Otaku Queer: Kumiko Oumae & Reina Kousaka

As I write this, the second season of Sound! Euphonium is airing, and I highly recommend you catch up with season one. It's one of the best anime I have seen in a decade, exploring the intense emotions that come from following your art or craft when society doesn't deem it as meaningful, but it has a massive flaw completely unrelated to the show itself. If you want to talk about Sound, just don't. You will be bombarded with some of the worst discourse imaginable. This is what brings the show to Otaku Queer, as the leads of the series, Kumiko and Reina, are definitely queer characters. They're also the subject to some of the nastiest arguing in the anime watching community in the west.

See, Kumiko and Reina are two girls in love with each other.

And they're bi.

If you don't tangle with the discourse often, welcome to Hell, I'll be your guide.

Before we jump into this, let me explain that this mess stems mainly from an anxiety caused by lesbian erasure in Japanese culture. There's this belief that lesbianism is just a phase of youth, that it's a way for girls to explore sexuality safely before becoming proper wives in adulthood. Even lesbian fiction reflected these ideals for a long time, filled with tragic endings for every single couple. I've explained this more in depth elsewhere, but the long and short is that the constant erasure of lesbian identity in a lot of Japanese genre fiction that makes its way into anime has caused queer circles to get a bit on edge whenever lesbian characters appear in a non-yuri work. It's justified too. Just look at Fire Emblem Fates, which included a plot line where you cure a woman of her queer sexuality via slipping her drugs. Incidentally, that was the last time I remember anyone mentioning a character could be bisexual, though the people saying it were trying to gaslight a real life transwoman who criticized this horrific plot line because videogames.

Yes, I am going to be bitter this article.

Sound! Euphonium attracted a lot of attention because of how it started to pair up Kumiko and Reina halfway through the first season, which I've heard never happened in the original light novels, but I would take that with a grain of salt because of how toxic talk around this franchise is. The show was very, very blatant about it too, what with all the constant innuendo, mesmerized stares, and even both of them making confessions of love. But the usual homophobic crowd started popping up, trying to erase the obvious chemistry, with their only actual not complete failure argument being that Reina was attracted to Taki, the music teacher. There were also stirrings that Kumiko was destined to get with a childhood friend named Shuichi, and then all discussion of this show became forever horrible and awful.

So, there are effectively two warring sides of this show's most rabid fans. One side is homophobic and refuses to accept that maybe the two anime girls they have become attracted to are into girls and not just guys, and the other are queer circles worried that the series is queerbating the audience and will erase the relationship in the name of heteronormality. This is sadly understandable, because KyoAni (Kyoto Animation) has a habit of doing this. The screaming homophobes are not helping the situation.

But you may have noticed nobody is saying the incredibly obvious thing. Nobody is going, hey, maybe they're bi. Reina definitely is, and I can read Kumiko as that from a few exchanges with Shuichi, where something is there but not at the same level as with Reina (on a side note, I read Reina as ace as well). To think, if we just agreed one or two of them were bisexual, maybe people could just bloody enjoy the amazing character drama without having to engage with this poisoned debate.

This is all incredibly frustrating to me, because what neither side seems to get is that they
are both erasing bisexuality entirely. It never occurs to the majority of these people that it's not just about winning some representation war, that characters can have more than the two “main” sexualities. I'm bisexual myself, and a major issue we have to deal with is erasure of our sexual identity. Gay circles accuse of of being traitors or just gay, depending on our main preference, and strait people just don't believe bisexuality exists at all and is just apart of sexual experimentation.

Nobody EVER bothers suggesting that a character in an anime or manga may be bisexual. There's always a creeping fear that a presented queer character is going to turn out to be straight as some twist or tragic development that bisexuality never comes up. Hell, it barely comes up in canon, outside cartoon stereotypes. We're almost always some sort of predator or deviant. Milly, who I discussed earlier, was a rare exception, and even she fell into that depraved pervert archetype in many respects.

When an actual example of a bisexual character does appear that doesn't involve wild flailing of the arms and the screaming of “I'M INTO GUYS AND GIRLS,” nobody ever seems to read the character that way. Just look at Himeko, who was apart of a series sold as a yuri, but showed attraction to both boys and girls. This never comes up whenever Kannazuki no Miko is talked about. Most genre works erase bisexuality because they use outdated tropes, but Sound is a bizarre exception. It's a drama work that doesn't care about genre or tropes. It's about exploring a real subject with layered characters, even making the more exaggerated anime comedy still feel very human and relatable. There's a huge lack of samey archetypes flying around.

This show should be allowed to explore sexuality the way it deserves to be explored, and it does. It's filled with complicated emotion and a mixture of words and body language. Relationships become layered and more than just will they or won't they. Kumiko and Reina are clearly attracted to each other, but not just because they find each other attractive. They have conversations filled with multiple meanings, and they react to each other in ways they never do around anyone else. The same can be said for a ton of the cast, with the most interesting character arguably being the self-focused Asuka. She goes far beyond her supposed playful archetype and reveals herself to be someone far more selfish and even heartless at times, but ultimately with purpose. These characters feel like real people, even the most minor, and they're all explored in interesting ways.

But heaven forbid the show dare explore bisexual characters! I once heard an argument that this isn't realistic bisexual representation, and which point I have to ask; WHAT THE FUCK IS!? I have never felt more personally insulted by the discourse of any piece of media as much as this one. The sheer volume of awful opinions and offensive, ignorant takes drives me up a wall. Sound! Euphonium is a show that deserves a much better audience than what it has, and while I understand how we got here, I think it's time to stop with the bitching about queerbaiting.

I'd suggest reading this interview with series director Naoko Yamada, who goes a bit more into the complicated feelings she tried to portray between Kumiko and Reina. I really appreciate how much thought Yamada put into this series, and I was interested that she doesn't see the show as “yuri” but something capturing the feelings of adolescence. The relationship she helps portray is a complex one. There's definitely love there, and a lot more than that. She doesn't care about genre conventions, but what fits the characters and themes best. She's something I want to try becoming as a writer, someone who can knit rich tapestries as stories. I like my simple stuff, but we can always do more and go further in our stories, and Sound! Euphonium is a series that understands that in its complex character work. Writing queer characters is more than just cementing their sexuality. They're people too. They can't be so easily defined in simple terms once you start to understand their headspace. I'd like if we'd remember that. I always scoff at people who argue against certain kinds of representation, but even I have to say that we need to remember that representation isn't the end goal. It's a means to an end or normalizing marginalized groups. Sound Euphonium is a show that actually successfully does that with these two characters, and it should be examined more for how it handles that, not with endless screeching about queerbaiting and how homophobes react to it.


  1. This was a great read. I didn't realize there was such an argument going on about this show. Bisexuality is something I don't see discussed much either.


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