Queerness and the Power of “Subtext” in Sound! Euphonium & Liz and the Blue Bird

By: Misty Schultz April 26, 20190 Comments

Sound! Euphonium drew an audience of sapphic women due to the heavily implied romantic relationship between its two leads, Kumiko and Reina, but the show’s endgame saw them drifting apart as Reina confesses her love to an older male teacher and Kumiko becomes dedicated to her upperclassman friend Asuka.

The subtext between the characters has been enough for a small fandom to sustain itself for years, but the actual show ultimately failed to deliver. Years later, however, the spin-off film Liz and the Blue Bird, centered around side characters Nozomi and Mizore, provides audiences with the explicit queer representation many Euphonium viewers found themselves lacking.

Sound! Euphonium premiered in April 2015. Produced by Kyoto Animation, it exploded in popularity after a ship between the two female leads garnered attention online. The series is told through the eyes of Kumiko Oumae. A somewhat directionless young woman when we meet her, she is haunted by the final competition of her middle school band, when she unwittingly insulted a fellow classmate. The series follows her joining the newly rejuvenated concert band at her new high school and rekindling a connection with Reina Kousaka, the girl she drove to tears in middle school.

Even before any of their romantically coded interactions in the show itself, “Tutti!”, the ending theme for Euphonium’s first season, features a shot of Kumiko and Reina standing in a field, backs to each other, as a long red thread connects them. It’s the “red string of fate,” one of the most instantly recognized symbols of destined lovers.

Reina pointing to the red string tied to her pinkie finger

As the series progresses, the two girls grow closer and closer. The episode that put the show on the radar of many queer women was the eighth episode of the first season, during which Reina takes Kumiko up a mountain on a festival night, demanding that she bring her euphonium without providing an explanation.

The entire episode feels very romantic and dreamlike, almost as if pulled from a young adult novel – because it is. Unlike many anime adaptations, Euphonium is not based on a manga or light novel series, but on a trilogy of full-length novels. In a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a John Green tome, Reina waxes romantic about taking a train and running away, then directly tells Kumiko that she’s confessing her love.

“It’s like you put on a kind, good-girl face, but inside, you’re actually really distant. It makes me want to peel that good-girl skin off of you.”

Later, once the pair reaches the top of the mountain, Reina runs her finger down Kumiko’s lip while explaining her desire to “become special” as the two girls watch the city below. The song that they play as a duet in the same episode is titled, most appropriately, “The Place Where We Found Love.”

Reina in a white dress reaching out to touch Kumiko's forehead on top of a hill
This scene belongs in the Louvre.

Things do not remain so gay and happy for long, however. A few episodes later, in the midst of a band-wide scandal surrounding a fellow student accusing instructor Taki of favoritism, Reina explains to Kumiko the source of the rumors: Taki is a family friend she’s known since she was little.

More disconcerting than that, however, is that Reina has also been in love with him for years. Kumiko brushes this off, lightly teasing her, and all it seems to do in the big picture is provide context for why Reina is so personally invested in the auditions.

. . . Especially since, in the following episode, Kumiko and Reina share a moment during which Reina expresses some rarely shown doubt over whether or not she should try to beat out an upperclassman for the trumpet solo in the upcoming competition. Kumiko, characterized until this point as being equal parts passive and unintentionally blunt, tells her not to give up, reminding her of their basically-a-date on the mountain.

Reina staring at the ceiling with her hand to her forehead
In all her dramatic glory.

“You won’t abandon me?” Reina asks, holding Kumiko’s face in her hands, inches from her own, as the music swells and the camera shakes, echoing Kumiko’s heartbeat.

“I won’t,” Kumiko responds. “If I do, you can kill me.”

“I would actually kill you.”

“I know. This is a confession of love, after all.”

As the series is told through Kumiko’s viewpoint, the lighting and audio of several scenes reflect that. Specifically, it reflects her feelings for Reina and her complete lack of interest in men.

Reina holding Kumiko's face, the two of them an inch apart
Just gals being pals. This still was one of the promotional images for the episode, so make of that what you will.

The scenes she shares with her male childhood friend Shuichi have very flat and “normal” lighting, even in what might normally be construed as a romantic moment: the characters stand under a tree with cherry blossoms softly falling, but the background music is unremarkable, and the “camera” remains steady.

