hurt, and by them keeping it down. She’s there to make sure we understand that Hazuki is “taking one for the team,” by supporting her friends and pushing them onward over the wreckage of her hopes, romantic or musical. This specific conflict keeps flaring up, with Ribbons and Kaori, and of course, with Reina and Kumiko. It’s about supporting one another, and how between Hazuki and Midori, both are supporting one another, via reversed roles.
Reina is definitely an important character. Not for an arc, not necessarily as a person, but because of what she means to Kumiko, how much of a symbol she is to her, even. Idolized and mysterious, yet frank and willing to cry. Reina is willing to cry for herself, unlike Hazuki and Kumiko, at least for most of the show. Because combining the two above themes, you must earn the right to cry, by having given it your all, by having believed in yourself. The focus is on yourself, and likewise, you cry when you allow yourself to be an individual for yourself, rather than as an attachment to others’ existence, who must think of others before they think of themselves. And it’s not surprising that Kumiko is attracted to this brazen display of self-focus, of being yourself, for yourself, by your own effort. This is also where Kumiko’s arc within the show concludes, with the realization that she’s playing for herself, because she’s enjoying it, and that she’s sad when she fails herself, and fails her music, after having given it her all.
So far, so good, right? Well, all of the above is quite good, but this is an ensemble show, and how this was all presented also matters. We’ve had Asuka’s personality obliquely referred to. We’ve had band-leader Haruka who is unsure of herself and what she’s doing for the club, and why (but the answer is given in Kumiko’s arc), and why it’s not performed by the much more popular and charming Asuka. We’ve had Shuuichi’s frustration with his own playing, and Ribbons’ adoration for Kaori, as well as Taki-sensei’s goals and the picture he was stroking, and we’ve had Aoi, Kumiko’s childhood friend and upperclassman who abandoned the band for her future which is a mirror to Kumiko and the others. Part of the issue is I could keep going, with half-done but constantly pushed forward threads.
We, quite frankly, had too many characters, and too many storylines, and too many conflicts, and most of them had been unresolved. In an ensemble encompassing so many characters, it’s a given that they’d all have their own stories within which they’re the main characters, but one of the big reasons works of fiction often succeed in creating emotional attachment, at least for me, is that they excise all the other things that aren’t relevant, and leave you with a razor’s edge of a story, all about its theme, or its emotional beats.
It’s not as if Sound! Euphonium isn’t aware of it. Taki told them to get better by the time a week passed, and we skipped ahead to when it was relevant. Likewise, the auditions didn’t take several episodes, which they easily could’ve. Just like good fights scenes, the question is about the stakes, and about the fallout once things resolve one way or another.
So the show still filled all of this stuff in. Why? First, from a slightly more cynical perspective, just skipping straight ahead from one “theme/plot-relevant point” to another would’ve made for a very short work, one that’d have fit well within a movie (which might’ve worked better for me, honestly). The downside is that you have less room to grow attached to the characters, if not as characters, then as people. But here we come back to the fact that we had too many characters, and too many conflicts, for the span of 13 episodes, each having 20 minutes of actual content. And the show introduced more aspects, more plot-lines, more would-be conflicts up to the final episode, with Taki’s photo. It feels as if this show was never really intended as a single season, and that all these storylines that have been opened up, and all these characters and conflicts that are hinted at would still get more time.
If it is, I’d be happy, but what genre, or type of story is Euphonium trying to portray? Is it merely a slice of life told from Kumiko’s perspective, so catching those glimpses of other characters’ stories which might not get expanded on to be expected? I don’t think so, considering how we’re seeing all those scenes she’s not present in, and the show is certainly teasing us to wonder what’s going on or what will happen with certain characters and pairings (Ribbons and Natsuki, Ribbons and Kaori, and Kumiko and Reina, that had they been a heterosexual couple we wouldn’t call it “teasing” and would consider the show to have marked them as romantically engaged. Unlike the first two couples, which like Haruka and Asuka, it’s more about chemistry and backstory, and fallout of dependencies). It’s pushing the drama storylines far too hard. But if it’s a drama, then all these storylines not concluding is definitely an issue. We had too many characters for Kumiko’s story, and too much focus on Kumiko’s story for a truly ensemble show.
I heard that the follow-up novels focus not on Kumiko, but on Asuka and the other characters. Considering Kumiko’s arc has concluded, and with it, the “Better yourself. Work hard enough until you’re worth believing in,” arc of the ensemble as a whole, it makes sense. So, what do I think of this show as a whole? I think it’s a pretty good show. It’s ambitious, and its successes and flaws flow from its big and varied cast of characters. It has numerous characters and conflicts one can relate to, but this many also mean it’s harder to relate to any single one, and I personally didn’t find the show emotionally moving, even if it were well done. It felt grand in terms of scope, but the scope could not be contained within the show, so it feels like the first half of a longer show, and I’m eagerly awaiting the 2nd half, even as this one did not leave me perfectly satisfied.
The show is very pleasing aesthetically. The voice acting was solid, and Kumiko’s actress, Kurosawa Tomoyo, had a very interesting inflection which differed based on Kumiko’s mode (sarcastic versus not).