Character development is a term thrown around a lot in discussions on storytelling. It’s often a sizable factor in how many critics view whatever media they are reviewing. Briefly, because I don’t feel like doing a full article on it at the moment, character development is important to me because while we, the audience, are viewers and observers of any given story from the outside, we also vicariously live out the story through its characters. A great story does more than look pretty from an outsider’s point of view, rather, it drags its audience kicking and screaming into it, forcing us to experience the characters’ emotions first hand as we find ourselves desperately wanting them to succeed in their goals. When a lead character never changes or develops, the audience can’t experience that because there’s nothing to experience. As humans, we are constantly changing and being changed by our experiences, so seeing a character change and develop only feels natural. When it doesn’t happen, it feels dull and even unnatural, causing me to feel like I’m being ripped out of the story and forced to be an observer again. A great story uses its characters to keep the audience thoroughly engaged and immersed throughout. The line between good and bad character development, however, is extremely subjective. For me, when I think about anime with great character development, a few immediately come to mind, one being the extremely popular high school music drama Hibike! Euphonium.
Whatever your opinion of the show, it’s not difficult to understand why it’s popularity has exploded within the last year. Kyoto Animation (Free, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, K-On!) are masters of what they do, specifically slice of life and drama series. From a production standpoint, Hibike is, as the kids are saying these days, on fleek. The animation, soundtrack, voice acting and directing are all top notch. However, while production quality is an important part of how I rate the media I consume on it’s own, we live in a world in which technology is developing so fast that high quality production values have become standard and are no longer a guarantee of a worthwhile story. Anime such as Sword Art Online, Guilty Crown, and more recently Kabeneri of the Iron Fortress have flaunted impeccable production values but still failed to capture the hearts and attention of a widespread audience. This isn’t only true of animation, either. Television, film and literature can all be perpetrators as well. A skilled team of artists doesn’t necessarily guarantee an equally complex product. The way I see it, Hibike is a solid seven out of ten in production alone, but what is it that has caused me and many others to give it an even higher rating? You guessed it: the characters.
A better reviewer than myself could write a massive article detailing why each character in this show is intriguing and important to the story in their own right. However, right now I’d like to examine one of the most obvious and interesting character arcs, that of Kumiko Oumae, the lead character, and a couple things I found interesting about it that weren’t immediately apparent to me upon my first viewing. I’ll be diving into some spoiler territory for season one so if you haven’t watched it, I’d highly recommend it if you don’t mind a bit of musical melodrama. It’s currently available on Crunchyroll for free. Let’s get started.
Hibike has a very simple premise and story. It doesn’t have to sell it’s audience on complicated world building or a deep, intense plot, since it’s a modern day drama. Given that many of KyoAni’s shows are similar in structure, they’ve become good at making up for it with their characters. In order to understand the leads of this particular show, we need to go back to the beginning and work our way through the events of the first season.
The show opens with the middle school band competition results being announced. Kumiko and her classmate Reina are sitting together, waiting to hear the results. The way they speak to and sit with each other would suggest that the two are already good friends at this point. Upon hearing that their band would not be moving on to the national competitions, we see two opposite responses from the characters. Everything about Kumiko’s body language and dialogue during this scene portrays her as apathetic and even harsh. In contrast, Reina is incredibly upset to the point of tears that their band didn’t succeed. Kumiko marvels out loud that Reina actually thought they had a chance, to which Reina takes great offense.
Before the OP even begins, we see a clear contrast between these two characters and how they feel about their school band. Since the story is told from Kumiko’s point of view, it’s difficult for us, the audience, to judge her for her harsh response to Reina’s distress. In the following episodes we see that, despite her guilt over hurting Reina’s feelings, Kumiko doesn’t really feel like she did anything wrong. Because I too was confused at why Reina had been so upset, I couldn’t help but side with her. After all, at first glance it seems as if Reina had been overreacting at the competition, harboring some unrealistic expectations for their school band. As if her actions in the first five minutes of the episode weren’t confusing enough, with the exception of a few bursts of passion she then spends the next several episodes acting distant and unreadable, a stark contrast to the emotional vulnerability she displayed at the competition.
