Sound! Euphonium and Those Left Behind

hazuki katou, natsuki and hazuki in sound euphonium, natsuki-sempai hibike euphonium, sound euphonium hazuki with natsuki

One of Sound! Euphonium‘s more remarkable traits is that, within its captivating world, not everyone is equally talented. Where other series use those left behind – by their lack of skill, practice, or motivation – for dramatic effect, rarely returning to them once they’ve served their purpose on the main character’s decisions, Sound! Euphonium celebrates them.

natsuki nakagawa, natsuki-sempai in sound! euphonium, hibike! euphonium, sound euphonium natsuki, natsuki and hazuki together in hibike! euphonium

Natsuki Nakagawa is the series’ most obvious example. Initially introduced as a listless senior with little interest in participating, Natsuki provided a key emotional hurdle for Kumiko Oumae to clear. Once motivated, Natsuki’s true personality is revealed, and it’s far more complex than what most would expect from a tertiary character.

Having only played the euphonium for a year, Natsuki knows that, come audition time, she doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of Kumiko. Due to her prior experiences – and first impression of Natsuki – Kumiko is terrified of Natsuki until the latter reassures her that she had expected to not make the cut.

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This isn’t to say that Natsuki is particularly enthused about this, but more that she accepts it and moves on with her life. There are still times when her face falls when she recognizes the talent of those around her. However, because she grows to care so much about music and the band itself, Natsuki eschews simply watching the band move on without her, and actively participates behind the scenes. This includes anything from facilitating conflict resolution between bandmates to making initialed charms for the members that passed the audition.

It’s easy to say that Natsuki’s development represents the band’s overall growth from a quarreling group replete with de-motivated members to the Nationals-bound product of Episode 13, but Natsuki also feels like an actual person. Her initial lack of motivation is as understandable as her willingness to support those who left her behind

kumiko oumae, kumiko sound euphonium, kumiko's sister stops playing euphonium, hibike! euphonium kumiko's sister studying

Two members of Sound! Euphonium‘s cast choose to leave the pressure of concert band behind to focus on their studies. The first, Kumiko’s sister Mamiko, pressures Kumiko to do the same, citing the fact that Kumiko isn’t going to study music in the future. Still, Mamiko Oumae shows signs of regretting her decision, or at the very least longing for the other side upon seeing how much Kumiko applies herself. When Kumiko tells her sister that she loves playing the euphonium, and that’s reason enough for her effort, Mamiko is clearly a bit rattled as she leaves the room with a patronizing, “Good for you.”

It’s unclear how much Mamiko looks back on her own decision, and she does seem to have an honest inability to relate to her younger sister’s overwhelming passion. Sound! Euphonium leaves the interpretation of her character up to the viewer as Mamiko walks the line between jealousy and genuine misunderstanding.

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Walking a similar path is Kumiko’s childhood friend, Aoi Saitou. Aoi quits band when they begin to seriously aim for Nationals to focus on her studies. When Kumiko asks her if she regrets it, Aoi responds that she didn’t have a reason to continue. Regardless of any previous effort she had put in to learning tenor saxophone, Aoi realized that her own motivation was lacking and chose to apply her efforts towards studying for entrance exams. While the series revolves around Kumiko rediscovering her love for the euphonium, it also doesn’t denigrate Aoi’s decision to leave. Different people will enjoy, and want to apply themselves, to different things. Aoi’s willing departure from the concert band exemplifies this.

kaori and reina trumpet euphonium, sound! euphonium kaori and reina, reina kousaka, kaori nakaseko, reina beats kaori for the trumpet solo, sound euphonium crescent moon dance trumpet solo

Sound! Euphonium also explores different levels of talent within the post-audition roster, reiterating the constant battle between hard work and innate talent. While senior Kaori Nakaseko has both loved playing trumpet and worked incredibly hard to improve. In previous years, Kaori patiently waited her turn, losing solo parts to her upperclassmen because seniority took precedence over skill. This changes in her senior year when Noboru Taki takes over the concert band and Kaori has to compete for the part.

