Ensemble in the Background – A Hibike! Euphonium Analysis
With the announcement of a second season, I decided to return to Hibike! Euphonium essays early. An aspect of Hibike! that is often mentioned in passing, but rarely truly appreciated is the ‘ensemble’ cast of the background characters. The physical setting of the world is beautified by stunning backdrops, but the social setting is dressed with equally vibrant feathers. Kitauji’s band is not a ghost town.
Now, Hibike! doesn’t have an ensemble cast. The story is told from Kumiko’s perspective and she clearly dominates the screentime. However, the background characters (namely everyone populating the band) aren’t simply stamped with the ‘everyone else’ role. They have (relatively) unique character designs, a specific instrument that they play, and a personality they always abide by. The band is alive, and all the background characters form a sub-level ensemble where they all seem to matter more than background characters typically do.
Take Knuckles, for example. He has maybe a minute of screentime the entire show, but he has a nickname! He’s the percussion section leader, and he loves playing percussion. We hardly get to see him, but I can say (perhaps with more certainty than I can say anything else about this show) that Knuckles loves percussion. He hypes his section up when introducing it to the first years. He also always carries around a towel, presumably because he plays so intensely that he needs to wipe his sweat. He’s always ready to give his all.
To give him even more flavor, he’s the only boy in a section full of girls—some of whom seem to interact with him like a married couple. I won’t beat around the bush: the guy has a harem. We hardly see him, yet anyone could write a convincing Knuckles fanfic and it’d probably be entertaining. This isn’t even stretching the details—his character is so clearly defined through his few lines of dialogue and the way he acts in the background that we know who he is.
Knuckles isn’t just an extreme example either. Admittedly, I don’t know her name, but there is this girl with the drills. She’s a part of the brass, and a bit rebellious and pompous. Her drills certainly help give off the impression of arrogance, but she’s also the first one to speak when another member returns from spying on the section leaders meeting. She seems to be a bit a secondary leader of the trombones, if only by seniority (her green ribbon lets us know she’s a third-year).
Later shots let us know she’s rebellious against Taki because she takes her playing seriously. Her focus before the band performs for the privilege to play in SunFes is an indication that she doesn’t want to fail. In her words, “[the band] can’t back down” and must make sure Taki has no reason to complain about their performance. Maybe these quick shots and lines aren’t quite convincing, but when we take into account the history of the band—particularly the drama concerning the current second-years—we know a third-year member that took band seriously would be frustrated with underperforming last year.
Speaking of drama, that’s the biggest reason the band comes to life. Band drama—both past and present—does a lot to create an authentic high school setting, as well as attribute emotion and desire to characters who would otherwise be blank slates. The drama of the past (all the hard-working second-years leaving) lets us know there’s a sweeping laziness in the band, and that the band is divided into those who disdain hard work and those who have been forced to ride the waves of this lazy band.
Current drama, such as Taki’s supposed preference for Reina, creates emotion and stakes for characters who don’t actually voice an opinion. We know a large portion of the band thinks their relationship calls for a re-audition, so a tension is weaved through the social background of the show. These aren’t anonymous figures, they’re band members who are condemning one of the protagonists.
This girl you always see playing the bassoon—she and her best friend with the blue hair think Reina’s connection to Taki interfered with the auditions, or they’ve been convinced enough by the social atmosphere of the band to support a re-audition.
Upon hearing Reina play, however, they’re impressed and recognize that Reina is talented.
Again, none of this is explicitly stated, but I’m not stretching the interpretation. These shots convey emotions clearly, and our understanding of the social structure of the band supports these conclusions. That’s the true strength of painting these band members with drama and tension. Think of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian story where large focus is placed on world-building, and, as a result, the world becomes an antagonist character itself despite not being able to take action.
By creating distinguishable, consistent background characters and using them as a collective antagonist force, Hibike! births a living environment that acts independently of the main cast. A narrative is attributed to scores of characters who aren’t actually having their story told. We may find one of them cuter than the others, or admire their personality (or their harem?), or like them simply because they play a certain instrument. This collective cast has a backstory, and they have opinions. They’re all living their high school lives.