Sound! Euphonium could very well be one of my new favorite anime shows of all time. Not only does it have Kyoto Animation, one of my favorite animation studios, bringing its usual high standards of quality to the table, but it also features a topic that is personally very nostalgic to me: the school concert band. I played alto saxophone from late elementary school all the way through college, and that time has given me some of my best memories of my school life, in part because of how much music means to me. And among other things, Sound! Euphonium is absolutely nailing the high school concert band experience, especially as it explores the different motivations (or lack thereof) of the various characters for being in the band.
As for what are the “other things” this show is nailing, one is definitely the character relationships, particularly between protagonist Kumiko, a euphonium player, and Reina, a trumpet player and bandmate from middle school that has inexplicably followed Kumiko into a high school with a low-reputation band, despite Reina herself being one of the most passionate people about the band that Kumiko has met. In the opening scene, we see her crying after their middle school regional performance, because they failed to make nationals even though they earned the gold award. It’s at this moment that Kumiko said something rather insensitive to her, asking her if she seriously thought their band would actually make nationals. While Kumiko does not feel like what she said was wrong, she does realize that it probably burned a relational bridge between the two, something that comes back to haunt her when the two end up in the same band again in high school. It’s a very different sort of relational dynamic than just your normal estranged friends or two people who dislike each other but have to put up with each other for the team’s sake.
A good portion of the rest of the show involves Kumiko trying to make things up with Reina somehow, with some surprising moments throughout. First of all, it seems like Reina did not take Kumiko’s words back then as badly as Kumiko worried that she did. Overall, it seems that the bridge between the two was not really burned, with only Kumiko’s own worries making it look that way. All this leads up to episode 8, when Kumiko ends up going to a summer festival with Reina for reasons… which ends up turning into what can only be called a divine encounter. Be warned that there are spoilers after the jump—not particularly heavy ones, but still significant enough to point out—so if you have not seen episode 8 yet, you may want to catch up before continuing.
But if you are ready, continue on to take a look at just how subtly powerful Kumiko’s meeting with Reina was that evening… and how similar it is to a Christian’s encounter with God.
The scene starts off with Kumiko, euphonium in tow, meeting Reina at a shrine away from the actual festival location. Upon seeing Reina, Kumiko is quite taken by how beautiful she looks in her white dress (see the picture above). As Reina asks Kumiko to follow her, Kumiko’s thoughts provide a poignant summary of what this whole encounter will be to her:
“This must be how it feels to lose your life, drawn to a beautiful thing despite your fears.”
I could spend an entire blog post unpacking this sentence alone, with how perfectly it encapsulates what it means to become a Christian and follow God. There are three parts of this sentence that correspond to three different aspects of a divine, life-changing encounter, either with the one true God or with a normal human that opens up a whole new world to you somehow.
The first aspect is fear. This is more than just a base fear of endangerment to one’s life: it is an overwhelming respect for someone far greater than you, who you definitely do not want to be on the wrong side of. Kumiko definitely fears Reina, which is the reason why she was so worried about what she said to her before; she knows Reina is far more skilled at her instrument than she is and is far more passionate about making it to nationals. As for Christians, throughout the Bible, we are told to “fear the Lord”, again not out of cowardice but out of immense respect. In particular, we should feel the true gravity of our sins, and realize that, outside of God’s grace, we fully deserve the eternal damnation coming for us because we wronged such a powerful God.
The second aspect is beauty. Kumiko definitely finds Reina beautiful, not just physically but also out of her admiration for her passion for the band. The scenery atop the small mountain they climb of the festival lights definitely adds to the beauty of the whole encounter for Reina. Likewise, as much as Christians fear God, we are also in complete awe over His beauty. Whether that beauty is represented in His power over our lives, His incredible love, or even the physical beauty of His works of creation, we find ourselves drawn to Him and His beauty, despite our fears.
And then there is the final aspect: losing our life. Obviously this is not referring to physical death, but rather, the idea of dying to yourself: the realization that if you follow, you will have to give up everything you thought made up who you are, and take on a new identity because of that encounter. There is a sense that what lies afterwards is a very good thing—the famous verses of Matthew 16:24-25 are all about how denying ourselves and losing our lives are how we will ultimately find true life—but it is a scary prospect nonetheless, and part of the reason for our fear, but also part of the beauty of that encounter.
