Oct 15, 2012

Anime Review: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Bold red letter H with SOS inside next to a silhouette of the main character, HaruhiOnce in a while, an anime series will get popular. Like, really popular. Often it is one of those never-ending serials like Naruto or Bleach, following in the footsteps of early sensations like Dragon Ball.

And then there is Haruhi.

The widespread adoration and near-universal acclaim the series has garnered since its inception baffles me. I mean, it’s not a bad series. It’s actually pretty good, above average even. But shit, it’s not that good, people! (I subscribe to the belief that it was merely lucky.) This is especially true given the shenanigans it has pulled over the years, but more on that later.

Getting past the hype, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a solid series, well worth giving a chance, but it is hampered by a lack of direction and focus. Where it excels is having a quite clever premise and a solid group of purposefully archetypical characters with excellent voice actors balanced by a witty and sympathetic narrator as straight man.

The main cast all side-by-side against a wall.

The character designs are deliberate and effective, utilizing a lot of well-known and proven story writing tricks. They employ many clichés but knowingly so, even managing to more or less explain why through the story. The male lead is casual, detached, and frequently exasperated by the antics going on around him, providing amusing inner reactions and narration and performs admirably as an anchor for the viewer to relate to. Which is much appreciated because the rest of the cast includes: a stock moe ditzy klutz girl from the future, a seemingly dull and quiet book-nerd of few words actually an android from space, and an awfully polite and handsome fellow with secret ESP abilities. And then there’s Haruhi herself, a wildly unpredictable nutcase who’s subconscious just so happens, unbeknownst to her, to control reality and the world. If she imagines laser eye beams, it can actually suddenly happen.

In fact, it is her desire to meet someone from the future, an alien, and an esper, that seems to have manifested the very people she has come to associate with in her little SOS Brigade school club. And yet she has no idea this is the case, and the rest of the cast actively attempts to maintain her ignorance, fearing what could happen. You see, already her latent abilities to reshape the world are causing inter-dimensional trouble.

But don’t let all of that sci-fi mumbo-jumbo confuse you, because for the most part Haruhi disappointingly usually treats it as an excuse to do a lot of random… stuff. Episodic is an understatement.

The first season, which originally aired back in 2006, was half plot episodes and half random filler. Curiously to the rest of us, they made a big splash by airing them out of order. The plot episodes were in order but they were interspersed with the later (chronologically speaking) filler episodes in no particular order. This had the effect of seeing characters and developments you weren’t previously acquainted with and then later in a plot episode finally seeing them introduced. It was a gimmick, to be sure, but it made a lot of [virtual?] headlines for being a bold and unique approach and it also, in my opinion, sort of solved the problem of “how do we keep this interesting enough after the plot episodes finish”.

Because that’s where things start to falter. Once the meat of the story is over you’re left with a handful of random encounters and occasional two-part mini-stories. They are entertaining and fun, especially now that you are invested in the characters, but they wholly fail to move things forward in any meaningful way. And that’s a real shame, too, because like I said the premise (that sci-fi junk I mentioned before) is actually pretty damn interesting.

Haruhi boasts some, for its time, very good animation (courtesy once more of the ever impressive Kyoto Animation group) and the production all-around is solid. But you can’t help feeling like you got a half-story that abruptly ends right when things are getting really good.

Title card for episode 00, The Adventures of Mikuru AsahinaBack in 2006, I remember sitting down to watch it with some college roommates, knowing little about what I was getting into, and us being in stitches with the first episode (which was actually a filler episode with the whole cast already introduced, none of whom we had any idea who were). This was the famous parody video the characters produce for their school culture festival, a sort of terrible b-movie mash-up of all sorts of anime genres from magical girl to fighting and so on. It managed to do a really good job of both parodying the various genres (with lots of subtle nods and in-jokes) and yet also capture the really shitty student video aspects: characters awkwardly standing/swaying, terrible lines and acting, unfortunate background things like cars driving by as they are filming, amateurish MIDI soundtrack, etc., all on top of a plot that leaps around with no sense of connection.

