Sound! Euphonium — On Ensembles and Ensemble Shows

Sound EuphoniumA 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.

Hibike! Euphonium / Sound! Euphonium anime episode 13 - Oumae Kumiko about meaning wishes

Kumiko’s character arc in a single shot. She’s talking about “effort”.

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.

Hibike! Euphonium / Sound! Euphonium anime episode 9 - Tanaka Asuka has no time for others' issues

If this were true, there’d be no show. But this is a character whose story we only get hints about.

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.

Hibike! Euphonium / Sound! Euphonium anime episode 11 - Kousaka Reina and Oumae Kumiko look into one another's eyes

Another thing we want (need?) to see the resolution for.

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.

Hibike! Euphonium / Sound! Euphonium anime episode 13 - Tanaka Asuka telling Oumae Kumiko the fun times are about to end

A sub-theme for the 3rd years, but we know the story’s not over, not nearly.

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).

10 comments on “Sound! Euphonium — On Ensembles and Ensemble Shows

  1. JekoJeko says:

    A great read. It certainly is a ‘question of focus’ when it comes to how ‘fleshed out’ a character is supposed to be – often viewers will demand too much of someone because of their iron prejudices that every good character must ‘change’, ‘grow’, ‘develop’, have ‘depth’, etc., and shift their focus away from what the story is trying to make them focus on.

    In Charlotte, one of the main characters is at one point assaulted by a character we’ve only just met in the episode (halfway through the series). I read many complaints that we should have had her full back-story to understand ‘in depth’ why she was doing what she was doing, and sighed at all of them. The focus of that scene was obviously on the /main/ character present, and the episode had worked hard to make sure we only knew what she knew. Her bewilderment at why her friend had gone to these lengths mirrored ours, and because I was following along with the show naturally, rather than looking for things to nitpick on a blog’s comment section, I enjoyed the added immersion.

    Hibike! is getting a second series (hooray!), and the chaotic mess of plotlines, for me, reflected how the band were a chaotic mess at first themselves. But the more they got better, the more the main (solo) parts of the story became clearer, and the more the less important parts naturally faded into the background.

    The thing about being in a young girl’s perspective is that school, IRL, /does/ have too many characters and too many storylines to follow. The way it’s boiled down in rom-coms can give you tunnel-vision that good stories always ‘excise all the other things that aren’t relevant, and leave you with a razor’s edge of a story’, but I was happy that Hibike! took a different approach, which is also frequent in fiction, albeit not as much in anime (though Durarara!! is a prime example). It harkens to the more literary style of the novel, stories filled with a plethora of characters who all seem to have their own story, and often get in the way of the others telling theirs. Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ immediately come to mind, the latter being explicitly ‘a novel without a hero’.

    The pinnacle of the novel has been in these kinds of stories that avoid giving you ‘razor edges’ because they want you to observe all the organised chaos, Eliot’s confusing ‘web’ of character relationships, and work out the edges for yourself. That’s what I love the most about Hibike! – it’s a show you have to actively unpick often to find the clarity of characters you want, and stories that make you interested enough in them to do that without handing you clarity on a plate will always be my favourites. The amount characters in Hibike! are defined by a lack of definition is also breathtakingly realistic in terms of mirroring how hard it is to define someone’s ‘character’ at the hazy stage of youth that is the show’s emotional setting.

    • Guy says:

      and because I was following along with the show naturally, rather than looking for things to nitpick on a blog’s comment section, I enjoyed the added immersion.

      A slightly less cynical read would be that many anime viewers want to understand everything. Considering the comments I read about a lot of stuff, I’d say this is true. At least for currently-airing shows. Keeping a mystery going week to week is hard, especially in 20 minute installments. Not what you’re talking about, but it might transfer over, the annoyance over “not knowing everything.” Anime has a lot of reliance on flashbacks explaining everything about characters and hammering at us with it. You can see it in the complaint section when it doesn’t.

      The chaotic mess of plotlines, for me, reflected how the band were a chaotic mess at first themselves. But the more they got better, the more the main (solo) parts of the story became clearer, and the more the less important parts naturally faded into the background.

      It’s an interesting argument, of the sort I might write my own piece on, but I don’t think it actually makes for a good show. Good artistic meta-direction of the sort does not mean something is worth doing. I could see it for a movie. Here, my argument is more “They needed the mess of the band and the storylines because they had to pad out the actual conflict, Kumiko’s (and to a lesser degree, the band’s as a whole), lest it only amount to 6 episodes.” Cynical? Perhaps.

      Most novels aren’t the sort you describe. In fact, most novels are much more focused than anime, on a single character’s viewpoint and the events that surround them. Or two, or three. But not ensembles like in anime. Not all. Do you have to have few characters for a good story? No, but it’s harder when you add more. I think the Ensemble Show that Euphonium is does make it a lesser story, even if it might make it a better show. It’s no Durarara!!. And Durarara!!’s first half at least is a true ensemble story, or the main character is the city, so it works. It wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Mikado’s storyline was as heavily pushed early on, I feel.

      The biggest thing this diffusion of characters/storylines does is make it harder to have emotionally resonant, and shining moments. That’s what stories give you that real life does not. Is it less realistic? Yes, but there’s a reason we consume fiction, and there’s a reason this form of storytelling is better for “telling us stuff of the world,” and even most documentaries actually veer into this direction.

