The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

[Author’s Note: If you’re just curious about what I thought of the movie, skip down to where you see the asterisks. Otherwise, this is a very lengthy post. I’ve noticed that no one tends to read the entries about anime (except for the dozens of people who keep coming here for Tekkaman Blade pics), so I went crazy with it. If you want to read a 2300-word post, knock yourself out. I promise you none of it will be on the exam, though.]

It is difficult to find good, creative, original science fiction. Sure, some people might have that one friend who does nothing but read science fiction anthologies and keep up with all of the latest material on the web, but the rest of us have few sources and even less time. What the popular multimedia world is most often known for are the scifi retreads – either of old works or old ideas. “It’s the delivery that matters!” we say to ourselves. While true, it also opens ourselves up to eating the same cereal so long as the marshmallows are offered in new shapes and/or colors. For example, I loved four and a half seasons of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica despite the fact that it was a retread of the original BSG that invoked the darker and edgier trope and borrowed heavily from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?/Blade Runner and a little from the rest of the Philip K. Dick library. I recognized the sources clearly but still moved forward. That may very well be the reason why I was able to move forward with it.

There are no more original ideas. It’s all be done before. The movie trailers on TV look like items from either a few years to a few decades ago. It seems like movies are being made just so the studios have a steady flow of product coming out. No one holds off for the great ideas. No one devotes time to meticulously perfect a creation. Having something out there is generally regarded as being much better than having something great.

I’ve always been an anime fan. The general anime fan likes to cite creativity as a reason why s/he prefers Japanese output over American. I’m not that fan. I’m not an otaku, as I’ve said before. I watch what I watch. While the ideas over there are decidedly different in origin, they area also quite plagued by hackneyed ideas. Watch enough Japanese content and you find that it becomes increasingly more difficult to find original ideas. (Even in writing this introduction to a review about The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya I’ve realized that it is not entirely original because it could be considered a lighter and fluffier version of Akira. I’m still moving forward with this idea of original content, though.) No matter where you look, people borrow from ideas that they find interesting.

Then a few years ago there was a media storm among anime fans and geeks alike about a new series that was airing in Japan. Its title translated to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and it was quirky enough to stand out while providing an extra bit of overall quality. The television series was based on a series of light novels about high school students, which makes the series a hard sell to anyone no longer in high school. However, the titular character is extraordinary. It is slowly revealed that she has god-like powers of which she is not even aware. She can recreate the world on a whim, and has likely done so many times before. She created an organization in high school devoted to finding espers, time travelers, and aliens – and in doing so may have created the three group, each of which is represented in her club. Except she does not know that they exist. This is considered a good thing because the fear is that if she does discover the realities of the world she has created, she will become bored with it and create a new world. So the real reason the club has any membership is to keep Haruhi from getting bored.

Funny enough, Haruhi isn’t even the main character. Every story and aspect of the show revolves around a guy known as Kyon. Kyon is the nickname his little sister gave him, and for some reason no one asks for his real name. He is an absolutely normal guy who accidentally found himself involved in the whole Haruhi thing because she seems to like him. All stories are told from his point of view while he provides unreliable narration of the events. Some of the humor comes from the fact that he expresses feelings in the narration that directly contradict what he was obviously feeling at the time. Through him we meet a guy named Itsuki who is an esper and part of a secret organization that keeps reality in check, a girl named Mikuru who traveled through time to make sure her past still exists, and a non-girl entity named Yuki who was created by a data entity that is trying to observe the happenings. They make Kyon the keeper of their secret, and they do their best to keep him around because he seems to keep Haruhi from recreating the world.

One of the most interesting things about the original broadcast of the series was that this information came in slowly. It was literally obfuscated by the fact that, supposedly to keep Haruhi from getting bored, the series was broadcast out of order. The club’s adventures were interspersed between the actual exposition episodes. The preview bumpers at the end of each episode would feature conversations between Haruhi and Kyon, with one of them explaining which episode it was airing in on TV and the other one explaining the actual order. It would have been confusing if the show hadn’t been so fun. Plus episode five made for a much better series climax than the chronological episode anyway. (If I’m wrong about which episode ended the exposition arc, I look forward to your letters.)

Of course, one of the real reasons the series took off was because the ending credits sequence became an internet meme. The song is another J-pop throwaway that is disappointingly common to anime, but the dance sequence animated to go with it was well animated for a TV show – not to mention the detail that went into choreography. The dance caught on among anime fans, and I got to witness a competition of performances of said dance at my first Anime Expo. By then I had actually seen the series, and it was the dance that first made the series a point of interest for me. Of course, it was an 8-bit rendition featuring Mega Man characters, but still. It happened.

The series was popular enough to continue the stories from the novels in yet another television series. Season 2 of Haruhi Suzumiya featured a storyline that had been fairly short in the books. There was apparently a summer Haruhi was bothered by so much that she put it on endless loop for some hundreds of years, unknown to anyone but Yuki – who couldn’t break the sequence herself because her primary function is to observe, not interfere. One story from a novel became known as “Endless Eight”, because they told this story over the course of eight episodes. Eight episodes featuring almost the exact same things happenings over and over again, with minor details changed. It was absolutely painful for fans who watched in Japan, as they not only had to wait to watch the show once a week but also had to deal with the fact that this was interspersed through a re-airing of the first season. Basically, every two weeks they got what seemed like a rerun.