Of course, there is far more to Kumiko’s encounter with Reina than just following her up that mountain. Along the way, Reina reveals her own motivations regarding the band and also what she really thinks of Kumiko. And during the rest of this scene, three more aspects of a divine encounter come up.
First, there is grace. During the walk up the mountain, Reina finally tells Kumiko just what she thought of those words she said to her back then. Yes, they were cruel and insensitive, and indicative of a rather terrible personality. But at the same time, that intrigued Reina, as she realized that Kumiko was not just your ordinary “nice girl” and that, underneath her innocent appearance was a genuine, albeit genuinely sinful, person. This in turn has made Reina interested in getting to know the real Kumiko, in all of her terribleness. She calls it a declaration of her love for her, and whether or not that is to be taken in a romantic sense (which is another matter entirely), it is clear that Reina not only accepts Kumiko for who she really is, but she wants to know and accept all of who Kumiko really is. This is very much like what God’s grace is like: He not only accepts all of our sinfulness, but He wants to expose all of our sinfulness, including that which we think we are hiding or do not know about, to Him so that he can apply His grace and love to all of ourselves.
Up at the top of the mountain, when Reina reveals her own motivations for playing the trumpet, we find another aspect of the divine encounter: holiness. Reina never wanted to be like everyone else, and wanted to be special: to stand out and be set apart from the masses. That is why she picked the trumpet: out of all the instruments in a band, the trumpet is arguably the one that stands out the most during a performance musically. And the idea of being “set apart” is the very definition of “holiness”. A major part of the beauty of God is the fact that He is a completely higher existence compared to that of our sinful world. And part of the reason we fear God is the realization that our unholiness—our sinfulness—has no place near God’s holiness, because that holiness would completely overwhelm our sinfulness and cause us to perish. There is a reason why, in the Old Testament, only priests who have gone through very specific purification rituals could even think to enter the Most Holy Place deep inside the Temple. For modern Christians, Jesus’s death and resurrection makes it possible for sinful people like us to encounter God and live to tell the tale, as Jesus’s death serves as the required purification ritual for us. Nevertheless, God’s holiness is another major part of a divine encounter.
And finally, at the end of the encounter, we have relationship. Reina did not invite Kumiko up that mountain just to get things off her chest. She asks if Kumiko understands her. She implores Kumiko to call her by her given name, rather than her surname Kousaka—something only very intimate friends do in Japanese culture. And at the end, she gets Kumiko to play a song with her on that mountaintop—a song from their past that represents both where they came from and the new future that is ahead of them. She is not just telling Kumiko that she wants to be special; she is inviting Kumiko to be special with her. Likewise, a true divine encounter with God does not end with walking away and going about our lives just by ourselves like before; it involves entering into an intimate, personal relationship with God that continues long after that encounter is over, presenting us the opportunity to enter into the same holiness that God Himself has.
At this point, though, I must emphasize that while I have likened the encounter between Kumiko and Reina to a Christian’s encounter with the Divine, by no means do I consider Reina herself divine. In the end, Reina is just an ordinary girl with a bit of an ego, some occasional whimsies and perhaps a weird taste in girls. If anything is divine about this encounter in Sound! Euphonium, they are the ideals that Reina displays in that encounter. Fear, beauty, losing your life, grace, holiness, and relationship: these are all important parts of a Christian’s encounter with God, and they were all captured in a meeting of two girls on a mountain overlooking a festival. And like a divine encounter, Kumiko comes out of this whole experience changed, something others mention to her in episode 9.
I have to give credit in just how this whole scene was executed, with just as much said in body movements and subtext as was said in the dialogue itself. All the seemingly-irrelevant banter between the girls, and the looks at each other and breakouts into sudden laughter, combined with the beautiful backgrounds and music, make the entire scene feel like a divine encounter, rather than it just being able to be analyzed as such. It is all a testament to the power of anime in bringing the truths of God to life, even unintentionally. If you have not already, I definitely recommend checking out Sound! Euphonium: it is easily one of the best shows I have seen. And I also hope that this post helps you understand just what it means to encounter God, because for Christians, divine encounters are not limited to when we first enter the faith; they are a daily part of our lives.