Hibike! Euphonium

When I started watching anime back in the eighties, it was for the science fiction adventure and jiggling cartoon boobs, so I’m just as surprised as you to have found myself watching and enjoying a series about a high school band and their struggle to improve. It’s not like I was a band geek in high school or something; in fact high school bands are rare to non-existent in the Netherlands. There are marching bands (fanfares) but those usually are independent clubs or societies. Perhaps it’s just that, like Shirobako, this is about competent, passionate people pursuing their dreams. There’s also that slightly fannish thrill of having the basics of an unfamiliar craft or profession explained to you.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward. Our protagonist, Kumiko Oumae, is a first year student at Kitauji high school, who used to play in her middle school’s band and has selected kitauji to make a fresh start and reinvent herself. She’s definately not going to play in her new school’s wind ensemble club, especially since it’s not very good, to be polite. Whereas her former school managed to get gold at the prefectural competition, though didn’t advance to the next stage, Kitauji never managed higher than bronze, with the current band members largely demoralised. So obviously Kumiko isn’t going to join. And if her newly found friends convince her to do so anyway, clearly she isn’t going to play the same boring old euphonium she played through middle school, right? Then again the series is called Hibike! Euphonium so perhaps Kumiko’s wishes don’t quite come through.

As Kumiko gets sucked into band life again, the new advisor and music teacher Noboru Taki puts a simple question to them: do they just want to have fun, or do they want to get serious and aim for the nationals? It has to be the second choice of course for a series like this, as we follow the band as it gets serious, straightens itself out and takes its first steps on the road to the nationals. With just thirteen episodes in its first season and taking a leisurely pace, we don’t get there. The climax of the series is the prefectural competition, where we get to see if Kitauji for the first time ever can advance to the next stage. It’s very much like your typical sports competition movie, except that here there’s no rival school to fight against.

An anime series about music of course stands or falls with not just the music, but with the depiction of the music. Especially in a proper high school band setting, you cannot cheat. Every time an instrument is being played it has to be done correctly, mirroring the music being played and when you have several dozen people playing a dozen or more different instruments simultaneously, it becomes complicated. Hibike! Euphonium pulls it off though, as you can see from the clip at the top of this post. But it does more.

This is after all the story of a high school band that starts out bad and improves. Which means that not only do you need to see them play music, you need to see them play music badly and getting better. Compare the clip one paragraph above with the one below: the same piece of music played with the difference of time spent learning to play together as an ensemble. Even for a lay person like me the difference is clear. And it’s an earned difference: there are magical breakthroughs or genius individual musicians, just people determined to get better and working hard to do so. Hibike! Euphonium continually drives home the point that improvement requires graft and talent, not just the latter. As such therefore you’ll hear a lot of repeated snippet of music as the individual musicians and sections rehearse, then watch it all come together in the performance. The care and attention with which Kyoto Animation, the studio responsible for the series, put into animating this really pay off.

Kyoto Animation has of course a reputation to uphold, having a proud history of producing quality anime. It’s therefore not surprising to see the same sort of care lavished on the cast. This is not just the Kumiko show, as the show regularly checks in with other characters too, even if most of the series is seen through her eyes. Apart from her friends in the bass section, which include the wind ensemble’s vice president, there’s also her childhood friend who now plays trombone and several of the second year students left over and desillusioned from their experiences the previous year. Each of these is fully fleshed out even when we’re only seeing them for short periods at a time. Hibike! Euphonium is first and foremost an ensemble show.

the hairflip that launched a thousand ships

But at the heart of it is the relationship between Kumiko and an old middle school classmate of hers, Reina Kousaka, who is introduced along Kumiko in the very first scene of the series. Reina is ambitious and determined to be the best, with a seemingly cold personality, whereas Kumiko is good natured and inclined to go with the flow. She has one flaw though, a tendency to speak her mind at importune times, as she does in that first scene when Reina is disappointed at their school not going through to the next round and Kumiko is surprised she thought that was even possible with their band. This sets up their dynamic in high school, as Kumiko regrets her words and is slightly in fear of Reina, wanting to apologise and make up but not quite sure how. As it turns out, she needn’t have worried.

Reina loves Kumiko

Because it’s pretty clear that the tension between Reina and Kumiko is based on more than just ill feelings… Though in the thirteen episodes so far it’s been teased more than explicitly stated, both have made love declerations. Episode eight in particular, in which Kumiko denies wanting to date her childhood friend and instead asks Reina to go to the Agatha festival with her, is food for shippers. The Reina x Kumiko slow burn romance is one of the best I’ve ever seen in an anime series because it’s so believeable and sweet, rooted in their personalities. Reina’s passion for being the best trumpetist she can be is what attracts Kumiko while Reina is curious about Kumiko’s real personality behind her good girl mask, as it comes out through her habit of making thoughtless, snarky remarks. Their romance doesn’t take away from the larger story, but is bound in with it.

