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The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: The Legacy of a Genre Shifting Classic

In the opening scene of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the titular character proudly declares to her fellow high school freshmen that she has zero interest in normal people; only the paranormal and weird are to be in her clique and to hell with everyone else!

That is a good way to describe the world of Haruhi Suzumiya; an often zany anime that offered something to audiences that didn’t quite fit into any genre.

Based on light novels by Nagaru Tanigawa, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is comedy-science fiction-romance-fantasy-mystery-slice of life-high school drama. It can be best defined for its often zany shenanigans, refreshing examinations of certain anime tropes and character archetypes, and the rather explosive popularity it received after its first season aired in 2006.

It spawned a controversial second season in 2009, several spin-offs, and the beautifully animated movie; The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, in 2010.

THE PREMISE

Our protagonist is actually “Kyon” (Tomokazu Sugita), an overly snarky student who serves as our opinionated narrator. His expectations for a normal high school life go out the window when he meets Haruhi Suzumiya (Aya Hirano); an eccentric and haughty girl who is easily bored by those around her, looking for the strange and paranormal. Kyon strikes up conversations with Haruhi, unintentionally inspiring her to found her own school club, the “SOS Brigade”, to fulfil her passions. Kyon’s life goes topsy turvy as he deals with Haruhi’s often bonkers, demanding antics.

To form the club, Haruhi literally drags in club members to join – Yuki Nagato (Minori Chihara); a quiet bookworm who happens to be the sole member of the literary club, Haruhi “borrowing” the club room, Mikuru Asahina (Yuko Goto); a shy second year who Haruhi forces to become the club’s cute mascot, and Itsuki Koizumi (Daisuke Ono); a philosophical, affable newcomer to fill the “mysterious transfer student” role. At first, the anime looks like it’ll be a wacky slice of life romance. Then everything goes completely off the rails.

Those paranormal figures that Haruhi looks for turn out to be all around her. One by one, Kyon discovers his new clubmates are not what they seem. In fact, each twist is played rather casually, instead of the expected dramatic reveal. Yuki turns out to be a extra-terrestrial robot girl, Mikuru is a time traveller from the future, and Koizumi is an esper. As for Haruhi, the three others were sent to observe her by shadowy groups, as the club leader may or may not be a reality-warping god.

Kyon takes all this with a huge grain of salt, until physical evidence is provided; it is up to the SOS Brigade to keep Haruhi motivated and entertained, otherwise she could, in theory, choose to recreate or destroy the world. The supernatural elements are balanced out by the more grounded relationships, or used to deliver more creative takes on certain stock episodes found in high school anime. For instance, the traditional baseball episode becomes a race against time to win the match, or Haruhi’s mood could spell doomsday.

The anime’s success quickly turned Haruhi into a cash cow franchise, made Kyoto Animation a household name, as well as skyrocketing the career of Aya Hirano into the stratosphere. Perhaps the most iconic part of the anime was the credits’ theme song, “Hare Hare Yukai”, complete with a dance sequence that just everyone memorised and copied, including yours truly more or less…

CHARACTERS

Our cast is small, though complex. Each character has to deal with Haruhi’s often demanding whims in their own way.  Haruhi tries to insert her friends into anime archetypes, but they don’t stay put. Koizumi appears affably sycophantic towards Haruhi, but is very shrewd and philosophical regarding her actual status as a god. He and his fellow espers must travel into a pocket dimension called “Closed Space”, subconsciously made by Haruhi, where kaiju-sized giants demolish a lifeless cityscape to enact her inner frustrations.

Mikuru never quite escapes her role as the cute, shy mascot, but comes to enjoy certain parts of her “role” in the club. Kyon meets her future self repeatedly, who is confident and even manipulative; traits which the modern day Mikuru never gains. Future Mikuru appears to take Kyon to important events in the timeline that he either seems to cause or trigger. Mikuru’s best friend, the eternally cackling Tsuruya (Yuki Matsuoka), is somewhat of an honourary club member, and has vague connections to Koizumi’s group.

Yuki is at first an expy of Rei Amamiya from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but her subtle character development is endearing through her closeness to Kyon. Another character, Ryoko Asakura (Natsuko Kuwatani), the quintessential friendly class president, turns out to be a fellow alien; choosing to make an attempt on Kyon’s life to see how Haruhi reacts to his death. Ryoko is erased from reality by Yuki, though she returns in the spin-offs.

Kyon’s engaging, often sarcasm-peppered commentary captures his frustrations, excitement, and amusement of the world around him. He is often the fall guy for Haruhi’s whims, although their relationship, at least in Haruhi’s eyes, is clearly something special. He was the first person to openly befriend her in school, which appears contradictory to Haruhi’s “no muggles” view of the world. Kyon himself comes to secretly enjoy his school life, though often with a hefty amount of frustrated objections and resignation. It has been theorised that Kyon himself is the godly figure, bringing forth his desires for a more imaginative existence through Haruhi.

Then, we have Haruhi herself, who can be a very divisive character. She can be unbearable at times, being outright cruel and abusive to her friends, especially in her mistreatment towards Mikuru, who she often sexually harasses. In the second season, the club create a film for their school festival, which nearly implodes when Kyon is outraged to learn that Haruhi has drugged Mikuru, proclaiming her a “plaything”. Their argument culminates in Kyon nearly punching Haruhi. Luckily, the two make up after some soul searching, especially in Haruhi, who is implied to have realised she went too far, nearly losing her confidante.

THE “ENDLESS EIGHT” SAGA

The second season debuted in 2009. Despite a good start, the season soon came to a grinding halt when the infamous “Endless Eight” multi-parter aired.