It didn’t take me very long at this point to understand what type of character Reina is. She is a character that doesn’t fit any predetermined mold but rather is dense, confusing, mysterious and difficult to understand right from the beginning. These types of characters can be overdone at times to become a brand new stereotype of their own, the “different-than-others-pixie-dream-girl” that are often made fun of in discussions on YA literature. However, when done well, it is my favorite and, in my opinion, the most realistic approach to creating a character. They are difficult to understand immediately because their outward actions are the products of multiple layers of personality and experience. Anime has gained a reputation for having an absurd amount of character stereotypes, but realistically, people aren’t defined by specific sets of traits. Rather, humans are constantly molded and changed by their individual experiences, which create the layers of our personality that are sometimes difficult for even ourselves to understand. It’s up to the writer, at this point, to begin stripping the characters of these layers one by one, breaking them down to who they really are. Whether or not Hibike succeeds in this remains to be seen.
Back to the main character. Kumiko remains distant and apathetic throughout the early episodes. She originally hesitates to join the high school band, and even when she decides to sign up after all she’s determined to play a different instrument than the Euphonium she played in middle school. Much to her disappointment, she gets stuck with it anyway.
It’s only later on that we discover that her original reason for playing the Euphonium at all was because she wanted to be like her older sister, who played it in high school and later dropped out of band to work on her college entry tests. It’s difficult to say exactly what happened between the sisters between that point and the present, but it’s hard to ignore the tension between the two.
This may explain why Kumiko wanted to play a different instrument than the Euphonium, to break out of the cycle she had been stuck in since she was little and be different from her sister. This was an act of her own will that reveals that she isn’t a completely purposeless character, that on some level that she cares about her place in the band. Unfortunately, after being put behind a Euphonium she returns to her previous apathetic demeanor, possibly symbolic of her place in her sister’s shadow.
When a new instructor for the band enters the scene asking whether the students want to simply have fun with the band or work towards the national championship, Kumiko doesn’t raise her hand either way, an indicator of her confusion and indecisiveness. When the vote goes to the nationals, the instructor pushes them harder than the school band had ever pushed before, and while Kumiko practices with the group in their attempt to meet the instructor’s standards, she still doesn’t seem to think of the band as anything more than a routine. When the instructor’s intense and strict standards received opposition from many members of band, Kumiko responded with a near flippant attitude bordering on cynicism.
The turning point for Kumiko’s character comes in episode eight, followed by seven episodes of buildup as Kumiko and Reina attempt to reestablish their friendship that had been temporarily broken by Kumiko’s harsh comment during middle school. On the night of the local festival, the two climb up to the local shrine and play their instruments together, separated from the crowds. Reina confesses her attraction to Kumiko’s cynical personality that she hides under a facade of apathy, then explains her motivation and passion for music. She describes it as her desire to remain herself without becoming conformed to the rest of society, that she wants to stay unique and attempts to do so through her instrument, the trumpet.
There are a couple interesting things about this episode, apart from the stunning animation and romantic soundtrack accompanying their conversation. We realize that Reina and Kumiko are both putting on the same facade of distance and apathy to hide their true personalities. However, the parts of themselves they are trying to hide are vastly different. Reina is trying to disguise her raw, energetic, optimistic passion that we’ve only witnessed a few times at this point, while Kumiko is trying to hide her blunt cynicism. In addition, the two go about hiding their personalities in different ways. Kumiko tries to fit in with a clique of friends, while Reina acts as a loner. These contrasts and similarities make for some great chemistry between the two characters that is both fun and satisfying to watch.
As a viewer looking from Kumiko’s point of view I couldn’t help but see Reina’s ambitions of becoming “truly special” as a bit dramatic and unrealistic. Reina seems completely aware of how dramatic and crazy she sounds because after seeing the look on Kumiko’s face she starts laughing, remarking on her “terrible personality”.
The next few episodes follow a sub plot in which an audition takes place for who will be competing in the next competition, since only a limited amount of students can participate. This whole arc is a mess of melodrama that is pretty straightforward and doesn’t leave much to discuss, although it did leave me with some additional questions about the characters involved. Throughout this arc a lot of pressure is put on Reina specifically, and we begin to see more and more of her layers of personality being peeled off. When she and Kumiko are alone in one episode, she starts yelling about how unfair the situation was, the first time we see her visibly upset over something less about music and more about other people. Later, she’s pressured by some of her classmates into giving up her solo position for a senior student, and we see the effects of that on her personality. If anything can be gathered from her character during this sub plot, it’s that Reina is an emotionally and mentally strong character, but isn’t invincible and clearly longs for the support of Kumiko in these difficult circumstances.
