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This post was written by Kevin Cirugeda. You can reach him on Twitter, where he goes by Yuyucow.
Storyboard, Episode direction: Haruka Fujita
Animation Direction: Kohei Okamura, Futoshi Nishiya
Instruments Animation Direction: Hiroyuki Takahashi
Key Animation: Yoshinori Urata, Kota Sato, Naoya Nakayama, Ryo Miyaki, Miho Kitaji, Sayaka Watanabe
Hiroshi Karata, Kunihiro Hane, Taira Yamaguchi, Kanae Okura, Yuko Myouken, Tatsunari Maruko, Hidehiro Asama, Sana Suzuki, Ayaka Nagahama, Akiko Takase, Sae Sawada, Shiho Morisaki, Aoi Okuno, Chiharu Kuroda, Saeko Fujita, Kyohei Ando, Tomoko Yoshimura, Kohei Okamura
Shouko Ikeda’s words that Euphonium embodies these student’s small society echo stronger than ever after episodes like this. As the Chief Animation Director her role is important yet entails no narrative input, but she described the situation perfectly; the club is sustained by a net of relationships, keeping together a group with multiple factions, groups of friends and even generations. There are explicit bonds and background relationships that feel just as tangible, since the show has portrayed them in a consistent and organic way. There was a trick to this system and the band’s temporary joy, however – someone had been acting as its cornerstone, silently and precariously keeping the club’s balance.
There are many layers to Asuka Tanaka. First, a natural-born leader who can make an entire room relax with her silly façade. Then, a seemingly cold and calculating person who will put the sustainability of the band above anyone’s feelings. And under that, vulnerability that had only been hinted at until now. During what might be the deliberately most uncomfortable scene in the series, Kumiko witnesses Asuka’s mother clashing with the teachers over her presence in the club; as a single parent it’s immediately obvious she has struggled a lot to raise her child, and thus wants her to focus exclusively on the exams that will determine her future. But Taki’s determination is unshakable, and he won’t accept the resignation unless it comes from Asuka’s own mouth. In a sense it’s a pity that this scene is genuinely hard to watch, because it’s incredibly well crafted; even before she snaps, we can tell the mother is unstable and aware of it, as she clearly contains her rage and makes an effort to calm down when Taki suggests she should support her child – something that, in her own way, she has most likely been doing for many years, and thus the last thing she wants to hear from the teacher whom she feels is putting her daughter’s future at risk. We still don’t know the exact details of their backstory, but the dynamic of their relationship is concisely defined within seconds. Hearing Asuka herself say she wants to keep playing becomes the breaking point, and she ends up slapping her daughter. Once again the attention to detail is sublime; Asuka gently but with determination refuses to accept her mom’s apologizing caress, and it’s her who takes the parental role at that point and leads her mother away to minimize damage. Asuka’s attitude of disregarding feelings for the greater good of the band seemed cruel when she applied it to other people, but this makes it obvious she’s just as willing to sacrifice her own. Even as her closest friends try to approach her about the situation, Asuka quite literally closes herself away. She really wanted to stay, but temporarily vanishing was the option that would cause less problems for the band, so she’ll swallow her pain and do that.
This episode was a challenge for the director Haruka Fujita, whose claim to fame was the spectacular episode 8 of the first season. As the series directors mentioned, they meant to capture a dream-like moment for Kumiko – the special atmosphere Reina herself would want in her life, something that inherently stands out from the show at large. But this time she had to portray something way more grounded, with less room for flourish and a way more human core. The band is nothing but a group of worried individuals now, since Asuka’s disappearance acted like a domino effect of uncertainty. Their de facto leader is gone, and only their actual president remains – someone who happens to share her name with the episode director. Haruka Ogasawara is unfit to lead, and still carries some baggage of mistrust as she wasn’t able to deal with conflicts in the past. Everyone knows she personally delegated tasks to Asuka, just like the entirety of the club relied on her. But she’s also an incredible hard-worker who has done her best on a position she doesn’t naturally belong to, and spurred by the knowledge that Asuka really wants to play in the Nationals, she practically begs the band for help. To be special is something determined not by yourself but by those who perceive you after all, and she’s aware that they’ve burdened her friend with a very heavy load just because she was capable of carrying it with a smile. All members are aware of this now, and they decide to support her with all their might, keeping the band strong so that Asuka can rejoin with no problems anytime. With the help of the entire band – everyone – she gets to shine under a spotlight she might not belong into but has earned, as she plays her first solo. Haruka the saxophonist might have truly become a leader at this point, and Haruka the director has taken another step as a creator. This is only the fifth show where she’s been trusted with storyboards, and her career as director hasn’t even reached its third year yet. Her range only keeps on expanding, as she produces deeply satisfying episodes even with tricky material like this.
I already hinted at it when talking about the tense scene with Asuka’s mother, but the animation team did a fantastic job this time around. Last week I said the episode seemed like it was a low priority effort production-wise, and this felt like the exact opposite; the relatively large number of key animators stands out, and it more or less confirms that this will end up being a more intensive production than the first season. Rather than the ridiculously small teams of about 7 animators per episode season 1 took, this will be around the levels series like K-ON!! and Hyouka, an increase that makes sense when you consider this sequel has more or less doubled the number of performances and particularly tricky scenes. This is mere trivia either way, and it still puts it comfortably well above (well, technically below) industry average. What might be more telling is that up to 4 animation directors were tasked with regular key animation alongside other studio aces, so they clearly wanted it to feel as tight as possible. Both nuanced and expressive instances of character acting, particularly striking character art, and even short insterstitials to set the mood given obscene polish. Amusingly enough, the final performance itself was hardly a highlight – not because it didn’t have its share of great cuts, but a higher reliance than usual on CG – as there were more distant shots – and a couple of poor crowds made it simply not as impressive as the episode’s best scenes. It’s not just pure draftsmanship that left an impression this time around too, there were conceptually strong scenes as well; this layout with Kumiko starting on the background and pushing her way to Asuka’s side has the kind of depth TV anime hardly ever bothers with, and instants like her obvious joy when Haruka is nailing her solo live up to the rich expressiveness we’ve come to expect.
Not much to say about the animation directors themselves this time around, though. If I had to guess I would say that Futoshi Nishiya handled the first half as body silhouettes feel reminiscent of Hyouka, but they otherwise stayed rather invisible while doing a great job. As an amusing note however, it’s good to see Hiroyuki Takahashi can still draw a bass just fine. He’s spent months correcting drawings of brass instruments, but let’s not forget he was also the instrument supervisor in K-ON! for the entirety of its run. He must have felt at home.