The Mike Toole Show
By the Book

by Mike Toole,

You can tell what a big anime nerd I am because of all of the books I've been reading lately. Just in the past couple of months, I've killed off the first of Hayao Miyazaki's essential two-part essay collection, Starting Point, a couple of those Vampire Hunter D novels (I'm into double digits!), and the third Legend of the Galactic Heroes book. That's in addition to feeding my literary addictions to both manga and the chronicles of Lee Child's awesome, hilarious hobo detective, Jack Reacher.

Just this past Tuesday a parcel landed on my doorstep containing yet another book, Ayano Takeda's Sound! Euphonium, the tale of a Kyoto high school band's struggle for greatness. Ah, here was a golden opportunity to turn up my nose at a popular work of Japanese animation and declare, "I liked the book better." Just like at the movies!

It turns out that stacking Takeda's Sound! Euphonium up against Kyoto Animation and director Tatsuya Ishihara's Sound! Euphonium TV series is pretty revealing. Thanks to manga's omnipresence as anime source material, we're accustomed to TV adaptations where most every episode spans somewhere between 24 and 48 pages of comics material. Here's a 13-episode adaptation of a single, slender book, albeit one that's slightly less slender in Japanese (319 pages versus the English version's 187). At any rate, it's a sweet, straightforward story about high school life, with no big words except for "euphonium." It's a short enough book that I read the whole thing in one sitting, pausing only to make a stale Rick Astley joke on Twitter.

I won't spend too much time espousing the virtues of Sound! Euphonium, because Rose Bridges' piece about the anime's proficiency at depicting band life covers most of the same bases I would have. I was a band geek, too! In comparing the versions, what strikes me first is the fact that Takeda has less to work with than a visual and auditory storyteller might. It's harder to for her to really communicate one of my favorite scenes in the anime version, where the renewed Kitauji High School Band staggers through an adorably lame, discordant performance of James Fulton's “The Marine Corps,” in a moment that really nails that hapless, honking sound that only a mediocre high school concert band can produce. Takeda's version of the same scene describes the band performing The Beatles' “Can't Buy Me Love” after some extensive sectional rehearsal, only to have the performance abruptly collapse midway through the song. It's just as evocative, but a really different take on the same problem.

Overall, the Sound! Euphonium anime adaptation hits pretty much every single story beat on the nose, but is run through with nifty little tweaks and alterations. I'd venture that this is a product of the fact that it's a lengthy, carefully planned adaptation of a pretty brisk book. There's a whole scene in the anime version where protagonist Kumiko frets over what to do with her hair that's just not present in the book at all. On the other hand, there's also a whole scene in the book where bass section leader Asuka starts arguing with herself about whether or not Adolphe Sax had a hand in the euphonium's creation, in a single paragraph that spans almost two pages—and it's reduced to a single line in the anime, spoken mostly in the background. Ishihara's anime version makes sure to capture the essentials of Asuka's character-- her sly, detached nature-- but diminishes her tendency towards over-explaining things, which really works better as prose. There's another difference in the anime version that makes itself evident right away. Can you spot it?

That's right—in the anime version, the school uniforms are brown and not blue! You have to wonder what went into making that decisi—wait a goddamn minute, what the hell is this

There's been a lot of speculation in my social circles about why Midori looks so… contented? That's probably not the word you're thinking of, but let's go with it. She never really pulls a face like this in the anime version, but reading the book reveals a pretty good explanation for her expression of peculiar, smug cheer. As Takeda explains a few times, as long as Midori gets to play music, her upright bass George in hand, it doesn't matter of the band sucks and is being consumed by interpersonal drama-- she's in her Happy Place. Naturally, she names her pals' instruments, too. I think she calls Hazuki's Tuba “Steele,” and Kumiko's euphonium “'The Animal'”. I don't know what the hell is going on with her collar, though.

The anime version has a number of other small, interesting differences, like how the band's performance number turns out to be something a little easier to license than a Beatles song. (I like the anime's choice of song, but reading the book left me wondering: did the band director adjust “Can't Buy Me Love”'s cadence to make it easier to march to, or did Kumiko and her pals have to shuffle-march?) There are also a few larger differences; if you found yourself intrigued or surprised by Kumiko's potential romantic options, for example, the book sheds some light there. Ultimately, the two versions complement each other well, which is really the ideal. I just hope this first book does well enough in English to get the rest of the Sound! Euphonium series released here, so we can see if Kumiko triumphs in her final showdown against the euphonium. While I'm making wishes, I also want a closer look at these girls.