While all this is taking place, Kumiko is beginning to change. While she may have immediately expressed disbelief over Reina’s ambitions, without knowing it, she had been inspired. From episode eight and on, Kumiko begins to work to perfect her instrument with more determination and purpose than we’ve seen from her in the series thus far. She remarks to Reina once that she wants to become “special” like her, and works diligently to achieve that. When the instructor assigns a difficult piece to Kumiko, she furiously practices it day and night. It becomes her only activity. She slowly grows passionate about the piece and works through blood, sweat and tears to perfect it, but no matter how much she practices she feels as if she can’t improve. All of this tension, frustration and agitation builds up to the climax of the season, her standing on a bridge and screaming “I want to improve!”, finally breaking down and mirroring Reina’s words from the beginning, “I’m so upset I could die.”
As soon as she says it, Kumiko looks up suddenly, a look of realization crossing over her face as a montage of flashbacks go by onscreen. Finally, Kumiko, and by extension the viewers, understood why Reina had been so upset in the opening scene. Kumiko had never experienced that level of passion for anything before, but now that she was put in Reina’s shoes, she understood her pain of not being able to rise above her present state. She finally understood how someone could be so passionate over something that it consumes their entire being. Stunned by this realization, she rushes home and boldly declares to her sister that she likes the euphonium, which seems to surprise her. This line caught me off guard initially because her intense declaration of love to her instrument immediately following her passionate screaming from a bridge felt like a large jump in emotional states, but looking back on it, it was one of the most powerful moments in the series. Kumiko had developed a passion for her music, not because her sister had played it before her, or because she was stuck was trying to live up to a role model who had let her down, but because she genuinely liked it. She had reached Reina’s level of passion, and wanted to declare it to everyone.
Hibike could be called a lot of things. It’s a music infused romance, drama and slice of life. However, I don’t think any one of those labels represents what this show is really about. Yes, the chemistry between Reina and Kumiko is fun to watch, but that’s not the point of the show. It’s about Kumiko’s journey. She began as a lonely, cynical high schooler that hid behind a mask of apathy and allowed herself to be held back by people who had let her down to becoming a passionate, excited and animated artist. Reina showed her that her life could be more than regret and conformity. Just like she had, Kumiko found her way out of the system of apathy and normalcy through music. As the first season closes, Kumiko still has a difficult journey ahead of her as she and Reina strive to satisfy the burning passion within them to reach higher than they’re capable of. They’ll continue to build up their scaffolding as the bar they attempt to reach continues to rise, but as is evident from the finale, Kumiko is prepared to face those challenges. She’s had a taste of what a life of excitement and passion is like, and she’ll never be the same. Whatever your opinion of the show as a whole, in my opinion, this character arc was is flawless.
I sometimes like to imagine what certain shows would be like without certain characters, and when I think about Hibike I marvel at the fact that if any of the leads were taken out or replaced the entire story would fall apart because it’s completely carried by the characters. Every one of them, even the “minor” characters, are remarkably well designed. They have layers of personality created by their experiences that the writer then begins to break down throughout the course of the series. As mentioned earlier, even without the flawless character development this show would still hold up great on it’s own. The animation, soundtrack and directing are all fantastic. However, the additional character arcs and the development of Kumiko and Reina’s relationship make it an unforgettable experience. My only complaint about this season apart from the melodrama (looking at you, bow girl) is that it isn’t really complete. There’s a lot of characters that haven’t been explored yet, and I still have a lot of questions. What made Reina so passionate about music to begin with? What’s her family like? What did Kumiko’s sister do to let her down? What the hell is up with Asuka in general? While I applaud KyoAni and their writers for managing to accomplish what they did in the short thirteen episodes, it just isn’t enough time to completely explore it’s large cast. However, it would appear I’m in luck because the second season just started airing, so I guess it’s time for me to catch up. The first season of Hibike is one of the most personally impacting anime I’ve seen recently. However, there’s still plenty of time for this franchise as a whole to become either an all time favorite or a bit of a disappointment, so you can expect to see another article on it later this year when the season wraps up. Until then.
(Note: This was a post I wrote last October when I watched Hibike for the first time on my tumblr. When I switched to WordPress last month, I reposted it here so I could have all my posts in the same place, which is why in the last paragraph I mentioned that it was still currently airing. It would appear I have some work to do on that second part.)