Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 6th 2011
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
Blu-Ray + DVD
Mid-December has brought cold temperatures onto the scene, but otherwise it's business as normal for Kyon and his fellow SOS Brigade members, with Haruhi's enthusiastic take on a Christmas party in the making. December 18th begins like just another day in the crazy routine, but as Kyon goes to school he starts to notice that some things are different - very, very different. Circumstances have changed, one person who should be dead is back alive as if nothing had happened, Mikuru doesn't seem to know Kyon anymore or recognize talk about being a time traveler, and Haruhi and Koizomi not only aren't present but no one even seems to remember Haruhi! Even the indomitable Yuki is nothing more than an ordinary, painfully shy girl frightened by Kyon's ravings. Only a vague clue left by the Yuki Kyon knows gives him any inkling that he isn't crazy, but it also leaves him with a conundrum beyond just finding Haruhi: is this much more ordinary world - one which he had claimed he longed for - the better option, or would he actually prefer to return to the Haruhi-induced insanity that he always complained about?
Most TV series-connected movies which aren't simply condensed versions of the series require at least some familiarity with the series in order to be fully enjoyed, but The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is an extreme case. Simply being generally familiar with the characters and premise is not enough; to fully understand and appreciate what is going on in this story requires being a dedicated fan, one who has seen the entirety of its two seasons and remembers them well, as the movie offers not a moment of recap. While this limits the movie's accessibility, it also provides wonderful entertainment for fans who have watched everything, as the movie serves up an involving follow-up to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and directly addresses one major point that the previous animated content routinely skirted around or approached only indirectly: that Kyon actually enjoys his “adventures” with Haruhi far more than he cares to admit.
While Disappearance is based on the fourth installment in Nagaru Tanigawa's quirky light novel series, it plays out almost more like a laundry list of fan desires about the series, and that list starts with a whopping big hunk of Kyon. As one of the most interesting male leads from the past decade of school-centered series, he has always been more than just the narrator and point of view for the franchise: he has had no less than equal billing with the titular character as the star, to the point that many watched the series more because of him than because of Haruhi. Here, with Haruhi entirely absent for about an hour, he shows that he is quite capable of carrying the story on his own, although during that time he is a much more frantic and frazzled Kyon than fans are used to seeing. That makes the immense relief that he reels when he finally finds the original Yuki's clue to be a genuinely cathartic experience. He is also a more consistently aggressive Kyon than fans are used to seeing; while he has had his moments before - especially during the scenes in the second season involving filming The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina - during his most frantic period in the movie one can easily understand how certain characters would find him to be physically intimidating. Most importantly, Kyon finally gets a chance to develop the kind of introspection which stretches his character. Here he is not merely reacting to Haruhi's craziness anymore, but acting, and moreso than in any previous franchise content he gets a chance to examine what he really wants instead of what Haruhi wants.
Of course, he is hardly the only draw here. While teenage Mikuru barely has a presence, adult Mikuru has her most prominent and prolonged appearance to date, allowing us to see that she is also an interesting character independent of her younger self and beyond just being sexy. Anime fans rarely get to see if über-moe high school girls ever grow out of their cutesy affectations, which makes adult Mikuru such a treat. Fan-favorite Yuki is also a pleasure, although for entirely different reasons. She has always been regarded as heavily moe despite her fearsome capabilities, and now viewers get to see her doing a more emotional turn at it, but this is not quite the standard take on timid moe characters. The TV series always heavily emphasized Haruhi's body language, and now Yuki gets a full range of it, too. Haruhi, when she finally does appear in the altered world, shows that even a change in reality cannot constrain her irrepressible personality. Koizumi, contrarily, has so little presence that he's basically an afterthought unless the plot needs him to explain something.
If one looks strictly at the plot progression, the story comes out great. After a set-up period and lengthy “things have changed” sequence, the story heats up in the second half when Kyon gets an unexpected tip that sets him on the hunt for Haruhi. After her finds her, a complicated and somewhat convoluted time-traveling escapade ensues as he tries to sort out how things got changed and change them back; reviewing the second season episode “Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody” beforehand will make this easier to follow, as the movie uses that episode's assumptions about causality. The very dramatic climax adds in some further new twists, but that is hardly the end of the story, as a mere return to business as normal would be too simple for a franchise like this. Kyon's gentle scene with Nagato during the heart of that 20-minute denouement is one of the franchise's finest moments.
The main problem with the movie - indeed, the only factor holding it back from being a truly exceptional effort - is its length. Its full 163 minute running time (including English credits) comes in only a hair behind Final Yamato as the second-longest animated movie ever made, and that feels at least 20-30 minutes too long. It isn't as if the movie stalls or has needless scenes; in fact, barely any truly wasted moments can be found in the entire film. The issues are more the generously leisurely fashion in which events are allowed to unfold and the tendency to be complete to a fault in portraying details and characters' feelings. Kyon comments in-character about how the roughly 15 minute prologue took so long, but that merely establishes the trend, as every stage of the story is at least 20% longer than it probably actually needs to be. That suggests a director letting himself get carried away, though whether the blame lies with “Chief Director” Tatsuya Ishihara (who helmed the TV series) or “Director” Yasuhiro Takemoto (who directed the Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya ONA and contributed some to the TV series) is unclear. Somewhere within that balance of power restraint was not exercised.
