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The Spring 2015 Anime Preview Guide
Sound! Euphonium

How would you rate episode 1 of
Sound! Euphonium ?
Community score: 3.8

Rebecca Silverman

Rating: 2.5

Kumiko was a band kid in middle school. She played the euphonium, a smaller tuba, and appears to have been very invested in both the instrument and the concert band experience.  A loss at a major band competition, however, as well as the advent of high school has Kumiko rethinking things. After all, as anime has told us before, high school is a chance to reinvent yourself and start afresh. And for Kumiko, that just may mean not reliving her band experience.

One of the shortest first episodes of the season at only twenty-two  minutes, Sound! Euphonium nonetheless spends 90% of its runtime with Kumiko wondering if she's going to give us a plot to the show at all. She does, despite the fact that a girl from middle school she'd rather not see is there and that she does not think highly of the band, and I suppose it's meant to be the journey to her decision rather than the foregone conclusion itself that is enticing. Despite that, this episode really dragged, and all of the cute girls with remarkably varied character designs (for the main three, anyway; Sapphire really stands out with her chubby cheeks and legs) and mournful faces couldn't make this an engaging view. I love the artistry and the fact that none of the characters are stereotypes such as we typically see in shows with a cast comprised of primarily cute girls. The one sour note is Kumiko's assessment of her breasts in the first high school scene; it feels out of character for who she is during the rest of the episode and frankly is the most unrealistic note in the entire show. She's an uncertain heroine, torn between starting afresh and carrying on as always. We see this conflict in her immediate reaction to the band and her stuffed tuba mascot on her bag and in her not wanting to admit that she plays an instrument and her reaction to her childhood friend. In all likelihood, he's part of the reason she wants to start over new – last year he told her not to talk to him when she inadvertently embarrassed him at school. He doesn't get how badly he hurt her, but she is clearly not eager to forgive him, and I really can't blame her.

On the plus side, she feels like a very realistic teen girl, over-thinking just about everything as she struggles with her embarrassments from middle school (her friend, the fact that she was happy without qualifying for the national competition, unlike her bandmate), even down to having conversations with her favorite inanimate object when there's no one human she feels she can talk to. It's just unfortunate that day-to-day details don't make for more exciting viewing.

Maybe if I had been a band kid, this show would be more than just gorgeous art and animation to me. As a cellist, however, I traveled in different, smaller, musical circles, and while I loved the actual music at the end of the episode, the rest of it just didn't spark my interest. Beautiful animation needs a story that captures you just as much as the less well-animated fare. Sadly, watching Kumiko mope around her room didn't quite cut it.

This series is available streaming at Crunchyroll.com.

Nick Creamer

Rating: 4.5

Kyoto Animation's strength isn't in the flashy stuff. Their work is certainly consistently beautiful, with high-quality animation, often filmic direction, and a knack for human motion that gives all of their shows something of a specific signature. But what makes Kyoto Animation shine is never the base fact that they have “a lot” of animation - it's that they have an eye for polish and details, both in aesthetic craft and in human moments.

Sound! Euphonium demonstrates their talents at their best. The story here is fairly simple - Kumiko Oumae used to play euphonium for her school's band in middle school, but after her former bandmate Kousaka broke down when her school failed to make it to Nationals, she has misgivings about returning to the band life. Having chosen a distant high school to start fresh, she finds herself making friends with the perky Hazuki and diminutive Midori, both of whom are at least somewhat enthusiastic about joining the band. But Kumiko's new school's band has a problem - they suck. And when Kumiko sees that her old bandmate Kousaka is here and joining the band, her interest in joining is only further diminished. But thinking back on the memories of her own experiences with music, and with a little encouragement from her new friends, Kumiko decides to go for it. She's not confident this will work out, but what's the harm in trying?

