What I’ll talk about here has already been covered very well by other authors and sumarized quite succinctly in some quite biting memes, so I’ll be somewhat brief about my feelings on Hibike! Euphonium and what its decision to queer bait the audience meant to me.
I think Kyoto Animation is for sure one of the best animation studios in the world today. Even when they make work far below their usual standard, it’s still mediocre at worst. To call them the Pixar of anime is probably only a slight exaggeration. Have they even made a genuinely bad show? I don’t know.
My problem with Hibike! Euphonium lies in the fact that it is NOT a subpar show in any way. It was well-written, filled with memorable characters with interesting characters arcs, and it was beautiful, with gorgeous artwork complimenting the lovely music (both in the OST and in the show itself).
A show about teenagers trying to prove themselves and turn their brass band into one of the best in the nation… it’s basically just a sports anime. The plot never deviates from that, to be honest. But the character work is so strong that it blasts past anything like that! It had me genuinely hooked.
But then the show went and set up one of the best queer romance subplots this side of Madoka Magica, which of course turned me into a huge fan. Kumiko and Reina became one of the few couples in a fictional story to turn me into a giddy schoolgirl shipper.
The entire show, from the ending theme where the red string of fate was literally tied around their fingers, to the budding moments of connection that climaxed with one of the most romantic moments I’ve ever seen in anime, Kumiko and Reina’s relationship was built up excellently.
Take this scene from Episode 8 that is done with extreme romantic intensity:
All culminating with the shot that launched a thousand ships:
Kumiko and Reina’s romance was a classic formula for a great romantic subplot in a show otherwise focused on something else. The characters bonded outside of the main plot, fell for each other, and used their romantic bond to support each other in their character arcs. The entire rest of the season is essentially dedicated to Kumiko supporting her new girlfriend in her pursuit to become the best, even as bandmates begin to hate her. It was great stuff…
….Then it turned out to all be fake because actually the two characters liked boys or whatever. Near the end of season 1, Reina confesses her love for her male teacher. That’s real weird already because teacher-student romance stuff ew gross, but it’s much weirder that it comes out of nowhere, has no relevance, and obliterates the romance they had been building for ages.
It’s not like I was just reading too much into the subtext, either. It was genuinely, clearly, obviously the path that Kyoto Animation chose when they created this show. They baited viewers into supporting this relationship which was explicitly romantic, and then went hetero with it because that’s just the way it’s Supposed to go in Japan.
I was in firm denial about it though. So what if Reina likes her teacher? Some people have feelings for multiple people at once and teenagers are notoriously complicated creatures. So what if the novels this show adapted ended up with Kumiko in a heterosexual relationship? Animes can change things.
I even wrote a one-shot fan fiction desperately wishing for this stuff to all blow over like I wanted, titled “Sound! Valentine.” It’s one of the very few fan fictions I have ever written that is not a parody, and looking back at it, it’s wish fulfillment denial of the highest degree.
So when season 2 came out and Kumiko and Reina were STILL in a super obvious romance plot, but still pushing this “hot for teacher” nonsense alongside it, it really just started making me sick to my stomach every episode.
The story was advancing, and as far as I knew it wasn’t deviating much from the novels that already revealed the gay stuff to be mere bait. It was stressful not knowing for sure if the romance plot I had become strangely invested in was going to fall apart in favor of vanilla boy romance stuff.
It was about halfway through the season when I realized I wasn’t having a good time anymore. The characters were good, the romance was cute, and the visuals and music were fantastic… But I didn’t enjoy any of it. I just couldn’t.
The romance stuff was no longer making me giddy, just anxious. Every episode further I reached, the possibility of Kumiko and Reina’s relationship being a ruse grew stronger. I had to stop watching the show for good just because it was an ordeal just to get through a single episode. And to this day I still haven’t finished the second season, let alone the rest.
I know from looking it up later that the sequel movie and all of that goes full-on heterosexual and eschews everything that the first season had been building towards. It really was just bait. A cynical marketing move to drive merchandise sales. And it worked.
Every time I think about the show I get genuinely angry about the entire ordeal. How can a company with such a solid track record as Kyoto Animation indulge in such gross tactics? How is this at all acceptable? Unlike my complaints about Fire Emblem’s token gay silliness, this isn’t just a minor annoyance. This is enough of a big deal that it’s stuck with me for years and years.
One day maybe I’ll finish the series and there’ll be enough distance for my anxiety to have faded. But I will never forgive Kyoto Animation for what they did. Maybe that’s a bit of a hyperbole for a stupid cartoon for teenagers, but hey, nations have fought wars over less.
In fact, the swirling emotions of anger and anxiety over Hibike! Euphonium eventually made me decide that I would make a lesbian romance story one day that would essentially remake the entire Kumiko/Reina dynamic but do it way better because I’m not a hack who queer baits for money. One day that will exist. But for now, we can reminisce about the time we almost had a really nice romance story and how it was all a cynical calculating lie.