Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Sound! Euphonium: Welcome to the Kitauji High School Concert Band
As a new student at Kitauji High School, Kumiko Oumae isn't certain she wants to continue playing in the concert band. In truth, she only really picked this school because of their cute uniforms - even though she's played the euphonium for seven years, she doesn't feel that attached to it. But Kumiko's go-with-the-flow attitude eventually sees her returning to the band, where new friends and old acquaintances promise far more drama than she anticipated. Practicing for the band may actually be a real burden now, but the harder Kumiko fights, the more she seems strangely tied to this group and their inspiring new leader.
I'm not particularly precious about adaptations myself. Even if I liked a particular work's source material, I understand that different mediums have different strengths, so a great adaptation won't necessarily prioritize the same things I love in the original. This extends in the other direction too - while a great adapted film will likely emphasize a story's visual or unspoken qualities, returning to the book can offer a welcome glimpse deeper into the minds of the central characters. That was pretty much what I was expecting from the Sound! Euphonium novel - the obvious absence of the anime's vivid visual storytelling, but a tighter glimpse into heroine Kumiko's head to make up for it.
Starting with the good news, the Sound! Euphonium novel does indeed offer a more sustained and often very funny view into Kumiko's thoughts. Her general ambivalence toward everything that was often portrayed through odd grunts and sighs in the anime is explicated at length in this volume, with Kumiko offering sometimes jaded but mostly just fatigued commentary on the world around her. Her inner voice is relatively observant but not particularly strong in personality, mostly a mix of cynical teenager and extreme unrecognized horniness.
The occasionally sensual framing that's often observed in the adaptation is given charming and sometimes ridiculous context through this book. When Kumiko gets too close to a cute girl, her brain tends to flip out. The disconnect between Kumiko's visceral, hormonal reaction to other characters and her own non-awareness of her descriptions' clear implications is perhaps the only instance of meaningful subtlety contained in the text. This disconnect is so pronounced that it makes me wonder if it was intentionally written that way or simply reflective of the author's unconscious assumptions.
Along with emphasizing Kumiko's endearing voice, the one other selling point of the Euphonium novel is that it captures the nitty-gritty of concert band life. The mechanical demands of instrument upkeep and performance schedules are all dutifully listed off, giving a much more rounded understanding of Kumiko's daily trials. If you're interested in the physical reality of being in a high school band for any reason, there's a decent amount of material fit for insight or nostalgia here.
With that out of the way, the bad news is that this book simply isn't very good. The prose is totally pedestrian, with the occasional metaphorical flourishes generally sticking to worn cliches. The dialogue isn't particularly snappy, lacking the punch that more distinctive writers maintain even in translation. Most damningly, the story itself is almost shapeless, lacking much forward momentum or any strong hints at a narrative, thematic, or emotional arc.
The first season of the Sound! Euphonium! anime, which covers the exact same narrative ground as this first book, feels tightly written and purposeful by contrast. Kumiko's relationship with the band is mirrored through her relationship with Reina, and the process of her growing into her own passion is illustrated through a clear progression and consistent dramatic peaks. The secondary members of the band feel meaningful, and the band's ultimate performance feels earned. The book's depiction of these events lacks forward momentum, and the thematic through-line disappears somewhere around the first third. The book opens by repeatedly harping on the fact that “Kumiko is indecisive,” something the show largely left to inference. But the late-night declaration that Kumiko wants to improve, an event that was framed as a major climax in the anime, gets relegated to an aside halfway through this volume. From there, Kumiko mainly just observes things, with her emotional story having ended before it began.
Other structural weaknesses emphasize further ways the anime improved on this original narrative. In the book, Reina and Shuuichi are given roughly equal billing, in spite of Reina's story being more tied to the core band drama and also a better foil for Kumiko's ambivalent feelings. Shuuichi appears regularly, but contributes very little - a problem that extends to many characters beyond himself. Natsuki basically exists just to provide snarky commentary and exposition, and Hazuki has almost nothing to do at all. The trumpet soloist run-off that comprised another anime peak gets reduced to little more than one page, a problem raised and resolved as blandly as any other everyday activity.
Without the focused narrative recalibration of its adaptation, the Sound! Euphonium novel proceeds as a shapeless series of sequential events that feel vaguely irrelevant. Very little is executed with emotional weight, and the few strong threads (like Kumiko's rapport with Reina) are given little payoff. In the end, I found it fascinating to see how much Sound! Euphonium's adaptation not only conveyed its drama visually, but made the story a more effective drama in the first place. All the same, this is not a book I would recommend on its own.
Overall : C-
+ Kumiko's internal monologue is charming, and the book offers a more tangible portrait of high school band life.
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