Sound Euphonium! Welcome to the Rikka High School Marching Band! Mid-Point Review

Cover Art for Part I (left) and Part II (right)

Sound Euphonium! Side-Story:
Welcome to the Rikka High School Marching Band!
By: Takeda Ayano

響け!ユーフォニアム シリーズ
立華高校マーチングバンドへようこそ
武田綾乃

(*note: This “review” is not exactly spoiler-free, but I masked some major spoilers, which you can read by highlighting the text.)

Rikka follows Suzuki Azusa as she navigates through her first year as a member of Rikka High School’s nationally acclaimed marching band. Despite rising quickly through the ranks of the trombone section, Azusa is not satisfied playing second fiddle to anyone, and will not rest until she has usurped her section’s ace, third-year Sezaki Mirai. However, being part of a band with such high expectations does not come without its challenges, and Azusa must not only hone her skills as a trombonist among the best, she must maintain balance in a web of interpersonal relationships stressed from all sides.

In relation to the broader Sound Euphonium! series, Rikka is concurrent with respect to the first three books (or four, if you include the first short story collection), which cover Omae Kumiko’s first year at Kitauji High. If you are familiar with the books, anime (see season 1, episode 5) or movies, you may remember Azusa as Kumiko’s friend from middle school—but, to be clear, Azusa was friends with everyone, and the main reason Kumiko sticks in Azusa’s mind at all is that (apart from Kumiko being such a lovable derp) Azusa feels guilty about letting Kumiko’s status deteriorate within their middle school band after Kumiko took the spot of an upperclassman. Apart from that, Kumiko is mentioned only in passing, as if to remind us that yes, this story does take place within the same universe as Kumiko’s struggles.

The stylistic format and general outline of Rikka is identical to that of the other Sound Euphonium! novels—it follows a progression of episodic scenes, in a close third person perspective—but this book is a very different beast, and it owes that difference primarily to the fact that Azusa is a very different protagonist, and Rikka is a very different school. Although Azusa is not exactly the polar opposite of Kumiko, she functions like an anti-Kumiko. Kumiko is not the sole narrator in the mainline series—we get glimpses into the minds of Mizore and Nozomi in the second year books, and in the short story collections, even minor characters like Niiyama Satomi (the woodwind instructor) get a chance to narrate—but what sets Azusa apart is that she’s not meant to be relatable (at least at first). You may think this sounds like a recipe for disaster—but it works for a variety of reasons: First, the characters surrounding Azusa are much more relatable, and serve to keep your bearings. Second, as exceptional as Azusa is, the environment she is in is just as exceptional. A more neutral, relatable Azusa would feel unnatural in the same environment. Third, and most important of all, Azusa functions like an inverted Kumiko, and this inversion allows a different perspective even as Rikka rehashes many of the themes already explored in the mainline series. To put it simply: Kumiko develops as a character by running around and trying to put out fires. In Rikka, Azusa harbors the biggest fire of them all, but remains oblivious to it, resulting in a grand dose of dramatic irony. In Rikka, other characters develop by trying to put out this fire. Essentially, everything is flipped on its head.

This inverted formula introduces and requires a sort of dissonance between the reader and the narrator. Like Kumiko, Azusa is very perceptive and laser-focuses on certain aspects of other characters, but unlike Kumiko, Azusa makes too many assumptions, and is very blind with respect to herself. However, given the very subjective narrative style, it takes some poking and prodding to clue us into a more objective view.

One way this is accomplished is through a sudden shift in view, usually introduced by another character without any change in narration. Takeda uses this technique to great effect with Nozomi in “Daytime Christmas Lights” (from the Year 2 short story collection), where Nozomi projects unto the unlit lights, seeing ugliness and suffering, only to have that view challenged by Natsuki, who sees underappreciated beauty. A similar scene happens in Rikka where Azusa’s thoughts of how unsettling a scene is all but interrupted by another character seeking affirmation of its beauty. Not all of these introduced dissonances are so stark—some are long takes of misunderstanding, where Azusa spends most of her time talking past someone, without grasping their side of the conversation—but what matters is that we come to understand that Azusa sees things differently compared to most people around her.

After we are made keenly aware, through these dissonances, of where Azusa’s perception is warped, we can piece together a more objective view and work backwards from that view to examine Azusa herself, in a way that Kumiko might, to see if we can solve her problems. Once we take that stance, in effect, we are siding with the other characters in the story who instinctively know something must be done about Azusa. This is how we end up with the Kumiko formula turned on its head.

