by Theron Martin,

Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Novel 1

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya novel 1
While growing up, Kyon dreamed of having exciting experiences with an alien, time traveler, psychic, or other super-powered individual, but set those dreams aside in favor of maturity as he aged. When he enters high school, though, his world gets turned upside-down by the girl behind him in homeroom, who introduces herself as Haruhi Suzumiya and declares that she isn't interested in normal people, only “aliens, time travelers, espers, or sliders.” Despite her unsettling reputation, Kyon decides to strike up a conversation with Haruhi anyway (she is beautiful, after all), which results in him getting dragged into her effort to initiate a new school club, called the SOS Brigade, which will be dedicated to finding said aliens, time travelers, and psychics and hanging out with them. Three other individuals – Yuki Nagato, the sole Literary Club member; Mikuru Asahira, a very moe upperclassman/mascot; and “mysterious transfer student” Itsuki Koizumi – also get dragged into Haruhi's weird and occasionally provocative schemes with varying degrees of willingness. What Haruhi doesn't know, but Kyon eventually finds out, is that she has unwittingly surrounded herself with precisely the kind of people she was looking for, and they are all there to watch her since she subconsciously has the power of a god. A melancholy day for Haruhi, it seems, could spell the literal end of reality as Kyon knows it.

Hundreds of anime series have been produced in the past decade but only a select few can legitimately be called sensations. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is one of them. Like it or not, respect it or not, its combination of quirkiness, clever toying with common genre conventions, and excellent production values turned it into both a smash hit in Japan and one of the most talked-about anime series since Neon Genesis Evangelion in the American fan community. While its success may not have exactly been predestined, undoubtedly being based on a novel that was itself a sensation helped its cause. Nagaru Tanigawa's original novel, which has sold 4.5 million copies in Japan since its 2003 release, is now available in the U.S. in both paperback and hardcover versions for all you Haruhi maniacs to enjoy.

Those who have seen the anime series and are looking for skipped scenes or fabulous new insight into the characters may not find much of interest here, as the first six chronological episodes of the anime were a very tight adaptation of this novel, down even to exactly replicated dialogue in many places. As in the anime, Kyon narrates in a first-person perspective, offering the same amount of insight (or lack thereof) and knowledge that the anime version shows. If there is any real difference between the book and anime content, it's that the book plays up Kyon's more prurient side just a bit more and is a little more firmly suggestive that perhaps Kyon's interest in Haruhi had as much to do with him sympathizing with her still fervently holding onto dreams that he has set aside over time as with how pretty she looks. Of course, when you have content as friendly to anime adaptation as this book is, not much adjusting needs to be done. (One might almost think that the book was written specifically with an eventual anime adaptation in mind. . .)

Evaluated independently, the novel spins a briskly and smoothly-paced tale about a young man who gets drawn into the schemes of a pretty but exceedingly eccentric girl and all of the weird things which happen to him because of that association. The novel doubtlessly achieved its vast popularity partly because it gleefully exploits many common anime and manga clichés, always with a sideways wink to the reader to indicate a certain self-awareness about its use of said tropes. In fact, Nagaru's genius is in designing his story around the clichés, essentially making them part of the plot, rather than setting the story within them, as is normally done.

Enhancing this approach is a likable core cast. Laid-back, practical, and skeptical Kyon cuts a sharp contrast to the anime leading men normally found in this kind of role, while his co-starring female counterpart is a veritable force of nature in the form of a pretty girl. Few heroines in any medium can match her combination of bullheadedness, passionate tenacity, and unrestrainable force of will; this is the kind of character who could make things happen even if she couldn't literally make things happen, as she is hard to deny. Her highly temperamental nature often results in her being held up as a classic example of a tsundere type, though in her case there does not seem to be an underlying softness. This is a girl who has been conditioned into toughness by the extremity of her convictions, so much so that she shows only vague outward signs that she is even aware that she is attracted to Kyon (which he, of course, is completely oblivious to, although the other cast members seem to notice it). Mikuru is nearly her opposite, a mewling uber-moe girl who seems just a bit tougher than she outwardly lets on, while Yuki is the classic Rei Ayanami type, albeit one who seems more comfortable in her own skin. Koizumi gets less attention than the others save for a couple of key scenes, but he seems a likable good-natured guy. Other supporting characters are too minor to matter much.

For all the gimmickry, cliché manipulation, and powerhouse characters, though, the real appeal of the novel may come down to something more fundamental: the way it speaks to the almost desperate struggle of many people – especially teenagers – to be something other than ordinary. Kyon dreamed of the extraordinary but ultimately decided that there was nothing wrong with settling for the ordinary, which is something Haruhi cannot do. Her stubborn refusal to give up on her dreams can be appealing, and the irony that she unknowingly has the power to realize her dreams ever lingers in the background.

The novel version of Melancholy is the first novel release by Yen Press, a relatively recent entrant in the manga and graphic novel publishing field. It comes in both hardback and paperback versions, with the only difference in content being the cover art; the hardback version has the original Haruhi-featuring cover, while the paperback version (depicted above) has a less appealing red, white, and black cover. Both versions have 200 pages of story followed by a two-page Afterword, eight pages of full-color art, and a 14-page preview of the associated manga version. Strewn throughout the text are occasional (and highly forgettable) illustrations, but the text, at least, is free of the grammatical errors and typos that have plagued many novel translations so far.

If the writing can be criticized for anything, it is a workmanlike approach that is effective and efficient but never really establishes a sense of individual style. This is a very picky point rather than an actual problem, however. Overall, the novel version makes for a light and fun read which should encourage anyone who has not already seen the anime version to check it out.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : C

+ Involving gimmickry, brisk and smooth pacing, amusing concept.
Lacks an individual style.

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Story: Nagaru Tanigawa

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