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The Mike Toole Show
Whatever Happened to Haruhi Suzumiya?

by Michael Toole,

I was there at Otakon, when both FUNimation and Sentai Filmworks announced the rescue of a number of old Bandai Entertainment licenses. We knew it was coming, because at Anime Boston Sunrise's Mr. Masayuki Ozaki dropped broad hints about the company partnering up with new North American distributors to get their classics back on shelves. It also seemed evident, simply because blu-rays of fare like Code Geass and Cowboy Bebop have been quietly materializing on store shelves all over the world, except in America. So it was only a matter of time.

Now, we've got Cowboy Bebop in high-def (well, 1080i at any rate) on the horizon, and all's right with the world. But that got me thinking—Bebop's unquestionably one of the biggest anime franchises, period. When Ken Iyadomi was given the unfortunate (and, in my estimation, unfair) task of winding down operations at Bandai Entertainment, he revealed to Anime News Network that, of Bandai's titles, Bebop was “absolutely number one.” Numbers two through five? Well, there was Gundam Wing. That's still in limbo, thanks to the seemingly perpetual fumbling of the Gundam committee. But that committee is populated by true believers, and I'm certain that they're working on a Gundam Master Plan to get the good stuff available to fans again, hopefully before Ragnarok arrives. There's Outlaw Star and Escaflowne, which, like Cowboy Bebop, have landed neatly on FUNimation's release slate. Number five on that list? Well, who but Haruhi Suzumiya?

“ANNOUNCEMENT: I have a crush on Haruhi Suzumiya.” That's what the livejournal update of a buddy of mine stated, back in mid-April of 2006. I remember it vividly, because as spring brightened things up, it seemed like everygoddamnbody had a crush on Haruhi Suzumiya. This was probably when digital fansubs were at the height of their power; I also remember seeing a bit-torrent tracker registering over 20,000 seeds for a single episode of the TV series. Digital fansubs were never a big part of my anime-viewing diet, though, so I was content to watch the phenomenon grow from the sidelines. Before the year was up, Bandai would let fans know that they'd partnered up with Kadokawa Pictures USA to release The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, breaking the news via a series of odd viral videos, the ASOS Brigade. Interestingly, Bandai Entertainment is gone, but the ASOS website lives on, imploring fans to BUY HARUHI STUFF at a site that no longer exists. Like I said before the title splash: unfair.

By the time the DVDs arrived in spring of 2007, Haruhi-mania (or, more appropriately, Haruhi-ism) was going full blast, with cosplayers littering conventions and fans all over the world imitating the show's “Hare Hare Yukai” dance. I sat down to watch it for myself, and found a good show with lots of obvious appeal—it's beautifully-animated by Kyoto Animation. The story, based on Nagaru Tanigawa and Noizi Ito's light novels, does a wonderful job of capturing the milieu of high school, as a cadre of bored teenagers coalesces around the title character, a pretty but bossy and eccentric girl who brazenly takes over the school's dying literature club, blackmails herself a computer, and turns the whole affair into the SOS Brigade, a new school club dedicated to hunting down aliens, ESP users, and time travelers. Of course, Haruhi Suzumiya is surrounded by people like this; she's just too amped up to notice it.

But I resisted the series at first. It was too popular, right? And it was yet another high school sitcom. I mean, how could it possibly live up to the hype? What was the deal with the mobs of people doing the dance from the closing credits (conventions great and small used to have panels promising to teach the whole thing), and the red “SOS-dan” armbands, and the t-shirts and posters with the great big H, and the girls (and a few boys) walking around conventions who'd carefully pinned their hair up with a bright yellow ribbon, just like Haruhi? The dread specter of moe was now a constant presence, but only Haruhi was brazen enough to spell out precisely what it meant, and try to describe its appeal. But in spite of the cultishness of the fans at the time (that summer, I'd witness a gray-haired, fiftyish woman attempting to explain the difference between the show's broadcast order and DVD order to a hapless fellow shopper at Best Buy), the series was easy and fun to watch. Looking back, I particularly appreciate its thoughtful, unobtrusive approach to science fiction—SF elements are baked in there pretty heavily, but are understated, rarely shown directly, almost clinical. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya dabbles in time travel, but it feels less like Doctor Who and more like Primer.

