Reviewby Nick Creamer, Nov 7th 2016
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Blu-Ray - Seasons 1 and 2
Kyon knows there's nothing special about this world. Though he used to believe in aliens, espers, and all manner of other unnatural beings, he's resigned himself to the fact that supernatural creatures don't exist, and even if they did, they probably wouldn't be much interested in his daily life. Kyon's prepared for a pleasantly mild high school career - until the girl behind him stands up in class and announces that she's on the hunt for all those creatures and even time travelers too. That girl is Haruhi Suzumiya, and her introduction into Kyon's life is going to change absolutely everything.
It can be difficult to picture now what a big deal The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya once was, with cosplay, fandom clubs, countless Hare Hare Yukai videos, and an overwhelming convention presence once dominating the scene. One of my first times seeing anime in theaters was when an animation society booked my local arthouse theater, playing early Haruhi episodes along with more conventional critical favorites like Nausicaä and Mind Game. The show helped put Kyoto Animation on the map, created a blueprint for light novel shows that endures even now, and spawned a massive fandom both in Japan and abroad.
And now its time has ended.
It makes sense, once you revisit the show itself. Some shows are renowned for their quality of execution, or because they tell a classic story with great poignancy or clarity. Others are renowned for their inventiveness - for the ideas they brought to the table that were then incorporated into other shows until they eventually became part of the media landscape. Haruhi is a trailblazer of the second sort, meaning that while its importance is undeniable, its inescapable legacy leaves the show itself feeling like a shadow of shows that came afterward.
Haruhi Suzumiya stars a boy known only as Kyon, a cynical but otherwise conventional high schooler at an ordinary Japanese high school. Though Kyon is expecting his life to be normal, the entrance of Haruhi into his schedule throws a wrench into everything. Haruhi is wild and tempestuous and full of energy, but she has no interest in ordinary things. She's bored with mundane life and wants to find the extraordinary instead. With Kyon's grudging support, she eventually founds the SOS Brigade, a club dedicated to finding aliens, espers, and time travelers - and playing with them.
All of that would be fine fodder for any high school club show, but Haruhi's big conceit is that Haruhi's world is full of the supernatural. In fact, all three of the other students she recruits to the SOS Brigade are unlikely weirdos - the quiet Yuki Nagato is the emissary of an alien hyperintelligence conglomerate, the bumbling Mikuru is a time traveler from the future, and the enigmatic Koizumi has psychic powers. All of these club members hide their powers from Haruhi, because Haruhi is the reason they're there. It turns out Haruhi can unknowingly alter the fabric of the universe itself, and thus her classmates in the SOS Brigade must keep her entertained under threat of destroying all existence.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya proceeds as a series of disjointed episodic adventures, with Kyon and his associates attempting to keep Haruhi happy without letting on that three of them are exactly the excitement she's looking for. Some of these episodes hold up well - episodic conflicts like “Haruhi wants to play baseball” or “Haruhi takes the concert stage” are well-directed and funny, using the generally witty script and solid comedic timing to stay engaging throughout. There are still some rough gems here, scattered throughout the many aimless episodes of Haruhi Suzumiya.
Unfortunately, the show overall can't help showing its age. Perhaps the key variable that made Haruhi Suzumiya originally appealing was the character of Kyon and how his voice dominated the narrative. Kyon is one of those cynical, self-aware protagonists who are basically inescapable in modern anime, but they were something of a novelty back in 2006. His voice was fresh and appealing once, but now it feels like a less focused and more overbearing version of the narrator voice you've heard a million times elsewhere. At a point where genre savviness and snarky protagonists have become two of the most repellent mainstays of modern anime, watching the grandfather of the genre lay down the rules of engagement results in more fatigue than excitement.