Kyoto Animation always did an excellent technical effort with the series, and the movie upgrades it even further. The animation is their best production to date, with such a conspicuous lack of shortcuts taken in even the simplest details that the movie seems to be showing off at times. Characters move freely and independently in background shots, animation of body language and facial expressions is among the finest of all anime efforts, and the few action moments flow naturally and smoothly. Even simple little details, like the way the cat Shami rolls off of Kyon's bed when her sister pulls of the blanket, shine here. Backgrounds are often almost photorealistic depictions of the settings, which does occasionally make the characters stand out a little bit (the movie's one minor visual flaw), and the character rendering is a slight grade below the overall visual quality, but creative use of camera angles, rich color contrasts, and some exquisite effects make up for that; one of the movie's neatest scenes is an overhead shot of Yuki's apartment which shows a floor so polished that it's reflective. The movie has one scene which involves significant graphic violence, which earns it the 13+ age rating, and no real fan service, although Kyoto's crew does seem quite aware that Yuki is a moe darling amongst the fan base and so gives her a couple of poses (especially one where she bites Kyon's arm to give him a kind of protection) that can easily be interpreted as sexy in a certain way. Other neat visual treats include a CG-animated distance shot of the entire school and a nod to nostalgia with a Windows 95 start-up screen on the Literary Club's computer.
Satoru Kousaki, who also scored the TV series, here gives the movie more of a “big picture” sound based around gentle piano themes with more dramatic and ominous themes liberally mixed in, an effort which generally suits the content well. The score is also allowed to go quiet for lengthy periods of time, especially during a long stretch in the first half which mostly involves Kyon interacting with Yuki. The only significant audio homage to the anime series is a new version of original opener “Bouken de show-show,” which plays over some amusing shots of typical SOS Brigade antics. The end credits roll to “Yasashii Bokyaku,” a soulful a capella number sung by Minori Chihara (Yuki's seiyuu) which feels appropriate given the course of developments for her character in the movie. (Curiously, though, some of the included commercials for the movie use a version of the song with musical backing.)
The potent Japanese cast for the series returns intact to deliver another memorable effort, but the English dub is no slouch, either, and the lion's share of the lines to go to what has been widely-acknowledged as the dub's strongest performance: Crispin Freeman's superbly sardonic rendition of Kyon. Stephanie Sheh also continues to be an ideal choice for Mikuru in both teen and adult forms and Johnny Yong Bosch, Sam Regal, and Brianne Siddall continue to be solid but unspectacular fits for Itsuki, Taniguchi, and Kunikida, respectively. Wendee Lee still does a respectable job trying to duplicate Aya Hirano's epic take on the title character, while Michelle Ruff's generally flat performance of Yuki, which was always the weak point of the TV series dub, improves markedly when Yuki is allowed to show more emotion. The English script never strays too far, smoothly adapting the exact phrasing where necessary.
Bandai Entertainment is releasing the movie both in a DVD-only release and in a Blu Ray/DVD combo pack. The latter devotes one disk each to the movie in Blu-Ray and DVD forms, with a third DVD-grade disk for the extensive Extras. The visual quality upgrade between the DVD and Blu-Ray versions is readily noticeable, while the audio quality upgrade to TrueHD 5.1 is less so. The Extras disk delivers more than 2½ hours of bonus content, including an assortment of advertisements for the movie, footage of special screenings from Kyoto and two Tokyo locations which feature a few key production personnel (in the former case) or most of the vocal cast and the directors (in the latter cases), behind-the-scenes clips involving BGM recording, editing, and a photo shoot for Minori Chihara for promotional materials (akin to the ones done for Aya Hirano on the disks for the original TV series release), another location scouting adventure, and a very brief and stupid “ASOS Brigade” bit featuring Cristina Vee as Haruhi. Some of the video clips, especially for the Kyoto content, have a grainy quality reminiscent of lower-grade video cameras from 25 years ago and most of them are tediously dull, with little fresh insight offered about the movie beyond the fact that Takemoto originally thought that this story would be nearly impossible to animate. The only problem on the production front are menu screen video clips which tend to be spoilerrific.
If Disappearance is the last Haruhi content to get animated then the franchise is finishing on a strong note. Despite its length, it is a very satisfying film which should certainly be in the collection of anyone who was enough of a fan to tough it out through the “Endless Eight” arc. And do be sure to watch through the end credits for a special epilogue.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Provides plenty of eye and storytelling candy for devoted fans.
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