The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Once upon a time, Kyon wanted to believe that aliens, time travelers, and ESPers were real. By the time he graduated from middle school, he realized these things were only to be found on television, and not in the realm of reality. So Kyon was fully prepared to live a normal, uneventful high school life ... until the first day of school, when she came into his world.
Her name was Suzumiya Haruhi, and she was not in the least bit interested in normal human beings, but rather, sought the company of aliens, time travelers, and ESPers, in order to find and solve the mysteries around her.
Of course, nothing of the sort really exists, but Kyon made the mistake of humoring her - and became the first underling in the newest club on campus, the SOS Brigade, saving the world one mystery at a time.
Now Kyon was about to find out just how thoroughly Suzumiya Haruhi was going to change his reality forever.
The first episode of this series is quite likely the weirdest concept for an opener I've seen in years. It's pure metafiction -- a fan-produced magical girl film produced (very badly) by the SOS Brigade for their school's cultural festival, and chronologically, it's somewhere in the middle of the story. Kyon's running commentary as the narrator points out every production flaw and occasionally gets personally involved with the onscreen action in ways no narrator should. It's somewhat amusing, but it seems at first glance to be hardly relevant to the actual show, which really begins with the second episode.
Oddly enough, unlike most anime on television these days, Haruhi isn't precisely a serial -- the episodes do not run in chronological order. Further demonstrating this, the episode previews for the show have Haruhi announcing the chronological number of each episode, and Kyon loudly correcting her and giving the episode number as aired on television. However, this series is not episodic, either -- it is clearly supposed to be viewed in airing order as there is in fact an overarcing plotline. Confused yet?
But then, The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is one serious curveball of a show, which tries almost a bit too hard to be unlike anything else in anime. While it still relies at times on the tried and true tropes of school comedies (and, well, just about every genre in the book), it uses those tropes in refreshingly creative ways that simultaneously act as homage and parody.
The most lively thing about the show is Haruhi herself. She clearly does not live in the same reality as the vast majority of humankind, and flatly refuses to conform to societal norms or even employ the least bit of tact, instead, deriding average high schoolers and their goals as boring and repetitive. Essentially, she is the antithesis of the stereotypical "Japanese schoolgirl", openly seeking unusual people to have unusual experiences with. The show's events are clearly driven by her whims and desires, and while at times it seems she can be a walking non-sequitur, Haruhi's actions have a bizarre sense of internal consistency to them. She knows what she wants, and she's not going to let petty things such as "rules", "teachers", "feelings", and "morals" get in her way. She's brilliant, obnoxiously cheerful, and entirely heedless of how others think of her, and constantly willing to pat her own back in the process. I imagine a lot of people are going to come into this wondering what sort of crack Haruhi is on, because she will undoubtedly strike most audiences as strange, even for anime -- most shows would not have the cojones to feature a character like this as the lead, but rather, as comic relief.
Granted, we have Kyon as the would-be Benedick to Haruhi's Beatrice. Kyon isn't his real name, of course, but a nickname, and contrary to the title, it is through his eyes that we see the story unfold. Kyon is a rather standard seinen archetype of the jaded, unmotivated sort, but he is quite often the only voice of reason in the cast. That's not to say Haruhi actually listens to him -- and he is entirely, agonizingly aware of this, but he nevertheless feels attached to her, partially out of morbid curiosity, and partially because he really doesn't have a choice (she wants him around, end of story). He is the only "normal human" in the SOS Brigade, but he is clearly not normal because any "normal human" would rather remain blissfully ignorant and dismiss Haruhi as simply being eccentric and abnormal.
The rest of the SOS Brigade are comprised of what initially seem to be rather broad school comedy stereotypes that may as well have come from other series. Nagato Yuki is the nearly silent bookworm who only talks when there's something truly important to say. Asahina Mikuru is the earnest, but slow "cute girl" who Haruhi all-but-drags into the club due to her "moe appeal". Koizumi Itsuki is the cocky, rich transfer student with a mysterious past (or so claims Haruhi). Of course, none of them are really initially what they seem, especially Yuki, who occasionally outright steals the show in later episodes.
It's at this point where you're wondering why I popped that "science fiction" tag in the genre field, because up until this point, Suzumiya Haruhi seems like a skewed, but reasonably "normal" high school comedy.
Actually, it isn't, and it doesn't take long for some science-fiction elements to start cropping up in the series. (No, Haruhi wasn't kidding about those "aliens, time travelers, and espers".) However, it's nowhere near as blatant as most -- there's no spaceships flying around in broad daylight, like Please Teacher! or Kashimashi, and no great shows of psychic combat, at least not immediately. The transition is more subtle than in most stories, and the viewer is introduced to things just as Kyon sees them. And of course, him being the "normal human", it's going to take him a bit to adjust his perceptions of what the "real world" really is.
While Haruhi isn't exactly a Mamoru Oshii film, it does take a stab at subverting the contrived "standard" anime cliches and exploring how they would really come to pass in a real world situation -- early episodes lampoon the "miracle baseball team" and "murder in a locked room mystery" tropes, among others, while the character Mikuru is often exploited as the object of just about every otaku fetish possible.