Haruhi herself is also one of Haruhi Suzumiya's biggest problems. Haruhi's dilemma is fundamentally relatable - having realized both that the world is mundane and she's just a tiny speck within it, she's desperate to find a satisfying answer to the question “is this really all there is?” Haruhi's need for a more exciting life smartly captures the anxiety of adolescence, where you're old enough to not believe in fairy tales but young enough to not yet see the magic in the everyday. The way Haruhi's feelings reflect on Kyon are strongly articulated as well - they express themselves differently, but the reason the two stick together to the point of near-romance is because they're fundamentally hoping for the same thing. The two have a chemistry based in common desires that actually works.
The problem is that Haruhi is also a monster. The show frames her as an object of wonder, a savior bringing excitement into Kyon's dreary life, but her actions are hideously selfish at all times. Mikuru gets the worst of this - outright addressed as a bastion of “moe appeal” for the club (there's that self-awareness), she's constantly abused by Haruhi to the point where it's impossible to sympathize with either of them. Haruhi is unsympathetic because she's self-obsessed, abusive, and abrasive - Mikuru is unsympathetic because she exists purely to suffer Haruhi's wrath and really does offer nothing outside of helpless moe appeal.
At times, the show actually leans into Haruhi's awful personality in pretty interesting ways. The show's 2009 season seems more aware of Haruhi's toxic nature than the original, spending much of its runtime in an arc where Haruhi pushes the others around to make a student film. As the film production runs on, what starts out as a lighthearted adventure quickly turns menacing and violent, with Haruhi's demands scored by tense framing. At the emotional climax of this arc, Haruhi literally drugs Mikuru in order to film a "romance" scene, and Kyon comes within inches of striking her. That moment, where the violence inherent to Haruhi's behavior and the enabling attitudes exhibited by her companions nearly results in tragedy, is a shocking and effective dramatic turn.
Unfortunately, most of the show's runtime simply takes Kyon's attitude: Haruhi is a pill, but she's an attractive pill who we're supposed to find consistently enchanting. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's seeming lack of concern for Haruhi's violent and dictatorial tendencies makes it very hard to invest in the show's drama on its own terms.
Incidentally, that film arc also demonstrates Haruhi Suzumiya's most compelling trick - its understated use of scifi embellishments. The smartest thing about Haruhi Suzumiya's storytelling is that although it takes place in a world where all manner of scifi phenomena actually exist, the moments when those features manifest themselves are few and far between. Because Haruhi Suzumiya has such a light touch with genre, moments of supernatural violence come across as genuinely shocking and impactful. The show is constantly hinting at the possibility of danger, be it from Haruhi or the powerful beings that surround her, and that consistent tension gives the show a welcome sense of intrigue.
Unfortunately, nothing really comes of all this slow-seeded conflict. Haruhi Suzumiya is also emblematic of the light novel adaptation craze in its overall narrative structure - there's a self-contained arc that resolves itself within the first six episodes, and then episodic journeys just sort of ramble here and there until the show ends. The show was originally given some structure through its initial broadcast order, where episodes were aired out of chronological order, allowing the episode six finale to truly be a finale - but with the 2009 episodes added into the mix, there's no such sense of meaningful structure here.
Haruhi Suzumiya is also consistently reflective of its own wandering release structure. Along with Tatsuya Ishihara, the first season was directed by Yutaka Yamamoto (“Yamakan,” famous for getting himself kicked off Lucky Star), and exhibits his sharp, ostentatious visual style. The first season's character designs are extremely rough, and the directorial style shifts between flat sitcom cameras, wild bursts of visual experimentation, and occasionally inspired visual drama. These episodes also don't really hold up in terms of release quality; the linework is full of jagged artifacts and feels low-resolution throughout.
The 2009 season saw the show jump to Yasuhiro Takemoto, who's been responsible for some of Kyoto Animation's most accomplished productions. This season's episodes display all the beautiful stage-setting and tonal control that would mark Takemoto's later productions - but it's also largely dominated by Endless Eight, a series of episodes that literally repeat the same narrative eight times in order to “simulate” being stuck in a time loop.
