Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 24th 2010
The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya
Life at North High School has been a wild, unpredictable ride for Kyon ever since he met Haruhi Suzumiya, a girl whose eccentric whims have the power to bend reality. Now that Kyon has been pulled into the SOS Brigade—an unofficial club dedicated to whatever Haruhi feels like doing at the moment—it's up to him and the other club members to keep her occupied and make sure her mood swings don't accidentally destroy the universe. In the summer months, this means participating in an intramural baseball game, celebrating the Tanabata holiday, updating the SOS Brigade website, and going on an overnight trip to a pristine resort island. But when aliens, time travelers and ESPers get involved (without Haruhi ever realizing it), Kyon can only hope to maintain his sanity as traditional summer activities go haywire...
Well, the spark of genius had to wear off sometime.
Where Melancholy was a once-in-a-lifetime display of brilliance, and Sigh was a cleverly calculated follow-up, The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya is kind of the red-headed stepchild among the first three novels—a short-story grab bag that tries to fill in the less spectacular details of Haruhi's universe. As such, it hops, skips and jumps through a number of familiar genres: youthful sports story, time-travel mindbender, interdimensional action-adventure, and textbook murder mystery. Yet each tale comes with its own physics-defying twist, the kind only Nagaru Tanigawa can dream up. In short, Haruhi's boredom is anything but.
The eponymous first story is the weakest one in this volume, although there's a very good reason for that: this light baseball comedy was actually the pilot episode that started the entire Haruhi series. In here one can find the blueprints that would eventually make the franchise what it is: Kyon's sarcastic narration, Haruhi's unpredictable enthusiasm, the distinctive personalities of the supporting cast, and of course, an act of divine sci-fi intervention. Yet when the story reaches its climax, it lacks the narrative acrobatics of later Haruhi works—something amazing happens, but that's it. No self-referential loops. No principles of advanced 20th-century physics. Just a cute little flourish of the unexpected.
It's in the middle stories, "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody" and "Mysterique Sign," that the true spirit of the series manifests itself in short story form. Strange loops and logical twists abound, especially in "Rhapsody," which relies on time travel to generate a daunting yet perfectly reasonable paradox. Could Kyon, having jumped three years into the past at the request of charming time-traveler Mikuru, have planted a seed in Haruhi's brain that made her what she is today? And would this mean that Kyon's implausible misadventures are ultimately the result of his own actions? Perhaps it's a good thing that the story goes by quickly, before one's head can explode from meditating on this causal loop. Causality is also the brain-teasing concept that drives "Mysterique Sign," although it's more of the "if a butterfly flaps its wings..." variety. As a result, it progresses in a far more pedestrian manner (honestly, fighting giant insects is something best reserved for third-rate RPGs), and the finale relies too much on blabbermouth exposition in an attempt to sound impressive. In the end, the mechanism behind "Mysterique" is not as elegant as the time-travel of "Rhapsody," but it still beats the baseball story in depth and complexity.
The last and longest chapter, "Remote Island Syndrome," trips over its own ambitiousness in trying to offer some wry commentary on genre fiction. Yes, the artificiality of the situation and the double-deception twist ending are designed to poke fun at the murder-mystery genre, but it just takes forever to get there. The first 50-odd pages of the story are bloated by descriptions of Kyon and the SOS Brigade traveling to the resort island, partaking of a rich man's generosity, playing on the beach, and getting hopelessly drunk (gee, wonder why that didn't make it into the anime), before the murder mystery finally kicks in. It's only the big reveal in the last few pages that shows any sign of ingenuity, and it could have gotten there in half the time if Tanigawa hadn't been so indulgent in setting the scene.
Then again, setting the scene is a big part of what makes the Haruhi universe so appealing—it wouldn't be the phenomenon that it is if we couldn't enjoy the characters' idiosyncrasies. Nowhere else is there such a charming ensemble of misfits, a geek-generation Breakfast Club balanced not only by personality types but also by special abilities. Yuki Nagato's deadpan omniscience is always a delight, as is Koizumi's smug, enigmatic demeanor; however, Mikuru's skittish personality is more of an acquired taste. Part of the problem is the way she's described through Kyon's eyes—a curvy sex-object of awkward, almost stalker-like affection, and not an actual character. (Yes, high school boys really do think like that, but there is a reason they keep those thoughts to themselves.) Leading the charge, of course, is Haruhi herself, who pretty much blusters through every story in the book with irresistible bravado and snappy one-liners that keep Kyon in check.
Speaking of one-liners, it's impressive how many of them retain their humor in this translation—good source material, coupled with a good translator who understands how to make it sound right in English, result in a lively and distinct style. The characters' individual voices shine through in particular—Nagato's extreme brevity (except when explaining multisyllabic scientific concepts), Koizumi's cryptic delivery, even Haruhi's sudden jumps between polite and brash when speaking with an elder. The only awkward turns of phrase are Tanigawa's own fault, with Kyon often spewing out elaborate metaphors that are perhaps meant to sound funny but end up being too long-winded.
Noizi Ito's illustrations add the final touch to the book, with the characters rendered in a softer style than the more well-known anime designs. A slight looseness to the linework, plus subtle shades of gray, give the artwork a more organic, hand-drawn feel. Readers of the hardcover edition will also enjoy bonus content in the form of glossy, full-color illustrations in the back.
As a collection of short stories, rather than a full-length escapade, it's only to be expected that The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya falls a little short of the first two novels. Some of that drop-off is also due to the title story being the real beginning of the Haruhi series—an immature work that hadn't quite nailed down all the defining traits yet—and the last one becoming too unwieldy for its own good. But the stuff that gives Haruhi its true heart and soul is still there: the mind-bending sci-fi, the looping plot twists, the thrill of the unexpected, and of course, the fun, memorable characters. No matter how long or short the tale, it's hard to imagine this formula ever going wrong.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Continues to entertain with time-travel paradoxes and other brain-teasing concepts, as played out by a likable cast of characters.
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