Here's another thing that wasn't too obvious in the anime version—Kumiko's junior-high friendship with trombonist Azusa, who went off to play at Rikka High, one of the most blisteringly competitive band schools in all of Japan. That little detail gets tossed around a couple of times in the TV anime, but we hear a little more about Azusa and Rikka in the book. Little did we know that this was all a ploy by Ayano Takeda to get us hooked on high school band adventures, because sure enough, she followed up on Sound! Euphonium with Welcome to the Rikka High Marching Band. Will we get an anime version? Maybe if we're good, and if we all agree to go and see the two additional Sound! Euphonium movies that are coming out next year.

Now that I'm done with Sound! Euphonium, I can get back to reading Yoshiki Tanaka's Legend of the Galactic Heroes, while making sure to take frequent breaks to watch Artland and Noboru Ishiguro's Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime. This is a very good problem to have, though, because there was a time when either version of Tanaka's classic SF saga was thought to be too long or too obscure to translate into English. Not anymore. Here, my predicament is reversed-- I'm farther along in the Galactic Heroes books than I ever got with the anime. Fortunately, once again, the two versions complement each other.

Tanaka's books, which concern a large-scale war and power struggle between the authoritarian Galactic Empire and their brilliant ruler Reinhard von Lohengramm, and the Free Planets' Alliance and their tactical genius Yang Wen-Li, are dense and info-dumpy. They start off with a big battle and a ton of historical data, focusing mostly on Reinhard and Yang and their immediate circles of associates. The anime is a little shallower—it can't waste as much time on how the FPA's forerunners fled from the corrupt Goldenbaum dynasty—but at the same time, it's lot broader, with more time for secondary characters and asides. Here, we see grunts talking to each other about the war, and get a look at the show's combat in both large and small scale.

The value of the anime version is especially evident in scenes like this, because Tanaka's introduction to the two forces' fighter planes pretty much reads like,“Spartanians are basically X-Wings, and Valkyries are basically Tie Fighters. Got it? OK, moving on to Iserlohn Station, which is basically the Death Star..." Visually, the whole affair comes off much differently; the two forces' fighter units have their own aesthetic, and Iserlohn is this magnificent churning black sphere, encased in an ocean of liquid metal. If I had a complaint about the anime version, it's that it nudges the story's third power, the neutral merchant state Phezzan and its ruler Adrian Rubinsky, off to the side at first. (The subtitles also romanize Phezzan as “Fezzan,” which left me weirdly angry that nobody in Rubinsky's all-too-brief scenes wears a fez.)

At the same time, I'm about to crack open the fourth Galactic Heroes novel, and I'm really impressed with how economical Tanaka's prose is. He focuses on the action—he only gets all starts to get purple when he's explaining how pretty Reinhard is. The pace of the story is brisk, and despite the large cast of characters, the reader never really loses track of who's double-crossing whom, and which faction's coup is about to fail.

There are also fine story and character points in Ishiguro's anime version. There's a better sense of Reinhard and Sigfried's friendship, not to mention what a loveable sad-sack the FPA's tactical commanderYang is. It's also impressive to see the series' famous large-scale space battles, in which thousands of capital ships slam into each other, in animation form. There's also one area in which the anime version is undoubtedly superior, and that's in the character of Paul von Oberstein, one of Reinhard's confidants. This guy's a great antihero-- he's still pretty good in the books, but the anime version really plays up his weird, lizardlike charm in ways that Tanaka can't quite communicate on the printed page.

One fun little point of order: I mentioned to a pal that I'd read the Sound! Euphonium light novel, and he promptly corrected me – it's just a novel, not a LN. “What?” I replied, flummoxed. After all, it fits the bill: anime-style cover art, brief length… that's all of the criteria, right? “Nope,” my friend said, “No pictures.”

He had me there. Along with the two aforementioned series, I've also recently read a couple of the DanMachi books, and those things are stuffed with pictures—pictures that look exactly like the anime, because of course they do, that's all part of the plan, dummy! The distinction between light novels and “real” novels is pretty tangible—Takeda's prose is markedly better what's contained in any light novel I've read, including Hideyuki Kikuchi's fun Vampire Hunter D books. It's still kinda funny to me light novels are in their own little category largely on the basis of formatting, simply because they have this weird structure that involves lots of pictures, and possibly an earlier serialization in a pulp magazine. You know what that means, right? It means that Lester Dent's The Man of Bronze is a light novel. Bring on the Doc Savage anime adaptation!

I'm loath to spend too much time weighing the pros and cons of DanMachi's original prose version… well, in a nutshell: it's written in first person, and I just don't like Bell's inner monologue; the kid talks like an otaku, all terminally impressed with the girls around him and sardonic about everything else. Unless you're really hungry for more, you can just stick with the anime. But with Sound! Euphonium and Legend of the Galactic Heroes, if you want the best stuff, you can't just skip the books. You can't just skip the anime, either. How many media can you really say that about? It's an impressive feat. So remember, after you've spent some time in front of the tube watching your favorite anime, squeeze in a trip down to your local library, and try reading your favorite anime!

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