Kumiko’s Indifference – A Hibike! Euphonium Analysis
After looking in-depth at Reina, it only makes sense to move to Kumiko next. Kumiko is Hibike’s true protagonist, and the only character whose thoughts we get to hear. I will say that there were several motifs and symbols that could be discussed when analyzing Kumiko, but (due to a gap between my understanding of these symbols and the cultural background of this story’s creators) I chose to focus on more universally understood details.
To no one’s surprise, we have to begin at the opening scene. We need to learn a history that leads into high-school-aged Kumiko. In middle school, Kumiko knows that the band set a goal to make Nationals, but she only puts one foot in the water. When the band gets dud gold, Kumiko has a moment of disappointment as she realizes they failed, only to hide from that feeling by shifting to her foot on dry land. Oh, we didn’t really stand a chance, so we can be proud of what we did accomplish, she thinks. She hides.
She is hiding from pain and passion. Reina’s reaction is everything that Kumiko hopes to avoid. Kumiko doesn’t want to cry or feel defeated because those feelings are scary. She won’t stay until the bitter end, she’d rather turn tail at the first sign of disappointment.
Enter high school. Within a minute, we learn that Kumiko cares about—or at least thinks fondly of—band. Well, we don’t, but upon analysis we do! Kumiko blows away a group of cherry blossom petals with a smile. We’ll see later that the ability to blow something away (or perhaps just breath control in general) is directly connected to playing in band. That this is the first real action the protagonist takes is important.
Right after that, we learn who Kumiko has become. She chooses her school based on something as superficial as the uniform, and wants a “fresh start.” Really, she wants to hide or escape from the past and from band. She is trying to hide in indifference. But she can’t. She sees the Kitauji band and waits expectantly, only to be devastated by how terrible they are. She can’t let it go, either. She thinks about it all morning, even to the point she mutters her shock aloud. This is a girl who cares about band. She hides in indifference, but she herself is not indifferent.
Remember how Reina focused only on being special, and became insensitive as a result? Kumiko winds up in a similar place because of her focus on indifference. Kumiko lives at a clear disconnect from everyone else. She’s not as brash as Reina, and typically regrets what she says immediately, but she does say some detached, rude things. For example: her leading and impolite question to Hazuki (who had been trying her hardest to be friends with Kumiko) about her having someone besides Kumiko to walk home with.
So, the distant, hiding Kumiko decides not to join band in high school. Or… maybe she will. Kumiko’s inner struggle is made apparent early on. On one hand, band reminds her of the frightful intensity of Reina and the pain of failing. Yet, at her core, Kumiko loves band and the euphonium. Her room is filled with music books, and her sheet music is packed with notes she scribbled to herself. The Kitauji band was stuck in her head all morning, and her middle school performance gets stuck in her head all night. In the end, Hazuki’s joy at making a noise with the mouthpiece convinces Kumiko to give band a shot.
However, she wants to drop the euphonium for a different instrument. I’d argue that (in addition to running away) this is another way to keep one foot out of the water, since she’d always have the excuse that she’s learning a new instrument if she fails. Fortunately for the story, Kumiko cannot escape her past (including Reina, Aoi, and Shuichi—all old bandmates and friends), so she winds up back on euphonium.
And we get some déjà vu. Taki crosses-out the goal to make Nationals, and Kumiko experiences the same kneejerk disappointment as when she got dud gold, almost matching her old facial expression. The subsequent band vote represents Kumiko’s inner conflict and her current resolution, which is to do nothing. Kumiko looks to Reina during the vote in an interesting display of foreshadowing, but ends up riding the way of indifference and abstaining from the vote.
Here’s the best example of blowing air/breath control being related to band. There were some instances earlier, but let’s just focus on Taki teaching the different sections. All of his exercises involve blowing air or improving breath control. Hibike establishes breath control as the foundation for playing well (excluding Midori and the percussion section, of course). Suddenly, Kumiko’s smile after blowing the petals away tells us a lot more.
Now that Kumiko is back in band and on euphonium, her conflict begins to pull towards a resolution. She’s clearly obsessed with Reina and how Reina committed herself to the middle school band, even going as far as to say that upsetting Reina made her “depressed.” Reina is the girl who could handle everything Kumiko couldn’t, after all.
When Kumiko finally speaks with Reina, she realizes she would “regret” not trying to fix the distance that was cut between them. She tries to read what’s on Reina’s mind, and even leaves behind a bit of her indifference by saying Reina’s trumpet was “inspiring.” Kumiko may not know it, but she and Reina are quite similar. This is almost a subconscious way of her trying to connect with Reina. They can both work hard, and then they’ll be connected in a way, right?
Well, that attempt at being honest and connecting with someone else starts to push Kumiko forward. She asks Natsuki to practice with the rest of the bass section when, before, she could only watch Natsuki sullenly. To be clear: Kumiko takes someone who is neglecting band in favor of staring off into the distance, and brings that person into a group with everyone else so that they can play music together. This is a new resolution for Kumiko. If everyone practices together, they can understand each other and all share responsibility for how the band performs. Keep in mind that Kumiko’s antagonist forces are her distance from those around her and an inability to deal with failure/overwhelming passion.
And, for now, that resolution seems to work. Upon seeing Hazuki struggle with the early steps of learning an instrument, she can sympathize based on her own experiences. As such, she can reach out and help Hazuki by playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with her. Hazuki’s drive is reignited and Kumiko feels connected to her bandmates.