In stark contrast, the scenes with Reina are softly lit, almost ethereal in their presentation, with the “camera” shaking and soft music playing in the background. It is, quite possibly, the most accurate depiction of the lesbian experience I’ve seen on television, solely due to the way in which Kumiko views her environment.

I was drawn to the series because I had heard about the Kumiko/Reina relationship , and I quickly found myself identifying with anxious, lesbian-coded Kumiko–emphasis on coded. Not only is she romantically interested in Reina, but she is also decidedly uninterested in Shuichi, responding with “I guess” when asked if she thought the male band instructor Taki was attractive.

Kumiko sitting next to a male classmate on a train, her eyes closed as he tries to talk to her
The lesbian experience in a nutshell.

On the flip side of things, there is Kumiko’s quasi-love-interest Reina, who is often the “forward” one. The intent of these flirtatious actions (taking Kumiko up to a mountain, running a finger down her face, etc.) becomes muddled, however, with the revelation of her crush on Taki. It is easy for one to wonder if Reina is bisexual, then, or perhaps a lesbian struggling with compulsory heterosexuality by placing her hopes and feelings onto someone who can never reciprocate.

The show just barely scratches the surface with Reina, choosing to focus on her single-minded ambition rather than the effects that this drive has on her loved ones and herself, but there is just enough there to provide quite a bit of speculation material. After all, if you focus all of your energy into improving your craft, into pursuing an unattainable older man, perhaps you can push away your budding feelings for the girl in your class. Perhaps you can isolate yourself before society does it for you.

The first season ends on an optimistic note, with Kumiko and Reina’s hands intertwined as the band celebrates advancing to the next competition. However, Euphonium’s second season sees Reina thrown to the side, much to the dismay of many fans, as the less coherent season attempts to cram the content of two full-length novels into thirteen episodes.

Reina joyously hugging a surprised Kumiko

Kumiko’s focus shifts from Reina to various upperclassmen, namely senior euph Asuka Tanaka and her problems at home. (The second season is also viewers’ introduction to Liz and the Blue Bird’s Nozomi and Mizore, whose four-episode arc is often seen as a high point of the season.) Reina is still around, but she’s mostly there to act as a sounding board for Kumiko, a distant echo of what was once a brilliant show.

When the plot does return to Reina near the end of the season, the story is, simply speaking, a mess, not to mention a horrendous butchering of Reina’s character. She tells Kumiko that her motivation for playing the trumpet and “becoming special” is not centered around her own ambition after all; instead, she hopes to be “mature” enough for Taki to finally notice her.

What was originally an unfortunate but inconsequential character detail becomes her singular motivation, and as such turns a multi-faceted female character into someone who has built her entire life around a man.

Kumiko is not entirely spared from this treatment either. In the novels upon which Euphonium is based, she ends up with Shuichi after all, a plot point which left me devastated when I learned it. There are so few explicitly queer, non-fetishized women in anime; even rarer are characters who identify as lesbians.

Reina in profile, a cityscape at night in the background
I couldn’t think of a witty caption here. This scene is just too disappointing.

While the anime leaves their relationship more ambiguous and ends on a shot of Kumiko rejoining Reina after saying a tearful goodbye to Asuka, one can only wonder what comes next  (although viewers may not end up wondering for very long, as the Euphonium sequel film Finale Oath premieres in Japanese theatres in April).

Many fans’ original hopes of the anime going a different direction were not entirely unfounded. The anime deviated from the novels in its depiction of Kumiko and Shuichi’s relationship, seemingly determined to undermine any potential romantic moments between the two that existed in the source material.

One infamous scene in the novels features Taki giving Shuichi a flower hairpin that belonged to his dead wife so that Shuichi might give it to Kumiko. In the anime, Shuichi still gives her the pin, but not before mentioning that he bothered her friends by asking them her favorite flower, which is . . . decidedly less romantic than “belonged to a teacher’s dead wife.” But the promotional artwork for Finale Oath features Shuichi more prominently than the anime ever did, and fans are worried that the film will ignore Kumiko’s coded lesbianism in favor of the underdeveloped heterosexual relationship.

close-up of Nozomi and Mizori leaning in toward each other
They’re so . . . gentle with each other . . .

