Oumae Kumiko wants to reinvent herself. She is tired of working hard and wants a peaceful school life. Kumiko has bitter memories of middle school, especially when her school band didn’t get to advance to the next stage. She remembers Kousaka Reina crying and wonders why Reina bothered crying. It’s just another phase in life. There is no need to be sad. Kumiko wants a peaceful life this time, so she decides to go to a new high school — she has picked North Uji because the uniform looks cute — and prepares to step to her new future.
But she hears the high school wind band playing like garbage and the third-person narration makes it clear she thinks they suck. The reader knows then she is not going to have an easy school life. She loves music too much.
This is how 響け! ユーフォニアム 北宇治高校吹奏楽部へようこそ, the first volume of the Euphonium series, begins. At that moment, she would have never thought she would join the band and reluctantly take up the euphonium once more. But something in the way it is presented and narrated tells us she wants to play her euphonium again.
Today, the Euphonium series is becoming one of the most popular series in Japan thanks to the anime adaptation by Kyoto Animation and its zealous fans.
And it must be strange to see something that looks like a generic high school drama series be this popular in the year 2016. We are living in an age where cynicism and nihilism are glorified and romanticism and idealism are scorned upon. To an outsider, the series must be out of date. Japanese high school life in real life is horrible; your life is very much decided when you are a second-year. Being animated by Kyoto Animation also invokes unfavorable comparisons to K-ON! and it isn’t unusual to see people talk about its supposed escapism or elements of “forced drama”. The novels I’ve read however feels as personal as a diary. Nothing by the writer Takeda Ayano (武田綾乃) feels artificial and it is a snapshot of the idealism she believes must exist.
In an interview, Takeda says she sees the series as something special. Her novels are the synthesis of memories of her middle school life, people she met during high school, and her optimism despite the stakes of the situation. She wants to write to people that high school is like this and it is okay to feel like that.
High school can be a chaotic experience for many people. It can be a series of contradicting thoughts and ideas. Disillusionment is common. We see this in the first novel. Taki Noboru, the new conductor, is blunt with his criticism on how people play. Few people like him. Reina appears again, this time with gusto, and challenges Nakaseko Kaori and her fans for the trumpet solo. Most of the band members think she’s out of line. Nothing feels right anymore. Kumiko finds herself swept away with the band drama and wonders what is her place in all of this.
But there is something genuine in the narration found in the Euphonium series that makes me want to believe in Takeda’s love for the high school life.
We can look, for example, how Kumiko calls a girl by her nickname Midori. Midori’s real name is Sapphire and the narration constantly calls her that, despite Midori’s insistence that Sapphire is an awful name. So what does this imply? Surely, Kumiko likes her enough to not call her in a demeaning way. But the name, Sapphire, is something that sticks out in her mind a lot. Kumiko probably likes the name and that’s why she refers to Midori as Sapphire in her head. The third-person narration lets us enter her head and examine what she is really thinking. Even if the narration doesn’t say it.
Kumiko is also an involved character in the whole scale of the drama too, but she is just a first-year. A freshman. A euphonium player. What should a minor brass instrument player do in this situation? She wants to sneak away from the drama, but she finds herself engulfed in it and becomes an observer. A narrator of the drama unfolding before her eyes.
Kumiko is by no way a standard protagonist because she is passive. And although this is Takeda’s second novel, I think it is important to realize that Kumiko doesn’t belong to any of the stereotypes Oscar Wilde observed either: “In every first novel, the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.” She is a supporting character elevated to the status of a main character. All she does is eye at characters like Tanaka Asuka and wonders what’s in their mind.
This is an unimaginable thought in the realm of Western literature. The narrator in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding makes sure we know every heroic and tragic act the titular character has done. Western literature makes a big deal about tracking the main characters. If not, nothing will happen. That’s why the protagonists have to be active there.
But in this book, Kumiko runs, flees, and avoids from any source of conflict. Even in the audition for the euphonium spot, she is afraid her senpai, Nakagawa Natsuki, might retaliate against her if she does get it. Their conflict becomes a contemplation on how Kumiko can’t read Natsuki’s mind. A simple problem like this would have been solved by other protagonists quickly, but Kumiko is just a high schooler. She would have been a weak character in the eyes of Western critics. An extremely unreliable narrator with no sense of purpose and belonging to the plot. She has no distinguishing feature that can help her resolve any conflict. Unlike Reina who is sure she is special and destined for greatness, Kumiko can only practice and hope she stays in the band.
