Well, I suppose we’d better talk about that one scene in this week’s Euphonium.
I’ll get to the many wonderful scenes from episode ten of Euphonium next week in my power rankings. In short: it was an excellent episode with plenty of great moments for a large number of characters. This post, however, is going to focus on a single scene in the middle of the episode, both because of how that scene has dominated the online discussion since the episode aired and because of the place that scene occupies in the ongoing conversation about yuri and how anime handles homosexual relationships, or — more to the point — how it doesn’t handle them.
I’m referring, of course, to the scene where Reina confides in Kumiko that she loves Taki-sensei. It was a brief moment that didn’t really have much impact on the overall episode, but it was a world-shattering event for many viewers who were enjoying the show in large part because of the relationship dynamics between Kumiko and Reina. It didn’t completely ruin the show for me — I still think it’s a very good show — but it did put a bad taste in my mouth when watching the show and earlier that day when I first found out about it via Twitter, seeing the screenshots genuinely hurt a little bit. There were other people who were far more upset, and if you ask me their anger is mostly justified.
Let’s start with the functional reasons why that scene bothered me. In a show so full of elegant character writing and beautifully constructed personal moments between the cast members, this felt pretty sloppy. It wasn’t nearly as well constructed and executed as the rest of the show has been, and being sandwiched between several excellent scenes showing the band’s growing internal conflict did it no favors. After all the wonderful build up in other relationships in this show, Reina flatly declaring she loves Taki-sensei felt awkward and forced.
Normally a single, arguably poorly conceived, scene in an otherwise outstanding anime would just be a blip on the radar. But context matters and in the context of what had happened between Reina and Kumiko in the previous episodes — especially episode eight — this scene feels more pointed. It feels directed at that ship and those of us who supported it in a way that makes it feel a bit hurtful. To be clear, I never expected an explicitly romantic conclusion between Reina and Kumiko, and I don’t really believe anybody could have reasonably expected that. Romance was never the focus of this show. It was merely a side-show that complemented the band portion of the show and gave a more complete picture of the characters’ high school lives. Furthermore, I don’t think this moment actually precludes an eventual romantic end for those two. There’s no reason that Reina couldn’t have developed a crush on Taki-sensei when she first met him as a middle school student just hitting puberty and later developed romantic feelings for her best friend. That’s all possible.
Given all these facts: how brief the scene was, how romance is only a secondary focus of Euphonium and how ambiguous the scene overall was, it’s understandable that some people would question the backlash. Some of it has taken the form of idly wondering why people put so much emphasis on the yuri elements whereas others chose to question whether people upset about this were “real fans” of the show. I do agree with the questioning on some level. Why should one little line that might potentially represent an obstacle to a couple you personally like be such a big deal?
But the point here is not that this scene means Kumiko and Reina are doomed to never be romantically interested in each other, it’s that the people who originally wrote Euphonium and the people at KyoAni went out of their way to provide evidence that this isn’t the case. Rather than just leave it ambiguous and allow the viewers to reach their own conclusions they wanted to say “All that stuff in episode eight is well and good but Reina’s only openly confessed her feelings for Taki-sensei.” It’s a single line that in the larger context of the show happens to feel like a direct shot at the yuri shippers they baited in episode eight.
So we got baited by a handful of scenes between those two and then got shot down a little bit. What’s the big deal about that? Ships get shot down all the time! Why take this so personally? Again, I would point out that context matters and the problem is that this isn’t just one scene or one show but rather another example in the long pattern of homosexual relationships getting marginalized in anime. It’s not just Euphonium, it’s characters in Nanoha still insisting that Fate and Nanoha are just “best friends” when functionally they’re married at this point. It’s Yuyushiki resorting to oblique references and metaphors involving puzzle pieces instead of just admitting what’s obvious to anybody watching. It’s Midori’s subplot getting shoved to the side in favor of a traditional heterosexual childhood friend relationship in Tamako Love Story. And it’s every anime with homosexual undertones this side of Sakura Trick refusing to openly acknowledge that girls can have feelings for other girls and boys can have feelings for other boys. (All my examples are female/female examples because yuri and all girl slice of life are the genres I have more experience with. I’m sure there are male/male examples, but I just don’t have the experience there) Instead these anime partake in teasing and queerbaiting while also leaving enough room to play it safe and pretend those relationships don’t actually exist.
And I think “safe” is the operative word here. This isn’t necessarily driven by internalized homophobia or anything. Above all, avoiding any explicit mention of homosexual romance is just what’s safe in anime. I don’t think it’s fair to expect Euphonium or KyoAni or any one studio or show to solve all of these problems with one on-screen gay relationship. And in a vacuum it’s easy to see each individual decision to make all your characters straight or to avoid an actual homosexual romance as justified but when it adds up to a pattern of gay characters being ignored it’s becomes harder to stomach. And to be clear, I’m just some cishet guy who happens to have some affinity for yuri anime and manga. There are people far more affected by these choices than I am and that have far more right to be annoyed by this. What I’m trying to convey here is not my own righteous rage at the lack of “progressive anime” or tell anybody else that they’re obligated to be offended here lest they be labeled a Bad Person. I just wanted to try to explain that what happened in this week’s Euphonium isn’t “just one scene” and the trend it’s a part of is justifiably upsetting to a lot of us and we have a right to be annoyed by this without being derided for “missing the point” or not being real fans of the show.
So no, the anger and hurt that a lot of us felt over this scene was not just because we think girls kissing is hot and wanted to see that. There’s plenty of fan art if that’s what you’re looking for. Our reaction comes from wanting just for once to see a subtle and nuanced portrayal of a homosexual relationship in anime that isn’t specifically about such relationships. When a show like Euphonium offers the prospect of this and then pulls the rug out from under you two weeks later then of course you’ll be upset. All the scenes in previous episodes didn’t just happen by accident and to make a halfhearted attempt to backtrack now feels a little bit lazy and more than a little bit cowardly. So before you go off ridiculing people who are upset by this scene please try to understand that this isn’t “just another failed ship” to many of us. It represents the potential for something extremely special being taken away and regardless of how rational those expectations may have been, the feeling of being denied something you had hoped for is going to hurt a little.