Sound! Euphonium and the pros and cons of collectivism

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The first step to the Nationals!

Spring is usually a strong season for anime…but this one fell rather flat for me, especially after how much I enjoyed the previous season. Nevertheless, there is one series that captured all of my attention: Sound! Euphonium. It’s difficult to describe how it caught my attention, because it was something I could not express clearly even around the tenth episode, as the people I was discussing it with in private messages found out. It was something I sensed when Aoi and Kumiko were talking about their issues with the public vote about the club’s motto in episode 2, which left me slightly disappointed when it was resolved so quickly as Taki worked his magic on his students’ motivation and self-belief. But then it crept up again when Aoi decided to quit the club to focus on her studies, and again when the characters fluttered around trying to figure out who to go to the festival with. And when the conflict between Reina and Yuuko over the solo part came to a head around episodes 9 and 10, I finally realised that everything had actually been connect to the main theme of this series: the many facets of social expectations.

My previous post outlined some of these expectations in detail, and presented what might be perceived as a scathing critique of Japanese society. I will not take that critique back, for those norms and structures remain one of the biggest barriers to Japan being able to get out of the economic stagnation that has plagued it for a quarter of a century now. However, I did want to present a slightly more balanced picture of ‘collectivism’, which I felt that a lot of English-speaking viewers missed because of a greater emphasis on individualism in their own societies.

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Isn’t there anything we can do about this mood?
Are you saying she should give up her solo part?
I think that it might be necessary…
Why? Kousaka-san didn’t do anything wrong.
I know that too, but it isn’t worth letting things get so tense.

The most common definition of ‘collectivism’ is that it involves the subjugation of the individual to the group. It stresses group goals over individual goals, and prioritises cohesion within the group. This can clearly been seen in Sound! Euphonium, especially in episodes 9 through 11, which deal with the conflict over the trumpet solo. It was originally given to Reina based on the results of the initial auditions, and the show was careful to present a clear difference in ability between her and Kaori, the 3rd year who would have automatically been given the part based on seniority. However, this causes some consternation in the ranks, especially once rumours of favouritism arise because Taki and Reina are revealed to have known each other for a number of years. Following a more experienced teacher’s advice, Taki eventually resolves this by having Reina and Kaori ‘re-audition’ in front of the entire band, so that they can hear the difference in musical ability for themselves. Although the club members are asked to vote, in the end, it is Kaori who willingly steps down.

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Kousaka-san should play the solo.

What surprised me about the resolution to this conflict was not anything that happened in the show itself, but rather the response amongst Western viewers in particular. A lot of criticism was directed at Taki, for supposedly relinquishing responsibility over his choice in calling for the vote; and then at the students who chose not to vote for either Reina or Kaori, which was almost everyone in the club. To be honest, I don’t think Taki really intended to let the club members decide. Rather, as Michie-sensei suggested, his objective was to have all the members—especially Kaori herself—hear for themselves why he had chosen Reina for the solo. Putting that aside, however, the important thing to recognise is that Taki and Michie are seen as nothing more than advisors—the students are the ones who determine how the club is run. Forcing the students to accept his unilateral choice based on his ‘expertise’ would only have undermined their trust in him. Taki’s decision was, in my opinion, sound, as the students themselves needed to determine who would play the solo.

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I’ll tell them it ought to be you!                      Really?                                     Probably…             

Which brings me to the other line of criticism, which is directed at the students who did not vote. Based on ability, Reina was clearly the better player; however, only four students chose to vote, and it is difficult to claim that even Kumiko’s vote was given entirely based on an evaluation of ability. However, I’ve seen a number of viewers dismiss the rest of the students as not having enough courage to vote—to quote another reviewer, they are typically criticised for being “too afraid to make a decision in case it backfires.” But I’m not sure that this criticism is fair. It’s not just about who gets to play the solo, it’s also about what effect that is going to have on the cohesion of the group. And it’s not an easy decision for those who know what happened in previous years, and that Kaori should have played the solo part the year before, if not for seniority taking precedence. For those members, voting for either Reina or Kaori would have left them feeling as if they’d wronged someone, and that would probably have resulted in half-hearted playing, to the detriment of the entire band in the competition itself. One choice suggests that you prioritise winning at all costs, whilst the other suggests that you empathise with how someone else has suffered, even at the potential cost of the band losing the competition, and the cost of stepping on a talented younger player, albeit one who has more chances to shine. Kaori making the decision was probably the only way they could have come out of this and be able to perform to the best of their ability.