This is all intentional. The experimental approach has caused people watching the first season of the anime to comment that it is a series not about individuals but a series about an “ensemble”. Takeda describes the first book as 空気 — it’s all about capturing the atmosphere of what it feels like to be in a band.
Kumiko may just be one normal person in the whole band, but that doesn’t mean she is unimportant. She may not be as special as Reina, but she matters in the ensemble. Everyone matters in an ensemble. The euphonium may not be the flashiest instrument like the trumpet, but it is a vital player to keep the band going.
So her euphonium becomes a metaphor for her role in the whole series. She is the supporting character — a supporting protagonist — and she embraces that role. Kumiko listens to Reina’s worries about falling in love with the conductor. This lets Reina realize her full potential and renew confidence in her skills to challenge Kaori for the solo part. If Reina doesn’t have Kumiko’s backing, it is possible she might lose.
In fact, when Takeda began writing this novel, she never had Kumiko in mind. It was going to be a story about Reina’s rise, but she found something was lacking and there was nothing to do after she got the part. She began toying with ideas and began rewriting the story with a new protagonist. Someone to tie the loose threads together. And this was how Oumae Kumiko was born.
Kumiko’s role is to heal the rift between the members in the band. She may not do much and it is true she is always in the background, but she’s there to keep things in check.
It is no wonder so many people watching the anime or reading the book find themselves rooting for the passive protagonist in the end. Kumiko is a realistic portrayal of a normal person in that kind of situation if they want to do something but don’t know what to do. People can see themselves as supporting protagonists too. They may not be aware of how important they are to other people, but the “narration” in their lives can show them this truth.
Of the main series, the first book is the one that has impressed me the most. It amazes me that Takeda has written something so complex and nuanced with an easy, readable language at the age of twenty. But success comes at a price. The editors of 宝島社文庫 are aware of how good the book is. So they force Takeda to change the ending.
The original ending of the first book is supposed to go like this: Kumiko’s school is supposed to get a dud gold — a consolation prize for making this far but not good enough to go to the next stage. She would have felt the pain Reina underwent when they previously lost in middle school. This experience will encourage her to perform better and embrace her role as the euphonium player of the ensemble even more. It will make the themes of the book stronger, but that is not meant to be.
Instead, the school moves on to the next stage. It feels extremely jarring to see them succeed in this new ending. There is nothing about the themes and narration that suggest they should win. They should have lost in my opinion.
The ending is less problematic in the anime because the first season is consistent with upcoming developments in the next books. Unlike the book, the anime is mostly filled with original content and the major theme is about self-improvement. The famous scene where Kumiko runs to the bridge to scream about how she wants to improve is not in the book. Kumiko in the novel would never do that. She is more content playing on the bench with her childhood friend, Tsukamoto Shuichi.
That is one of my favorite episodes in the anime adaptation, but that also means Takeda has to change the scope of what her books should be. And so, this begins a strange phase in the Euphonium franchise as it digs the ground for a new identity. Takeda was now tasked to write two sequels to the first book while the anime adaptation aired. In another interview inside the fanbook, she confessed she had no idea what to write about. There was the divide in the second-years, of course. She planned that to be a mystery because, in her words, “life is a mystery and you don’t have to know everything.” But she understood that, as she watched the anime and seeing her characters move about, it needed to be explored. Kumiko’s euphonium metaphor not only needs to be retained but Takeda has to find something else in the first book that is just as compelling. She saw how people reacted to characters like Yoshikawa Yuuko who were meant to be throwaways but became fleshed out characters in the show and thought she could do something like that.
Thus comes the birth of the second novel in the series, 響け! ユーフォニアム 2 北宇治高校吹奏楽部のいちばん熱い夏. It is Takeda on autopilot as she figures out what she wants to write about in the third novel. It is also my least favorite book of the whole franchise.
