Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
December 17th. A day just like any other day. Kyon wakes up, goes to school, and helps the SOS Brigade plan for their Christmas Eve party. Haruhi is as dictatorial as ever, but Kyon is utterly used to her abuse. Sure, life would be easier without her madness, but if this is what his high school life is meant to be, that's perfectly all right.
December 18th. Kyon wakes up, goes to school, and everything has changed. Haruhi's seat has been taken by Ryouko Asakura, the girl who almost killed him once (and isn't actually a girl at all). Mikuru doesn't remember Kyon's face, and Koizumi's class has vanished entirely. But most importantly, Haruhi is gone. Trapped in a world where no one remembers Haruhi, Kyon will have to fight to reclaim his life and decide how he truly wants to live.
After the madcap adventures and slapstick comedy of Haruhi Suzumiya's first two seasons, the anime series was capped off with a film unlike anything that had come before. Somber, slow-paced, and introspective, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya represented both a narrative culmination and a dramatic break, offering a very different interpretation of the Haruhi universe. Haruhi Suzumiya was the ball of energy that defined the television series' tone, and Disappearance saw her excised from not just the story, but Kyon's very world. In spite of that, or perhaps even because of that, Disappearance is far and away the strongest work in the Haruhi canon.
Disappearance's strengths start with its director, Yasuhiro Takemoto. Takemoto is one of the most accomplished and eclectic directors at Kyoto Animation, having worked on series as diverse as Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, Hyouka, High Speed! -Free! Starting Days-, and Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, proving himself equally adept at giddy comedy and sober drama. In Disappearance, he creates a world that's at once fully alive and deeply alienating, its sense of wrongness clear from its shadowed halls to the whispers pursuing Kyon at every turn.
The story of Disappearance opens with Kyon preparing to endure yet another Haruhi-sponsored hurricane, as the approach of Christmas prompts her to propose an SOS Brigade Christmas Eve party. Kyon offers his usual mental quips at this, but he helps as readily as always, until everything changes on the morning of December 18th. That day, he walks into a school that's somehow not his own - a strange illness has suddenly swept his classmates, students are there who shouldn't exist anymore, and most frighteningly, Haruhi herself is completely gone.
Over a slow and torturous series of investigations, Kyon slowly comes to realize that this is a world where Haruhi never awakened to any strange powers. There is a Haruhi here, but she's not his Haruhi, and the same goes for all his SOS Brigade teammates. Mikuru Asahina has never met him before, and Yuki Nagato is a shy but otherwise ordinary bookworm. Mentally abandoned, Kyon must search for clues to explain this shift and hopefully regain his home.
The shift from the Melancholy television series to the Disappearance film is as clear in its visual language as its narrative. Takemoto frames Kyon's new world as a cold and inhospitable space, doubling down on the wintry season with a subdued color palette and ever-present shadows. Kyon is often framed through intrusive angles or in uncertain reflections, and the piercing light of the December sky bears down like an accusing god. It is at times fatiguing to watch Disappearance, its mastery of unsettling shot framing wavering constantly between dreary antipathy and paranoid horror.
The existential weight of Kyon's new world is further emphasized through well-chosen visual motifs, as the film's visual language builds to a crescendo alongside its narrative. Kyon's race against time (he quickly learns that he only has a few days to right this mess) is consistently contrasted against running trains, with urgent wheels and screeches echoing both in his dreams and waking moments. That focus on rattling trains is further facilitated by the film's terrific sound design, which allows consistent silence and rare understated melodies to echo both the film's emotional tenor and its wintry setting. The debilitating illness spreading through Kyon's school evokes a sense of this new world falling apart altogether, classmates dwindling like this place is a memory fading from view. Soft focus serves to emphasize Kyon's moments of emotional breakage, as he shakes a classmate or crumples at the sight of a familiar face.
In spite of Haruhi's own reduced presence, Disappearance also makes perhaps the best use of all its lead characters. Kyon is forced through a relentless emotional gauntlet, with his snarky facade interrogated and discarded by the film's tumultuous climax. The difference between original Nagato and this new world's replacement is clear from the first moment she appears in body language alone, a strength that carries through the whole film. The undercurrent of jealousy that adds a hint of danger to Koizumi's character is brought to the surface here, and absent a group to bully, Haruhi actually comes off as the charming, unpredictable oddity she was always intended to be. All of these characters are elevated significantly by Disappearance's phenomenal character acting. The film's consistently rich animation makes sequences of Kyon's despair or Nagato's unease perfectly clear, with a mix of fluid motion and erratic, exaggerated poses fitting neatly to each scene's emotional needs.
Disappearance's actual narrative isn't quite the equal of its execution, but it's still one of the best stories in the Haruhi canon. Shifting gradually from a near-horror mood piece to a sci fi mystery, it's a fine interrogation of Kyon's character, but definitely not the most consistently gripping story. There are scenes that drag too long, and the final act is muddled by too much reality-shifting madness to land all of its emotional punches. Time-travel sequences that might be highlights of the television series feel somewhat out of place in such an emotionally focused film, and though there's a terrific payoff for Kyon's arc, Nagato feels more underserved by this story's resolution. I'd have preferred if both Nagatos were allowed to be more active players in the narrative, but the story still works as-is, and Nagato's struggle is an inherently difficult thing to capture.
Disappearance comes in a cardboard slipcase and standard bluray case, housing the film subbed and dubbed on both blu-ray and DVD, as well as a separate DVD full of extras. The included dub fortunately maintains the actors from the original series, who continue to offer a strong alternative take on this very distinctive cast (though as with the series proper, it's hard for me to pass up on the iconic original crew). Along with various trailers and commercials, the bonus DVD is packed with footage from the film's production process and debut events. The location scouting footage that seems to accompany basically every Kyoto Animation release is the first segment, though it's limited to a visit to Disappearance's climactic hospital setting. There's also footage from the film's background music recording sessions, which includes an interesting segment of the film's key staff discussing the correct tempo for the melancholy theme song.
Along with footage from the film's two release events and the PV production, the last meaningful extra is a recording of the film's cutting and dubbing process, where Takemoto and executive director Tatsuya Ishihara discuss the sequencing of film shots. Overall, the extras provide an excellent window into the film's production process, making this collection a strong purchase in all regards. Haruhi Suzumiya has had a long and uneven anime history, but Disappearance represents a terrific high mark both for the franchise and the studio that brought it to life.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A-
+ Staggeringly effective tone piece that exposes new and fascinating aspects of Haruhi's core cast
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