Of course, the resolution breaks down almost immediately after. What happens if a band member drifts away from the rest of the band? What happens if the band turns against itself? Aoi’s eventual departure from the band leaves Kumiko distraught. Aoi quitting hits Kumiko all the harder on account of Aoi being her childhood friend. She runs after Aoi, only to hear that Aoi doesn’t feel she fits in with the rest of the band.
Maybe losing members that couldn’t share in the band’s success or failure wouldn’t be so bad, but Aoi’s departure cracks Haruka, as well. Kumiko finds that she can’t help Haruka the same way she helped Hazuki, and can only offer a dry apology.
So we come to the hike for a third time. It’s a pivotal scene for Reina and Kumiko so there’s really no avoiding it, but, luckily, we’ll be using a completely different perspective for this analysis. To be specific, we’ll focus on a change occurring within Kumiko. Throughout the hike, Kumiko asks questions to try to get to know Reina better, being that Reina is her obsession. To her surprise, she learns Reina isn’t fundamentally different from herself. Reina isn’t off doing crazy things all the time—she always has to return to “school tomorrow.”
Reina writes my essay in just a few words. She says that Kumiko puts on a dishonest exterior, hiding her “distant” true self. Believing she can understand everyone if the whole band works together, and hoping that she won’t feel pain if she’s part of the group: these are fantasies. She can’t communicate with Aoi or Haruka. Just as with Reina, Kumiko’s resolution is faulty, and it shows every time her comfort zone cracks.
With that in mind, Reina’s speech takes on a whole new meaning. Reina addresses everything Kumiko is concerned about. Kumiko can’t seem to “get close” to anyone, she rarely feels “the same as someone else.” Kumiko says she understands the “crazy feeling” Reina talks about.
Then, upon understanding, Kumiko does get close to Reina. Literally. Kumiko looks up at Reina and the two lights in the sky. She understands she can never be “the same as the others” because she’s fundamentally different. But, even if she’s distant from everyone else, she can still be close to someone—someone way up in the sky. Like Reina, Kumiko must accept herself to become special. Running away never gets you close to anyone because—well—you’re running away. Like Reina, Kumiko is okay with not being close to everyone, but she does need to be close to someone.
When Kumiko asks if playing an instrument can make Reina special, she’s asking for herself. She wants to believe in music and accept her own feelings. This is a realization of what she truly wants, and a more stable resolution for Kumiko. Or, it’s the start of a resolution. That resolution must be tested.
Right away, Hibike shoves another challenge at Kumiko. The drama over the trumpet solo chips another crack into the band’s unity, and is a conflict neither the fully indifferent Kumiko nor the group-focused Kumiko would be able to navigate happily. So, how does this resolution to be special stand up to the test? Can Kumiko find a connection to someone? Can she commit to something and be willing to go down with the ship? Let’s look.
Kumiko picks a side—a choice she could not have previously made, whether she hid in indifference or prayed for the band to remain an Eden. She bears her honest feelings to Reina. Being “influenced by others” is stupid, and Reina can’t give up on being special just because of a little pain. Running away is the mistake Kumiko made, and she can’t allow Reina to do the same. She’d—somewhat convincingly, based on later scenes—rather die than hide any more. Kumiko and Reina are connected in every sense of the word in this scene. Neither girl is alone any longer.
Sure, Kumiko is honestly connected to someone beyond a superficial level. Sure, the unity of the band can break apart for a time and Kumiko can still live a focused life in spite of that chasm. Can she handle serious adversity, though? Standing with Reina is one thing, but there was never a feeling of failure driving, or resulting from, this conflict over the solo (especially not for Kumiko). However, if success came easy, Kumiko would never have to run from pain. How tough can she be when proof that she just isn’t good enough is thrown in her face? That’s the real question.
Hazuki helps me feel like I know what I’m talking about by saying Kumiko used to be more “detached”, but has changed. When Kumiko reflects on whether she’s changed or not, all she knows for sure is that she is “completely possessed by a feverish desire to improve.” That sounds like she’s diving headfirst into the water. The new sequence the euphoniums have to play is obviously the battleground where that conviction will be tested. Kumiko marches into battle, telling Taki that “yes [she] can” learn to play that sequence.
And she loses. She fails. She can’t play well enough. Kumiko has to sit out for that sequence during practice, her failure being hung up in front of her. So, the question: can she face this failure and move forward, or does she give up and disconnect herself from her passion? As she walks home, she has no choice but to reflect on her failure and that question.
Kumiko does not try to distance herself. She cries and thinks over and over about her goal to improve. In fact, she doubles down (just like Reina would) and desires to be “better than everyone.” She could never be satisfied with falling short of her goal. She could never give up. She shouts to Shuichi: you think you want this as bad as I do, but I want it so much more. Failing hurts me so much that “I could die.” Kumiko is in Reina’s place now, that place she feared so badly in middle school. She’ll keep both feet in the water, even as it rises to her chin. Even as it pours down her cheeks.
For once, Kumiko doesn’t hide from her pain. She’s honest. She’s changed. She finally comes to this realization herself as she stares into the mirror and admits that she likes the euphonium. She’s at last honest and congruent. Kumiko is walking down the painful path of specialness. It is painful to be honest, and to accept your failures.
But there is a light at the end of that path. For Kumiko, honesty earns her close connections to those around her. For every tear she sheds because of passion’s pain, there is a smile she wears because of love’s joy. For every moment of failure, there is a moment of success. At the end of months of practicing, crying, and failing, she sits silent with her hands clenched. She awaits the fruits of all she’s endured. What is the result of these resolutions and changes? Perhaps specialness.