Endless Eight was highly controversial at the time, seemingly designed specifically to troll the audience watching each episode as it was released. This wasn't true, of course, but the real reason for its existence isn't much better: when The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya was shifted to a film, there just wasn't another alternative at the time. So a solid quarter of these episodes are more or less unwatchable, beautifully redirected and recomposed renditions of the same exact sequence of events, their only possible narrative justification being how they help the audience better understand just how much suffering the character of Yuki Nagato has to endure.
The second season holds up visually far better than the first, though the first still has sturdy and creative design work relative to most television anime. The direction and art design of the second season approaches Kyoto Animation's current standards, but both seasons are solidly animated, and fun one-offs like the first season's student film episode are still very entertaining. The show's music is less compelling. There are some nice genre tracks used to add tension to the show's more scifi-influenced moments, but the clubroom scenes which comprise the majority of the show generally just get bland elevator music. The one track anyone is likely to remember is Hare Hare Yukai, the ending song that launched a thousand YouTube covers, along with the two solid rock songs Haruhi performs live in the first season.
Haruhi Suzumiya's dub is an altogether reasonable affair. Koizumi's voice actor is one of the weaker links, lacking the light, singsong tone of the original. Crispin Freeman's Kyon is excellent though - easily able to match both the snarky and serious tones Kyon needs, he's up to the task of carrying a monologue-driven production. He might actually be better than the original performance, which often maintains the same tone regardless of the situation. Wendee Lee's Haruhi has a similarly strong range, though it's hard to match one of the defining performances of Aya Hirano's career. Nagato's vocal affectation is simply something that doesn't work as well in English as it does in Japanese. One more point in the dub's favor is that it actually translates the songs from Live Alive, a rare touch for English-language tracks.
Funimation's new release comes packed with extras. A plastic case with slipcover contain five discs, with the first three containing the show itself, a full version of the Hare Hare Yukai ending dance, trailers, and the textless opening/closing. The next bluray disc is packed with extras, starting off with an exhaustive eight-part behind-the-scenes series documenting the creation of various Haruhi promotional materials. These unfortunately don't offer much insight into the production of the show itself - they're mostly just videos of Aya Hirano and the show's key staff wandering around and filming little live-action TV ads. They're fun for seeing stuff like Tatsuya Ishihara in an alien mask and Hirano commenting that she has a pointy butt, but far from essential viewing.
The next set of extras are another eight-part series, “Taniguchi's New Mysterious Discoveries Journal.” These star Minoru Shiraishi, who plays Taniguchi in the series, and feature him going on the same sort of rambling sightseeing adventures he went on for his Lucky Star promos (where he played, well, Minoru Shiraishi). These are even less essential viewing and only hold much appeal for fans of Shiraishi himself - they've got basically nothing to do with the Haruhi series. This disc's biggest prize is likely its third video series, focused on location scouting. These videos are fascinating from a production perspective, offering insight into Ishihara and the other staff's priorities while constructing a visual template for their shows. They even walk up the fabled hill Kyon complains about on his way to school, where Ishihara proves he's surprisingly light on his feet.
The fourth disc's final extras are a series of promotional videos, including TV ads and various other promo spots. These are somewhat interesting in their general reserve; many of these ads are simply moments of Hirano looking bored and distant, selling nothing but the melancholy of the title. The collection's final disc is a DVD, packed with even more extras. The first series is a collection of behind-the-scenes videos from Hirano shooting the music video for the second season's opening song, followed by a scattering of other videos that include an in-character intro from the female heroines for an Anime Expo appearance, a video from the US DVD launch event, broadcast previews, and a “Neko-Man gallery” of doodles of the little characters who populate Mikuru's spaceship from The Day of Sagittarius. While none of these extras offer the insight of something like a commentary track, they're still pretty remarkable in volume alone.
Overall, I find it easier to recommend Haruhi Suzumiya as an anime-history artifact than an entertaining show in its own right. Partially a victim of its own success and partially just an awkward show in the first place, Haruhi's scattered strengths can't make up for the issues of its composition, cast, and now-ubiquitous style. It's a very interesting show, but definitely not a timeless one.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B-
+ Stands as a strange time capsule in anime history, art design and specific episodes still hold up
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