You'll also have to toss out your preconceived notions about how fanservice is "supposed to happen" in anime, though, because it's a bit more aggressive in Suzumiya Haruhi, though mercifully less frequent and far less bawdy than most. In virtually every other show these days, we're treated to countless scenes of "accidental" fanservice, in which the main male protagonist is placed into contrived situations where he ends up in a compromising position with a girl. This is actually not the case in this show, where Haruhi gleefully puts herself (but more usually, Mikuru) in these positions, usually in order to profit out of blackmailing others, to gain more attention for herself and the SOS Brigade, or even just out of a sense of schadenfreude or to avoid outright boredom. This behavior occasionally crosses boundaries of taste (at times even downright unsavory) and while this show isn't ecchi, Haruhi's treatment of Mikuru might tick some people off. Kyon, thankfully, has the presence of mind to consciously avoid the vast majority of this, which is refreshing in and of itself.
Granted, even the funniest fanservice isn't enough to carry a show, but in the case of Haruhi, it's not the fanservice that carries the series at all. The scriptwriting, for one, is rather strong, which is a blessing because Haruhi is one of the most narration-heavy series I've ever seen. However cynical and sarcastic Kyon can be, it never comes off as unnatural or "sitcommy" in the least -- Sugita Tomokazu (Hideki, Chobits) does an excellent job of making Kyon's dry wit seem utterly effortless. Of course, Hirano Aya (Mamori, Eyeshield 21) is fantastic as the ever-bizarre Haruhi, and I have no real problems with the rest of the cast. Chihara Minori (Natsume Aya, Tenjho Tenge) hits just the right notes as usually taciturn Yuki (when she's got lines, she's got lines), and Ono Daisuke (Asuta, Kashimashi) has the right amount of smarm for his role. And yes, that "constantly-coerced-on-the-verge-of-tears" feel that Goto Yuko (Rein, Fushigiboshi no Futagohime) gives to Mikuru is entirely intentional, if occasionally a little cloying and irritating.
When we are introduced to the science-fiction aspects of the show, the animation is fairly flashy CG, but for the most part, the visuals rely on the appealing character designs, bright color palette, and lush background work (though for Hyogo Prefecture, there's a surprising lack of Kansai-ben in the script) rather than detailed animation. However, the emulation of poorly edited "fan film" in the first episode is very well executed. Musically, the background music is rather conventional, as are the chirpy (though catchy) J-pop opening and ending songs. (The rock-style insert songs in episode 12, however, are fantastic!) They really seem to have blown a large portion of 2006 animation budgets on dancing OP-ED sequences, come to think of it, and Haruhi is no exception in that regard.
I'm not so sure about the choice of making the episode releases anachronic, though: the sometimes-abrupt transitions between storylines are often confusing to audiences. It's almost as if someone has randomly shuffled the chapters in a really good book, and I can't help but get the feeling that the whimsical, aimless direction of the metafictional "Mikuru-chan" movie is just a metaphor for the actual TV series (only the actual series has a better budget). On the other hand, they may simply be "saving the best for last", as each episode builds onto the previous one despite not always being "chronologically correct" as it were. Unlike most shows these days, where it only takes one or two episodes to figure out what's going on, Haruhi takes about four or five, which is normally detrimental, but isn't, because this series has a lot more to say than most of what else is on television.
While much of the show revolves around the escapist fantasy-turned-reality that Haruhi brings into being, one wonders if this is, in fact, a show about what Kyon subconsciously wants, as he himself expresses the desire to see those very same "aliens, time travelers, and espers" that he'd grown up believing in. As much as I enjoyed watching Haruhi's antics, I was equally intrigued by Kyon's sometimes acerbic, sometimes poetic, but and surprisingly true-to-life internal monologue. Having his point of view quite readily reminds us that this is a seinen series, and that Haruhi herself may as well be a cynical, postmodern take on the Belldandy magical girlfriend cliche (without the "girlfriend" part ... at least for now).
Ultimately, The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is anything but melancholy, but rather, a wild, imaginative journey through a world that isn't as mundane as it looks. After all, just how normal can this world be if it's got Haruhi in it? She's a real trip, and while the entire show is an exercise in making sure Haruhi isn't (ahem) melancholic, this should do pretty well to cure the boredom of even the most jaded fan.
As for me, I can't wait for the next series to come out!
The trick is to get past that doozy of a first episode (ideally, the first five episodes), and even then, this seems to be yet another show that will polarize the anime diehards into 'love it or hate it' categories, thanks to the gloriously abnormal lead. Add a star if like you enjoy 'magical realism' or school comedies, or don't mind the occasional drop in pacing for 'slice-of-life' episodes involving Kyon. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: There is some fanservice that is largely played for laughs, but may nevertheless offend conservative audiences. Also some violence in a couple of selected episodes with some blood, but this is fairly radically different content from most of the show. Teens and up.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub
Review Status: Full (14/14)
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya © 2006 Tanigawa Nagaru / Ito Noizi / SOS-Dan
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