[SPOILERS FOR BOTH SEASONS OF SOUND! EUPHONIUM AHEAD]
Back when the first season of Sound! Euphonium aired in 2014, it was one of the shows that I committed to doing weekly episodic reviews for, having chosen it based on nothing more than Anichart impressions. I believe I wasn’t the only one who expected it to be another one of KyoAni’s sugar-sweet high school dramas. And sure, everything was going as per fluffy-KyoAni-innocence until Kumiko Oumae dropped the ball by declaring that the concert band sucked. That’s when everything changed. I dropped Spring 2014 write-ups mid-way, but of all the shows I’d been following, Sound! Euphonium was the one I was most eager to come back to – at least to wrap up my final thoughts on it. 2 years and a second season later, it should come as no surprise that I finished Season 1 feeling like it was the best show I’d ever watched, which is what all great shows should make you feel.
To be honest, I feel that Euphonium is not for everyone. It stands in contrast to anime that glorify their subject matter in a way that makes the show comfortably enjoyable by “anyone”, prime examples being sports anime in the vein of Kuroko no Basuke, and of course, music-themed anime like Your Lie in April. The point of Euphonium is not to hype up concert band life in any exaggerated way. It’s a show that engages its target audience through the process of their identification with its trip-down-memory-lane portrayal of adolescence. Therefore, full enjoyment of the show is premised on having gone through certain unique experiences, preferably membership of a music group in high school. Those who have this very unique experience will get the show. Those who don’t, could find it boring, or at least enjoy it for reasons different from the former group, such as the shipping wars, which I unfortunately found the most meh part of the show. Probably didn’t help that I like Shuichi, whom everyone hates ☹
I should also add that this “exclusivity” of Euphonium dies down a little in its second season, with the conflicts taking on a more generalised nature. Taki’s motivations for being the band advisor, the Nozomi-Mizore dynamics and Asuka’s arc, are arguably things that aren’t “concert-band” or “music” centric, since you could rewrite them into a show like Free! and they would all work equally well. Only the Kumiko-Mamiko development feels vaguely relatable in a concert band setting. This doesn’t make Season 2 bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely turns it into more of a “high school drama” than a “concert band drama”, in my opinion.
So, instead of doing a review of Euphonium per se, I wanted to give my personal thoughts on five truths about concert band life the show explores that you may have missed…and could perhaps make more sense of its more patently dreary moments for those who think they didn’t “get it” the first time round. Let’s dive in.
#1 Practicing Music will Suck, and if you don’t Practice then YOUR Music will Suck
The first REALITY CHECK Euphonium throws the audience is that if you don’t practice, your playing is more-or-less guaranteed to blow. This stands in stark contrast to the likes of Disney’s High School Musical, which sells the story that “believing in your dreams” is the key to superstardom, or Glee!, the worst offender when it comes to preaching that being an ace performer means “being yourself”. Sure, there’s a point at which all those things become relevant. But before you get there, there’s a long, long journey of getting your basics right…which so far, only Euphonium has bothered to talk about.
Real musicianship often lies in the mundane – the Kitauji band is relegated to training breath control, running laps in the hot sun to build stamina, doing endless scales, repeating bars, taking down lots of notes in coloured pens on scores, attending sectionals, tuning their instruments, and so on. It all looks boring, sure, but it’s reality. Recently a friend asked me how to get good at “singing”, since I was in high school choir and trained in choral music. My answer was that getting good at “singing” is a pain in the neck. My choir used to spend at least half an hour on warm-ups – which meant practicing breath control, singing scales in all vowels up and down the keyboard on repeat. Just like the Kitauji band.
Even making the “beautiful music” is a painful process. Once you’ve moved onto the actual piece, it takes more than just “channelling the emotions” to create something worth listening to. Lots of music-themed anime don’t explore this point, since most of them focus on soloists (for example, Nodame in Nodame Cantabile or Kousei in Your Lie in April), and therefore the issue of dynamics isn’t something that needs to be verbally discussed. In group music, there’s no such thing as personal interpretation. The only interpretation everyone follows is that of the conductor, which is why Taki-sensei spends so much time pointing out exact bars and dictating his preferred approach to playing it. When he says, don’t play it with a “bang”, play it with a “BANG” – everyone is expected to cooperate for the effect to work.
You may be shocked to learn that that’s how enthralling classical music is born. Certainly, as mentioned, there comes a point beyond which all dynamics have been incorporated and there’s nothing left to teach. That’s when it becomes up to a real musician to bring the piece to life – but it doesn’t happen without painful, boring practice to lay the groundwork.
#2 Everyone Starts at the Bottom
The idea of a “genius” connotes the implication that being one is a rarity. And by the way, no geniuses exist in the Kitauji band. Reina is a great trumpet player because she’s been doing it her whole life, and takes private lessons. Asuka has been playing the euphonium since she was a little girl. So has Kumiko. Sapphire played contrabass in grade school. Sound! Euphonium gives credible reasons as to why each of the more outstanding players have attained the standard that they enter the band with, and instead of attributing it to “natural talent” gives the more plausible explanation that these are members who have trained for much longer than others.
In contrast, there’s Hazuki. At the start of Season 1, Hazuki’s untrained ear can’t even tell that the band is pitchy and falling off rhythm, so she responds to everything with sparkly eyes and “uwahhh” sounds. In contrast, Sapphire is the one who discretely mentions that Kitauji sounds more like they’re aiming for a prefectural silver. Hazuki’s enthusiasm to spark off her music journey contains a whole lot of excessive drama about choosing her instrument and giving it a cute name. Then she tries to blow into Tubacabra, and the reality strikes when all we hear is an airy, flat, deflated string of noise. It’s not that she’s talentless. That’s what the beginning of a musician’s journey actually looks like.
