Behind the Façade: Hibike Euphonium and the Pressures of School Life
June 11, 2015 1 Comment
Hibike Euphonium provides us with a snapshot of school life, and the ordinary, everyday workings of an afterschool club and those who are a part of it. We are given the opportunity to look at how complicated a social group this club is, and the myriad different attitudes, ideals, and ideas that something apparently as simple as playing in a concert band can be. Like most anime, the afterschool club is a focal point for all the drama, human interactions, problems, tensions, and character growth. Rather than examination and studying – although we can assume they still exist – these characters are preoccupied with their club. Some may continue to participate out of force of habit, others may be very serious about their club, and there are also those who may simply have nothing better to do, and had to join a club anyway. The school space within anime like Hibike Euphonium remains central to character development, acting as the focal point for all of their hopes and worries, and serving as the one space where they are capable of exploring new ideas and approaches to life, seemingly without worry.
When we initially meet Kumiko Oumae, she is clearly attempting to use high school as an opportunity to start afresh, to try something new and change the way she looked, and acted in junior high. We see this same attitude in her approach to school clubs, and then in her choice of instrument when she finally joins the concert band club. The Euphonium, despite being an instrument she knows how to play, and perhaps even enjoyed judging by the number of books in her room is symbolic of her lack of choice at a younger age. She was forced to play the Euphonium simply because no one else wanted to and the bass section was lacking, so attempting, and failing to choose the trombone was her attempt to remove herself from her past and start something new. Hazuki’s attitude is very similar, approaching high school as an opportunity to try something new, rather than stick with what she already knows. The idea of switching from tennis to playing the tuba is rather extreme, but also exemplifies the importance of high school, not only as a fresh start, but also as an important period in the growth of Japan’s youth. So experimentation and deliberately removing oneself from any comfort zones is arguably essential to the workings of high school and broader Japanese education system.
The central tension within Hibike Euphonium, the Gordian knot of the concert band, so to speak, one that remains as valid today as it did in past centuries: how to reconcile self-effacement with self-aggrandisement. This paradox is one that every Japanese adolescent has to face; how to be an achiever, which is what is expected, particularly by ones family (and in this case we can also add the school), and a self-effacing conformist at the same time? Or, to put it another way, how to be a winner in a society that discourages individual assertion? Many in the Concert Band club want to go to the Inter-High championships, they want to compete, and they want to win, and to do that they must practice hard, and be good, regardless of what the group as a whole decides is best. Reina is one such individual; she is haughty, perhaps a little arrogant, and also sincere in her wish to achieve something special through her trumpet playing. This attitude means that she is something of an outsider; constantly practicing by herself, and following her own path regardless of what her Senpai might believe is best for the group. Her attitude, coupled with her ability as a trumpet player meant that she is threatening the hegemonic nature of the concert band club, and its attempts to be homogenous and unobtrusive. The vision of Japan portrayed in Hibike Euphonium, much like the portrayal found in many school focused anime is that of a group-orientated society. The desires of the individual are subordinated to the demands of his of her group. A strict sense of hierarchy effectively prevents individuals from asserting themselves and thereby unbalancing the harmony (Wa) of the group.
Outward harmony is preserved in many different ways. While in the West a person is supposed to have opinions, which he or she voices in public, in Japan, opinions, if held at all, are kept to oneself, or carefully blended with those held by others. This is not entirely unique to Japan, and even in the West there are plenty of situations and places where personal opinions are best kept private, or potentially create significant friction, alongside other problems. However, the Japanese language is structures in such a way that it sounds as if one is constantly seeking agreement. Even a contradiction will start with a phrase like: ‘You’re absolutely right, of course, but…’ so, although the Japanese can privately disagree, conflict is hidden behind a bland veil of politeness. And when serious differences do come to the fore, they often lead to emotional crises ending in a complete rupture of the group. Harmony can at times be violently disturbed by bitterness and physical violence after simply bypassing the intermediate stage of rational debate. The numerous arguments we have seen throughout Hibike Euphonium so far are a perfect example of the group harmony being disturbed, thus resulting in a rending of the social fabric that has so far kept it together.
Essentially, consensus may well be a public façade, but then façade counts for a great deal in Japanese life. Something that is immediately clear when watching Hibike Euphonium, and the complex group dynamics, un-said grievances, and other issues writhing underneath the surface of an otherwise fairly carefree and enjoyable band club. Few would confuse this public play-acting with reality, but everyone is agreed on its importance. ‘Being True to Yourself’, or ‘Sticking Up for What You Stand For’ are not Japanese virtues, although curiously they are often found within anime. But, one must play the public game, or be excluded from it, which, to most Japanese would mean living death. Pretence, in other words, is an essential condition for life. There is an expression for this in the Japanese language: tatemae, the façade, the public posture, the way things ought to be. Consensus is often a matter of tatemae. The opposite of tatemae is honne, the private feeling or opinion, which, in normal circumstances, remains hidden or suppressed. And, as is clear when watching many of the characters, they can spend an inordinate amount of time and effort keeping their personal opinions to themselves for the sake of maintaining the façade of a happy, homogenous group.