She loses out to Reina Kousaka, a first-year. While the series frames Reina’s victory as the correct choice for the band as a whole, the viewer still feels for Kaori – an immensely talented girl in her own right who will now never have her chance in the spotlight during her high school career. As Reina plays her solo in their Regionals performance, focus shifts from Reina to Kaori, highlighting a trace of sadness in Kaori’s face. Still, she presents a resigned smile immediately afterwards, knowing that Reina was the best choice.

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There are countless others in Sound! Euphonium who work tirelessly, yet fail to make the cut for whatever reason. One of Kumiko’s closest friends, Hazuki Katou, is hit doubly hard. She doesn’t make it into the Regionals group because she just took up tuba recently, and she is also romantically rejected over the course of the series. Sound! Euphonium presents a world that isn’t fair – where success for some means that others will be left behind. In other words, a world that is heartbreakingly real and overwhelmingly relatable.

16 comments

  1. I was pleasantly surprised by this show. You point out fairly well what made a lot of this show enjoyable: they really gave some care to the characters, including the supporting and more incidental characters.

    1. I agree completely that what makes this show really special, and successful, is its attention to detail through the supporting cast. Not once did I feel like a character was slighted, even if I wanted to learn more about them (namely Asuka), or left underdeveloped for the purpose of Kumiko’s character progression.

      Thanks for the kind words. ^ ^

  2. Thanks for bringing to these characters to the spotlight. In stories like these, people tend to focus a bit too much on the people who are successful – the people who “get to perform”, or who “pass the audition”, and such. Sound! Euphonium, as you have explained here, gives attention and importance to the people who might not have made it to the concert, who might have tried before and found that their calling didn’t end up quite there, and it becomes more full and more fulfilling as a result.

    1. Definitely. The most poignant moment of the series for me came in Episode 13 when the focus shifts from Reina in the mid-ground to Kaori in the fore-ground while Reina plays the Crescent Moon Dance trumpet solo. Kaori is a person who has raw talent, who worked incredibly hard, and yet still fails relative to what she wants for herself. The fact that the series recognizes this, that being “special” comes on the backs of those who fall just shy of that same mark, is truly remarkable.

  3. What I really loved about Hibike! is how you can take any character and talk about them so much. It’s just like a band – they all come together to make one great piece, but each one of them has an important part to play, both on their own and how they work in harmony (eventually) with each other.

    Great article. I wrote about Taki-sensei myself, seeing not many people focus on him but I too shoved Natsuki too far aside when she encapsulates a lot of the general progress that underpins the stars of the show.

    1. Thanks!

      My personal favorite minor character is actually Asuka, whose action (or inaction) acts as another catalyst for certain characters. We didn’t learn all that much about her, but what the series did reveal made her an incredibly interesting person. I especially liked how, in Episode 13, she supports Haruka from the crowd in the latter’s speech to the band. In spite of a fairly flippant attitude it seemed as if, in that moment, she really wanted to be in Haruka’s shoes. This was then reflected in her own cheer that mirrored Haruka’s.

  4. A quibble, and not the main thrust of your article, but I don’t think that Kumiko rediscovers her love for the euphonium so much as she discovers it during the course of the show. I’ve got the benefit of marathoning the series, so most of it is still fresh, but all of the scenes of early Kumiko with the euphonium pointed to her merely going with the flow and accepting the instrument because no one else wanted it, while her family interpreted it as following in her sister’s footsteps. It isn’t until the present time that Kumiko realizes that she actually loves the instrument that she’s been playing all these years.

    I think that is related to her sister’s surprise when Kumiko tells her that she actually liked the euphonium. Because instead of being an annoying mini me to her sister, Kumiko is now her own person, making her own decisions instead of allowing herself to be drawn along with the consensus. Just one of the instances that shows Kumiko’s growth as a person during the series.

    (sorry the comment is disjointed, trying to get something down while I can)

    1. I would have agree with you on this, were it not for the flashbacks in Episode 10 to junior high, where Kumiko is yelled at by her senior. I think she always loved the euphonium – and had previously freely expressed this – but that interaction changed her perspective, and going into high school she tried to quash her love not only for the euphonium, but for concert band as a whole.