The series has switched genres at this point and this is extremely telling when it comes to how the narration and Kumiko’s role work. In the book, she regains her position as the supporting protagonist but feels out of place in the whole situation. This is a book about the problems between her senpai. She has no reason to participate. All she does is eavesdrop. When she does confront people, anything dramatic is told in flashbacks. Important characters in the first book like Reina are relegated to the background. The narration used in the first volume here just doesn’t work.
Kumiko just feels irrelevant here. So irrelevant that the protagonist of the second book is someone else and Kumiko is there to be a literal observer and narrator. The dramatic arcs with Yoroizuke Mizore are as compelling as the first book’s — maybe better — but it might have made more sense if she isn’t the narrator in this book. There’s nothing that made her feel like a supporting protagonist here. She’s there because she is the protagonist of the first book.
The second book is however important to the development of the upcoming books. There is no denying that. Future entries in the series will not only learn from its lessons but improve on the foundation it has laid out. A new identity for the franchise is beginning to take shape.
Everything pays off in the final novel of the main series, 響け! ユーフォニアム 3 北宇治高校吹奏楽部、最大の危機. This book tests the limits of Kumiko’s supporting protagonist role as well as the overarching major theme of the whole franchise. Takeda immediately introduces three main plot threads: the conductor Taki Noboru coping with his grief, Oumae Mamiko (Kumiko’s sister) trying to quit college, and Asuka who wants to play the euphonium despite her mother saying no.
None of these threads stop to give the readers and Kumiko a break. Kumiko even admits she has a headache trying to wrap her mind around this. She notices that there is a common theme to these conflicts, even though these people can’t be any more further apart. She just doesn’t know what.
In the meanwhile, she is also trying to question what it means to be a euphonium player in this ensemble. A supporting protagonist in a cast of main characters with worries that can be expanded to separate novels. She goes back and forth in how active or passive she needs to be. Her character becomes dynamic and it’s interesting tracking her as she forms her new identity. This, of course, frightens her. Is this what youth is like? A period where you experiment who you should be in the society of adults? She is trying to solve “adult” problems and yet, her inner self is telling her she isn’t an adult. Kumiko is still a teenager. A freshman. And that’s not going to last forever. Soon, she will graduate into the real world. Nobody is going to help her practice the euphonium with her. Not Asuka especially. She is going to graduate this year no matter what. Kumiko has grown attached to her and doesn’t want her to leave. But she knows the inevitable must happen.
She knows nobody will be around for her. There’s Reina, but she is forever confident. Kumiko isn’t.
It is here deep into the series that we find Kumiko realizing how vulnerable she is. Everything she holds dear is temporal and will disappear soon. In the first book, Asuka says how she wishes she can play in the performance forever because it is so blissful and it is sad that it has to end. Kumiko replies, “Why? We’re going to the Nationals!” That isn’t true anymore in the third volume. The curtains are drawing and she doesn’t want to exit the stage. She can’t accept that when the performance is over, it is over.
This becomes the struggle — the overarching theme of the 響け！ユフォーニアム franchise. Her role as a euphonium player, a supporting protagonist, a narrator will end someday. These events that she is experiencing now will end up becoming memories of a glorious past. This is why youth is so cruel. You can be a fan of the world inside these memories, but you have to close the book. And that stings. You love the world so much and ask yourself why in the world you would want to close the book. But it has to end.
Kumiko knows she has to put the book down when she finishes reading it. She will have to pick another book or do something else.
But what should she do with the book?
She can reread it again and again, never growing up from the moment. She can tear the book apart and lose her humanity and faith. Or she can forget the book altogether.
Kumiko doesn’t want any of that. She wants these memories to not just be a memory but something to be loved and remembered. She is falling in love with the high school life and doesn’t want it to disappear. Does it have to disappear?
No, she knows what to do. She could —
The editors and Takeda, pleased with how the main series concluded, wanted to publish new books alongside the second season’s adaptation. Takeda convinced them that pursuing another book with Kumiko would be awkward because the main story was done. The short story collection was a good enough fandisk to please current fans. Instead, she had an idea: Kumiko had a friend named Sasaki Azusa who went to Rikka High School. They had a marching band and that could make some interesting material. Takeda was also inspired by Tadokoro Azusa’s voice acting as well as Hanada Jukki’s series composition who both gave life to Azusa — a character who appeared in the first book for a few pages and sometimes remembered in the second and third. She wanted to capture that interpretation on the page.