Throughout the series we have seen how fragile that façade can be, and how easily it fractures and falls apart when figures like Reina and Taki-Sensei, individuals who raise questions about the concert band clubs motivation and ability. Numerous club members have reiterated their intention to compete in various competitions, with the goal to go to the Inter-High championship, a mantra used by the club to justify their existence, regardless of the amount of time, and effort they might put into their chosen instrument and club activity. It becomes a mantra, a way to paper over the cracks that have formed in the past and never been healed, so that the club, and those who run it can pretend they are all trying their hardest, and truly achieving something in high school. But, the whole band is woefully out of tune and practice, something that is immediately obvious to Kumiko and Sapphire when they visit in episode one. But, with the introduction of Taki-Sensei, things slowly begin to change, and the façade of a homogenous group of friend’s fractures, presenting a seething mass of unsaid feelings, resentment, and relationships. By giving the club the opportunity to choose whether they take competitions seriously, or simply play out of simple enjoyment, Taki-Sensei forces the club to face their lack of practice, and come to terms with the reality behind the dream.
Of course this ultimately causes more problems, especially for those in their second and third years, as they have to come to terms with the possibility that certain first year students like Kumiko and Reina may be much better at their chosen instruments. As the club president Haruka Ogasawara seems incapable of forcing others to take practice seriously, and her close friend Asuka Tanaka, despite being a better organiser and leader, does not want the job of keeping the club organized and run properly. Neither want to rock the boat, and are content, if also frustrated with the current situation, while their friendly, and mischievous (at least in terms of Asuka) attitudes helps to hide their uncertainties, so that they do not create what they may see as unnecessary problems. Then we have Aoi Saitou who chooses to quit the band and pursue her university entrance exams – something that should be considered a wise move given the importance placed on getting into a good university, but also serves to allow Aoi to leave while maintaining her calm façade. These second and third year students appear to like playing their instruments, but they rarely show any real emotion, especially Asuka, who, despite her jokes, and outward appearance of a happy-go-lucky, carefree individual, ultimately shows us none of her true feelings and thoughts. Kaori, Haruka, and Aoi all appear to put up a friendly, happy front for everybody to see, but we know very little about what is happening underneath that mask, and by quitting, Aoi makes sure we never will.
Characters like Kumiko, who constantly speaks her mind, something that is arguably fairly rare in Japan even now, and Reina, an exceptional trumpet player who freely does her own thing without worrying about group dynamics further complicate matters. With Taki-Sensei introducing auditions to see who can compete in competitions, alongside gauging the general abilities of those in the club we have finally seen the façade begin to break, with anger, and resentment bubbling up and causing arguments within the club. With Kumiko and Reina taking their respective places in the band, thus overshadowing figures like Natsuki and Kaori, it is clear that seniority does not automatically mean one is better at an instrument. By introducing auditions, Taki-Sensei upsets the delicate balance that Asuka, Kaori, and Haruka have achieved within the club, resulting in this week’s arguments, and anger that has finally bubbled over. The resulting rumours and gossip surrounding Reina and Taki-Sensei’s relationship, alongside the brief, but fiery argument in the latest episode all serve to demonstrate how easily the façade of a harmonious club can crack and disappear. All of this serves to demonstrate how the comfortable, if somewhat unnatural image of a perfectly harmonious club is merely a veneer covering up the cracks and fissures along which various feelings and attitudes constantly change and shift.
This all serves to demonstrate the pressures faced by Japanese school students in their daily studies, and club activities, pressures that arguably follow them through their time in school, and possibly into the work place. To go back to an earlier comment, the central tension within Hibike Euphonium, as with many school focussed anime, and one that must be given serious consideration when exploring Japanese culture, is how to reconcile self-effacement with self-aggrandisement. All of these students want to succeed; this much is true given their preoccupation with the Inter-High Championships. But to succeed, which is what is expected of them, they must stop conforming and simply going through the motions of a club, but this very act would ultimately break the façade of a homogenous whole with a single unifying view of what makes a good concert band. At the same time, nobody really wants to stand out, and they wish to go through their high school years enjoying the time they spent with friends and other individuals who share their love, or interest in music.
This is the paradox at the heart of this, and many other school centric anime, and one that ultimately cannot really be answered. While Hazuki and Sapphire generally go along with the group, Kumiko has to deal with her own issues, realising that while she wants to succeed, she is also worried about hurting others in the process. By comparison, Reina simply wants to be as good at the trumpet as she can, and if that means pushing others to one side and standing out even when she isn’t supposed to, so be it. She is the series loner, the character that demonstrates what happens when you become a winner, and a true achiever in a society that discourages individual assertion. Ultimately, once we look beneath the façade of a carefree, and caring club, we are presented with a sea of feelings, thoughts, ideals, and desires, intertwined with one another. Such a seething mass of emotions and attitudes can only be kept in check because of the tatemae, the façade, yet, once somebody expressed their honne, their true feelings, such a façade can easily break, letting everything that has built up over the years loose.