The 2018 spinoff film Liz and the Blue Bird, in stark contrast, centers itself around the relationship between Nozomi and Mizore, two side characters introduced in Euphonium’s second season. Softer than Euphonium in its presentation and decidedly zeroed-in on Nozomi and Mizore’s relationship, Liz feels like a coming-of-age lesbian indie film that would win some awards at Sundance. The story is extremely romantically coded – not only in the main characters’ interactions, but in the visual language and parallel narratives that surround them.

The fairytale (and song) that the film is named after follows two girls, Liz and the unnamed “blue girl,” who are more deliberately romantic than anything we’ve seen in Euphonium before. Not only do the characters openly confess their love to each other, but they share a bed, and Liz wishes for the mysterious blue girl to “stay by her side.”

Nozomi’s group of underclassmen carry on several side conversations throughout the film; one of these centers around one of the underclassmen going on dates with a boy to the aquarium to see the pufferfish. There is no doubt that this is intended as romantic. In the following scene, Mizore feeds the pufferfish in the school biology lab and mentions them to Nozomi, and so the parallels continue.

Pink triangles – reclaimed in the early 1970s as a symbol for the gay rights movement – are a prevalent recurring motif in the background of the film, never directly addressed but nearly always present. It should also be noted that there are no men presented as potential love interests in the film whatsoever.

a brightly colored tropical setting with a young woman and a blue-haired girl
The fairytale is a love story, plain and simple, and an obvious metaphor for the relationship between Nozomi and Mizore to boot.

While Euphonium is an ensemble series with several storylines, Liz is deeply intimate. Nozomi and Mizore are the center of the film, its life force. To see a relationship between two girls at the very forefront of a movie like this, unmarred by tragedy or heartbreaking drama (though make no mistake, this is a very emotional film) was something special.

Kumiko and Reina themselves, ironically, play a part in Liz’s emotional climax, performing a duet of the titular song to remind the leads of the bond and emotion they’re missing. In something of a role switch, Reina involves herself much more directly in the film’s plot, her steadfast determination to her craft and intentionally cold demeanor serving as a foil to the shy and uncertain Mizore.

Kumiko, meanwhile, has exactly one line at the end of the film, but she is present in the background, reminding the audience that while this is her universe, this is not her story. It is someone else’s, and they’re allowed to be much more visibly queer.

While the ending of Liz is bittersweet, there is no doubt that Nozomi and Mizore’s bond goes beyond platonic friendship. Their relationship is not only as explicitly romantic as it can get without a kiss, but it is also the driving force behind the film itself.

That doesn’t stop straight critics – and even the marketing team behind the American release – from branding the film as a tale of “intense friendship.” The Hollywood Reporter starts off their review by calling Nozomi and Mizore “two music-playing besties” – later, they refer to the relationship between the characters as “one of subtle rivalry and platonic longing.” The blurb on the back of the Liz Blu-Ray tells the same story, beginning with “Students and best friends Mizore Yoroizuka and Nozomi Kasaki.”

Nozomi and Mizore hugging one another
The tenderness in this film nearly brought me to tears the first time I saw it.

One of the only reviewers to acknowledge the romance in Liz is Anime News Network – all the other “mainstream” reviews (Hollywood Reporter, IGN) refer to it as a tale of platonic friendship.

The question, then, is does the rep “count” – and I would say that it does. There will always be those who deny queer subtext – or simply text, as is the case with Liz – but the romance between Nozomi and Mizore is the beating heart of the film. To ignore it is to ignore Liz as a piece of art. Euphonium was able to get away with burying its Kumiko/Reina relationship in the second season by covering it with unrelated band drama. Liz would be nothing without Nozomi and Mizore’s love story.

Sound! Euphonium’s ending was unsatisfactory to many sapphic women – especially lesbians – who hoped for representation in the form of Kumiko and Reina. Liz and the Blue Bird manages to rectify this somewhat, with a gentle love story between two girls at its very center.

There could be hundreds of reasons behind this – the relative “safety” of movies requiring audiences to only see them once compared to television series, where the success relies on audience members returning week after week; or director Naoko Yamada’s steadfast artistic direction; or anything else. But the fact stands that Liz is a love story (regardless of what straight reviewers say), one that I dearly hope sets the bar higher for LGBTQ+ representation – particularly that of queer women – in anime.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited after publication to clarify wording.

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