Six years later, I’ve since learned that Haruhi got a sort of second season, so I sat down to re-watch the whole thing with the new stuff. They re-aired the series in 2009, but this time in chronological order and with several new episodes in-between the original 2006 ones, effectively doubling the total number of episodes. Unfortunately, while not completely worthless, it was not worth the wait. The new episodes primarily make up two new arcs. One lasts five episodes and presents the events leading up to and during the filming of said culture festival video, which previously we’d only gotten hints at and then seen the aftermath.

And then there’s Endless Eight.

Comparison of the same scene in all eight episodesThe name says it all, really. Eight of the new episodes all with the same title and devoted to a great, in theory, concept of a time loop. Due to Haruhi’s subconscious desire for summer not to end because she has so many things she wants to do before school starts up again, the characters find themselves in a sort of Groundhog’s Day situation of repeating the same last two weeks of summer before school. None of them know it, though, after it resets, but our narrator finds himself having strange feelings of deja-vu, remnants of past loops as they later surmise. Among them, only the android girl is aware of it all, though being an observer she never tells them, and instead plays along, each time, as they go through the same events and they, yet again, discover the loop and, yet again, fail to resolve it. It is a fascinating concept, especially for the implications on the android girl, as she reveals they have been doing this over 15,000 times, totaling nearly 600 years by her observation. (One can only imagine how unfathomably bored she must be!)

But the potential is wasted, so very wasted. So much could be explored with the loop, attempts to resolve it, and, more so, on developing the android character. Instead, you are treated to eight fucking episodes of the same damn thing. I’m not kidding. It is the same dialog, same events, every. fucking. time. What really kills me is that they actually re-animate the whole thing, using new angles, outfits, scene composition, you name it, with no footage that I could tell being re-used. The dialog is also re-recorded and varies ever so slightly. Maybe he says it different this time because he was sitting and then stands up in the middle, giving a little grunt as he stands to the middle of the delivery. But it is the same line. Each time they discuss the loop and each time they fail to break out. And you get another episode of the same thing. And again. And again. It is infuriating how much they could have had progression each time. Perhaps have him slightly more and more aware of the loop sooner, which they kind of sort of do temporarily and then backpedal on. But no. It’s just a repeat each time. Kudos for consistency and re-animating and re-recording and all that. But my god. Why? When the fans only get a handful of new episodes as part of this “season two”, why waste the majority of them on this pointlessness? I won’t spoil the eventual resolution outright, but I’ll just go ahead and tell you it’s dumb and anti-climactic. Maybe the pointless repetition could have sort of redeemed itself with a satisfying finish. But no, there is none of that. You can probably tell I’m a bit bitter, but it is because I effectively spent 3 hours watching the same episode.


Anyway, despite these glaring problems, I still enjoyed the series, and the omake stuff is weird and random and kinda fun, but ultimately there is little satisfying and lasting with Haruhi. Its problems don’t outweigh its good points but even so you’ll be wishing, just as I am, that they had spent more time on a concrete and satisfying story. As it stands, the first six plot episodes remain the high point, followed by twenty or so episodes of… other stuff. Oh well.

As of this writing, you can watch both seasons of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, including both omake series, for free on Crunchyroll.


Having now seen the movie, I felt I should say a bit more. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a fantastic bookend to the TV series and it only proves to me that the premise is wonderfully clever with loads of potential. It also makes it all the more infuriating: why the hell did they so often squander it?

As I said above, the first six plot episodes are great, followed by what amounts to filler and more filler briefly interrupted in the middle by an excruciating series of repeat episodes. Then the movie, which takes place chronologically right after the series ends, once again finds the reigns and gallops full-speed through over two and a half hours of meaty plot.

I’d always thought that Yuki, the android girl, was severely under utilized and, worse, under developed. The Endless Eight further cemented that in my mind, as I thought she could be a fascinating vessel for story exploration. And without spoiling anything, the movie takes the cue and finds just the potential I knew was there all along. It’s moving and dramatic and it even serves to push our dear narrator to make a firm decision about the events that he so far has just let happen to him as a passive complainer.

I dare say the movie just about fully redeems the whole series including the Endless Eight fiasco. But it also makes the lame decisions in the middle stand out ever the more!

Unfortunately, Crunchyroll doesn’t carry it (do they carry any movies?) so you’re on your own.

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