響け! ユーフォニアムシリーズ 立華高校マーチングバンドへようこそ is split into two giant parts, chronicling Azusa’s journey into entering her dream school. Rikka High School, based on the real-life Tachibana High School, has always been her #1 choice to go to after seeing how well their marching band played “Sing, Sing, Sing!”. She gets excited meeting all her new senpai, especially Sezaki Mirai who is a third-year but is considered the trombone ace despite having only two years of experience. Plus, Azusa gets to teach a cute girl named Nase Amika who has just joined the band and decided to play the trombone.
It’s almost like a dream come true to her. To play the trombone, to follow the footsteps of an ace trombonist, and to even have a cute girl bother you about everything band-related. This is the life.
This marks a change from the passiveness of Kumiko. Azusa is a meddlesome protagonist who wants to help everyone. Kumiko is the entire opposite and will only help people out of reluctance. So the euphonium metaphor has been replaced by the trombone and the change becomes apparent when you realize how active Azusa is. For example, she wants to defuse the situation between the self-deprecating Togawa Shiho and the lazy Matoba Taichi. She actually has no reason to be a mediator here, just like Kumiko in the second novel. But that doesn’t stop her because she claims she understands people’s feelings.
Her outgoing attitude is even more apparent when it comes to interactions between her and Amika. Shiho who feels uncomfortable helping Amika forces the girl onto Azusa. Excited by the prospect of a kouhai, Azusa begins to infodump to Amika about every instrument and band terminology the girl is interested in. These glorious histories and descriptions of how instruments are played told by Azusa’s narration are charming and shows a fulfilling affection that doesn’t exist much in Kumiko’s narration. It is telling how much Azusa — and Takeda — love music here. The reader can only be wowed alongside Amika as Azusa explains why the timpani is important. Nothing about the descriptions is boring, despite feeling like a how-to manual at times. It reads what it should be: a girl sperging to another girl about everything music. You can see a special relationship developing between the two. Something more intricate and personal than Kumiko and Reina.
So Azusa is perfect in every way. She practices, solves, and loves everything. There is nothing more she wants than practicing her trombone every day. Nothing. Music is her life and there is no reason to change it.
Her mother must be happy for such a perfect child, especially since her mother has always been working and can’t take care of her. Azusa doesn’t want to bother her because she is an independent child. Actually, she thinks herself as an adult since middle school. Friends look up to her. There is no reason to feel unhappy.
Because everyone loves her. She is a sociable person, even in middle school. Friends are everywhere. She isn’t alone. She treats her friends well. There’s nothing wrong with her.
On the train home, Azusa is doting on Amika when an old middle school classmate of hers enters the train. Her name is Hiragi Serina. Serina observes how Amika is latching onto Azusa and smiles. Azusa knows Serina is wincing in the inside. Then, Serina comes up to her ear and whispers, “So you haven’t changed one bit.”
Not changing one bit? What does that mean? What is there to change when Azusa’s life is perfect?
Her friends begin to distance away from her. The narration in Azusa’s mind becomes confused. Azusa who prides herself in understanding everybody doesn’t know how anyone feels about her. Especially Amika. Why is she, of all people, walking away from Azusa? Did Azusa do something wrong? Is anyone her friend?
Azusa tries to recollect if she has done anything to offend Amika. Or anyone really. But that doesn’t seem to help. How can a girl like Azusa who is an expert in understanding people has so much difficulty figuring out her own problems? Actually, she does not even know what are her problems. Is there anything wrong with her?
It is here when the third-person close narration becomes unreliable because it is so close to Azusa. Things said matter less than the things left unsaid. She is unaware of her own feelings, even if she claims to in the narration.
You have to actually fill in the gaps with Azusa’s narration or the other characters’ motivations don’t make sense. Shiho tells Azusa to chill and not go anywhere near Amika. The narration suggests Azusa is a stable person, but it is obvious from Shiho’s actions that she is not. It becomes obvious when Azusa finally breaks down and starts panicking. In contrast, you can always rely on Kumiko. Her passiveness is her strength when it comes to deciding matters. She may not be anywhere as active as Azusa, but her role as the euphonium player lets us observe the intricacy of band drama. Meanwhile, Azusa is a trombonist and she has no time to be as observant as Kumiko. She is in the band drama. She is supposed to be the lead star, the one who knows everything, and even the teacher. She is supposed to be the ultimate proactive protagonist. But in reality, she’s neither of those.