Another way Rikka differs from the other Sound Euphonium! books is in the environment of its setting. Rikka’s marching band has a different starting point and a different set of priorities compared to Kitauji’s concert band. For example, SunFes, the first major performance for Kitauji and climax of the second chapter in the first book, is little more than a footnote in Rikka. Rikka only sets aside two weeks of intense practice for the first leg of the National Concert Band Competition, whereas Kitauji turns its attention to the competition immediately after SunFes. At Rikka, the instructors mostly leave the students to self-govern, only stepping in for intensive practice sessions and deciding auditions for the concert band competition. Students are responsible for the choreography of their marches, and decide who will participate in the marching competition. As for the Agata Festival, featured prominently in the main series? Azusa laughs it off. Nobody has time for that at Rikka.

As the start of a new arc, Rikka has to spend a lot of space introducing characters, and there are many. The marching band has 103 members, thirteen of them trombone players. There are nineteen names listed under major characters at the front of the book. I’m going to focus on only a few here.

Sasaki Azusa, the protagonist of this story, is inhuman in her propensity for work and incredibly conceited. Her pride is served by her spectacular musical ability, a product of hard work more than talent, but she feels threatened by the notion of prodigies—anyone who is as good or better than her despite having spent less time learning their instrument. Although a true extrovert who thrives on interpersonal interactions, Azusa wears a mask at all times and prefers substance-less talk she can easily parry over meaningful discussions fraught with chances for her to slip up. She views the number of friends you have as a measure of status, but also a liability, because it can be difficult to maintain a neutral relationship with every single one of them. Her pride leads her to see discord within her web of friends as a failing of her own social skills, and rarely gets close to anyone because of her defensive stance. But here’s the catch: Azusa also has an intense, overwhelming desire to be needed. Azusa’s bandmate Amica fulfils this role for Azusa, and somewhat ironically, Azusa becomes dangerously dependent on Amica’s dependence on her. Apart from this, Azusa lives alone with her mostly absent mother, and although she has a good relationship with her, the absence fuels a jealousy of others and shoehorns Azusa into her fierce independence. Furthermore, a past relationship with a girl at her middle school, yet to be made clear, unnerves her so much that a chance reunion nearly sends her into shock.

Nase Amica is a complex little marshmallow. Out of all 103 members of Rikka’s Marching Band, she is the only one (this year) to start learning an instrument after joining the band. She immediately latches on to Azusa, who is more than happy to take her under her wing. Their relationship appears lopsided, but, as mentioned before, the dependence is mutual. Azusa is fiercely protective of Amica and genuinely does seem to care about her more than she does any other human being (apart from herself). The problem is, however, that Azusa infantilizes Amica to the point of being downright insulting, and feels threatened by any sign of Amica gaining independence. Amica’s feelings toward Azusa are a bit more pure.

You see…

Amica was ostracized from the rest of her classmates at a relatively early age and found herself burdened with social anxiety as she struggled to break out of the corner she had been boxed into. She explicitly notes that she’s terrified of boys, but honestly, she’s probably just as terrified of other girls. What prompted Amica to change was her family’s move to Kyoto, where she had a chance at a fresh start. She decided that her best shot at a fulfilling school life was to mimic the behavior of the popular girls at her previous school—and part of this mimicry entailed joining the school band. Little did Amica know how big of a hurdle that would be. From Amica’s perspective, if Azusa was not there to help her, she would not have lasted a week. Her plan would have fallen apart and she would not have had the courage to try again. However, in part because the band is so demanding, Amica did not really get a chance to make friends outside of band, and to make matters worse, she faces hostility from other first years in her section. Therefore, Amica’s dependence on Azusa becomes so great that when Azusa has to turn her attention to Shiho to deal with a problem, Amica falls into what looks like an irrational panic, pleading for Azusa to not abandon her.

After that incident, Amica becomes more aware of both of her dependence on Azusa and how her over-dependence may negatively affect her, so she starts looking for other ways to support herself within the band, for both of their sakes. Eventually, when Azusa starts to go a little off the rails, Amica confesses that she’s in the process of reworking her personality, starting from mimicry but rediscovering herself in the process. She reiterates how important Azusa is to her, and how she wants to build some independence from her for both of their sakes, but to Azusa, each step towards independence feels like a betrayal. This comes to the head at the end of Part 1, with Amica taking a confident step forward, but Azusa only feels like she’s being stabbed in the back.

There are three other characters of note, whom will likely be more important in Part 2: Sezaki Mirai, Takagi Shiori and Hiiragi Serina.