Connected is the idea that because there are few geniuses in this world, there are few instances of unnatural acceleration in skill. Natsuki-senpai, who experiences an epiphanic desire to join the competition group, puts in an unusual amount of practice to push herself away from her amateur standard. But the miracle doesn’t come, and her loss to Kumiko for a position in the group isn’t owing to a lack of talent, but a difference in the amount of overall investment into their practice time. You could even argue that towards the audition itself, Natsuki becomes more hardworking than Kumiko, but it’s too late for that. Unless one’s practice is regular and consistent, the harsh truth is that a musician will stagnate.
To be fair, this notion of “hard work” is not uncommon in anime. Naruto can feature characters like Rock Lee, dubbed the “genius of hard work”, whose modern counterpart Saitama from One-Punch Man also got to where he was because of some 1000 sit-ups / 1000 squats routine which I can’t for the life of me commit to memory. Sports anime is all about hard work and arduous training. But if you think hard about it, there’s still always some suspension of disbelief in all of it, or we wouldn’t have all these “Bwaaaaaa—???? He just defeated that veteran????” scenes where the main protagonist manages to surpass former rivals after lots and lots of “hard work”. Euphonium takes a realistic approach what “hard work” encompasses, which means that in Euphonium’s world Hazuki will never overtake someone like Sapphire, not even by the end of high school. It’s just how it is in a world where real geniuses are few and far in between.
#3 The Struggle of Seniority vs Meritocracy is REAL
One of Euphonium’s ovation worthy arcs is the Reina vs Kaori Trumpet-Solo-Death-Match, and probably my own favourite arc of Season 1, rivalled only by Taki-Sensei’s motivation tactics in the first half. It is, after all, Euphonium’s first foray into the inevitable band politics. The notion of “politics” in high school group clubs creates the impression that someone is stirring up drama for the sake of it. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about Yuko. But Yuko’s penchant for whiny outbursts would be most people’s idea of how “drama” begins, by blowing a relatively simple problem way out of proportion. Right?
Well, Euphonium deceives its audience into thinking that the gossip and rumours are the underlying stimuli for the politics of who-gets-the-trumpet-solo. The issue initially seems like a frustrating misunderstanding about favouritism towards Reina, who it is revealed is Taki’s personal acquaintance. All it should take is for Taki to explain himself properly, the band members to stop judging so quickly…anything for both sides to have some trust in each other. That’s what politics is normally about, so the normal way of resolving things is to talk it out, like Kumiko and Natsuki-senpai do over chocolate and strawberry shakes. But as the story unfolds, the complicated truth comes to light.
The politics in Euphonium is always driven by the tussle between two competing “goods”. In the case of Kitauji’s initial hatred towards Taki-sensei, it was a competition between the value of excellence, and the value of enjoying one’s high school years. Neither are bad things, by the way, and if the band had chosen to steer themselves down the K-On!!! route, it wouldn’t have been any less valid of a choice than aiming for Nationals. The problem is that there is no in between. Either their high school days were going to be made significant because of torturous practice and rewarding results, or significant because of fun memories.
The Reina vs Kaori arc is one driven by the competing benefits of awarding a solo based on seniority, versus meritocracy. Initially, Euphonium presented the “meritocracy” approach as the way to go, because for the first time it would weed out all the lazy seniors who had never practiced a day in their lives. The fair results of the auditions amongst the bass section drove home the point, after all. But neither Kaori nor Reina are shown to be less hardworking than the other, so there’s no basis of comparison there as to who should get the solo. Which means that in a utilitarian sense of doing what’s best for the band and for Kitauji’s chances to win the National gold, the better player ie Reina deserves it more, right?
But then comes Yuko, who raises the point that it’s Kaori’s last year. And in that second, it flips the meritocracy argument right on its head. Yuko’s statement is one that will only be significant to those who joined high school clubs, especially those who had to fight for places in their own clubs for a position. After all, club life is incomplete if you didn’t get to have certain experiences that went above and beyond the average member. If you were in drama and never got to be anything beyond a forgettable supporting cast member…if you were in orchestra and never got to have a solo part…if you never got to be part of the committee in the club and take a leadership role…it could almost feel as if you didn’t have a high school life. Reina’s “I want to be special” refrain exemplifies her foresight on that front – it’s actually something only seniors are allowed to openly consider since they’ve “earned” the right, but she’s not unusual.
All the more poignant is the thought that Kaori got played out twice by the cruel irony of her situation – in a year where seniority did matter, she lost out to a slacking senior, and in a year where seniority stopped mattering, she lost out to a veteran trumpet player two whole years her junior. Considering this is Japan we’re talking about, where the rules of seniority are so entrenched that Kumiko has to speak to Aoi differently at school, Taki-sensei’s approach is pretty radical. But the momentary victory of the meritocracy approach is ultimately sobering, because like Yuko says, it really is Kaori’s last year. Euphonium is a high school drama, after all, and the fleeting nature of youth is merciless. Kaori will never, ever get the chance to play a solo in a high school band again. Reina will get two more years to have a go at a solo, but Kaori won’t. In the moment that Reina accepts the solo, Yuko’s wailing outburst of anguish is the perfect embodiment of what Kaori has every right to feel.
#4 What Actually makes the Success of a Band? Not necessarily Love and Friendship.
Because anime is storytelling, it’s somewhat mandatory to keep up the narrative that the greatness of one’s performance must lie in direct correlation to the strength of their character and the state of their friendships. Across mecha pilots, magical girls, athletes…it’s almost a given that where there is inner conflict or discord with one’s teammates, the battle-of-the-week will end in failure, but when everything gets resolved, the opposite happens and there some deus-ex-machina luck is then bestowed upon the protagonist team. Lots of boss-fights conclude by having the rival / villain falter because of unreconciled hatred within their hearts, teaching us the good old lesson that those who persevere with love will overcome anything. Or something to that effect.
