by Nick Creamer,
I have to say, the nuance of this show makes it pretty hard to get through an episode. Every scene gives me ten more notes to take, about character writing, framing, the way the minor themes are all weaving together like… well, like a piece of music. This week opened by introducing us and our protagonists to the daily routines of band practice, along with the choosing of their instruments, before opening up to focus on a new central conflict. Apparently, the lack of commitment exhibited by last year's third years prompted all the old dedicated freshmen to quit, and now the band is half-stuffed with players who have no interest in actually applying themselves to their music. Unless the band can pull together, there will be no concert appearances for them.
The word that might best describe this episode is “careful.” Every element and scene was carefully chosen, starting from even before the episode began. We opened with a retread of Aoi's “be careful, Kumiko-chan. Three years pass by in a flash,” which ended up slowly building in relevance all through this episode. But the opening scenes were careful in a different way, as the show's slow, methodical exploration of how band practice works all served to better ground us within the routines of these characters. Normally you think of “rules-based conflict” as something that's more important for, say, an action or sports show, where it's important for the audience to understand the variables so they can engage with the stakes - but even in a show like Sound! Euphonium, taking the time to have us understand both the mechanics of band life and all the relationships of the characters involved leads to a much stronger bedrock for drama to build.
There were other great choices throughout these early scenes that really highlighted Sound! Euphonium's gift for understatement. I particularly liked how the choice to have Kumiko practicing circular breathing once again demonstrated her current personality without a word being said. As a longtime euphonium player, Kumiko clearly didn't need that practice, but there she was, sitting wherever the flow took her. Much of the rest of the first half was taken up by banter between our lead three, which offered Midori a real chance to shine as the show's main source of comedy. A show as invested in its consistent tone and drama as Sound! Euphonium can't really get away with a bunch of outright jokes (and most anime humor is samey, simplistic, and overly loud anyway), but Midori's offhand bits of levity like naming her contrabass George really help keep the show from being overwhelmed with melancholy. And she even got to assist in keeping the thematic threads highlighted, as a joking “unless I find it with my own hands, there's no point!” ended up working both as an immediate expression of frustration over her prize fortunes and a bold, underlined, highlighted reiteration of the show's emphasis on seizing your passion for yourself.
Euphonium's top-notch shot framing got its own setpiece just after that, as a scene between Kumiko and her sister demonstrated the tone of their relationship through perspective alone. As the characters exchanged a few terse remarks, the “camera” moved from shots over the sister's shoulder that almost forced Kumiko out of the frame, to a cowed shot looking down at Kumiko's feet, to a brief panicked closeup of her wide eyes, to a pair of shots that visually separated the sisters with a strong dividing line (first a painting, then Kumiko's euphonium), all perfectly chosen to demonstrate an uneven power relationship and a clear distance. If only all shows were directed half this well.
That scene was soon followed by this episode's clear highlight, as the band's impatience with being forced to practice beginner pieces led to a disastrous performance before their club advisor. With a permanent smile and mild tone, he proceeded to tear apart their inept play, responding to a demand for constructive feedback by isolating the trombones, making their weakness undeniable, forcing the band to become complicit in their feedback, and then applying that criticism to the rest of them. “The way you play now isn't even good enough for instruction,” he said, smiling all the while. "Please don't waste my time.” The scene was unexpected, brutal, and perfect. Taki-sensei demonstrated a clear and terrifying conviction, browbeating our heroes while somehow only solidifying his position as a likable character. His criticism was harsh, but he was merely holding the band to the standard they'd decided on for themselves, and the “don't waste my time” was the clear punchline here. These kids aren't just wasting his time, they're wasting their own time, and even each other's time. And three years go by in a flash.
The episode's finale tied up all these points, as Kumiko and her friends glumly reflected on the aftermath of Taki's criticism as the section leaders attempted to keep the band from revolting. In a shot that cast the three girls as tiny, powerless characters against a backdrop of all the other clubs enjoying their after-school activities (I could go on about the framing of at least half the shots in this show), Hazuki angrily articulated what the episode had been pointing towards all along. “I gave up having fun after school for this.” And, “do we have to work hard, while we get angry at the people who don't care?” Passion, commitment, teamwork. It's nice to see a show acknowledge how fragile all of this is, and how making high school memories is a game with immediate stakes. I'm sure Euphonium's focus on the anxiety of adolescence without purpose will soon shift to the characters giving it their all, but so far the show is laying down some perfectly executed dramatic foundations. I dearly hope it stays this good.
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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