If that sounds like not much conflict or “hook” for a first episode, that's because it's not. Sound! Euphonium does not progress at the pace of a television drama - it feels like an actual teenager engaging with her actual feelings on an ultimately small but personally consequential decision. The episode is paced well without feeling like it has any pacing - the story moves at the speed of Kumiko's experiences, with conversations possessing a natural grace while sculpting characters and offering small half-jokes. Kumiko herself is a unique and inspired protagonist - though she possesses small echoes of the distance and scorn you often see from Kyoto Animation's male leads, she is completely her own person. She's kind of stuck-up and full of herself, but acts kindly to those around her, and so her feelings emerge through brief condescending looks at the enthusiasm of her friends, or grumbling asides to herself. These traits are never played up to the point of comedy or caricature - she just feels like a person, a young teenager stuck in her own head but half-heartedly pushing herself forward.

The lightness of Sound! Euphonium's pacing and characterization would never work for most studios, but Kyoto Animation is not most studios. Kumiko is brought to life by the smallest of animated gestures - a sigh, a shared look of embarrassment, a nervous hand gesture. Her world blooms in color, with soft focus and purposeful direction strongly evoking the sense of nostalgia that underlines Euphonium's unstated but clear belief in embracing life's opportunities. Dynamic cuts withhold information to put you directly in Kumiko's headspace, open shots reveal gorgeous backgrounds and eternally wind-blown cherry blossoms. The visual lushness acts as a balancing counterpoint to the narrative understatement, with the music evoking the hesitant timidity of a band drawing its components into order. Sound! Euphonium does much with little, establishing a narrative and a broad cast of characters with an extraordinarily light touch. This is a first-rate light drama premier.

This series is available streaming at Crunchyroll.com.

Bamboo Dong

Rating: 4.5

In the opening scene of Sound! Euphonium, (then) middle-schooler Kumiko is happy to hear that, although her school's concert band won't be moving on to compete in regionals, they earned a gold nevertheless. We learn later that this is the difference between a real gold and a "dud gold." She's satisfied with the dud gold, but is surprised to see her bandmate Kousaka weeping beside her. What happens next feels trivial, but it makes a lasting impact on Kumiko. Her friend is upset that they won't have a chance to go to Nationals, but perhaps even more upset that her bandmates don't seem to mind. Kumiko seals it by asking, "did you really think we could've made it to Nationals?" Kousaka's look of betrayal and bitterness is enough to push Kumiko to attend a high school where she doesn't know anyone, and that doesn't have a concert band program.

Throughout the rest of the episode, we get several chances to see just how heavily that conversation still weighs on Kumiko. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why she's still hung up on it—a pending conversation with Kousaka (who, surprise, has enrolled in the same high school, but has no reservations about joining the school's terrible band) hints that maybe she still feels bad for upsetting her, or for trivializing her ambitions. But maybe it's guilt over the realization that she and her bandmates never took their program seriously enough to aim for the top, betraying people like Kumiko along the way. But regardless, it takes Kumiko an entire episode to decide to join the band.

She's accompanied by her two new classmates, Hazuki and Sapphire/Midori, who don't know anything about brass instruments, but are really gung-ho to try. Together, these girls form the building blocks of KyoAni's new girl band. Only this time, they're part of a concert band, and from first episode hints, it seems like there might even be a guy or two, a hunky conductor, and plenty of cute ancillary girls. And if Nationals are their goal, it might even follow a trajectory like Free!, stirring together elements of KyoAni's past hits into one new delicious musical soup.

Regardless of the path that this new series takes, it already seems as though it will be a good journey. Beautifully storyboarded and thoughtfully directed, the first episode is an engaging experience despite its slower, more relaxed pacing. The artwork is pleasant, and the character designs have that shiny, bright-eyed quality that marks so many contemporary anime. Well-drawn close-up shots are interspersed into the scenes, which help keep the laid-back scenes from stagnating, and probably save some money in the process.

As one might expect, music plays a big part in the show, as well. There's a good scene in the middle where we're introduced to Kumiko's previous band director, who's still listening to their performance from last year. It's Offenbach's overture to Orpheus in the Underworld, an energetic piece whose peaks and lulls mirror the emotional journey of the first episode. Its finale, the Galop Infernal, is most widely associated with can-can music, and it's explosive. And while you wouldn't necessarily describe anything in Sound! Euphonium as "explosive"—it coincides with Kumiko resolving to return to her former passions. She puts her hair down again, and decides to join the band. And more importantly, she decides to talk to Kousaka again.

