After the brilliant conclusion to Mizore and Nozomi’s arc, it was difficult to imagine Hibike! Euphonium maintaining this level… and yet it did, by using its other weapon of choice: music.
In fact, it’s already time for the Kansai competition. After the last training, and Taki’s all-important advice to avoid overthinking the performance, Hashimoto and Niiyama pay the band their regards. They heap praise on all the members; Hashimoto even singles Mizore out as the one most improved musician. When asked if something good has come her way, she replies with her brightest smile.
Smiles and teary faces all mix to create a reserved yet intensely emotional sight. Kumiko knows it as much as anyone else; though she may talk the day away with Azusa (who’ll also be participating in the Kansai competition), her mind isn’t functioning as it should, nor is anyone’s. Only one thought is echoing within their heads: “we must go to the nationals”.
One short night passes, and the big day is already there. Some want to know how other schools have done, but now’s not the time: Taki needs to give his usually lame word of encouragement before Asuka gives the great motivational speech in Kaori’s stead. Last episode we saw her at her most cynical; but now here she is, having a moment of honesty. She lays her feelings out, from her incredulity to her desire to advance on to the next stage.
It’s a rallying address, and we can hear everyone pouring a lot of spirit into their war cry. The moments directly before the performance are much calmer; Nozomi and Reina say they’ll play for their girlfriends, while Yuuko shakes Kaori out of her fear of loss (a very subtle character moment, for it reveals Kaori’s inner pessimism). And soon, it’s time to get on stage.
And this is where Hibike truly starts shining. When it’s not a good character drama, it’s a stunningly animated music show. The performance lasts for the duration of the episode’s second half; but worry not, for KyoAni makes it all worthwhile.
In this case, the key is the stupid attention to detail, one almost impossible to find in most TV anime (and that doesn’t blush in the face of many movies). There are cuts reused from the first season, but such callbacks to a previous performance make this one all the more intense, especially when one notices the photos and messages on some members’ partition. They’ve practiced with all their might, met new people, and are now here. The fact that their papers are covered also shows they’re determined not to overthink it: they know the piece by heart, know exactly what they have to do, and don’t need to think about it more. If there’s anything that should enter their field of vision, it is the crazy progress they’ve made: which is not only seen in the partition, but also in the large and high room reflected in Kumiko’s eyes.
We also see how everyone approaches the performance differently. Some make faces akin to warriors: they’re here to win and it shows in their expressions. Meanwhile, some people’s focus is shown by their lack of expression: they’ve emptied their minds entirely, and let their hands do the work.
The pacing also varies nicely. There is notably one moment in slow-motion, as if to insist on the weight of the percussions and sheer level of intensity reached by everyone present. Then there’s Reina’s solo – we see the precision with which she moves her hands, and Kumiko can’t help but reflect on the evolution this playing represents. It’s a distinctly calmer moment, largely focused on our two protagonists.
The performance ends to wide applause… then the ending credits roll. The tension rises… before lowering for an instant when we find out Kitauji have won gold. Yet the relief doesn’t last, for lest we forget, who will represent Kansai in the nationals is a separate matter. The tension is through the roof: there are only three places. One down, two… and finally, after a seemingly endless fifteen seconds, Kitauji’s name rings through the speakers. Some lose all expression in relief, some cry, some shout, some call out to their friends – a large group means many different personalities in one room, after all. And that’s a beautiful thing in this case.
And then, there’s the one and only Mizore. “Do you like contests now?”, asks Kumiko; and it is this ever-exhilarating smile that answers “I just started liking them now”.
What a show Hibike is. The last arc started out as alright, and slowly raised the bar until its magnificent finale. In the hands of anyone else, we would’ve gotten a short performance sandwiched in between comparatively underwhelming character moments. But in order to maintain its quality before a new character arc, KyoAni decided to bet on the series’ other point of focus: music. Through music, we see the characters facing themselves, their experiences and progression, which means a lot of subtle moments. But above all, we see an incredibly directed, movie-tier seven minutes. It’s subtle and detailed; not shortcuts are taken, which means is every frame is of impressive beauty. It’s rare, and something that needs to be appreciated. And with this, Hibike brilliantly maintains the high standard set by its previous entry. Which means one thing only: expectations for the upcoming arc are higher than ever.
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