by Nick Creamer,
Kumiko was the star this week, in an episode with one simple theme: deciding what we play for. Of course, like everything in Euphonium, it's the execution of the simple things that matters, and this week's composition and execution were up there with the eighth. We started off with Kumiko receiving a new challenge, as Taki-sensei assigned her and Asuka a new, more difficult part. After listening to Asuka's effortless first attempt at the part, Kumiko made her own shaky try, and then quickly muttered that she was going off to practice by herself.
This led into the first major sequence of the episode, as the show worked to combine light and sound in order to create the tangible sensation of heat. Cicadas chirped in the background, Kumiko's heavy breathing drummed beneath, and the only music was the sound of her own unsteady euphonium. Isolated in her favorite corner behind the school, the saturated lighting formed a prison around her tiny bed of shadow. Uncomfortable closeups alternately highlighted Kumiko in a halo of midday light or captured the sweat beading down her cheek, pooling on her skirt and eventually being accompanied by drops of blood. This whole sequence, from first cicada chirp to that final punctuation of her nosebleed, perfectly demonstrated both Kyoto Animation's mastery of tone and the aesthetic tools that would recur across this whole episode.
It also revealed Kumiko's character shift, articulated directly in the next scene by her friends commenting on how much more driven she's seemed lately, "like she's reaching for the moon." And it's true; Kumiko has been gaining confidence in her desires all through this series, and Kousaka's presence has only hastened that shift. Kumiko ran into two friends on her way home from school, each of whom demonstrated their relative distance from her through framing alone. The first, Shuuichi, found her practicing by the river - but because they were sitting on opposite sides, only their sound could join together. The second, Aoi, ran into her as she was walking beneath the streetlamps. As Kumiko asked if Aoi regretted her choice, she stood beneath the spotlight, highlighted in the frame. From the shadows beyond, Aoi smiled and said she was happy with her choice, and then turned to walk away, on towards the next spotlight up the road.
Unfortunately, Kumiko's time in the spotlight was doomed to be short-lived. The next day at practice, after a series of establishing shots that framed the empty school against the band's furious rehearsals, Kumiko got called out on not having mastered the part. And a few days later (and after a brief interlude where Kousaka actually showed some humility towards Kaori), she got pulled off the part entirely. Heading home, Kumiko walked with the dark water to her right and city lights to her left, once again caught between light and shadow. Picking up her pace, she began to run, and eventually broke into a beautifully animated sprint as she turned the corner, screaming out that she wanted to get better. In contrast to the meek girl who opened the series, this Kumiko knew what she wanted, and wasn't afraid to shout it to anyone. “That's when I realized how much it hurt,” she thought, collapsing against the bridge railing as memories of Reina's old passion flooded her head. Halfway between light and shadow, she ran into Shuuichi again, who echoed her determination across one more artificial visual barrier, the busy road. Moments like this are what shows like Euphonium are built around, and what Kyoto Animation is best at. They demonstrate how even the smallest moment can be emotionally grand.
Back at home, Kumiko had one more small but grand confrontation, this time with her sister. Being directly challenged by the person who'd originally lead her to play music, Kumiko countered that her reason to play was that she liked the euphonium - and sitting alone afterwards, staring into the mirror (one more reflection in a show absolutely brimming with them), she realized that this was something legitimately true. Kumiko has spent much of this series following others and being lead, but it seems like she can finally say one clear thing about her own desires, regardless of whether she has the validation of success.
Of course, validation certainly helps, and the episode's final two scenes helped give Kumiko a little more boost of confidence. In the first, she met with Taki-sensei, who told her both that his father had actually held his own position ten years ago (creating a direct parallel between him and Kumiko's sister), and that he felt confident because he enjoyed his job. On top of that, he gave her one more chance at the new part, a gift she immediately shared with Reina. With only one episode to go, it's fitting that the show came back to Kumiko before ending on the whole ensemble's accomplishment. Both the shadow of the sidelines and heat of the spotlight are tough in their own ways, so it's nice to see Kumiko's learned not to go it alone.
This episode earns full marks for holistic storytelling, relentlessly purposeful visual composition, and gorgeous animation. We don't get many episodes like this one.
Sound! Euphonium is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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