Up until the end of Season 1, and arguably the end of Season 2, Asuka Tanaka is the abnormal exception to this rule. Asuka is a talented euphonium player, a charismatic vice-president, and by the looks of things she’s also a fairly effective teacher. But right up to the end, she’s also distant and aloof towards everyone else except the privileged Kumiko, even the friends who’ve stuck by her throughout her band years. She admits that she has made selfishly personal choices in the name of “the concert band”, but still none of this has stopped her from being really good at what she does. In the end, she has some semblance of personal attachment to the band, but of course it’s overshadowed by a stronger desire to earn her estranged father’s recognition, and at graduation her personal preference is to slip away quietly, without so much as a goodbye to the rest of the band members. Asuka is not the band’s most loyal member, although she’s probably one of its star members. Asuka the person and Asuka the Kitauji euphonium player are separate entities; each one is unrelated to the other unless you’re Kumiko Oumae.
The band’s relationship with Taki-sensei rings of that quality as well. By the way, I just have to say, if you’ve ever done competitive sports or music and didn’t want to wring the neck of your coach at least once, then you didn’t get a real coach (kidding). Right to the end, the Kitauji band members don’t “love” Taki-sensei, as is obvious from the scattered awkwardness towards him in the final episode, though their disappointment probably catalysed that response. But Taki-sensei, whilst being professionally amazing at what he does, has never been an explicitly caring teacher anyway, except maybe for that one moment that he drives Kumiko home in a thunderstorm. He’s a sensei in every sense of the word, there to hammer music techniques into his students, not invest in their “personal lives”. It isn’t even an issue of “tough love”, but the fact that he’s doesn’t really love his students; he loves the process of teaching and making good music. Neither students nor sensei connect beyond the music (unless of course, once again, you’re Kumiko Oumae – and maybe Reina Kousaka) but that doesn’t have any bearing on how good or bad his work actually is.
Not that friendships and good values don’t affect the quality of the performances, because of course they do. Euphonium simply does a great job of dispelling the myth that there is a necessary connection between the two things. Whilst Asuka and Taki-sensei are almost regarded like pillars of the band despite being relatively reclusive from the rest once the practice ends, the other members certainly come off as more “normal”. We see that the band’s overall mood and therefore their playing can be dampened by scandals and bad news. In contrast, Mizore’s oboe solo (my favourite solo of the series) blossoms once she patches things up with Nozomi.
A side note, though, whilst the success of a band doesn’t need to depend on everyone’s bonds, the one thing that does matter is its leadership. President Haruka is a gem like no other, a character for whom I could write essays if I had the time. If there was any real reason that the Kitauji band picked up and began to climb, it’s not just Taki-sensei’s brutal training, but Haruka’s determination to put aside her insecurities and lead because she is the President of the band. Haruka herself takes the liberty to voice the one thing even we as audience were thinking – that everyone only likes her because she’s nice. The one thing she didn’t add was that she’s too nice to be respected – at the start, anyway. But once she toughens up and starts having the guts to discipline her members, that’s when the band moves forward.
#5 Ah, the Everlasting “Competition” Dilemma
Sound! Euphonium opens with a poignant flashback of Kumiko and Reina’s encounter in the wake of devastating competition results, the rift between them forming because Kumiko reacted the “wrong way” to a dud gold. It probably wasn’t obvious at this point, but one of Euphonium’s subtler messages was that competitions can be a polarising affair. Just remember that the trauma of recalling Reina’s scandalised tears nearly stopped Kumiko from joining the Kitauji band itself.
The “competition” dilemma doesn’t explicitly come up again in Season 1, mostly because at this point the assumption is that “lots of hard work” will sort of guarantee a reward in the form of a gold, and the Season 1 ending doesn’t contradict that. The competition does nevertheless catalyse the problem of auditions to slim down the number of participating members, but it’s not like anyone questions why the band needs to comply with competition rules anyway.
Season 2 is where it all starts to come up again, as they move further and further into the final rounds of the Nationals. Mizore, in her kuudere way, tells Kumiko at the training camp that she hates competitions. That propels Kumiko to ask various people for their two cents on the issue. Yuko tells her that competitions can suck because judgement is entirely arbitrary, with judges being candid enough to dismiss months of hard work with the critique that the band was “doomed from the moment it chose this piece of music”. Reina offers a more heartlessly Reina-like opinion, saying that criticising the nature of a competition is only a right that the winners possess.
Any music group that takes competitions seriously will someday find itself struggling with the same thoughts. On one hand, competitions are good, because they drive people towards pursuing excellence. At the same time, you can really hate them in the heat of the moment, especially after losing one. Try as one might, there it’s virtually impossible to go into a competition settled that you’ll be euphoric if you win but at peace even if you lose, just because all the hard work was worth it. Even Taki-sensei isn’t as enlightened as all that, seeing how Kumiko later discovers that his apparent nonchalance about the band’s choice of “working hard versus having fun” conceals a strong personal desire to lead the band to a gold at the Nationals. Nobody is okay with losing…literally, nobody.
That uncomfortable truth probably explains why episode 12 of Season 2 closes on the note that it does. Kitauji doesn’t win the gold at the Nationals – in fact, it wins a rather disenchanting bronze. The band’s actual performance isn’t even shown, suggesting that the writers weren’t bothering to indulge us with the preachy message that it’s the enthralling performance that truly counts. We’re left in the dark about why the panel thought Kitauji deserved a bronze – was theirs a stellar performance or not? Well, we don’t know. If it was, then the outcome simply echoes Yuko’s sentiments that judging a musical performance is an arbitrary thing. If their playing really did blow, then it just goes to show that everybody is off form on some days. Overall, my own suspicion is that Kitauji’s best at that point was indeed deserving of a National bronze, because even entire bands have to incrementally build up their standards year-by-year.
But anyway, if you notice, literally nobody says that it was “okay” to lose the Nationals. It isn’t! The disappointment sort of gets swept under a rug as the next pressing issue of the senior’s graduation and farewell looms over the band. With the announcement of new anime instalments in the Sound! Euphonium franchise, however, there is a possibility that the members’ true sentiments towards the loss will be revisited as they grab hold of a fresh start to the competition season. I guess you could also say that the loss makes sense writing-wise in view of the upcoming instalments, since that allows the elusive goal of the national gold to remain. But we’d best be prepared that the new Kitauji seniors will be ever more ravenous for the gold.
