This will be a very long review (I dare to call it an essay!), and while it may not exactly contain spoilers, I have included 'hints' which one may wish to look out for in watching this anime.
Personally, out of all the other studios, I find myself following and noticing trends in Kyoani's releases the most. After all, while the moe wave was not (exactly) started by them, K-On contributed hugely to it, and from there, I found myself observing how Kyoani seems to have very acute marketing tendencies - they would just somehow hit the demographics right, appealing to various clusters of viewers while still producing what are basically decent anime.
I was not expecting very much from Hibike! Euphonium at all. After all, its resemblances to K-On are pretty eerie, and not being a great fan of how K-On turned out, I was not anticipating much out of this either. Still, I decided that I would give it a try - such is my inclination towards music.
It was only after I finished watching the whole series that I discovered something that pretty much explained why I felt Hibike was so successful. Just like one of Kyoani's previous works, Hyouka, Hibike is an adaptation of a novel. In my opinion, the novel as a medium presents a view quite distinct from that of the manga and the light novel. Mangas and Light novels are by no means simple or immature, in case you misunderstand, but the target audience and marketing intention behind those two mediums as opposed to the novel is quite different. I would argue that the novel is in general less geared towards entertainment than it is towards art. As such, the novel as a medium gives the studio a better base to build their anime upon - for its style and language offers a different perspective and vision to those reading it as opposed to other forms of media.
In this respect, the first important feature of Hibike that sets it apart from many other anime is its focus on the music itself. I played in a Jazz Band during my high school years, so I do have some experience in the field, albeit in a different context. Either way, I found that some of the scenes portrayed in the music room were indeed real - although dramatized. Furthermore, as a musical anime, Hibike actually shows the band playing music, with both individuals and the collective struggling to 'find their sound.' Even more impressive is the level of detail in the performances; I think that for a skilled player to play badly on purpose is difficult. Yet when the band plays badly, it is obvious enough to tell who went wrong. The pieces themselves were indeed impressive - every time that trumpet solo played, I would feel myself tingle, going, "My goodness that is indeed a beautiful solo." That the studio would even go so far as to get the fingerings and etc correct for each instrument is impressive.
One indisputable thing about Kyoani is their art. They have always been famous for taking actual scenes in real life and casting them into the anime mould - and with such detail and precision! I could even recognize some Kyoto scenes from the images in the anime itself! The studio has taken realism in anime to another level in this sense. Yet I couldn't help but feel that this was the best I'd seen from Kyoani just yet.
The story itself is nothing very complicated. In fact, it is precisely because it is not complicated that it relays what it should be about: music, and the things that stem from people trying to get that music together. As such, certain plot developments were not entirely unexpected (meaning that some others were, of course :P). In speaking about Slice of Life anime though, I find it crucial to speak about characters in relation to the plot - for it is the characters and their reactions that drive the plot forward. Yes, the characters have the typical cute Kyoani design, but none of them are moeblobs, or 'useless,' in the broad sense of the word.
The protagonist of the story, Kumiko, is arguably nothing very special. I didn't expect very much from her. I perceive her as sometimes being more of the sort that 'just wants things to go by smoothly,' even if she does not give such a strong vibe of that sentiment. This begins to change once she starts coming into contact with all the different personalities of the band. This is Hibike's greatest strength: for with such a diverse cast of characters, I find that they have fleshed out a large number of them very well, such that the events and drama between each one actually has effects on the others. What is more amazing is that each one of them is actually very unique in their own right; just like how we humans are in real life. We all react to situations differently, and Hibike's characters are no different. For example, I find that contrasting the attitudes of 'Ribbon girl' with Asuka-senpai would be one combination where the viewer can see two highly contrasting attitudes to a situation. For me to list out all the combinations and characters would be impossible, for that is precisely how much development and thought has gone into many of them.
Life is a magical thing, and Hibike has shown that to be true. For only certain moments can be deemed magical in order for them to stand out and make a deep impressions upon us. While most of our lives may come across as mundane, there are times we reflect upon in great wonder, having been enchanted by the atmosphere of the moment. There are such moments in Hibike, the most prominent of these being the development of the relationship between Kumiko and the mysterious Reina. Amongst all the characters in Hibike, Reina is the one I find most enchanting, for she is so distanced from everything else. Yet when she finally gets close to Kumiko, even i was left mesmerised by her entire being - such was the beauty of that scene and moment that I replayed it many times - for it was then that the novel's art reveals itself through in the monologues of Kumiko's mind and later the exchange between the two. For there is a depth and grace surrounding Reina that is an indescribable inspiration - and that portrayal is undoubtedly the product of Kyoani's vision. Yet in the episodes thereafter, that magic did not last - exactly like what life is, for nothing that's good can last; we can only hope to continue developing it slowly and cherishing what we were honoured to have.
Hibike is however, by no means a show drowned in unreachable sentiments. There's definitely plenty, but it has many other elements in it as well that constitute the various aspects of school life. One example would be the hints and touches of vague romance within it, for I find that any anime not focused on romance yet display it are some of the sweetest that there can be - and trust me, there are plenty here. It leaves one guessing - but love comes in many forms, and it is our decision as to how we wish to perceive it. For romance to be a feature in an anime focusing on high school life is nothing surprising - but it is merely a part, even if it could be a big one. I would challenge all potential viewers to not dig too deep onto the romance portion of this anime, even if it is so tempting and inviting.
Such are slice of life animes. They aim at portraying the world to us viewers in a certain manner and form that is familiar to us, yet they are filled with more drama and sentiment than our lives would typically be - because that's how we are entertained. I believe that Kyoani has attained a certain peak with this anime that have not seen in a while. In all the studio's attention to detail is the creation of an anime that while simple - is art in itself. For it has been executed so well that I felt myself vicariously going through much of what the characters did. Again I cannot help but make it clear that this is nothing like K-On; here, I felt that Kyoani decided to get serious. They were fully intent on creating something great, something worthy of the lives that we live and aspire to live, even if we may not be successful in doing so. In the process, it has shown that there are no means more suitable than through the expression of music - as each note rings in this anime, be it from an individual character, or when bonds are made between groups, I find it hard to feel otherwise, for even it made me want 'to be something special.'
Full kudos to Kyoani on what I think is their best anime so far in a while, for it is the culmination of the ideals I feel they had been looking to achieve. Through adapting a novel with an excellent foundation, Kyoani's Hibike surpassed all my expectations, and while it is not a true masterpiece, I don't know how else to rate this series.