There was a second season for Haruhi, and some comedy ONAs, but after surging for a year or two, the momentum for the franchise, at least on these shores, vanished seemingly overnight. Like a spring high tide, Haruhi-ism crested hugely, threatening to overtake everything else in the landscape, but then receded in the wake of heirs-apparent like Lucky Star. The prophet Robert Pollard tells us, “As we go up, we go down,” and that certainly happened in Haruhi's case. The anime series did get an impressive victory lap, a lengthy and ambitious film based on the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya novel; I figured I'd check it out when it got cheap. It never did, though. It just went out of print, exactly like the rest of the Haruhi Suzumiya anime. See what I mean? Unfair.

I still wanted to see it, though, so I set up my eBay alerts and Amazon wishlist to bark at me when a reasonably-priced copy hit the market. That happened last week, which is part of what put Haruhi on my mind. It's a shame that this movie came out at the tail end of the Haruhi fad and was more or less rushed out of print. Despite some problems with excessive length (I've been told to view it as a third season, just in film form, which isn't too bad, I guess?), it tells a smart little side story that gives the characters—in particular Kyon, the franchise's dour, cynical protagonist, and Yuki, the quiet, bookish “alien” girl—a fresh angle. What impresses me the most about the film is probably its characters’ body language—like the great Tsuneo Kobayashi, director Yasuhiro Takemoto has a gift for this kind of expression. He communicates more in the characters’ posture and expressions—Kyon's sideways glare and rueful smile, Haruhi, placing her arms akimbo and seeming to grow a foot taller, Mikuru's blubbering, bashful adorableness—than the film's dialogue itself. Watching the movie, weirdly enough, left me wanting more.

It's a little misleading of me to talk about this Haruhi business in the past tense. It's kinda over as a fad, but Tanigawa and Ito aren't finished with the novels. In fact, the English edition of the most recent book, The Surprise of Haruhi Suzumiya, is set to be published in November. The manga adaptation is spinning down, but that's got to be at least partly because it's all caught up with Tanigawa's source material. And there's still a tiny stream of Haruhi goods, like last January's Goth Lolita Haruhi. If you've got a shelf of Haruhi figures, you're probably pretty exhausted, because there have been hundreds, but they just keep making ‘em. At the end of the day, I just find it fascinating that the anime franchise has effectively disappeared, just like the character herself in the movie. (I'd wanted to title the column “The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya,” but that would've been a bit confounding, huh?) Three of Bandai Entertainment's five pillars are spoken for, and Gundam's kind of its own thing, but what's the deal with Haruhi and friends? Hopefully it's just a question of figuring stuff out with Kadokawa; at Otakon, I only spotted three Haruhi cosplayers among the thousands wandering the halls, and I kind of miss seeing her. So bring on the Resurrection of Haruhi Suzumiya! Even if it means another deluge of youtube dance videos.

Hmmm, I've only written around 1,200 words. I can't be done yet, can I?! Of course not. Another thing I enjoyed at Otakon was getting to meet Hiroyuki Kanbe, an accomplished anime director. Mr Kanbe worked on an old favorite of mine, the Fatal Fury movie! But he wasn't at Otakon to promote that, despite the fact that Discotek got the rights to it and are sourcing a film print to see if they can create an HD master, which would be A-W-E-S-O-M-E. Nope, he was at Otakon because he's the director of a series that, in many ways, has followed a fad trajectory a bit similar to Haruhi Suzumiya, only on a somewhat smaller scale: Oreimo, or as it's called in English, That Show Where the Guy Plays Filthy PC Games With His Little Sister.

I can really see Kanbe's hand at work in Oreimo—his use of camera whip-takes and smash cuts, and the only occasional but hugely expressive action/fight sequences, showcase a director who's obviously been influenced by his mentor, Masami Obari. I asked Mr Kanbe about Obari, and the director was effusive in his praise, saying he learned a lot from Obari and loved working with the man. When I tried to draw parallels between the slam-bang fight scenes in Fatal Fury and the slam-bang fight at the end of Oreimo (am I the only one who looks at that title and sees “Or Elmo?”), however, the director looked worried, and assumed me he wasn't going for that angle in a series like Oreimo.

“A series like Oreimo.” What does that mean? Well, even moreso than Haruhi, Oreimo is an otaku show, a series steeped in language and jokes and background that's going to make sense mostly to anime nerds. The hero's little sister, Kirino, is obsessed with eroge. Her best pal Ruri is a goth loli girl who writes her own VNs; later, she'll join the school video game club to work on a bullet hell title. Their older friend Saori is an old-school otaku who uses the pen name “Saori Bajeena,” just like that guy in Zeta Gundam. She's big into gunpla. If the preceding sentences made perfect sense to you, congratulations! You're like me, and have been watching this crap for way too long. But yeah, fearlessly slinging around jokes and terminology like that, sans explanation, is a big part of what makes this an otaku affair.