So yeah, a series about a school band is the best series of 2015 for me, one of the best series I’ve ever watched. If you want to try it for yourself, it’s available on Crunchyroll.

Shirobako redux

watching the broadcast of the final episode

Remember when I said Shirobako was too good to watch quickly? I lied. instead, what i did was basically inhale the entire twentyfour episode series over the course of a weekend because it was just too good not to. This is one of the best, if not the best anime series I’ve seen in a long time, perhaps only matched by Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex which I binge watched earlier this year.

The Shirobako production staff holding their daily standup

Three reasons why I liked this so much: 1) its love for anime as a profession and medium, 2) its great, female centered cast (without the usual sexist bullshit of a lot of female centered anime) and 3) it’s a properly adult story about doing a job you love in an industry you love, with all the ups and downs that entails, that manages to be upbeat without losing sight of the realities of working in an industry build on exploiting the dreams of the people working in it.

the Exodus protagonists visit their creator

To start with the last, Shirobako follows the production of two successive anime series put out by Mushashino Animation, a smallish studio that has seen better years, mostly through the eyes of Aoi Miyamori, a production assistant, who vowed to break into the anime industry when in high school, together with her four friends of the anime club. Any notion of glamour though is largely forgotten under the pressure of getting Exodus, Mushashino’s first big new series in years, onto the television screen in time. Much of Miyamori’s work therefore consists of her running around between the various people involved in making anime, both in the studio and as freelancers: animators, 3D designers, colourists, sound production, etc, to get the work that needs done for the episodes she’s responsible for.

Aria Hitotose enjoying a sour plum from Third Girls Aerial Squad

That felt really familiar from working on big software projects, especially the frantic search for solutions when deadlines come close and things go wrong. In the second part of the series this gets even worse, as Miyamori is promoted to production desk, now responsible for coordinating the entire series of the new anime, The Third Girls Aerial Squad, rather than just individual episodes. Interestingly, it’s this part of the series which has most of the “as you know, Bob” explanations you’d expect earlier, somewhat justified by Miyamori learning the ropes of her new role, while the first few episodes instead almost drown you with jargon and the introduction of the many, many, people you need to make an anime.

the five protagonists of Shirobako

Which brings me to the second reason for why I like this series so much: its great cast. It’s centered around five high school friends who all are now either working in the anime industry or trying to break into it. Besides Miyamori, there’s Ema Yasuhara, working as a key animator at the same company, Misa Tōdō, working as a 3D computer graphics animator at a company specialising in doing cars, Shizuka Sakaki, an aspiring voice actress and Midori Imai, still in university and who wants to become a script writer. Miyamori is the series protagonist, with the other four regularly checked in on. They made a vow together back in high school, that one day they’d all work on their own movie and they’re hard at work realising their dream.

the Mushashino Animation crew

But that’s only a small part of the total cast, as Shirobako, especially in the first several episodes makes a point of hitting you over the head with how many people it takes to make one anime series. That picture above shows the staff of Mushashino Animation, which in itself is only a smallish studio. You’d think you’d drown in such a large cast, but the series is actually quite good at giving almost everybody their own personality. Though the focus is on the main five friends and especially Miyamori, the rest of the cast isn’t neglected either.

Tarō Takanashi having to apologise for one of his fuckups

As you expect in any workplace, there are personal conflicts, people agonising about their career choices, slackers, high achievers, careerists and dropouts. What’s noticably absent are the office romances. That’s refreshing; so many supposedly work based stories treat work as just the background activity to focus on romance. Yet there is pleasure in seeing competent people work together to resolve real problems and Shirobako proves that this makes for just as gripping stories as a more conventional romance story would be. What’s also refreshing is that there are no out and out villains here: even a screwup like production assistant Tarō Takanashi, pictured above, who was responsible for some of the biggest crisises in the first half of the series, learns from his mistakes and gets better. (Note: apparantly some of this is inspired both by the director Tsutomu Mizushima’s own past mistakes as well as the experiences P.A. Works had making Girls und Panzer, which twice had to resort to recap episodes due to screwups.)

With Shirobako‘s focus on Miyamori and her work as production assistant and then production desk, most of the plot therefore revolves around the production process of the two series, but her friends go through their own crisises too. Ema Yasuhara has to grow as a key animator to be able to keep up with the work demanded of her, while Misa Tōdō is well appreciated by her company and good at what she does, but is conflicted in whether she’d be better off moving to a 3D graphics company that does more varied work. Midori Imai meanwhile sort of gets her wish of breaking into the industry by becoming a researcher at Mushashino Animation, while Shizuka Sakaki struggles for most of the series getting even bit parts voice acting. It all works out in the end though, as the five get their wish to work on an anime series together. Sort of.

animators bonding over their shared love for Space Runaway Ideon

And of course at the heart of the series is the love of anime . While people have doubts, fail, burn out and recover, underneath it that love remains. So when a key animator and a CGI creator — after meddling by Tarō Takanashi again– fall out over who gets to do a key scene, it’s no surprise its their shared love of a thinly disguised Space Runaway Ideon which reconciles them.

