My Review of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya!

Once upon a time on a certain bow-shaped archipelago, there was a young man who had become jaded and cynical towards the world around him. Known as Kyon to his friends, as well as his relatives and anyone else he ever meets, this young man once believed in the wildest things, from aliens and the supernatural to superheroes and the evil syndicates that they battle. He’s mostly given up on such fantasies, and although he does think about them from time to time, he’s accepted reality as it is… Unfortunately, that reality is so boring and tedious that he’s settled into a deep pit of ennui, shuffling through each day in a cloud of gloom as he lets his annoying friends, his bratty sister, his fellow classmates and the punishing climb up to school up a steep hill fly right by him. Does any of it matter? Is there any point in resisting convention, going against the grain, when it will just get him branded a weirdo and a social outcast, dealing with a day to day life that’s even more underwhelming than it was previously? For the most part, Kyon had resigned himself to reality, and a long life of blase blandness. That’s when he met her.

Standing proudly during first day introductions, wearing a stern expression and speaking directly with no room for misunderstanding, Haruhi Suzumiya proclaimed to her entire class that she’ll only waste any of her time on them if they’re aliens, time travelers, or espers. This could have turned out to just be an inconsequential blip on the radar of Kyon’s life, if it wasn’t for the fact that while absently picking her brain, he winds up inspiring her to start her own school club, and use it to bring the weirdness of the world to her. Kyon winds up dragged into this plan, having sealed his fate the minute he’d decided to poke the pretty-looking bear. This club is named The SOS Brigade, a name that impressively makes less sense than it sounds, and Haruhi winds up dragging three more poor souls into her mess. They turn out ot be interesting people, but as Kyon will soon find out, they might be just a little too interesting, and the supernatural phenomena that Kyon had once given up on may have been easier to find then he or Haruhi had thought. With the boundaries between reality and fantasy becoming more blurred by the day, will Kyon ever be able to get his normal, boring life back? Or will this bizarre new routine dominate his life forever?

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is part of what I like to call The Golden Age of Kyoto Animation, and yeah, a few points of this review are going to focus on the time frame of which it was released. In any case, this golden age occurred between 2005 and 2008, after their inaugural effort Fullmetal Panic Fumoffu, but before they’d switch to a cheaper visual style with Clannad Afterstory. The second season did fall victim to this change, but thankfully, Haruhi did not, and is a shining example of the kind of visual quality that it could put out back then. Movement is fluid, with a lot of inbetween work being done to keep everybody looking as crisp and graceful as possible, and I’m not just talking about the people in the main section of the foreground. you’ll lose track of the amount of background people, surrounding crowds and random cutaway figures there are who were given independent movement of their own, sometimes even just as good as what the main cast is getting. It does slow down in parts, but aside from a few odd choices, it all blends together well.

There are some short-cuts here and there… We get one extended segment where a character is just sitting at a chair and reading silently to herself for at least a minute or two, although you don’t have to reach very far up your ass to find an excuse for it. That aside, Kyoani is generally very clever at disguising their budget cuts from view, often using camera angles and cinematography techniques that, at the time, were easily considered avant-garde, before Studio Shaft stole them and ran them into the ground. Characters are almost realistically proportioned, and while the facial constructs lean towards moe, you wont find very many anime expression cliches in this title. If I recall, there aren’t very many if any upturned eyes, sweatdrops, anger lines, etcetera to be found. Instead, characters deliver their emotions through highly diverse and intricate facial expressions and body language. This can be pretty useful for people trying to track the true feelings of the show’s more duplicitous characters, seeing through their nuances.

Backgrounds are exquisitely detailed, down to the very smallest objects that can be pointed out in the SOS Brigade club room. On the very rare occasions that the budget seems to be dropping, it’s normally indicative of an intense visual happening soon, such as Haruhi singing as the frontman in a school rock band, or an all-out, no holds barred action scene, because yes, this slice of life title has some serious action in it. I won’t go into spoilers, at least not too deep, but when this series busts out the CGI, it’s time for jaws to start hitting the floor. Even outside of the action, which may or may not involve space fleets, alternate dimensions and a giant cricket monster, even something as menial as flowing water in a river can wind up looking beautiful. It’s a good looking show, way more-so than any title of it’s ilk has any business looking, and Kyoto Animation clearly put a lot of care and effort and good old fashioned give-a-damn into making it one of the most visually appealing titles they could.

The music isn’t quite up to par with the visuals, but it’s serviceable enough. There are several tracks that feel like they were ripped directly out of a dating game, considering how repetitive they are, but they’re still pretty fun to listen to, and a few of them have even become relatively iconic. Even when creating tunes that are just going to fade into the background and get skipped after a few repetitions in the soundtrack, Satoru Kosaki does not skimp on effort. A lot of different instruments are also used, from acoustic guitars to drums, trombones to bells, keyboards to full on electronic orchestrations, and it all comes together rather nicely. The best tunes tend to pop up during action scenes, including one of the major electronic tracks, whose very name would be a spoiler of the pivotal scene it accompanies. The climax of the series, which will happen either at the end or in the middle, depending on how you’re watching, even goes as far as to have a greek choir playing over the action and heightening the effect.