So these have been my final thoughts on this gem of a show that I’ve immensely enjoyed following. I was sucked into Sound! Euphonium feeling like the insider with the special glasses that allowed me to view every detail of every scene with a different perspective. Everything about the Kitauji band felt real, believable, and nostalgic, like I’d seen all of it before. (For the most part, I did, actually.)
KyoAni makes beautiful shows, we know that. But this one was especially beautiful for me. And although I know that the ins and outs of high school concert band life will never be fully appreciated by the world at large, to think that the show must surely have brought comfort and joy to ex-band geeks is one of the reasons that anime is truly a medium like no other. Sound! Euphonium is one such example of a show that makes one’s memories matter. It deserves all the praise that it has received.
Oh look, here we go again.
I miss the era where criticism of actors would be reserved for, oh I don’t know, their actual acting. But of course, that’s not the case anymore.
To be fair, the level of smarmy “I can immediately tell this is going to suck because Light isn’t Asian” isn’t the worse it’s ever been, since things really hit all-time levels of hysteria back when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the role of the Major for the upcoming Ghost in the Shell adaptation. But GitS was different because it’s more popular with an older generation of anime fans and less so with millennials, which is the exact opposite for the case of Death Note. So when the mass hysteria first broke out over GitS, it quickly became apparent that the loudest voices weren’t Japanese and weren’t actual fans of the original GitS anime film, but were really just typical SJWs complaining about whitewashing. And that allowed the anime community to get a hold of itself before it was too late.
Given that we’re already there, let’s just bash through the big issue of cultural politics.
I personally dislike identity politics because it’s a lazy way of winning arguments, but everyone nowadays uses identity as ammunition, so I think I’ll be lazy this once. I’m ethnically Asian, which is supposed to make me hyper-conscious of under-representation of Asian actors and actresses in Hollywood and stuff like that. But my general sense of ground sentiment in Asia itself is that most Asians aren’t all that riled up about “Asian representation” in Western media. Honestly, most Asians are way too caught up in supporting the anime and K-pop industry to care about this.
This is what I think culture should be about, pushing the boundaries of art itself, not waging wars over culture theft. It shouldn’t be a big deal what profile of actor gets cast as Light or L, and even if you’re that hung up about it we already have at least 4 movies starring Asian Light Yagamis and Ls. Of course there will always be minorities who feel under-represented in Western media. But I think the solution to under-representation isn’t to make creators so conscious about their casting / character choices that the end product becomes rather disingenuous. Making everything about diversity for diversity’s sake ends up sending creativity in the wrong direction.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that in case SJWs are trying to push a narrative that Asian people feel alienated and betrayed by Death Note’s casting choices, I think it’s harmful and I’m not contributing to it.
Still, I am concerned that Netflix’s Death Note may disappoint fans of the original Japanese franchise for one major reason. Death Note was certainly about thrills, suspense and brains – which I think Netflix could catch onto and make sure to recreate in their film. But it takes a millennial anime fan to understand that the crowning glory of Death Note really was this sweet-toothed goth kid and his impact as the stylistic role model for teenage boys.
If you guys don’t know, you really don’t know. Back in Death Note’s heyday of 2006 / 2007, all the guys were squatting on chairs and typing with their index fingers and sucking their thumbs. All the girls had pictures of Kenichi Matsuyama in his edgy eyeliner on their phone screens. L was the flagship posterchild for the emo, yet quirky and adorable genius whom fanboys adored and tried to emulate – although of course they all failed because L is the kind of character who only exists in anime.
I exaggerate, of course, Death Note isn’t all about L. But my point is that adapting a great story isn’t the difficult part. The Herculean task is identifying the iconic aspects of the source material that worked so well with its audience in the original setting, then deciding whether to scrap or keep them. As at the date of this post, it’s way too early to tell, though I get why the tone of the 1 min 40 second long trailer would worry some people.
In any case, in the months ahead, the bulk of the anime community will spend their time actually building on this conversation of what would make the Death Note adaptation good or bad. The rest of the internet, on the other hand, will completely overlook this because they will be too busy complaining about whitewashing and every other problem that apparently concerns Japanese and Asians but which actual Japanese and Asian people don’t care about. We can’t always win in life, but we won’t always lose, and especially so if Netflix at least gives us a decent take on the beloved Death Note franchise.
[Spoilers ahead for Yuri!!! on Ice]
SIGH. I know, I shouldn’t be crawling out of an unforgivable hiatus with a post like this. Nevertheless, I recently took a break from real-life work and felt eager to give some of my own thoughts on one of 2016’s most beloved anime, which I managed to finish recently. Since there’s already been a voluminous amount of coverage on this show, at the very least I can promise I won’t be spewing unoriginal fandom jokes in this short space.
My first reaction after watching the whole of Yuri!!! on Ice is that it was very heart warming and enjoyable, to the point that it’s one of those shows that I can safely say I enjoy in spite of its massive flaws. And believe me, this show has some massive flaws. I can’t ignore the plunging dip in animation quality from episode four that makes it look as though TNK took over Studio Mappa mid-season, with Studio Wit occasionally popping in to give input on how the skaters bodies could be modelled after the titans from Attack on Titan. I also think the show could have afforded to axe at least two of the other figure skaters so as to help with pacing issues. For starters, booting the weird brother and sister duo (and maybe also their cyberpunk-I’m-no-longer-human friend) would have done the trick nicely.
But negativity aside, generally speaking, Yuri!!! on Ice was enjoyable as a sport anime because, like most sport anime, it didn’t resort to making us focus all our hatred on any one competitor in order to drive the drama and adrenaline. Up to the end, we’re all drowning in camaraderie and healthy sportsmanship, so much so that even Theme of King JJ becomes a fairly infectious earworm (well, to me, at least…I love that song). But since these are all things I’m sure most viewers have already caught on to, I thought I’d just set out my own thoughts on the best parts of Yuri!!! on Ice just for the fun of it.