In short, the SOS Brigade are caught in a never-ending time loop, reliving the last two weeks of summer thanks to Haruhi wanting it to last forever. This went on for eight episodes, with the same scenes and dialogue repeating, though with minor tweaks. Much like the characters repeating the summer 15,000 times, to viewers, it was a gruelling labour. An enormous backlash occurred, with several members of the series’ staff apologising. The English dub cast – consisting of Wendee Lee (Haruhi), Crispin Freeman (Kyon), Michelle Ruff (Yuki), Stephanie Sheh (Mikuru), and Johnny Young Bosch (Koizumi) – considered doing ad-libbing during the recording sessions, but chose to play it straight.

Kyon successfully breaks the loop upon realising the club have yet to do their homework, convincing Haruhi to arrange a final activity day. But, many had been put off by the long-winded saga. Just why had it been included and wasted half of the season? Well, it turns out the Endless Eight served a purpose.

Originally, “The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya” arc was going to be adapted into the season. But, because there was so much to explore, the staff refused to cut down the story. Instead, the arc was turned into a movie, leaving eight episodes to fill. As “Disappearance” is set in December and included important story beats, they could not adapt any more light novels beyond. Thus, the Endless Eight was adapted. Although it was a challenge to get through, it provided important character growth for Yuki, who remained completely aware of the time loop for the equivalent of 500 years!

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA

The peak of Haruhi’s success had to be in the 2010 film The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. The film is 162 minutes long, making it one of the longest anime films to date, but well worth the sit through. Beautifully animated, the film felt like a teaser for Kyoto Animation’s future projects such as K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, and Violet Evergarden, each have the quality of a movie themselves.

The movie explores parallel reality, time travelling, paradoxes, but most importantly, game-changing character perspectives. It is mid-December, with the SOS Brigade preparing for a big Christmas bash. But, the day after, Kyon awakens to find his reality has drastically changed. Haruhi and Koizumi are missing, the SOS Brigade was never founded, Ryoko Asakura is back, and both Mikuru and Yuki are normal humans. Yuki in particular is an ultra-shy bookworm who takes a shine to Kyon.

Kyon’s world, much like before, is completely thrown out of whack, but it is one he does not want. For all of his groaning and sarcasm, Kyon is deeply traumatised by the loss of his friends, feeling like a stranger in his new reality. The film thematically depicts Kyon’s sense of loneliness through use of framing and lighting. The same applies to the other characters, including the very melancholic Haruhi, and even Koizumi, who comes off as a sad clown hopelessly in love with the latter.

It comes to light that the world was changed by Yuki, who had reached her limit with Haruhi’s antics, especially in regards to the Endless Eight. Implied to not understand her actions or reasons, Yuki is hinted to have wanted to feel emotions and be human. Kyon himself acknowledges his own reliance on Yuki to fix whatever problems were hurled at the club. But, Yuki left it to Kyon make the choice on which reality to choose from: a normal world where they can live average lives, or the original, bursting with Haruhi’s shenanigans. Kyon must make a choice between which reality he wants to exist in, played through an incredibly-framed internal dialogue sequence.

The film allows certain scenarios from the anime to play out. One major plot twist in the series was that a time-travelling Kyon had triggered Haruhi’s interest in the paranormal as a child, going by the alias of “John Smith”. Here, Haruhi learns the truth, though as this version lacks her god-like powers and more volatile personality, she handles it with grounded excitement. Kyon even utilises his alter ego as a failsafe should any harm come to Yuki by her superiors. Marked by the high quality art of Kyoto Animation, and a mesmerising score by Satoru Kōsaki, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya can be considered the highest peak of Haruhi Suzumiya’s popularity.

SPIN-OFFS

Finally, we have there are the Haruhi spin-offs, a collection of animated series that explored or parodied certain aspects of the anime. The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan is a series of zany shorts where the cast are chibified, appearing in various wacky scenarios, such as trying to catch Santa Claus, whilst Yuki shares her flat with a resurrected, doll-sized Ryoko Asakura. At first using 3D character models, Haruhi-chan abandoned them for simpler, hand-drawn designs. The humour is fast-paced, though the translation between Japanese and English didn’t always stick the landing.

The other notable and most recent series is The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, a manga series by the mangaka “Puyo”. The setting is based on the reality seen in the 2010 film, where Yuki is a shy, clumsy teenage girl who is president of the literary club, alongside Kyon and Ryoko. Haruhi, Koizumi, Mikuru, and Tsuruya all join the club, whilst Yuki struggles with her feelings towards Kyon, who helps her come out of her shell. A more traditional slice of life anime, the series still is able to flesh out the characters in new ways. In a refreshing scene, Haruhi’s subdued but still self-centred attitude gets called out at one point by Ryoko for sabotaging Yuki’s valentine gift for Kyon. Even Mikuru, who often has been neglected when it comes to growth, is able to become more confident.

Although several more light novels have been published in recent years, Haruhi Suzumiya has fallen out of favour at Kyoto Animation. The poor reception of the second season, the slow release of new light novels, and KyoAni choosing to work on self-owned productions (as Haruhi is co-owned by Kadokawa Shoten), likely contributed to the SOS Brigade being discontinued for the foreseeable future.

Still, there remains a cooled but devoted fanbase for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. It remains a quirky pieces of the early 2000s, praiseworthy for its handling of its characters, premise, and takes on certain anime archetypes. Haruhi’s initial rejection of the mundane served as a draw to her strange world, so it seems fitting that the character’s success was achieved through the masses engaged in the SOS Brigade’s adventures.

Are you a fan of Haruhi Suzumiya? Who are your favourite characters from the SOS Brigade? Was the Endless Eight arc as bad as people say? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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