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Lost in Animeland: Suzumiya Haruhi

There’s a point in Harry Plinkett’s review of the Star Wars prequels where he says, of George Lucas, “It’s good to have contempt for your audience.” (Here if you haven’t watched them. Caution: those reviews are hilarious, long, and contain extremely crude humor, horror imagery, and NSFW language. Unrelated to anime, just for general edification.) I’m not sure he meant it seriously but it always makes me think of Haruhi, a show that went out of its way to be almost aggressively antagonistic to its viewers and was beloved for it. In the second season, the show upped the ante, resulting in what was possibly the greatest troll in anime history. Let’s have a look.

(Spoiler warning: I am going to talk about the characters and basic premise of the show. If you really want the original, authentic experience, you may want to just go and watch it.)

"What are we all staring down at?"

“What are we all staring down at?”

The Haruhi anime comes from a series of light novels, all titled in the form “The SOMETHING of Suzumiya Haruhi”. (This is less annoying in Japanese due to word order, so the title is “Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu”.) It was part of the vanguard of the great light novel trend, where light novels started to compete with manga as a major source of anime adaptations. It was produced by now-legendary studio Kyoto Animation (KyoAni), fairly early in their career and before they’d solidified their reputation for mega-hits. This makes the way they treated it all the more remarkable.

For a long time, US anime fans only got to see shows once they were long over, either on fansubbed tapes or licensed releases. Fast digital fansubs (and later streaming sites) changed that, though, and by 2006, when Haruhi was released, we could pretty much count on getting an English-subbed version of an episode within a couple of days, well before the next weekly installment aired. This let American fans boggle along with Japanese otaku when the first episode of Haruhi was released.

Among other things, the show-within-a-show featured the characters doing commercials for local stores that provided the equipment.

Among other things, the show-within-a-show featured the characters doing commercials for local stores that provided the equipment.

See, for reasons that are somewhat obscure (aside from the general weirdness of the show) KyoAni decided to release Haruhi out of chronological order. This goes beyond the usual run of flash-backs or flash-forwards for tension — they literally aired episode 11 first, and the end-of-episode previews feature two characters arguing over which episode is really coming next. This meant that the first episode was actually a show-within-a-show, giving us characters we didn’t know acting (extremely badly, with cheesy special effects and bad editing) in a movie about a magical girl.

In retrospect, it was amazing that they got away with it. The popularity of the original novels helped — in Japan, people who’d read them already knew the story and were excited for what was coming, and the weirdness fit with the Haruhi universe. But even in the US, where the novels were basically unknown, people got excited about it. The animation was excellent, with the high production values and great character designs that have become the KyoAni trademark, and there were little hints throughout the show-within-a-show that something strange was going on. (A talking cat, for example.)

Strange costumes became kind of a thing on the show.

Strange costumes became kind of a thing on the show.

The premise that unfolded, in its jerky, out-of-order way (the show has several arcs, which were intercut in the mixed-up ordering) goes something like this. Kyon, an ordinary high school student, accidentally strikes up a conversation with a very strange girl named Suzumiya Haruhi. Haruhi is aggressively rude and insensitive, dragging everyone in her wake, and before long Kyon is dragooned into helping her form a school club called the SOS Brigade with a bunch of other misfits. Haruhi proclaims herself bored of normal life, and searches for aliens, superheros, or time travelers that she desperately wants to be real.

At first, Kyon simply humors her (or tries to restrain her, usually unsuccessfully) but eventually he learns the (supposed) truth: Haruhi is in fact a being of god-like power, able to reshape the entire universe to her subconscious will. The other members of the club turn out to be a time traveler, a superhero, and an alien, all of whom have come to keep an eye on Haruhi — if she gets bored or very unhappy, she could rewrite reality to eliminate them, or even destroy the universe entirely and recreate it. Kyon is dragged into the conspiracy to keep Haruhi entertained.

There’s a lot to like here. First and foremost are the characters. Haruhi herself walks a fine line; she can be abrasive and annoying, but she gets her comeuppance for it just often enough that she remains entertaining to watch rather than being insufferable. In a way, though, Kyon is more important — where many shows of the “guy joins club full of weirdos” variety have a bland cipher of a protagonist, Kyon is intelligent, sarcastic, and snarky, willing to push back against Haruhi as far as he can. We’re in his head, so we get access to his inner monologue, which is often some of the funniest stuff in the show.

Nagato Yuki, the quiet, bookish girl (Japanese "mukuchi", literally "no mouth") became extremely popular with otaku.

Nagato Yuki, the quiet, bookish girl (Japanese “mukuchi”, literally “no mouth”) became extremely popular with otaku.

The rest of the show falls neatly into various “moe” stereotypes, but in a very self-aware way, which gets at the meta nature of the whole show. Since Haruhi is, essentially, subconsciously calling the shots for the entire universe, and since she was raised on SF media and moe tropes, it’s only logical that the people who enter her life should embody those tropes completely. The show manages the difficult trick of being both an entry in and a commentary on its genre simultaneously, in the same manner as something like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Even the out-of-order broadcast, twisting the story arcs into a spiral, made sense in this context, because the show itself is twisted around to stare at itself. (And then the show-within-a-show adds another layer!)