Sound! Euphonium has a lot of promise, and already, it's become one of my most anticipated shows for next week. Whether you like ensemble girl casts, or you're a big music geek, there's something worth checking out in this show. I'm eager to see what they'll do next. This series is available streaming at Crunchyroll.com.

Theron Martin

Rating: 3.5

Review: Kyoto Animation's much-anticipated entry in the Spring 2015 season is based on a novel (not a light novel series) by up-and-coming writer Ayano Takeda. In some respects it is a return to the basic premise of one of the studio's most successful franchises (K-ON!), as it features a trio (later quartet, according to the opener and closer) of girls who come together in a high school band to play music and, presumably, become good friends, too. However, even aside from the fact that this is a concert band and not a pop/rock band, the differences are quite stark. This is a much lower-key production which definitely has the cute factor but does not go for the jugular with it, nor does it seem as finely-tuned a pandering instrument. It is, instead, giving off the vibe of being a more introspective, character-driven work.

The first episode almost entirely focuses on Kumiko Oumae, who was a euphonium player in a middle school band which just missed progressing to Nationals. She has been contemplating not joining the band at Kitauji High School, though, especially after she was thoroughly underwhelmed by a welcoming performance by the established band. Two other girls she meets and befriends are more enthusiastic about it, though: tiny Saphhire/Midori, who plays contrabass and also recognizes that the band isn't very good, and chipper Hazuki Kato, who has the disconcerting (for Japan) habit of addressing those she's just met by their first names and is interested despite being a complete novice. Kumiko is especially reluctant after seeing Reina Kosaka, a girl she knew in middle school, join, as she has long feared that her comments to Reina after they failed to make Nationals may have offended Reina. Between pokes at her by an old friend and her older sister (who was her inspiration to get into music), she eventually relents and joins. Meanwhile, a man who will presumably become the club's new music advisor is seen listening to a recording of Kumiko's middle school band's competition performance.

The way the episode plays out may not be terribly exciting, but it is perfectly pleasant and does a good job of laying out the main cast members and most of their basic relationships. The director, Tatsuya Ishihara, is well-familiar with how to handle series heavily focused on cute girls (his director efforts include Love, Chunibyou, and Other Delusions, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Air, Kanon, and Clannad), and this may be his calmest and most refined effort yet. KyoAni's visual effort does their typically-excellent job of making the girls appealing without sexualizing them, but just as importantly they also make the girls vaguely resemble standard visual archetypes while still remaining distinct; none of them look like a pure carbon-copy of another character from one of their titles.

Too early to say yet if this one is going to be a winner, but it has at least established a solid storytelling and characterization foundation.

Hope Chapman

Rating: 3.5

After producing a record two shows in a row where exciting things happened on a regular basis (Free! and Amagi Brilliant Park), it looks like Kyoto Animation is back to their familiar lackadaisical form with Sound! Euphonium. Nuts.

I recognize that my disinterest in beautifully animated nothingness is not universal of course, and if you were hoping that KyoAni's newest project would be a true return to K-ON! with a concert band flavor, then good news! That's exactly what this is, with maybe a little Your Lie in April peppered on top. Anyhow, the plot of K-ONtabile is bare-bones as of this first episode. Our leading lady Kumiko loves the euphonium, a brass instrument resembling the lovechild of a french horn and a tuba, but has just started high school with no real plans to join the concert band. For one thing, they sound awful, as demonstrated by my favorite part of the episode, the moment when the school band welcomes incoming freshmen to orientation with a truly pathetic performance.

It's a great moment because the band wasn't cartoonishly terrible, just sour and lame in that familiar way unskilled school bands always are, which also gives the show a chance to show off its strengths early. Sound! Euphonium is clearly going to be as much or more about the verisimilitude and immersion of its setting than the story or characters. The immaculate detail in the background art, character animation, and every little highlight on the perfectly realized instruments is put front and center throughout this episode. The show is riding high on viewer nostalgia for being in concert band, or conveying the romance of that experience if you've never been a part of it, and to do that well, it intends to get every tiny environmental detail just right.