NB: For the record, I think that Kumiko’s ‘I’ll vote for you! …probably’ indicates that she would have voted for Kaori if she had indeed been better; but there’s no way that we can know for sure.

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What does a team need?

What I’m getting at here is that understanding how others feel is an important by-product, one might say, of collectivism. The emphasis on group cohesion means that individuals are more likely to consider the effects that particular decisions have on the people around them, and how it affects the team. In short, they are more likely to try to empathise with others, to look for solutions that work for everyone in the group, and are willing to compromise for the sake of a better long-term outcome. That’s not to say that individualism does not have its place—leaders can help streamline the group-decision making process and find a way to make sure that everyone is satisfied with it, whilst a willingness to innovate and try something completely new is necessary for success in our rapidly evolving world. A team cannot be made up solely of individuals, nor of people who follow. The most important thing, however, is that they be team players, which involves not only knowing their own role, but also how their actions and decisions will affect the others in their team. Sound! Euphonium does not go into much detail about this, but I contend that it is a facet of collectivism that can shed light into the inner workings of the Kitauji Concert Band in recent times.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

4 Responses to Sound! Euphonium and the pros and cons of collectivism

  1. sikvod00 says:

    Nice read as always. 🙂 Balancing the needs of the individual and the group is hard!

    The show sympathized with the individual , which is fine considering the culture in question. The social expectations in Japan must make some people feel suffocated and trapped. Always having to consider “the team” and wearing masks depending on the situation can frankly get annoying, haha. At least that’s what I think after reading stuff from you and another blogger.

    But I disagree with viewers (posters on AS) who believed the auditions unquestionably depicted the “other” band members in a bad light, and it was simply a matter of Reina and Taki being right. That’s not a fair portrayal of the group dynamic struggle.

    A band in discord is a not a good band. And you cannot expect to win with only a super talented sax player and a handful of strong members. Everyone needs to be working towards the same goal and be focused. Even those who failed the audition play an important support role. This was especially true in the finale.

    I agree that empathy and understanding how other feels is a big part of collectivism. I like those qualities and want to see more of them in my country (referring to politics here).

    Like

    • karice says:

      Thank you ^^

      Balancing the needs of the individual and the group is hard!

      Agreed — I’m not trying to argue that ‘collectivism’ is the bee’s knees or anything, just that there are positives and negatives about societies that are based around the idea, as there are with ‘individualism’. I actually think the show touched on both sides with regards to collectivism. In a way, individualism was presented only in relief to collectivism, as it generally would be in stories set in collectivist societies, so I don’t think the writers here could truly explore the negative sides of individualism. I’d be interested if any Western storyteller ever tries to explore it (assuming that someone hasn’t already done so…)

      Another blogger? Which one? I’m interested because most people I came across seemed to want to focus on the ‘romance’, to my great despair…

      Agreed with everything else. The KitaUji band got to the Kansai tournament because they were ultimately united in putting the goal of the band above everything else. Even those who failed in achieving their own personal goals got over their own disappointment and did what they could for the team, showing a great mix of how individuals are part of the group, and how groups are a product of the individuals within them. I really liked that balance!

      Like

      • sikvod00 says:

        Another blogger? Which one? I’m interested because most people I came across seemed to want to focus on the ‘romance’, to my great despair…

        Sorry for the confusion. I was referring to another blogger who also has experience living in Japan and dealing with the social expectations. It’s Elle\27, who I learned about from a twitter comment of yours. ^_^

        Like

        • karice says:

          Ah…I hadn’t actually read any of her other posts, and so had to go look through my twitter to find out who you were referring to! Interesting…

          Like

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