Another example is the series that got the main protagonist Aoi Miyamori interested in anime and a career in it: Andes Chucky, a shoutout to the real life Rocky Chuck. In one of the early episodes we see her hum the theme tune walking home after having gone out with her friends one night. In episode 19, we get the full ending credits as a replacement to the normal ending song. In between it turns out one of the key animators on the series is still working at Musashino Animation, who becomes somewhat of a mentor to Ema Yasuhara.

Don-Don-donuts, lets go nuts

You could argue that Shirobako paints a rose tinted picture of the anime industry, even with all the problems and stress shown, especially in how the five high school friends in the end all seem to have made it in the industry. Yet on the other hand it’s not unknown for such a cluster of talent to make it through in real life, while especially Shizuka Sakaki barely has her feet on the ladder. It is self mythologising, but it’s well done and far from saccharine so I don’t care.

The best(-ish) 25(-ish) anime of all time

New to anime? Looking for the highlights? Try Glass Reflection Top 25-ish Recommended Anime:

Granted, this is not a perfect list by any measure, very much weighted towards the present and the more blokey sort of anime, with noticable omissions. But it is a good starting point and a way to inspire yourself to seek out more. You may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of an anime kick lately, mainly because I finally got off my ass and got a home entertainment system sorted, consisting of getting my Chromecast up and running, using Plex Media Server to stream everything from a net drive. It works surprisingly well, even when I’m away from home. Oddly enough, by making it easier for myself to watch my anime, I ended up watching more. This top twentyfive list was a neat way to think about what to watch next or seek out.

And since I posted this to MetaFilter anyway (and you may want to check out the discussion there) and it’s a waste to throw away all the links I found, I thought, why not post it here too? Below the cut is the complete list with links to reviews, trailers or discussions of them.

Continue reading

Loveable like the clatter of iron tracks

Admittedly, it sounds like Girls und Panzer should be awful. A bunch of typically stereotyped anime high school girls are bullied by their overpowerful student committee into taken up tankery, the refined and genteel sport that makes proper women and wives out of young girls, with the main character being reluctant to enter the sport again because of a mysterious accident in her past at her previous school. Done wrong it could be an endless series of fanservice panty shots, crappy slapstick and a trite plot to justify it all.

Luckily it’s better than that. Yes, the idea is silly, but the series takes it seriously, which makes all the differences. The tanks are recognisable like their real world counterpart, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and the tactics used are relatively sensible. Of course, since this is at heart a sports anime, the battles shown are more like those in World of Tanks than real warfare, something fans of the former have taken to heart. Especially because every now and again there are awesome moments of grognard nerdiness like this:

But without a good story, all this tank nerdery would be pointless. And what Girls und Panzer has is the classic sports underdog story, where the plucky newcomer with no pedigree, no experience, underestimated by the competition has to win for reasons. It’s a formula, but a well done formula: you know they’re going to win, but you don’t known how and there’s genuine tension as the odds are stacked against them. They don’t always win; there are losses too and there is a learning curve.

The characterisation, at first broad, is deepened too over the course of the series, which packs a lot in just twelve episodes (and two recap specials as the production got into trouble). Two things make it stand out from many other, similar looking anime series. The first is that all significant characters are women (only three men appear in minor parts) who work together to overcome adversary, with no sniping, no back biting, none of the silly little rivalries you see in other series. The second is that there are no villains, nobody cheating or gratitiously nasty: even the people dismissive or somewhat insulted by the newbies entering their sacred sport are won over. That’s what makes this special. That and showing how you can use a Type 89 to kill a Maus.

Can fandom change society?

No. It’s just a goddamn hobby.

Well, not in the way that the title and some of the content of this high level introduction to the wonderful world of modern fandom(s) implies. Fandom in itself is not a political act, but it is a way of interacting with the media we consume in a more healthy way than just passively receiving it.

Intersectionality is just another word for solidarity

I’m always leery of arguments like this, that want to dismiss the different axises of oppression various groups of people struggle with in favour of some vulgar marxist idea of the working class and not asking too many questions. Too often this has been used by alter kakkers to just dismiss any struggle that doesn’t fit in their century and a half old ossified world view:

Where people on the left should be focussed on what unites us, us here referring to the working class rather than the left in general (lol, as if that’s going to happen), as workers -the foundations from which we can build the new society- we now see attempts to stratify through definition the working class under the guise of intersectional analysis. An intersectional analysis is a useful tool to have in one’s box if one is studying Sociology or writing academic papers but in the real world it doesn’t translate well, not well at all. In fact one of the reasons that I began my abstention from generalised political activity was the emergence of this approach -along with the increasing popularity of privilege politics- as I saw early on that the praxis that would develop from this approach would inevitably see a return to the embarrassing ‘hierarchy of oppressions’ which permeated the radical politics of the 1970s/80s (before my time -I’m not that old!).

