By Ayano Takeda. Released in Japan by Takarajimasha, Inc. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Paul Starr.
One of the biggest surprise licenses from last year was this book, originally released as a stand-alone novel about the struggles of a high school concert band, which got made into a hugely successful anime. Note that I said ‘novel’ and not ‘light novel’ – there are no interstitial pictures in this book, which is the usual way to tell the difference about these sorts of things. But even beyond that, the fact that Sound! Euphonium does not take place in a fantasy world, at a magical academy, or even have Satan working at McDonald’s was a big point against it. But Yen took a chance on licensing the book, and I’m glad they did, as this is really well-written and dramatic, manages to show off in textual form the difficulties of playing music and the difference between ‘really good’ and ‘outstanding’, and most of all, it has in Kumiko one of the most fascinating protagonists I’ve met all year.
Kumiko is not a first person narrator per se, but the POV of the narration never leaves her, so in effect she functions as our eyes and ears for this book. She’s trying to “start anew” at a new high school, but can’t quite escape her concert band past, especially when her new friends also express an interest. Her childhood friend and not-boyfriend Shuuichi is also in the same band, as is her middle-school bandmate Reina. More on Reina later. Kumiko did not have a pleasant middle-school band experience, as most concert bands, where some instruments are more popular than others and some people get to solo while others don;t, is filled with politics and infighting, and the confrontations just wore her down. To a large degree the book is about helping Kumiko rediscover her love of the euphonium and band in general, and showing her how important it is to not simply glide along and have fun.
I had first heard of the anime as a “yuri anime”, and therefore was rather amused to note that the first half of the book featured precisely none of that. Indeed, Reina appears far less than you’d expect – she may as well be a minor character – until the festival, when Kumiko desperately tries to avoid Shuuichi asking her out (as it might actually force her to confront her feelings for him) and grabs Reina, saying they’re going together. Reina is fine with this, and takes Kumiko on a very romantic festival date. Despite Kumiko clearly being set up with Shuuichi, and Reina admitting that she’s in love with their teacher (what is it with Japan and teacher-student romances?!), it’s Kumiko and Reina who have the most chemistry together, as their body language and conversation reads like a couple rapidly falling for one another. I’d also like to mention Asuka here, the most fascinating character after Kumiko. She and Kumiko seem to be contrasted, if not as rivals, then as mirrors of each other, and their few scenes together are also charged – not with romantic tension, but with just tension. They ended up being my favorite scenes in the book, actually.
The book ends with the Kyoto Competition, and indeed ends somewhat suddenly with the reveal of the results. It was meant to be a stand-alone book, but the author ended up writing two more novels and some short stories afterwards, which were adapted into another anime season. So far Yen has only licensed this book, but I’d like to see it do well so we can see more of this cast – especially Kumiko and Asuka. Highly recommended.