Unfortunately, this starry-eyed wallow takes so much precedence over an engaging story that anybody not enchanted with its atmosphere is going to get real bored real fast. Kumiko is intimidated when she discovers her trumpet-playing friend/rival from middle school is joining the concert band in high school. The two of them had a falling-out over their old school not qualifying for nationals; Kumiko was fine with it, and her friend was not. Somehow this is enough to make Kumiko waffly on joining the high school band, even though she displays no interests outside the euphonium, and her two new friends in high school are also big band geeks set on joining up whether the band currently sucks or not. The entire episode is composed of scenes where Kumiko halfheartedly tells friends, acquaintances, and family that she might not join concert band, before deciding pretty abruptly at the end that she will. Of course you will. We all know what show we're watching, Ms. Euphonium.

In fairness, the show is absolutely impressive in its realization of setting, both visually and aurally. Band geeks both past and present will have good reason to be thrilled with the series' clear love of its subject matter, and there's value in that. At the same time, I would be lying if I didn't say I was hoping KyoAni had embraced the joy of animating stories where Exciting Things Happen Regularly, and disappointed at this show's overwhelming swan dive back into the toothless escapism puddle. KyoAni has always traded in toothless escapism, and there's absolutely a place for that kind of entertainment, but I do pine for shows this beautiful with less yawns per minute.

My impatient tastes aside, if you are remotely intrigued by the idea of a "life in high school band" experience, this well-produced love letter will give you everything you want and more. If you're looking for an anime with "oomph," keep right on walking. I'm split enough between both worlds that I'll probably give this a few more episodes until I fall asleep during one.

Zac Bertschy

Rating: 4

Kumiko is starting her first year of high school, and things are already complicated. In junior high, she was part of concert band, but they failed to make Nationals, which broke her bandmate Kousaka's heart. Kumiko picked a different high school to get away from it all, and she immediately makes two friends, the plucky, energetic Hazuki and soft-spoken, sweethearted Sapphire (she prefers to be called Midori). Her past appears to be following her, though; her new friends want to join the concert band, and are wooed inside by the lovely (and magic!) Asuka, but Hazuki has a serious reservation: it turns out Kousaka chose this school as well, and is already in the band. Also important: the band sucks. Big time.

After about 20 minutes of hemming and hawing about it, Kumiko decides to join the band, because otherwise this wouldn't be a show. There are a bunch of periphery characters I imagine we'll get to know later, but for the first episode, that's about it.

So Sound! Euphonium is Kyoani's latest “high school girls in a band” series, and it has all the lavish hallmarks you'd expect; unnervingly appealing character designs, incredible animation, a gorgeous color palette and moe personality archetypes as far as the eye can see. This one is trading in a very particular kind of nostalgia for high school band dorks, so it's awash in brass and woodwinds trivia and all manner of band jargon for people familiar with that scene. I was in orchestra in elementary school, but the soft-focus imagery on display here is immediately recognizable and triggers all sorts of hazy memories from those days. They totally nailed the way a shitty high school concert band sounds; having sat through endless recitals as a kid and later as a teenager, that sort of ear-searing cacophony has a particular sound to it that they got just right. It transported me back to sitting in an uncomfortable stadium seat while my cousin's high school band absolutely murdered the Jurassic Park theme.

Otherwise, if you've seen K-ON, then you know what to expect from this. I think I like it a little more; the characters actually look high school age (as opposed to the weird baby-faced tykes they had passing as teenagers in K-ON) and the show is presenting itself as a slow, easygoing high school drama with low stakes and lots of delicately layered character interactions. It's still chock-a-block with moe archetypes, but nobody does this kind of thing better than Kyoani, so if you're looking for an example of the best people in the business working at the height of their peculiar ability to sell glacially-paced shows about high school girls doing not much of anything, this is your best bet. I might actually watch more of this; I like the lead character a lot. She's quiet, but her inner monologue feels very realistic for an unsure high schooler trying to get a fresh start. It's a very particular sort of personality that's executed with about as much realism as you could reasonably hope for from a show like this. Plus, they've got the experience of being in a high school band recreated perfectly, so I might come back for another brain-softening hit of purestrain rose-colored nostalgia. "Pleasant but slow" summarizes a whole lot of Kyoani shows, and this one is no different.

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