So here’s what I thought were the best three parts of Yuri!!! on Ice.
1. The Narrative Framework
Boy, Yuri Katsuki is one untrustworthy guy. He introduces himself in episode 1 as an awkward, ill-disciplined binge-eater flubbing his way through the some international skating competition. The focus is thrust entirely on how his idol Victor Nikiforov is a living legend, an untouchable deity, and Yuri Katsuki himself is a pathetic crybaby who feels uncomfortable returning home after five years of absence because he tanked at the Grand Prix Finals and (according to him) at every other competition he’s participated in over the past season.
It’s only until episode 11 that the full weight of the empirical facts hit me, although admittedly I am very, er, slow. Like wait a minute…this glorious Grand Prix Finals held in Barcelona, Spain, that Yuri and Victor have worked their way up to for the last 10 episodes, isn’t that…the exact same competition that Yuri was in during…episode 1?
Most anime get by through having the story narrated in predictable fashion. You have your hot-headed shounen protagonist who vows to climb his way to the top of the game, and there’s nothing controversial about him being an unpolished diamond at the start of the series, because…hey, he already said it himself, didn’t he? Sure, he also gets some unexpected power ups along the way, or he eventually turns out to be hosting the soul of an evil superpower that will consume the hero we know, but the viewer can be assured that each of the supporting cast of characters is as surprised by this as the viewer is.
Self-awareness, or the lack thereof, is a particularly tricky thing to portray. Most of the time it boils down to one touching scene featuring a serious conversation between the main lead and the potential tsundere waifu, which starts off with said lead declaring “I want to get stronger! For the sake of all those whom I love and wish to protect, I must get stronger!” and ends with said tsundere waifu being all, “But you know…you are strong inside! Just look at how far you have come! You may not know it, but so many people look up to you and admire you!”
Yuri!!! on Ice skips all of that testy dialogue and does the show-don’t-tell game to perfection. We are shown Kenjirou Minami gushing over Yuri Katsuki in the same way Yuri K had gushed over Victor (albeit not to his face) over the previous episodes. Yuri K’s strengths are often commented on through the side characters, and especially his competitors, who are shown to take him very seriously (contrary to the impression Yuri K’s narration would have us think). Yuri Plisetsky tells us through internal monologue in episode 11 that Yuri K had eye-grabbing step sequences way back at the Grand Prix Final of episode 1, which Yuri K obviously glossed right over.
My experience with Yuri!!! on Ice was chock-full of “wait a minute….I thought!” moments, which are always delightful when they appear, because it’s a true testament of how Yuri K’s self-doubt and low self-esteem are juxtaposed against his actual skills and talent. It ultimately makes him such a humble and likeable character, instead of, you know, him coming off as irritating and ignorant.
This is pretty odd to say, but Makkachin was my favourite “character” of the whole show. I mean, I liked all the main characters very much, but Makkachin was my joy and happiness, the GIFs and scenes I re-watched on end, and the biggest “NOOO” I had was when Makkachin ate the sticky buns in episode 8 and his fate was left hanging throughout episode 9.
Now, I know Makkachin is just a fluffy brown poodle, and strictly speaking is more of a plot device than a character. But let’s put terminology aside for a moment and focus on several instances in which Makkachin becomes very important to the story.
For example, Makkachin’s debut in episode 1. At the end of episode 1, Makkachin stands at the front door of the Yu-topia Akatsuki and flings itself on Yuri K and proceeds to lavish on Yuri K all the love and encouragement he badly needs. It’s a simple scene, but the build up to this moment is so very well done that the scene’s effect is to mark Makkachin’s entrance as a turning point in Yuri K’s life.
The previous fluffy brown poodle in Yuri K’s life, ie Victor-the-dog, is shown to us a grand total of two and a half times throughout episode 1. “Half” because the first “Victor-the-dog” isn’t really Yuri’s Victor-the-dog but a random lookalike which peeks out of a stranger’s handbag and reminds Yuri K of his loss and depresses him. But of course, Victor-the-dog was hugely important to Yuri K, and its death was a key reason why Yuri K tanked in his Grand Prix Final performance. That part got me really sad, and I normally don’t get sad about animals…but this one got me.
So unlike Victor’s entrance into Yuri’s life (which was slightly weird because of reasons), Makkachin’s appearance is very much like the return of a beloved friend, and brought so much cheer to the gloom and bleakness of Yuri’s uncertain career at that point in the story. Can’t say much more than that.
Of course, Makkachin is terribly important to Victor as well, having been a faithful companion who has followed Victor throughout his competitive skating career. This ends up allowing Makkachin to be one of the things which eases both Yuri and Victor together, so that several important scenes between them aren’t always just awkwardly hanging there. There’s always a tail-wagging hunk of fur to hug and pet whilst having deep conversations about life and love and everything else which I can’t recall because I was so fixated on Makkachin.
You’ll probably notice that the most intensive scenes don’t have a Makkachin in them. Anything that could be otherwise overbearingly intensive is made relaxed and calm because Makkachin the force of happiness and fluffiness is there somewhere, panting or wagging its tail. Well done, Makkachin.
3. The Plot Twist from Episode 10
Okay, so obviously I had to say something about this.
Yuri!!! on Ice is undoubtedly a romantic show, but it kind of bugs me how disproportionate emphasis is placed on debating the very obviously “romantic” moments. I’ve seen paragraphs of commentary dedicated to proving how The Kiss of episode 7 WAS REALLY A KISS, or why it was censored (because of broadcasting restrictions or deliberate teasing on the Director’s part?). Which is weird because, it’s only been turned into a big deal because of the extra-narrative significance of the act, since kisses (whether openly portrayed or not) are standard fare in all fictional works, right?
