Reviewby Theron Martin, May 31st 2007
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Mikuru, a battle waitress from the future, must battle the evil alien witch Yuki to protect Itsuki, an innocent young man with unrealized psychic powers, from her clutches. . .
No, wait. Actually, first-year high school student Kyon's prospects for an ordinary high school life were shattered when Haruhi Suzimiya, the pretty, smart, and multitalented girl sitting behind him in homeroom stood up and introduced herself with the bold declaration that she was not interested in normal people, only “time-travelers, aliens, and espers.” Daring to talk to her anyway, Kyon gets caught up in her schemes when, after finding the school's other clubs lacking, she takes his advice and forms her own, soon dubbed the SOS Brigade, with the stated goal of investigating “unusual occurrences” and with him as the first draftee. Also dragged or cajoled into the club are bookworm Yuki (whose defunct Literary Club provides the club room), very moe upperclassman Mikuru (the mascot), and friendly Itsuki (the “mysterious transfer student”). What Kyon gradually discovers, but Haruhi herself utterly fails to realize, is that Haruhi has inadvertently surrounded herself with the very kind of people she was looking for, and they are all there to watch her because she is the most extraordinary one of them all.
An anime series made specifically for otaku usually fares no better than moderately well, as targeting it at whatever niche market it panders to inherently limits its potential appeal. Every so often, though, one finds just the right tone, or puts together just the right combination of gimmicks, to break beyond its limitations and become a smashing success. In 2006 that series was the megahit The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya (hereafter MoHS), whose intrinsic oddity, bold characters, strong technical merits, and boatload of fan-pleasing gimmickry have won it immense popularity (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) in fan communities on both sides of the Pacific. Even its marketing campaign has been quite far off the beaten path, but one would expect nothing less from one of the most eccentric titles in recent years.
MoHS wastes no time in revealing its eccentricities. Episode 00, which starts off the series, is actually composed of a grainy, deliberately amateurish film which features key cast members playing out a disjointed and horribly clichéd story narrated in off-the-cuff fashion by the one main character we don't see in it; all part of a project made for a school festival, we later discover, and the reactions of the cast members to seeing the completed film are classic. To open a series with something so deliberately bad that it's funny may be risky, but it certainly caught the attention of fandom. The real story actually begins with the second episode, which is numbered Episode 01. Though a person could actually entirely skip the first episode and not miss anything important to the plot, the novelty of the experience would be lost, as would an appreciation for the cleverness of the foreshadowing used in it; one of the conceits of the first episode, which only becomes apparent later on, is that the roles the key cast members play in the film are actually uncannily close to their true natures. Another oddity came in the fourth broadcast episode, which originally jumped ahead to episode 7. This DVD release does not do this, however, instead opting to release the episodes in chronological rather than the scrambled broadcast order. While it costs the series some of its unique feel, the story does make more immediate sense this way.
Some of the series' charm also comes from the way it skewers assorted anime conventions and fandom peculiarities without exactly parodying them. It toys with the current Japanese otaku fascination with moe in the same way that a cat plays with a ball of yarn, addresses the “girl with glasses” fetish in two different ways, and unabashedly puts its two female leads in bunny costumes for the explicit purpose of exploiting sex appeal to gain attention. Its use of fan service carries a different feel from most other series, partly because it does not resort to the stereotypical tawdry reactions normally seen in more risqué anime comedies. Most importantly, it revels in finding clever ways to explain the inclusion of fan-fave elements like psychics, aliens, time-travelers, and (for all practical purposes) gods in a normal high school setting. There are even hints of an underlying romance, as Haruhi's actions subtly suggest that her deigning to carry on conversations with the completely normal Kyon, and getting him involved in her schemes, may have deeper implications.
For all its slick use of story oddities, though, the central characters are the heart of the series' appeal. For decades anime titles have been replete with bold, assertive female leads that buck Japanese societal norms, but the title character here is in a class by herself. Rather than rely on partial insanity, hyperactivity, or stupidity, as most such heroines do, Haruhi achieves her dominance through sheer force of personality. She isn't crazy at all, as there is always a method to her seeming madness; she just has a unique world view, the audacity and aggressiveness to ruthlessly pursue it without being at all concerned with what others think, and apparently gets bored easily. Kyon, who also narrates, is at least as much of a delight as the low-key and somewhat cynical young man who increasingly finds himself mixed up in all the weirdness surrounding Haruhi and seems to lack the means (and possibly desire?) to extricate himself from it. He gets to see the big picture that Haruhi misses, which provides a window onto Haruhi's world for the viewer to watch and experience. Other key characters, though they may seem stereotypical, hold their own surprises, such as the placid, soft-spoken bookworm Yuki, who delivers onto Kyon a mass of startling revelations; much-suffering Mikuru, who actually has her own secret agenda despite appearing to be totally at Haruhi's mercy; and congenial Itsuki, who actually is a “mysterious transfer student” because of his own ulterior motives. A couple of other characters who have appeared so far also have hidden identities, though they are not revealed in this block of episodes.