Sezaki Mirai is the ace of Rikka’s trombone section, and Azusa’s goal to beat. Like Amica, Mirai only started playing the trombone after she joined Rikka’s band. Regardless of their age difference, the fact Azusa remains behind Mirai despite having had more time with her instrument bothers her. Apart from Mirai’s playing ability, she is also a competent leader: She notices early on that Azusa may have a problem and moves quickly to resolve discord among the first years (due to Togawa Shiho’s frustration with Amica and her own struggle to improve).

Takagi Shiori is Mirai’s former mentor, the second most proficient third-year trombonist, and second-in-command of the section. She has a inferiority complex with respect to Mirai due to how quickly Mirai surpassed her, and has a lot of difficulty connecting with Azusa, despite her best efforts —particularly after Azusa bests her in auditions for the concert band competition. Shiori is also tasked (among others) with developing choreography for marches, which takes up a lot of her time.

Hiiragi Serina is a girl from Azusa’s middle school, who apparently shook Azusa to her core by seeing right through her. Serina was never the part of any band, and is currently a student at Kitauji. You may recognize her name if you read “The Friend of a Friend is a Stranger” from the Year 2 short story collection. Like Kumiko, Serina chose Kitauji to distance herself from the people who went to her middle school. So far, we know very little about her, but no single person has bothered Azusa more. Additionally, as Serina is featured on the next cover (and can often be found among Azusa and Amica in fan art), I expect her role to become much more important in Part 2.

Finally, to address the last remaining, all-important question (for shippers anyway): how gay is everyone? Well, compared to our always-horny bi-hero Kumiko, Azusa’s gaze is fairly subdued. She herself claims to be uninterested in love, because she does not understand it. However, she does show a mild interest in a fellow male first-year’s appearance, and her eyes often move to her own set of beauty points when interacting with some of the girls—particularly Mirai. The main difference is, whereas Kumiko has a healthy obsession with thighs, Azusa often focuses on girls’ fingertips and nails—and in Mirai’s case how her ears peek out from under her hair. We do get some attention to calves, but mostly on their function—i.e. how muscular they are.

Amica on the other hand, is a different story. Despite what we learn later about her motivations, Amica is very close to Azusa and very comfortable with that closeness. She physically touches Azusa often, in a way she does with no one else. She reacts when her Azusa (on rare occasion) touches her back. She brings up the topic of love to Azusa while they are alone. Amica is clearly bothered by Serina and Azusa’s relationship and tries to ask about it. According to Amica’s parents (who are supportive), Azusa is all she ever talks about. Most importantly, Amica pays close attention to Azusa and tries to factor what’s best for her in her decisions. The Sound Euphonium! series doesn’t like to throw around concrete labels, but I’m not sure you’re going to find more evidence than what I’ve listed above. AmicaxAzusa forever.

As for the other characters, Shiori definitely gives off gay vibes. You could easily slap a “gay idiot” label on Saijou Kanon (one of the twins), and Mirai’s cool, somewhat-masculine demeanor seems to attract more than just Azusa. Mirai scoffs at the band’s straight members fawning over Taki (Kitauji’s “hot” instructor), and we get some sweaty hugs from her as well, but it’s hard to be definitive about most of the other characters. Shiho and Taiichi (the other two first-year trombone players) are both as straight as a board though.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Part 2. The inversion of the regular formula keep things interesting, and it is easy to fall in love with Amica. Azusa’s pride can get aggravating at times, but there’s a good amount of comic relief to offset that, and she is most certainly an interesting character. I think, so far, I’d recommend at least reading the Year 2 books before starting Rikka, if only because you can better appreciate the differences after following Kumiko’s development, but Rikka does not depend on hardly any knowledge from the rest of the series, so it is possible to dive right in.

If you would like to take a look at my real-time impressions about the book, search my Twitter (@ZephyrRz) for the tag: “#eupho rikka”. Year 2 and Year 3 are tagged “#eupho y2” and “#eupho y3” respectively, and if you dig deep enough (to around 2015), you can find comments about the Year 1 books under just: “#eupho”.

A good unofficial character diagram of the Rikka characters (including many I have not mentioned) may be found [here] (in Japanese).

*Final Note: Rikka’s Marching Band is based on the real life Kyoto Tachibana SHS Marching Band (京都橘高校吹奏楽部) so, if you’re having trouble visualizing the kind of movements that earn them the nickname “The Blue Devils” in the books, looking up a few videos of the real band online should solve that.

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