I’m just saying that there are many more romantic moments in the whole show, and The Kiss from episode 7 probably wouldn’t even have cracked my Top 5 List, so here’s my number one pick.
See, this is one of the best moments of storytelling in all anime I have seen. In one comedic moment of drunk Yuri K doing what drunk Yuri K does best, the whole romantic plotline as we know it has been turned on its head.
Like, who’d have guessed, it was Yuri K who made the first move on Victor!
This mind-blowing ED sequence and subsequent 10 second animation achieves so many things. Firstly, further to what I have already said above, it’s a definitive piece of evidence that Yuri K is the world’s most unreliable narrator, presenting himself to the audience as a shy, socially-inept underdog who began the show as the unwilling victim of Victor Nikiforov’s playboy-like antics. Secondly, rethinking all the events of the show from Victor’s perspective flips the Yuri!!! on Ice universe on its head, and puts Victor’s decision to set aside his own skating career to become Yuri K’s coach in a very different light. Turns out it wasn’t the viral video of Yuri K that first caught Victor’s attention – now how’s that for a plot twist?
By the way, this scene (and arguably, the whole anime) isn’t worth your time unless it’s watched in dub, because…this dub is seriously amazing. I assure you that Victor’s heavy Russian accent (an accurate choice for his nationality, I might emphasise) is worth tolerating just to hear drunk Yuri K go “mah family owns a HAWT springs resort, you should come visit…you’ll do it Victor, won’t you, BE MAH COACH!”
(You should also consider watching the show in dub for Yuri Plisetsky. Because everything Yuri P says is ten times funnier in Russian-accented English.)
Anyway, think about it, the whole scene was meant to be comedic, but it is so very significant and critical to even the most serious moments in the whole show, including an almost-forgotten incident of Victor getting wasted on late-night drinking in episode 4. Just recalling this scene can make me overlook the lowest points of the series. Yuri!!! on Ice may have at times been a victim of hype and the over-glorification of rabid fujoshi fangirls, but it has undeniable strengths in its storytelling, which I felt I badly needed to praise to the fullest extent possible in this short space.
And to sum it up, I hope that you had as much fun watching Yuri!!! on Ice as I did. Season 2 cannot come soon enough.
[Spoilers ahead for Maria the Virgin Witch]
Disclaimer, disclaimer – this is not a review of Maria TVW. As such, it is not an indication of what I genuinely feel about the show as a pure work of fiction, nor are my opinions meant to serve as a recommendation as to whether or not you should watch this show. Instead, I’m simply offering my views as someone who feels adequately knowledgeable about the subject matter which Maria broaches, and my opinion is simply that Maria TVW, as a work of fiction, is very much a work of fiction, and should not be regarded as an authoritative reflection of its settings and cultural background. In the course of writing this, I’ll probably be accused of not popping my chill pills or getting too easily offended because IT’S JUST A STORY (and shouldn’t be taken too seriously), to which I say – shake my hand, I completely agree that it’s “just a story” too.
Before getting into the topic proper, let’s talk about the plot of the show itself. Maria TVW takes place during the Hundred Years War between England and France, and chronicles the conflict between the efforts of the Catholic church (as it is portrayed in the story) to maintain its power over the populace, and the witch Maria, who has decided that the best way to achieve her ideals of peace and non-violence is through witchcraft, rather than submission to a deity. The angel Michael (as he is portrayed in the story) decides that Maria is interfering excessively with the natural laws of the world using her powers, and decrees that Maria will only be able to keep her powers for as long as she remains celibate (as you might guess from the title of the show). But Maria is a strong, feisty young woman who is far too rebellious to buckle under authority, and so she sets out to do what she’s always been doing all along…interfering with battles, running mundane magical errands through her fluffy owl servants, giving medicine to the sick, and getting courted by the local mercenary’s messenger boy Joseph.
By way of illustration, have a look at some possible reactions one might have after watching anime.
“Job Trunicht you evil, slimy…”
“See, this is why I don’t believe in democracy. It always gives rise to corruption. The only way to rule a country is to instate a benevolent dictator, like his highness Reinhard von Lohengramm.”
“See, this is why we need to get rid of student councils in schools. We’re inviting nothing but elitism through having a specialised body of student leaders.”
“See, this is why you shouldn’t go to law school [note: too late for yours truly]. It instils in you a perverted sense of justice.”
“See, this is why you shouldn’t watch anime. It’s filled with nothing but dirty stuff that panders to dirty people.”
(Thanks a lot, Fine Bros.)
Clever fiction often parodies real historical events, cultures and people; clever viewers know when to critique the accuracy and merit of those parodies, and to discern what’s real and what’s not. I say this because Maria TVW is about as accurate a portrayal of the Catholic church as a whole, in the same way that Me!Me!Me! is as accurate a representation of anime content as a whole. Sure, no church is perfect, but having seen one too many “see, this is why I cannot accept organised religion and its hypocrisy” – type comments in the wake of Maria TVW, I thought it best to remind everyone who considers themselves rational, intellectual beings…please be careful before deciding that an anime like Maria, as a standalone work, is capable of teaching any conclusive truths about religion and hypocrisy.
Truthfully, my biggest issue with the show’s depiction of events lies in the fact that it sets up a conflict that is both biased and artificial. On one hand, you have the pious, serious clergymen who are secret closet creeps and expert emotional manipulators; on the other, a coven of sassy and powerful witches whose creatively revealing outfits win full points in a medium like anime. The titular witch is being persecuted for trying to bring peace to the world, with her main flaw being that she’s not submitting to the church. To a target audience of young people who are brimming with convictions about change and activism, defying unreasonable and oppressive authority is like a badge of honour. Right from the get go, it is incredibly easy to align oneself with Camp Maria – Camp Maria is both visually and ideologically appealing.
