Sound! Euphonium
Episodes 1 & 2

by Nick Creamer,

Kyoto Animation are a studio obsessed with capturing brief moments. This is reflected in their great strength - how their mix of careful direction and animation, of gorgeous backgrounds and quietly excellent pacing, is somehow always able to catch intimate details of life as it is lived. A slight movement of a character's hand, telling the person they love that they are scared. A slow conversation played out without music, in a mix of distant pans and hyper-intimate closeups that convey more emotional exchange than actual language. A joke of circumstance expressed purely through pacing and shot transitions, the kind of “well, that happened” moment that you can't explain but that certainly exists, the moments that can weave together to tell an entire life, if the framing is just careful enough to capture it.

It is also reflected in their obsession with the past. Their shows are often drenched in nostalgia for high school, a choice that you could either frame as celebrating memories or reveling in thin bands of escapism. They are full of golden sunsets and deep pink twilights, centered on three-year friendships and first romances. But neither celebration nor escapism are bad things, and at their best, the acuity of their chosen moments conveys a universality that transcends their constant choice of stage.

Sound! Euphonium might just get there.

These first two episodes introduce us to Kumiko, who played the euphonium in elementary school and middle school, but doesn't feel deeply compelled to continue. As the second episode wittily demonstrates (through a great match cut of Kumiko being press-ganged into euphonium in elementary school and then sighing as her resigned high school self), she's never really had much choice in her music career - things just sort of happen to her, not because of her. She's mopey and indecisive and a little bit of a jerk, all of which make her a breath of fresh air as far as protagonists go. Kyoto Animation have pulled off characters like this as their male protagonists, but Kumiko seems to be more grounded in the mundane and relatable than characters like Kyon or Akihito - she's not anime-witty, she's just a sullen teenager. This helps make her real, and someone worth following. She doesn't have to make big, snarky jokes - her occasional daydream and KyoAni's gift for comedic timing do the heavy lifting there.

Kumiko spends Sound! Euphonium's first two episodes halfheartedly trying to avoid doing things. She doesn't seem to want to continue playing in the band, but her two new friends, Hazuki and Midori, drag her along behind them. She doesn't want to play the euphonium, but her old childhood friend Aoi ends up revealing she used to, and so the enthusiastic, accidentally funny bass leader Asuka saddles her with it anyway. She doesn't want to apologize to her old bandmate Kousaka, who once broke down when she learned their band wasn't going to make it to Nationals, but her friends basically push her face-first into a reunion. Motivation and finding your passion are clearly at the core of what Sound! Euphonium is all about - Kumiko's dancing around her own passions, and needs to be told to reach for the things she actually wants, but as the band advisor Taki puts it, the important thing is that “though there was opposition, you chose your goal for yourselves.” It's a sign of graceful storytelling that it's actually Kumiko's central flaw that has led her to the band, to the euphonium, to her old friend. That grace is easily equaled by the show's production.

Kyoto Animation productions are always beautiful, but Sound! Euphonium so far seems to be on another level, almost rivaling Hyouka in its shot framing and moment-to-moment beauty. Its characters are emotive and unique, possessing a great range of broad expressions, small tics of body language, and extremely fluffy hair. The show's intense layering of lighting, glare, and soft focus give many of its shots a filmic quality, in dramatic contrast to the effectively understated storytelling. The soft focus is particularly noteworthy, being variously used to convey the brightness of an instrument, the blurred quality of an old memory, or even just to highlight two characters in a larger frame while the background contents itself dissolving into beautiful unfocused particles (the aesthetic quality of which is known in photography terms as “bokeh,” a good term to impress your friends with while talking about your cartoons). The show's outdoor shots in particular are a feast of background detail, framing, and character positioning, lending an air of timeless drama to very small moments. Kyoto Animation seems aware of the power of these moments, and also of how they lack timelessness. “You be careful too, Kumiko-chan” says Aoi at the end of the second episode, “three years pass in a flash.” Maybe the brevity of these moments is precisely why Kyoto Animation choose to make such nostalgic works. Beauty is a funny thing that way.

Rating: A

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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