He may not be that old, but his criticisms are. There’s always been a tension within socialism about how to define the struggle. Rightwing socialists tend to define it narrowly, purely as the struggle of the working classes against the bourgeois and anything that isn’t directly related to that struggle as a distraction. Depending on the decade — or century — you’re talking about this could mean feminism, civil rights, gay rights, or today, intersectionality and online activism.

The leftwing has always defined the struggle much more broadly. There’s a long and proud tradition within socialism and communism of not just fighting for the rights of (white) working men, but also recognised from the start that you can’t build a classless society when half the population is still powerless because of their gender, that it’s immoral to let the welfare of the British worker depend on the continuing exploitation of the Indian worker. So there’s always been a strain in socialism that defined the struggle much broader than just defending workers’ rights, that strived for an utopia for all people.

That is intersectionality pur sang and the thing about it is that it works both ways. There’s always a tendency to assume that these causes always distract from your own, much more worthy and important one, but intersectionality also gets you allies. That’s what happened in 1984 when at the height of AIDS paranoia stoked homophobia a group of London gay men and lesbians reached out and supported the South Wales Miners Strike:

Both groups were canny enough to understand that they struggled against the same oppression. The gay and lesbian activists recognised the police violence and oppression the miners were subjected to from their own experiences with them and believed in solidarity enough to not just recognise it, but take action. And the miners reprociated, send delegations to Gay Pride, supported them in their struggle. It was of course mocked by the establishment — now the perverts support the pits, as The Sun put it.

But you might say, gay liberation, strikes, those are real political actions, real causes, not frivolity like what I’m talking about, but that was far from the mainstream view back in 1984. So many socialists for so long saw homosexuality as a capitalist perversion, not as part of their struggle, not something that could be easily portrayed in terms of class struggle. And that’s why this bloody cartoon included in the post annoys me so much:

cartoon by RednBlackSalamander

Not just because it’s a lazy cheap shot and doesn’t understand that in 2015 it’s really hasn’t been possible for at least a decade to pretend that that online space is less important than offline spaces. No, it’s because I’m old enough to know that all the examples of worthy causes given here –take back the night, ending rape culture, lgbt rights — would have been ridiculed and dismissed as fauxtivism and middle class vanities not too long ago. It’s breathtakingly ignorant.

Now AW Hendry started his post by mocking the Sad Puppies, which is how I stumbled upon it, thanks to Mike Glyer’s sterling work rounding up Puppy related material. He used it as his example of how people waste time with online activism and throughout his piece the unspoken assumption is made that online doesn’t matter and economic considerations should be much more important than cultural fights like this. What this misses is that, even apart from the simple fact that quite a few of us now live our lives as much online as in the real world, online follows you home — ask Zoe Quinn or any other SWATting victim. What he also misses is that the struggle over the Hugos is more than just the misplaced vanity of a few rightwing culture warriors: as Kameron Hurley explained, the Hugos meant she got $13,000 more in her post-Hugo book advance.

Not the highest of stakes perhaps, but for your average struggling writer that is a large chunk of money. I also have the suspicion for at least some of the ringleaders, this kerfuffle is a way to help themselves to some of that sweet, sweet wingnut welfare. People like Tom Krautman or Dave Freer may seem dangerously unhinged to normal people, but they’d fit in well with Vox Day’s old haunt, Worldnet Daily. Voxy himself of course is trying to establish his vanity press as a serious rightwing proposition and arguably does all this for the publicity. Which means for him at least it’s not the winning that’s important, it’s keeping the fight going, the better to keep fleecing suckers.


I sort of see why people were mocking this when it first came out a couple of days ago, what with looking more rom-comy than superheroy in places, but really this looks fun. A superhero who actually wants to be a superhero and has fun doing it? Not to mention that it looks like this is basically the same way Superman was introduced all the way back in the first Christopher Reeves movie, with the wanting to be normal, the clumsiness and awkwardness, even the picking out a costume scene.

A bit more soap opera in your superhero adventure isn’t a bad thing; that’s how Marvel got so big after all, it keeps your heroes grounded and it makes it more interesting than just an endless stream of hero vs villain fights.

the only things I could’ve done without were the awkward gay joke in the middle and the inevitable secret government service keeping taps of superheroes being hostile without reason, especially not when it’s yet another Gruff Black Military Guy.