Now, to be fair, if you consider what happened to people like Joan of Arc, I’ll admit that I personally think the church does have a shameful history; full of baseless trials without due procedure, an abundance of sadism in the guise of self-prescribed righteousness, and so on. The thing is, none of those valid criticisms are what Maria TVW is actually addressing, though they are slipped in so as to buffer the strength of its “main” message. Maria TVW seems to portray the idea that so long as one’s goals are noble, the means taken to pursue them are secondary. So it doesn’t matter what kind of power and magic you use, so long as you intend it for everyone’s good, right? If you ask me, this sounds all too reminiscent of Death Note, albeit with a twist – unlike the Death Note’s two faces, the true perceived evils of practicing witchcraft are never addressed. Witchcraft in Maria’s world is like that in Harry Potter’s universe; powerful, exciting and effective. Never mind that in real history (and even today), performing witchcraft was commonly associated with despicable practices such as sacrificing children, a possible reason as to why scripture speaks against it. The end result is that you have a show which gives a deeply flawed portrayal of what is seen as good/bad about witchcraft, as well as giving an equally flawed portrayal of what is seen as good/bad about Christianity.
Ultimately, I’m assuming that the writer built his story upon a very creative reimagining of the conflict between the church and the occult. Well, then again, creative reimagining is a pretty staple hallmark of most anime shows anyway; why else are warships depicted as schoolgirls and why else are ninjas allowed to wear bright orange jumpsuits that scream “shoot me in broad daylight”? So labelling Maria as a “witch” and the monks as part of the “church” would have been far less misleading than calling Maria a magical girl or Brother Bernard a product of 511 Kinderheim.
(On a side note, though, what is it with anime and its love for corrupt priests? I know characters like Kotomine Kirei are meant to play out the contrast between an evil heart and a righteous appearance, but with the frequency at which these sedentary goody-two-shoed clergymen characters are being churned out, the trend is getting tiresomely lame and cliché. Nowadays, you don’t look for the dude in the glasses to figure out who the real villain is, instead you look for his crucifix necklace. Before this gets too predictable, someone, please…anyone, make it stop!)
Ahem, so. In short, this little ramble remains uncommitted to any view as to the strengths and weaknesses of Maria TVW the show, and is merely a recommendation that viewers who go into Maria TVW think twice before using the show as a reason to conclude that “religious leaders must be hypocrites because they often blind themselves to the suffering that their actions cause other people”, or worse, that “religion teaches that we shouldn’t lift a finger to help others”. As much as I used Maria TVW as a case study to make this point about being critical, I think it’s fair to say that I’m also reminded to be conscious about how seriously I take shows that address subject matters I’m not so familiar with. At the end of the day, nobody wants to allow themselves to be unintentionally fooled by fiction, right?
And so I find myself back on my blog! My deepest and most sincere apologies to anyone who was following my weekly write-ups, which I unexpectedly ditched mid-season. The short story? Exams. Tedious, nerve-wrecking exams. Which, thank God, I passed! And passed well. Of course, following exams, the thought of having to catch up on anime seemed a lot less attractive than the thought of catching up on sleep…and one thing led to another, hence, the several months without updates. While I will not be going back to weekly write-ups on the shows I was following, I might still consider doing full reviews for them…so we’ll see.
Anyhow, even while I wasn’t able to write, I was still following anime news occasionally, and these few weeks have given me lots of reasons to believe that dreams really do come true! While I understand that not everyone will jump in joy at the following noteworthy announcements, it’s still nice to think that the impossible can become possible…which means, as cheesy as it sounds, that one should never give up hoping for good things to come.
1) D.Gray-Man Manga Continues
[SPOILERS for D.Gray-Man’s latest chapter]
D.Gray-Man has returned from the dead along with me! After an approximate hiatus of two years since Allen and the Millenium Earl were playing an angst-ridden game of hide-and-seek involving mysterious flashbacks, we now have the latest chapter of the dark and fascinating shounen adventure, which features, well… Allen and the Millenium Earl still playing an angst-ridden game of hide-and-seek involving mysterious flashbacks.
But who cares, this is D.Gray-Man, the shounen whose villains seemed less and less evil as the story continued; not to mention more and more visually appealing! The cunning, manipulative, Akuma-conjuring Millenium Earl is no longer a fat white rabbit in a top hat, but a sensitive, dashing gentleman with a deep affection for his long-lost brother. As tiring as it sounds, more prolonged mystery means more story, more story means more material to make an anime continuation, more anime means more animated Tyki Mikk. Two years on and I still don’t know which camp I should ally myself with.
That aside, it was still two years of hiatus with not-so-encouraging news in-between, and the one thing I’m genuinely, genuinely thankful for is that Hoshino-sensei seems to have recovered, and continues to share her story with her readers. If nothing else, you should check out D.Gray-Man for her beautiful artwork – it just keeps on getting better and better.
2) Kindaichi Gets a New Season
Yay, Kindaichi is coming back in October 2015! Yes, I know it’s coming back after a rather modest run in 2013, and yes I did give Returns a relatively scathing review, but hey, I like Kindaichi the way some people like their favourite K-Pop groups – unconditional on the actual merit of new material. New Kindaichi means new mysteries, and when Kindaichi is at its best, nothing else comes close. So 24 episodes is still worth it for even 3 episodes worth of a thumping good mystery – and yes I’ll be watching all 24 episodes just for those 3.
Considering that I hear of virtually no one else in the anime community recommending Kindaichi, with those who mention it daring to even say that Detective Conan is a superior franchise (and these folks shall go unnamed), Kindaichi’s new season is a nice surprise, and a good reminder that popularity doesn’t always determine the possibility of a comeback…although it sure does help, I suppose.
3) Legend of the Galactic Heroes Comes to the West
What more can I say, other than !!!!!! Never in a million years would I have thought this possible. It’s like Yang Wen-li decided to give up alcohol, or something. Gineiden is going to be available outside Japan in both anime (thank you Sentai) and novel form (thank you Viz), we might get an English dub, which means I might get to hear Reinhard lambasting the Empire’s aristocrats in a British accent…this is madness.