Haruhi is funny, clever, and sometimes poignant in a rare way. It definitely has its flaws, of course. One trope that goes mostly unexamined is the weird anime assumption that sexual harassment is only a problem if its male-on-female; female-on-female is supposed to be hilarious and kind of hot. Haruhi abuses all the members of her club to various degree, but the innocent, busty Mikuru is constantly used for her sex appeal, a joke which the show never gets tired of. (Example: Haruhi forces Mikuru into a compromising position with a rival club head in order to take photos for blackmail. Hilarious!) Haruhi herself has moments where she goes over the line from “humorously insane” to “irritating”, especially when Kyon isn’t pushing back as hard. But overall, it’s a fun, silly time, and the catchy ending theme spawned a legion of parody dance videos.

Then they made a second season.

After the first season’s huge popularity, the second season was eagerly awaited by anime fans. It started with a storyline called “Endless Eight”, in which Haruhi and friends get involved in a time loop during summer vacation. (“Eight” being August, also infinity sideways.) In the first episode, nothing of much importance happens — they do some typical summer activities, and then it ends. The next episode starts in the same place, though with different animation and clothing, and starts going through the same events. Everyone said, “Oh, I get it. Time loop!” When that episode ended, we assumed the third episode would resolve the loop, especially when Kyon finds out that he’s IN a loop. But it ends, again, with it unresolved, and once again we start over.

And again, and again, and again.

Each episode started with "Kyon-kun, your phone."  The phrase can still induce flashbacks in traumatized survivors.

Each episode started with “Kyon-kun, your phone.” The phrase can still induce flashbacks in traumatized survivors.

In total, KyoAni animated, voiced, and aired the same episode eight times. (Re-animating it with slight differences, so they couldn’t even reuse footage!) Every week, the fans would tune in, sure that this time they’d finally end this nonsense, and every week we were disappointed. The internet was white with rage at KyoAni. (Hitler was famously angry about it.) Finally, in the eighth episode, they called a halt, and went on to the (generally fairly lackluster) rest of the second season.

I am still, years later, not entirely sure what to make of Endless Eight. It feels like a troll in the purest sense — something you do because you know it will wind someone else up into a incandescent fury. At the time, I wasn’t happy, both with the loop and the resolution. But I realize now that Endless Eight is what I remember from that season, not the “normal” episodes — is it worth it, for the meta-joke, for being remembered forever? It was an astonishingly bold move, to take a property worth millions and use its highly anticipated launch for what was, essentially, a practical joke on the entire viewing public; it’s hard to imagine any US show coming anywhere close. Is it good, as Plinkett says, to show contempt for your audience sometimes?

I’d love to know why they did it. Hopefully somebody at KyoAni will write a tell-all some day. In the meantime: the first season of Haruhi is definitely worth watching, whether you choose to do it in the original airing order or chronological order. (The DVDs support both.) The second season, even aside from Endless Eight, is mostly forgettable, although the movie The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi is quite good. And Endless Eight will remain one of the most legendary trollings of all time.


 

My new novella, The Shadow of Elysium, is coming out in May!  Check it out!

My new novella, The Shadow of Elysium, is coming out in May! Check it out!

 

Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

About Django Wexler (27 Articles)
Django Wexler is the author of military fantasy THE THOUSAND NAMES and middle-grade fantasy THE FORBIDDEN LIBRARY. He's a lifelong fan of SFF, anime, computers, and games of all sorts. He lives in Seattle with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. Follow him on Twitter as @DjangoWexler.

6 Comments on Lost in Animeland: Suzumiya Haruhi

  1. I always assumed it was a licensing thing. Like, they had the license to produce anime based on Book One and Book Two, and they had to find a way to stretch that out into twenty-eight episodes.

    If I recall correctly, there was also an episode in the first season where nothing happened. (“Someday In The Rain”)

  2. huh. Now I understand why I hated this show so much. Somehow the first story arc I saw was “Endless Eight”. So, I basically watched 3 or 4 (or maybe 5?) episodes that were, for all intents and purposes, identical. I finally figured out that a time loop was happening, but on the way to that understanding, I was consumed by trolled rage, and I found one of the Japanese voices so annoying that I wanted to rip my own ears off.

    Lesson learned: Watch the first season first, and if the voices are annoying, hit mute and just read the subtitles.

  3. Ouch. Yeah, Endless Eight isn’t a particularly good introduction!

  4. Wow! I never knew there was any more than The Melancholy of–which I was shown in (something like) the correct order. Even without the spiral, I thought it was brilliant. Might not have liked the Endless Eight so much, but will certainly have to try it and see.

    • The second season is not as good as the first, but there’s some watchable episodes. The movie is definitely worth catching. (You can skip Endless Eight though…)

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