That’s why she is breaking in the inside. There is nothing to define her after she realizes this. She has no other hobby but to play the trombone. When she has nothing to do, she practices. Her whole goal in life is to be a perfect trombonist. But that myth is busted. That’s why she can’t narrate as the perfect girl who loves music anymore.
All she is now is an empty shell of the word, “perfect”. A freshman trombonist who got too ahead of herself. In the narration, she knows she is dead wrong but she doesn’t know why.
But we readers know why. And we want her to realize that in her own terms.
The narration here feels like a return to the glory days of the first Euphonium novel, this time with more awareness of the audience. The audience isn’t just us either; it is also Azusa’s senpai, especially Mirai. Every thought Azusa has is scrutinized and Mirai (and we) begin to follow her self-defeating logic with skepticism. Mirai understand why she would think like that, but she also want to correct her and tell her this is okay.
Because she has been there and this shared feeling gives Azusa back her strength.
We all are our narrators of the lives we lead. Every second, we make something happen or something happens to us. Then, we react. It doesn’t matter if the events are in reality not causally connected to us because we think they are anyway. We make our own narrative structures. We create our own themes. We are writing our own plots. That’s why we all undergo our own journey.
This is why we connect with characters in any type of media. We are living our own books and so do them. Our engagement with them is out of empathy.
We become experts at empathy and they will later become artists and creators. They manipulate our emotions and thoughts to tell us something important. It doesn’t matter what the medium is. Everyone wants to say something to others.
And yet, we freak out when we are given a blank piece of paper to write on. We’re the protagonists of our lives and we have no idea what to write about.
I believe that anxiety is related to how we can’t think — narrate — about our lives in a way that makes sense to us. Our inner narratives can be so easily disrupted by any random event. We are unaware of the ironies of our actions unless we think really hard about it. Nobody can reflect on our actions all the time.
That’s why we like characters in media who feel because we can see our strengths and flaws in them. People who see themselves in Kumiko, Azusa, or even both will realize they aren’t alone. The third-person narration isn’t what you call matter-of-fact because it is subjective and close to their characters — but the approach is. You know that their actions and thoughts are missing an element. That’s why they are on the wrong track.
It’s clear that Takeda wants to tell people that it is all fine if you feel this way in high school. You want to help, but you don’t know what to do. Takeda probably sees herself as a “senpai” to her readers as the series turns into a work about senpai-kouhai relationships. She has written the Euphonium series to help her young readers cope with the confusion as well as for adult readers to remember how painful and lovely youth can be. There is a responsibility to the position as a writer and a senpai. She can’t sugarcoat it, but she has to make her readers understand life as it is and see the bright side of things. She has been in Kumiko’s and Azusa’s situations before and she wants to help others who are like them.
But like any good senpai, she wants the readers to realize that themselves. That’s why her narration makes you stop and read between the lines. You need to look into the subtext and then figure out what went right or wrong. The series’s success comes from how well the audience is treated. She knows people reading it aren’t stupid or looking for a self-help book; she wants them to read the books with as little guidance as possible.
This is why the narration is so effective. We are as observant as Kumiko’s and Azusa’s senpai because we know what they feel and what they are unaware of. Takeda’s Euphonium series is an ambitious work once you realize this is what she is going for. And it works so darn well.
But she has to leave the books behind now, in bookstores and elsewhere. Takeda is thinking big: she wants to create content for websites, to be a game scenario writer, to write literary mysteries, and so on. It is sad to think that it’s possible she may never return to writing another entry in the Euphonium series. Maybe she’ll evolve into a different writer and be someone else. We don’t know at this point, but we have her Euphonium books. And that may be the only thing we’ll remember of her.
It is a scary thought, but life goes on. No matter what we do with the books, we can’t bring her back unless she wants to. You’ll just miss reading these books, much like how you’ll miss school once it’s all over.
What will she want us to do with these books? These treasured memories? Books are meaningless without readers after all.
I think she wants us to share them.