Also, while Gineiden is certainly not unpopular by any stretch of the imagination, it still is a very underrated show. And for good reason – it’s not the kind of show you’d expect to like; believe me, it wasn’t the kind of show I expected to like. But it’s always nice to give it more avenue for hype, because there are always hidden hipsters out there who will get curious about a decades-old production being every bit worth the licence.
So, to wrap it all up, there are good things to look forward to in the upcoming months. No matter how busy I can get, I always get perked up by nice surprises such as these. To everyone who is still waiting for their third seasons, or manga continuations, or licences – don’t give up hope! Now, if only Anno could get back to making Evangelion 4.0 so it won’t be a century until it comes to theatres…
So far: Taki-sensei drops the ball when he announces (much to everyone’s horror) that selection for this year’s nationals will take place via auditions! Newcomer Hazuki is terrified stiff of the prospect, and Kumiko and Sapphire attempt a variety of ways to help her improve on her playing. Their tactics include dressing Kumiko up as Tubacabra-kun (credits go to Asuka), interviewing the seniors on their motivations for playing, and finally, appreciating the wonders of bass by playing a simply harmony.
Not sold on everything that happened this week, but it’s still Euphonium…and it’s still pretty incredible.
The first part itself was a cruise down memory lane – back when I started choir as a junior, a new conductor had just taken over, and he was the first conductor to scrap the seniority-priority system for nationals. “I’m selecting the competition team based on meritocracy,” he said to us. It wasn’t an entirely popular move for a real-life conductor, and similarly, it’s not a popular move for Taki-sensei either. But it drives home the message to the entire band – he’s taking the nationals seriously. It’s even reflected in the pieces that he’s chosen. You know, just five minutes of Taki-sensei alone can make an episode great. That’s exactly what his appearance achieves for this episode, because what happens after that is where things start to flounder.
When I say flounder – yes, I mean the jokes. Like Kumiko dressing up as a tuba, or Asuka talking about an arsenal of Sapphire-doppelgangers becoming juniors for the next year. I guess it’s a matter of personal taste that made me go “eh”, but don’t worry, all is forgiven when I think about what the whole episode was really about.
So Hazuki is desperate to prove herself at the auditions. She’s conscious that she’s a rookie, and immediately starts comparing herself with veterans like Sapphire and Kumiko; and the more she worries about her inability to match up, the more frustrated she gets. After all, she quit table tennis just to join band, and it’s not worth it if she’s not good at it. Believe me, I get that. I totally do. Nobody takes something seriously, only to end up being mediocre at it. I love the fact that Hazuki’s character is consistently impressionable throughout the series. There was a time when the apathy of the seniors seemed to get to her, but now that the band is upping their game, she’s taking her own development as a musician seriously, as well. She’s the perfect representation of anyone who joins the music environment as a complete rookie. We often get newbie main characters turning out to be absolute prodigies at their art, displacing the veteran snobs (yes, High School Musical?) and endearing themselves to the audience because of their natural talents. But nah, Hazuki is here to remind us that it’s usually hard work that pushes a person forward. How’s that for a healthy dose of reality?
And finally, I was enthralled by the final performance that the trio gave us. It was so simple, so amateurish, but oh-so beautiful. Beautiful because it represents the beginning of Hazuki’s real relationship with her craft, and for that, I have to give it to Euphonium for scoring once again. This show doesn’t seem to let up, ever.
So far: This week, Leo makes an unexpected friend in the form of a mushroom creature called Nej. Nej loves Jack Rocket cheeseburgers, but dare not step into the humans-only zone of Ghetto Heights, where the only Jack Rocket chain in Jerusalem’s Lot exists. So he gets a pair of human thugs to buy them for him, and hardly minds when they practically double the price of the cheeseburgers for their courier services. Leo, who rightfully finds the whole rip-off ridiculous, starts to buy Nej the cheeseburgers at no extra cost. While their friendship grows, the thugs discover that Nej, when stressed beyond an intolerable level, is capable of releasing spores that cause retrograde amnesia for all those for breathe it in…and that’s when they plot to exploit it for their own gains.
A short post for a short statement – this week, Kekkai Sensen made me cry.
Discrimination happens to all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways. The Jerusalem Lot aliens are not a class of slaves; we saw in the first episode that diplomatic agreements have been forged between their very articulate representatives and the human politicians that run Jerusalem’s Lot. But they’re marginalised in minor ways – kicked and punched by strangers, perceived as immune to pain, denied entry to the “humans-only” zone for fear that their slobbering Neanderthal ways would lower the quality of brands like Jack Rocket.
But empathy and non-discrimination isn’t a new thing in literature, either. Outside of anime, I have a deep and relentless love for anything by Orson Scott Card, who is most famous for writing the novel Ender’s Game. Ender’s Game in itself is a great story about rethinking aliens; its follow up novel Speaker for the Dead takes this concept to a whole new level. I even mentioned Ender’s Game before in my Gargantia review, another lovely anime series that again brings up the whole idea of aliens as equally worthy of love and respect as the next human. So no, the anti-discrimination message in this episode of Kekkai Sensen was not new. But it still made me bawl. Why, Matsumoto, why…
This week, the “why” is in the direction. All of it. I guess you can call me lazy for not spelling out what’s so good about it, but that’s because you probably should watch the episode for yourself, if you haven’t already. The framing of the “Don’t Forget Me” poster, the sequences of Leo and Nej eating burgers and the accompanying soundtrack, the recurring appearance of the Johnny Rocket wrapper, and the final explosion of red in the city…this week I’m convinced once again that great friendships can be conveyed with minimal words…and great direction. Despite the painful gore and brutality that I’ll have to sit through, I think I’ve found my new Ballad of Fallen Angels – ie, that one standalone episode that’s worth the re-watch on its own. Well done, Kekkai Sensen…what an unexpected surprise!
P.S. I feel distraught that we’ll probably never see Nej again. I love him so much.