Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Review: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya


This week we look back on the hit anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Kyon is just your average run-of-the-mill teenager about to begin high school, merely content with getting through one day at a time. On the first day of class he meets Haruhi Suzumiya, a strange, eccentric girl who claims that she’s not interested in ordinary humans, but would like to meet aliens, time travelers, and espers. Kyon, being the cynical and incredulous type, finds it difficult to believe that Haruhi is serious, but quickly finds out that her quest for the paranormal is nothing to scoff at. As fate would have it, Haruhi’s seat is designated behind his. Despite Haruhi’s cold demeanor towards her fellow classmates, Kyon routinely strikes up conversation with her. One of Kyon’s offhand remarks leads Haruhi to form the SOS Brigadean after-school club that investigates mysterious phenomena. Kyon is reluctantly dragged into the club and three additional members are recruited: Yuki Nagato, a quiet bibliophile (and the literary club’s only member), Mikuru Asahina, a timid introvert, and Itsuki Koizumi, a sociable transfer student.
As it turns out, the SOS Brigade members are far from your everyday students...Yuki is an alien, Mikuru is a time traveler, and Itsuki is an esper. The truth is revealed only to Kyon however, along with the reason why they’ve all gathered in one place, because of one special person: Haruhi Suzumiya. Much to Kyon’s disbelief, the very world itself and all aspects of reality are susceptible to Haruhi’s every whim; she could even destroy or recreate the universe with little more than a thought. Fortunately, Haruhi is unaware that she possesses such power, forcing Kyon and the others to keep her happy and interested in ‘this world’ lest the very fabric of time and space become undone!

 The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya enlists a cast of characters that are stereotypical of most sci-fi/fantasy anime titles—but it’s what the series chooses to do with these characters that makes Haruhi stand out amongst its peers. For a show that has such an assortment of extraordinary players, it’s surprisingly toned-down, allowing for the viewer to become involved and invested with each and every character. Haruhi Suzumiya’s name may be the show’s title, but she’s not the central focus; rather, Kyon is the one who we take this interesting journey with and are often treated to his humorous internal monologues and droll thoughts along the way.

The show combines a fair amount of drama, comedy and action; it does have a tendency to become a mind-trip, shattering the expectations and conceptions of the viewer. Because of this, anyone looking for nonstop off-the-wall action or unremitting comedic slapstick could find these more philosophical scenes a little wordy. For those that stay the course, there really is some captivating philosophy to be found between the lines. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya benefits because all of the characters, each in their own way, grow as individuals as the show progresses.

Out of the show’s two seasons the first is by and large the superior effort. The initial season has a grander scale with episodes focusing on the main characters trying to keep Haruhi amused by entering a baseball tournament, solving a murder mystery, and engaging the school’s computer club in a video game competition. The highlight of the second season is an integral time travel episode,  “Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, ”  that’s one of the series’ shining moments. “The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya” five-parter has the SOS Brigade filming a short movie, which is made excruciatingly difficult to accomplish thanks to Haruhi’s powers. What tarnishes season two is the controversial “Endless Eight” episodes: eight episodes where the SOS Brigade is stuck in a continual time loop having to repeat the same series of events over and over. What’s remarkable is that despite the storyline being nearly the same for all eight episodes, the animation and dubbing were different in each one. Still, by the third or fourth episode of enduring the same events transpiring over again, the pacing of the season is destroyed. 

 The first season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was released in 2006 and the second season came out in 2009. When the initial season aired in Japan, it was broadcast out of chronological order, but most DVD releases have since rearranged them in a sequential format (the recommended way to view the series).

The animation in Haruhi Suzumiya is vibrant, detailed and a pleasure to watch. The company responsible for the series, Kyoto Animation, hasn’t cut any corners with this production. The Japanese voice actors did a magnificent job bringing the characters to life; in most cases English dubs get a bad rap, but not so with this one, the actors give it their all and I found myself sticking with the dub over the originals while screening the show.

 Fans of the series will also want to check out The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, a feature-length animated film that enters It’s A Wonderful Life territory with some Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five thrown into the mix. Disappearance focuses on a plot involving alternate dimensions and time travel, but it’s only recommended after seeing the two seasons, or else much won’t make sense.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya originates from a series of novels by Japanese author Nagaru Tanigawa. Anyone who has read the novels will find that the anime adheres very closely to its source material. The series has built up a huge following, with supporters that will defend the show to their last breath. As with anything, there are also detractors who argue that there’s “not enough substance” in the series and suffers from a “lack of closure.” The closure argument is valid, though there’s always the chance a third season of the show or more films could be made (the novels have many more stories than what was translated into animation). As for the substance debate, that’s what makes Haruhi Suzumiya such a wonderfully engaging series, the substance is there, but so much of it is subtle. Not everything is laid out in the open, some of it needs to be simply thought about and, upon multiple viewings, even more detail comes to light. Not everyone will enjoy The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and not everyone will see the finer points of the series like the philosophical aspects but, those that do, are in for an adventure.

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