I got to watch this in fewer sittings, but it was a confusing mess to me at first. Then it was brilliant and ballsy. Not exactly sure I would sit through all eight episodes again, but this was the best way to convey to the viewers how Yuki must have felt in going through the whole thing. It was boring. It was meandering. The only thing the observer can really do is take note of the differences in each sequence. And it was amazing in the end when Kyon broke the cycle. How? Calling together a mundane study group – and the fans could do nothing but rejoice because it was all over.

As always, I applaud media that takes chances. That series took the type of chance that likely wouldn’t happen in America. It’s almost too avant garde for the general public. We could compare cultures based on the chances their media take, but the comparison of amounts of reality television and how they differ is depressing due to the fact both sides of the ocean have such huge catalogs. But it does suggest that the stereotypically reserved Japanese culture is willing to suspend their disbelief and devote greater attention to things their American counterparts would quickly grow frustrated with and reject.

Last year marked a particularly high point for the Haruhi franchise. The theatrical release of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya came out. Rare both in America and Japan was the fact that the movie was two and a half hours long. The trend in America seems to be that the more important the film, the longer it needs to be in order to hammer that importance – but no one does that with animation anymore. I’ll be honest and say that I was disappointed with the amount of computer aid that went into the film. Hand drawn animation is becoming a thing of the past. Animation cels are expensive and inefficient. After all, they rely on the steady hand of an animator rather than the cold consistency of computers. Maybe I am just an old codger who believes some energy and life is actually transferred to the drawings via pen. Oh, where was I?

*     *     *

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya proved to be tremendously popular. Naturally, I had to check it out. I could not share it with any friends, though. Not only was it a continuity-filled science fiction opus that automatically puts up two barriers in front of the casual movie fan, but it was a continuation of what basically boils down to a high school anime with overly cute characters. There’s good reason why a reputable science fiction site like io9 has only ever briefly mentioned the series once in an article. You just can’t be cool and like this series. You can’t be cool and even check it out.

Well, I’m not cool. (Pretty obvious by now. 1700 words and I’m just now talking about the subject of this post. But we need background, dammit!) Wearing my University of Michigan house shoes, I sat in front of the television for nearly two and a half hours to watch the Haruhi movie. I never motioned to stop it. It felt like a lengthy movie, but there was just so much going on in it. It didn’t actually feel long at all. But it felt like there was quite a bit to it.

What happened in the movie was this: Winter break is coming up, and Haruhi wants to throw a party. She naturally assumes everyone in the club wants to come along and dictates to them that this is happening. Kyon complains but complies, as he always does. Then he goes home and sleeps. The next day at school is very boring. Haruhi doesn’t make it. No one knows who she is or ever heard of her, and Kyon finds that none of his friends in the club remember him. Except for Yuki, who is completely human, extremely shy, and has a crush on him. Kyon devotes himself to solving the mystery.

The movie uses a scifi premise to explore characters and their relationships. It provides an alternate continuity in which the same characters were able to flourish differently, and in the end Kyon was given a choice about which world he wanted to experience. The crazy world in which Haruhi has super powers and drags him along on random adventures, or a more mundane world in which all that magic is gone. In the end everything was caused by Yuki, who wanted Kyon to make the choice. Kyon thinks that this was done because she was tired of Haruhi and trusted Kyon with making the right decision, Yuki thinks it was all aberrant data that may ultimately prove punishable by her superiors if not for Kyon’s threats about triggering Haruhi and rewriting the world, but the viewer is provided a third option that no one discusses because the writers know we’re smart enough to see it.

That’s only one layer of the film’s overall presentation. Then there’s the strong sense of continuity. Not only with Kyon’s mentioning of past episodes to his friends, but the fact that the solution involves a bit of time traveling that intersects with events that already happened in the TV series. Then there’s a bit at the end where Kyon saves himself from being stabbed to death, but the Kyon the viewer follows hasn’t done that yet. And the best part is that they leave it, mentioning it will eventually happen but not closing that time loop yet.

Another layer I’ve always appreciated about the Haruhi franchise is that it is aware. Self-awareness and shout-outs persist. In this instance it was awareness that this very well could have been a Doctor Who story. There is one central protagonist who is aware that something is wrong with space and time, and only he can set it right. To add to this, there’s a shout-out from the first instance of time travel in which Kyon meets Haruhi and refers to himself as John Smith. I did not get this reference the first time I saw it, but familiarity with the Doctor has hammered this for me. Additionally, through most of the movie Kyon wears a somewhat ridiculous looking scarf. The scarf makes sense because it’s winter, but it’s pretty silly looking. Not Tom Baker silly, but ridiculous enough.

Maybe I'm the weird one. Maybe wearing a scarf this way is perfectly normal...

Did I like it? Absolutely. That should be pretty obvious by now.

About Gospel X

Media commentator who tries not to waste time - and often fails

Posted on March 14, 2011, in animation, anime, Bechdel pass, Doctor Who, review, science fiction, scifi, video and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Funny; I mostly come for the comics/anime/manga. Does this mean I get extra credit on the test?

    I liked the cereal analogy. Very nice. I’ll have to check out the series–my friend loves it, but I got confused by the conflicting episode order and I like my things in order, so I stopped. Guess I’ll try again.

    And who CARES about being cool? Geeks rule! (Unintentional intentionally kept rhyme.)

  2. Oh yeah….. there was a pika hare hare dance.
    It’s pretty amusing. I kinda like it better than the Rockman version, though for what they were doing, the Rockman vid was excellent, and very creative. (This is one of my cheer up songs on youtube.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s