      As for your comment on how “The pinnacle of the novel has been in these kinds of stories,” that’s an extremely subjective take, which many would gladly disagree with. Most classic works of literature don’t fall into this sort.

      But yes, there’s something to be said for this sort of storytelling, but not when it’s incomplete, and I do feel it has more obstacles to overcome, and specifically, hasn’t always been handled the best in this show.

      • JekoJeko says:

        When referencing ‘the novel’ as a form, and its ‘pinnacle’, I was drawing inspiration from great works like Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ and Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, two novels often hailed as the greatest of the Victorian era. As for the Modern novel, the apex of that, /as a form/, has to go to Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. All the research I’ve done into the novel has been towards these kinds of stories, an argument that the novel’s prime lies in heteroglossia, the multitude of voices that are always present on the page.

        If Durarara!!’s character is the city – and I like that analysis – Hibike’s can be said to be the band. Like any body made of many parts, and like a musical ensemble, it needs coordination, and it only gets it with time. I didn’t find any discomfort with the more chaotic stage of the band’s progress, however – it felt richly splintered. I did however feel that it wasn’t ’emotionally resonant’ in those early chaotic stages; but still, that fits in with the sense of the band coming together at the end, and there was still much for me to enjoy before that.

  2. Beobachter says:

    Yea, this kind of ensemble story gets better the longer it is and the more time we get to know the characters. I thought the first half of Euph’s too lackadaisical and stiff, then the characters started to grow on me in the second half, and I’m confident I’d like the show even more and possibly invest emotionally in the second season, especially if they do stray further from Kumiko’s perspective into the ‘no real MC’ realm.

    Who’s the character you like the most? Asuka’s the most interesting to me, would like to see what’s going on behind that easygoing mask.

    • Guy says:

      Taki is definitely my favourite character. Favourite person within the show would likely be Haruka, who’s trying her best, and is feeling a bit unsure of herself but is still doing all she can for the people and environment she cares for.

      And yes, Asuka and Taki are the most “mystery-buildup” characters, where we keep getting hints but don’t really know them. More Asuka, because Kumiko sees more of her, and because as a teenager, she’s more likely to get a main role in the story, hue.

      As for the story, as much as it was Kumiko’s (and Reina’s), it felt as if the start and the section up to the end but not including it was “The Story”, with the middle section given to the other characters, and yes, spent on making us grow fonder of them.

  3. Yeah it’s difficult to get a grasp on the characters since the first 13 episodes only covered the first novel. And what you see as far as character development sort of mimics the first volume. At the time of preproduction, only the first volume was out and they only had one image (the cover illustration) to go by. For the most part they stuck with the similar path of the 1st novel but with slightly different execution.

    Having read all the novels, (4th volume is just a bunch of shorts but you do get some background on certain characters – though one chapter seemed more like an editorial mandate that didn’t match the writing of the first 3 novels.) I could honestly spill the beans that Hazuki and Midori didn’t get that much development. BUT, Hazuki was a little (or rather a tad bit) conniving admitting to taking advantage of Kumiko’s meekness during a certain scene. But other than that, she served as a catalyst in the most minimal of sense.
    And Kumiko is still the overall prevailing feature of the novels as the entire novel series is about her journey from cynicism to falling in love with music again thanks to Reina.

    Kumi does intervene in some of the story arcs like the Nozomi/Mizore story arc of vol 2 but she doesn’t take away their thunder. The writing there was just simply amazing. Takeda-San did a wonderful job of working with numerous characters. Vol 3 is the Asuka storyline covering her issues with her mother (you see a little of her lamenting over that in the last episode) as well as learning about Kumiko’s sister Mamiko and the real reason why she turned her back on band and the Trombone as well as the reason why there’s a rift between the sisters.
    There’s been a pin up of the Oumae sisters recently so I have a feeling they’re be covering her storyline since she is getting some promo.

    • Guy says:

      For some reason your comment got stuck in the spam-filter. It’s pure luck I actually checked the spam filter manually and saved it. I haven’t done that in quite some time. I also added a couple of paragraph breaks to your comment for ease of reading. I hope you don’t mind.

      I did notice that Sound! Euphonium’s first book was released in December 2015, and then books 2-4 were released monthly from April 2015. Probably invigorated by the anime to tie it into? I’d be surprised if they didn’t get drafts of the material, even if unpublished, as they were working on it though. Not that it really matters, sine KyoAni in recent years have been giving their adaptations their own spin (though this isn’t something that won their contest, so they’re going to/have to adhere more to the original design?)

      Good to know about Kumiko still being the main character in the following novels. I’m just going off hearsay here.

      Well, interesting to know where the storyline will be going, and I guess we’ll see how I feel about it when it airs! :)

  4. […] with me in a similar way Hyouka did, although not quite on such an intense personal level. Eupho is also an ensemble story; it’s a story about the band and the people who participate. While the focus of this season […]

  5. […] You can read my editorial on the show and its ensemble nature here. […]

  6. […] some ways, Fate/Zero is an ensemble show, not unlike Sound! Euphonium, where we revolve around different characters, and each character or pair of characters gets their […]

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