Why Was the Haruhi Suzumiya Series a Big Deal?

by Kim Morrissy,

Well before the days of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba and Attack on Titan, there was an anime that took over the internet generation: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a quirky science-fiction series from 2006 about a high school club seeking out paranormal activity. Little does the club leader Haruhi know that the aliens, espers, and time travelers she has been looking for are right under her nose, and they're keeping up the deception to maintain the stability of the universe.

For those of you who were there during "The Haruhi Days" in the late 00s and early 10s, it was easy to get swept up in the hype. But if you watched the series years after its peak or perhaps only know of it through hearsay, it may be hard to wrap your head around why it was such a big deal. It's not that Haruhi is bad – it's still pretty good in a lot of ways – but we're talking about a series that had become a lowkey social phenomenon. What magic ingredient did it have that its contemporaries didn't?

According to anime business journalist Tadashi Sudo, Haruhi's success owes a lot to good timing. The anime came out during a time when internet streaming was a fledgling market, and it was able to capitalize on the new and evolving trend. The Japanese video streaming website Nico Nico Douga was first established in 2006, the same year Haruhi premiered, and the two ended up feeding into each other's popularity. The anime's iconic dance ED was the first to inspire (or at least popularize) the genre of "I tried doing the dance" videos on Nico Nico Douga users, which also spread to YouTube and other video streaming sites.

The "Hare Hare Yukai" dance was peak 00s otaku fandom. It's hard to get a feel for the sheer exposure it enjoyed back in the day, because a lot of the accounts posting those videos on YouTube got deleted along the way. But this repost of a viral video from 2007 should show you the extent to which that dance penetrated Japan's public consciousness. It even had people on the streets of Akihabara bust out their dance moves in full cosplay... at least until the police came busting in.

There were other things about the show that blurred the lines between fiction and reality in a special way that no other anime had previously achieved. Haruhi had a genius marketing team that constantly outdid themselves when it came to incorporating aspects of the anime's story into their promotions. The most well-known of their gimmicks is the official website, which is still up in its original form to this day. It's modeled on the amateurish website design that the SOS Brigade uses in the show itself. Behold it in all of its retro glory:

The amusingly terrible logo and web design wasn't the only thing which stood out about the site. In December 2007, the website was briefly replaced by a fake 404 error, and visitors could resolve the error and access information by inputting the correct set of passwords. It was all an elaborate reference to The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, the fourth volume of the original light novel series that the anime is based on. In 2010, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya became a bestselling anime film.

I'm also fond of how the team teased the "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody" episode from the anime's second season. On July 7, 2007, they released twenty minutes of live-action video surveillance footage at a school showing two kids breaking in. This is part of the plot of the episode itself, which also happens to be set in July 7 of a particular year. You can see a repost of that video on YouTube below:

Thanks to advancements in digital compositing, the anime itself felt "real" in a way that previous anime didn't. By the time Haruhi aired, the anime world had mostly transitioned from hand-painted cels to digital coloring, but Haruhi went further than its peers when it came to capturing modern camera techniques in animation. Episode 00, which is a recreation of an amateur film conceived by the SOS Brigade, is a masterpiece in this regard. The dull and grainy colors, which don't match the look of the rest of the show, are paired with awkward camera movements and an occasionally out-of-focus lens.

The rest of the TV anime was also packed with realistic details, albeit in ways that modern anime viewers may take for granted. The background art is very detailed, to the extent that the real-life inspiration of Nishinomiya City in the Hyogo Prefecture is recognizable from the footage. In fact, Haruhi was one of the first major anime titles to inspire the phenomenon of anime pilgrimages, where fans visit the locations depicted in an anime and share photos of their travels online. In 2018, after popular demand, the Anime Tourism Association acknowledged Haruhi as a significant title for inspiring pilgrimages.

The character animation is another highlight; even the smallest gestures were given a lot of detail, making the characters feel like real and dynamic people. One of the anime's most iconic scenes is the "God Knows" part of the "Live Alive" episode where Haruhi sings her heart out on a stage. The realistic lighting around the stage gives it the atmosphere of a genuine live performance. The guitar-playing is accurately portrayed right down to the individual finger movements. But most importantly, Haruhi's expressions are brought to life with passion and fervor. Even today, this scene packs a punch.

Looking back, so much of Haruhi's wow factor can be directly attributed to the production studio Kyoto Animation. Having worked as an outsourcing studio for decades, Kyoto Animation had only recently debuted as a lead production studio on Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu in 2003. Despite their relative obscurity at the time, the staff had years of experience working on anime and had already become a close-knit team. Tatsuya Ishihara just came off directing Air in 2005, so he was a natural fit for the Haruhi TV anime. Haruhi's mind-blowing production values at the time might have seemed like it came out of nowhere, but it was the result of years of prior groundwork.

Something to keep in mind about Kyoto Animation's directors is that they are a bunch of film nerds. The "God Knows" scene, for instance, is a direct homage to the climax of Linda Linda Linda, a music-themed live-action film from 2005. Notably, Kyoto Animation has an in-house compositing department that was created in the late 90s, making it easier for the directors and animators to coordinate on a singular vision. The anime industry as a whole was starting to pursue film-like digital compositing techniques around the time Haruhi came out, but Kyoto Animation did it earlier and more effectively than most.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya film took these techniques to a whole new level.

I've spent this entire article talking about the anime rather than the original light novels, and there's a reason for that. Personally, I found myself underwhelmed when I tried reading the novels this year, perhaps because a lot of the good ideas it had have been relentlessly copied and adapted by other light novels since then. That said, I will admit that Nagaru Tanigawa is a clever writer, and his ability to blend hard sci-fi concepts so seamlessly with school life comedy still makes for an entertaining read. Even before the anime came out, the series attracted buzz by ranking at the top of the Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! 2005 rankings. But it's undeniable that the series only took off in the way it did because of the anime.

Something I haven't addressed until now, but a huge crux in any discussion about Haruhi, is the anime's unique storytelling format, which made it feel almost like an original work rather than a mere adaptation. The TV anime first debuted with its episodes in non-linear order: the events of the first novel, which introduce the premise of the series, were slotted between standalone episodes adapting short stories from later volumes. Through watching the series in this order, you'll have to gradually work out who the characters are, but it all ends up coming together surprisingly well. When the series got a second season in 2009, it started as a rebroadcast of the original series in chronological order, but with the new episodes slotted in where they fit in the timeline. The storytelling liberties that this series took kept even novel readers guessing about what would happen next.

One of the most infamous storytelling decisions in the anime was its adaptation of the "Endless Eight" short story. The second season contains eight episodes telling the exact same story with minor variations in order to simulate the feeling of being stuck in a time loop. For years afterwards, debates raged among fans about the ideal viewing order of the series and whether the Endless Eight arc is worth watching in its entirety. Whether they loved it or hated it, nobody was likely to forget their experience of watching Haruhi.

The timing of this article is no coincidence. Even if the popularity of the series can be mostly attributed to the anime's ingenuity, the story can't move forward without Tanigawa. The series lost a lot of its momentum when the author went on hiatus, but with the release of the 12th novel, The Intuition of Haruhi Suzumiya, it feels as if new life is being breathed into the franchise. At the very least, it's given me the opportunity to look back and remember just what was so special about the series, and how the phenomenon it sparked can never be repeated in quite the same way. If you've never had the opportunity to check out Haruhi before now, or if it was before your time, I hope you can be inspired to give the series a shot and appreciate it for how it made anime "real" like nothing before.

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