      However, I agree that Mamiko is likely surprised that Kumiko so adamantly defends herself. The entire nature of concert band has an inclusive feel to it that’s rare to find anywhere else, all the while focusing on individual improvement. Since Mamiko never experienced that, I think she regrets not having the experience, in spite of the fact that I think she would make the same decision to study, given the chance to go back. Similarly, I think Aoi feels like she made the right decision, but still longs for the experience.

      1. Hmmm, not sure what KyoAni’s direction with Mamiko is so I’m going to provide some novel spoilers (just finished reading the novels) that you may or may not read.

        Read at your own discretion regarding Mamiko:

        —–BEG of SPOILERS——
        This is in the 3rd vol of the novel… we find out that Mamiko’s decision to quit band and the trombone wasn’t necessarily her own as it was her parents wish to focus more on her studies that caused her to abrubtly quit. We also learned that Kumiko was immensely proud of her sister when she was playing the trombone and when Kumi’s friends would compliment Mamiko’s skills, Kumi would beam with pride. She was inspired to take up brass because of her sister’s enthusiasm for playing the trombone so that’s what caused her to follow in her footsteps. Their sibling relationship manages to improve in the 3rd novel so that’s a good thing. Though you hit it on the nail about Mamiko being at least a bit jealous of Kumiko’s developed zealousness for the Eupho and band.

        Also for Natsuki, she ends up (along with Yuuko) inheriting an administrative position within the band club when the seniors graduate so she’s in a good place when the novel concludes. Good things happen with her🙂.

        Aoi’s status, well….her quitting had a lot to do with not being able to help fix the situation of the 2nd years quitting and she wouldn’t allow herself to participate in the road to the Nationals. Also in the 4th novel we learn that she was always considered a genius when she was young. However not getting into her 1st choice of high school. Kitauji high was her only choice. Then she encounters Asuka who is revealed to be a true genius with little effort while Aoi herself had excelled in the past through her hard work. Her esteem sank. Her quitting band was more or less a punishment for herself and she has some lingering regrets.
        —-END SPOILERS——

        Since KyoAni only adapted the first novel, they seemed to do a decent job of making it fit into 13 episodes though they did take some liberties and added some scenes so it’s not necessarily exact to the novel. You can see it as a slight alternate universe.

        What I’d like to see is Asuka’s arc since it’s pretty heavy but that’s only if KyoAni announces a 2nd season with more than 13 episodes since her story is covered in book 3. You do get to witness a harsher Asuka in book 2 since she sort of plays a threshold guardian with a certain character attempting to get back into band. HINT: The girls that showed up in the audience with dark hair in a ponytail wearing a tank top. If KyoAni makes an announcement soon at the upcoming KyoAni event in late October/earlt November then we’ll most likely see her story play out. Kumiko has a lot of interaction with this character while still maintaining her strong bond with Reina.

        So much to say about the novel though I fear it may not all be covered. Such a shame. The novels are so great. They pushed the books as well as the anime adaptation as a story that centers around the emotional and mental state of female band members as well as pushing the idea of nostalgia and youth. I’d say that both adaptations really capture those feelings and conveyed them well.

        Anyhow, nice write up!🙂

  5. It WAS nice that the rest of the cast weren’t merely cardboard cut outs or castaway plot devices. There were decisions, and there were consequences, and they had a real sense of weight because we got to see what happened from multiple perspectives while things were going on. The show did really well in that regard.

  6. What a awesome series! Kyoani really went all out on this with animation, story and characters, but the most important part is the tone of the series instead of becoming K-on 2.0 they decided to stay away from being super silly and kept things serious and yeah they had some fun moments but over all it was mostly serious.

    1. Yeah, even though I’m a huge K-ON! fan, I’m really happy that this series was completely different in tone and subject matter. It really treated each individuals respective problems with genuineness, all while having some silly moments too (Kumiko’s facefalls were priceless). ^ ^

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