The most fascinating thing about Oreimo is also the most disturbing thing about Oreimo—the thrust of the show's jokes is that our hero, Kyousuke, discovers that his pretty, overachieving, but aloof little sister Kirino is obsessed with dirty PC games where the object is to pursue and hook up with your little sister. Her liking porn isn't that weird, but that specific type of porn?! He has to hide her secret to protect her, but in doing so is drawn in—he starts playing (and enjoying) the games with Kirino, and as he learns more about her school and social life, he starts helping her out with other problems. This feels somewhat natural at first, as the viewer is told that the two were close as small kids but grew apart; maybe Kyousuke just misses his kid sister. Throughout these stories, the jokes and questions about whether he's really into his little sister, in that way, are more or less constant. Kyousuke, perhaps getting frustrated with being his troublesome kid sister's keeper, plays that angle up a few times, mortifying their peers. He's ostensibly doing this for laughs, but it gets less and less funny as the show winds down and he's faced with the prospect of giving Kirino, an unrepentant otaku, the “good ending” that they'd watched in so many PC games together. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want this to get any more spoiler-y.

In that way, Oreimo gradually takes the idea of incest-- a persistent and nearly universal taboo, one with both social and biological grounding—and turns it into a hilarious joke, with the “are they or aren't they?” subtext creating static right to the last moment. It's certainly audacious, but for me, it rings hollow—creator Tsukasa Fushimi creates an entire story where the gags wind up with “it's not really like that,” only to abruptly change directions in the dying few episodes. Maybe I'm just expressing my own frustration, since I enjoyed Kyousuke's awkward relationship with Ruri.

Still, I can't completely dismiss Oreimo out of hand. What's most interesting about the franchise, as my friend Carl Horn pointed out to me this year (Dark Horse, his employer, is currently releasing the Oreimo manga), is Kirino herself. She's kind of annoying, kind of one-note, vacillating between a little brat and a gibbering, almost inarticulate nerd. But her fangirl nature makes her interesting—she may be pretty and popular, but she's still an otaku who can't really come out of the closet, so to speak. When her best pal at school gets a hint of Kirino's hobbies, she openly expresses disgust. I find that a bit surprising, since my non-anime-nerd family, friends, and colleagues all know about my hobby, but Carl pointed out to me that at Dark Horse he still gets letters from fans grousing about how they can't reveal their favorite stuff to their family, their church, or their military unit.

is also a very pretty, well-animated series, made even more interesting by its fairly unconventional director and the fact that it switched studios between seasons. (I wouldn't have noticed this if it wasn't for Sword Art Online character artist Tetsuya Kawami; at the panel, he dutifully got in line for the Q&A and quizzed Mr Kanbe about the difficulties of switching studios, and that is why you go to the goddamn panels with the people who make anime, kids). But what's made it stand out to me recently is its ascendancy—a lot of people have been talking about its ending—and how it developed as a franchise. Oreimo doesn't have the breadth of fans that Haruhi did at its apex, but just like Haruhi, it all started with light novels, then anime, manga, and an avalanche of character goods. Next year, the rising tide of whatever's coming next will have overtaken it. I wonder if it'll wash up on our shores again, down the road.
Since I've spent this joint talking about a couple of prominent moe anime series, I'll close with this picture, which has been floating around tumblr lately. (Ha! Tumblr.)

The image is probably for laughs, but its message is clear—before moe, anime was somehow better. And the moe era, which isn't really defined, somehow wrecked things! Of course, I had to flip the formula.

Am I trying to correct the definition of moe or the “moe era” in this image? Nah, I'm just trying to reveal a universal truth: things didn't somehow go bad, they were always bad! And moe anime, like any other genre, is chock full of goodness and badness; it's what you make of it.

Alright, now that I've got you chewing on that, riddle me this: when do you think the “moe era” began? For me, it started with Love Hina in 2001; prior to that, I hadn't given the harem mechanics so skillfully employed by the series much thought. But in Love Hina, I saw fans flocking to a show that seemed kinda mediocre to me, all for an easy fix of cute girls and simple character relationships. Additionally, do you want Haruhi back? Or Oreimo? Who would win in a fight, Kyon or Kyousuke? Kirino or Haruhi? Popeye or Goku? Sound off in the comments!

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