MoHS is one of an increasing number of anime series based off of Japanese “lite novel” series rather than manga, and it adapts beautifully to animated form. Its scripting paces the first few episodes well, use of visual perspective and scene framing is consistently interesting, and the visuals bring out the full richness of its abnormalities while still retaining the context of an ordinary high school. That the visuals are also particularly eye-pleasing doesn't hurt. The distinctive, well-drawn, and clearly-defined character designs visually model the personality quirks of each character better than most series and provide just the right balance of cute and sexy for Haruhi and Mikuru, both of whom look especially good in the bunny costumes in Episodes 02 and (for Mikuru) 00. Quality scenery and background art contribute to a great overall look, while the animation is especially smooth and detailed for series anime; even the degree of background animation is unusually high. It shines brightest in the fully-animated dance number in the closer, which also has its characters lip-synching to the lyrics. Kyoto Animation proved on Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu? that it could produce high-quality work, and this is just another great example of that.
Also worth noting is that the DVD release has some slight alterations to the artwork used in the original broadcast episodes, primarily to correct minor inconsistencies that cropped up over the course of the series. A viewer who has seen the fansubbed episodes will have to be particularly astute to catch the exact changes, however, and only those who have seen the fansubs through to the end are likely to notice and appreciate the corrections.
The soundtrack remains unobtrusive throughout most of the content in these episodes, its job here only to subtly enhance the quirky or comical side of scenes rather play a lead role. It distinguishes itself much more in the J-Pop opener and closer, which are performed by Haruhi's seiyuu Aya Hirano and the trio of seiyuu for the female SOS Brigade members, respectively, although the animation steals the show in the closer.
The English dub has been of particular interest to fans, so Bang Zoom! has assembled an all-star cast for the job. The efficacy of the performances varies. Crispin Freeman has proven in the past that he can do the sardonic, put-upon male lead well (think Shannon in Scrapped Princess), so he is an ideal fit as Kyon, and Stephanie “Eureka/Orihime” Sheh so closely mimics the unique original vocal style for Mikuru that at times it can be hard to tell that it's a different actor doing the English role. Johnny Bosch works reasonably well as Itsuki, as do the performances in most supporting roles, but Michelle Ruff struggles to find the proper style for Yuki, with the monotone she has settled on sounding duller than it should. The key performance, of course, is Wendee Lee's rendition of Haruhi, which certainly has the tone, enthusiasm, and delivery style right but differs enough in inflection and vocal quality that it will take some getting used to for fans who have heard the original Japanese performance first.
The English script sticks close to the original, with only minor adjustments evident, but the English subtitles have made some odd choices in their translation. “Future man,” while it may be more literally accurate, does not sound as good as the “time traveler” used in the dub, nor does the truncation of the Data Integration Thought Entity referred to in episodes 02 and 03 to just “thought entity” despite being recited completely in the dub. The font used for the subtitles is a little larger than normal, which makes one wonder if screen space may have been an issue shaping these choices. Watching the series at least once dubbed-only is also advisable because the subtitles sometimes cover up meaningful on-screen text. Unfortunately releasing the episodes in chronological order has forced the replacement of the original catchy Next Episode spots, but that is a carry-over from the Japanese DVD release (which was also in chronological order).
Bandai Entertainment has not had a good track record of late for putting Extras on their releases, but the first volume of MoHS comes well-stocked. The DVD itself is marked with the SOS Brigade emblem, and includes Extras such as the clean opener and closer for Episode 00, live-action Japanese TV spots featuring Haruhi's seiyuu, “Making of” clips that are actually about the live-action spots, and the original Next Episode previews from the TV broadcasts. Most notable is the inclusion of Parts 00, 01, and 02 of “The Adventures of the ASOS Brigade,” the video clips featuring Patricia Lee (of Power Rangers notoriety) and two of the original seiyuu that were used on the quirky ASOS Brigade website (www.asosbrigade.com) to help promote and make announcements about the series' American release. Watching these will allow newcomers to appreciate how truly oddball the series' promotion has been so far. The Limited Edition version also comes with a custom art box, a CD soundtrack, a double-sided pencil board, an iron-on patch, and a hair ribbon.
For all it cleverness, the first volume of MoHS does not portray it as an especially deep or philosophical title, and can be fairly accused of being derivative. Though many aspects of the series may provoke discussion, it is still, at heart, a humorous otaku funfest (albeit an extremely good one), and is best appreciated if one does not lose sight of that. Not everyone will “get” the series, especially if you're a novice anime fan, but for those that do this is just the start of one hell of an entertaining ride.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Clever, well-animated, good set of Extras.
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