Of course, that’s just the background music. In all fairness, it probably wouldn’t be so easily taken for granted if it wasn’t for just how overwhelmingly the themes and insert songs stick out. The reason you won’t come away from this series humming Oi Oi or Nanika no Okashi is because you’ll be too busy trying to get the Live Alive songs out of your head. There’s a moment in the series when Haruhi and club-mate Yuki Nagato step in as subs for a couple of absentee members of one of the school’s biggest rock bands, and the two songs she performs… God Knows and Lost My Music… Are awesome. Not only does this scene feature some of the best animation in the series, as Haruhi is so viscerally articulated on stage that she’ll make YOU feel exhausted afterwards, but they work just as well in stand-alone for as they do in context. I’ve even heard from some people that they’re meant to be metaphorical for her relationship with Kyon, but I personally don’t see what they’re getting at.

But who are we kidding? The real stars here are the opening and closing themes, both of which can easily be counted among the best of all time. Much like the rock and roll tracks, the opening and closing are sung by Haruhi’s Japanese voice actress Aya Hirano, who both is and was a famous singer, and that talent is put to spectacular use in character. The opening, Bouken Desho Desho, which basically translates to “It’s an Adventure, Right? Right?!” Is beautifully animated with imagery that keeps pace with an incredibly catchy song, chronicling aspects of both Haruhi’s everyday life and fantasy life. The closing theme is by far the most recognizable of the bunch, Hare Hare Yukai, which translates to Sunny Sunny Happiness, and it’s notoriety can be drawn directly to it’s usage in a one-time viral video that set it to a full length, elaborate choreographed dance sequence, which was clearly designed to be addictive on both audio and visual terms. That dance is used partially in the ending theme, but they still featured all the best bits to entertain anyone who doesn’t feel like skipping ahead.

The English dub, an effort by Bang Zoom Entertainment, is a mixed bag to say the least. The writing, while nowhere near the worst effort I’ve ever heard, can occasionally sound forced and unnatural, as though the turn of phrase that they use to match the lip flaps doesn’t always sound like actual human speech. It’s not easy to describe, but for a handy example, imagine the line “Like a cat” were extended to “Like some kind of high-strung pet or something.” That’s an extreme generalization, mind you, but hopefully it will give you an idea of just how awkward the dialogue can get at times. Normal sounding words are swapped out for longer versions that don’t sound quite right, and entire sentences are sometimes rewritten for seemingly no reason at all. It gets pretty cringey when Crispin Freeman decides to ad-lib, because while his penchant for it may have resulted in a great line or two in .Hack, there’s something off-putting about a fifteen year old calling his friend “Sport.” I’m probably being too harsh, as these moments are relatively rare, but they do happen. Of course the writing is at it’s worst with the two Live-Alive songs, which don’t translate nearly as well to English as the songs from Beck do.

The acting, thankfully, is leagues above the writing, which I guess you could call serviceable over-all. First off, the name in the title may be Haruhi Suzumiya, but the main protagonist is Kyon, and his combination of snarky commentary and exasperated reactions make up about a third of the over-all dialogue. He narrates the story, doles out the occasional exposition dump, and plays the part of the audience cypher, albeit with more than enough personality to stand up as a fully realized character. Crispin Freeman is borderline perfect for this part, and while he may sound a little too old for the part, he sells every bit of it flawlessly. He’s said at a panel that he tries to play every part with genuine sincerity, and he proves it here. Wendee Lee plays the titular character, and while I hate to say that she sounds a bit miscast in the beginning, as she sounds a bit too tame and controlled to really live up to Haruhi’s spark of insanity, she does grow into the part as the series progresses, eventually standing on equal footing with Kyon.

The other actors… Well, it’s a little difficult to talk about them without going too far into spoiler territory, but I’ll try my best. Out of the characters that gravitate towards the SOS Brigade, for their own purposes of course, they all talk in fairly standard, almost stereotypical ways… This is very much intentional, for reasons you’ll come to understand, and it really takes multiple viewings to catch all of the little nuances and secret meanings that all three actors were trusted to convey. For example, johnny Yong Bosch plays the laid back, eager to please Itsuki Koizumi, and while he’s rarely seen without a smile, an astute viewer can pick up on what he’s really feeling, with a little bit of context to go with the small changes in Bosch’s delivery. Stephanie Sheh is playing very much to type, but she’s played her fair share of duplicitous characters, and the slight changes she makes in a particular episode are significant. Michelle Ruff almost feels wasted playing the monotonous role of Yuki Nagato, although in her case, she doesn’t show much variety until the second season. Perhaps the most impressive of these comes with Bridget Hoffman’s turn as a Class Rep character who’s sweet smile takes on a whole new meaning in one of the show’s climactic moments.

When The Melanchoy of Haruhi Suzumiya came out just over ten years ago, it was like nothing the anime medium had seen before, and it changed the landscape in ways we’re still seeing to this day. You may think that’s a compliment, but this series serves as living proof of how an entity can be too influential for it’s own good. First of all, taking a look at it’s most obvious contribution, Haruhi proved that a light novel adaptation can be a serious financial success. No, it’s not the first show of it’s kind to enter the public consciousness, what with titles like Read or Die and The Twelve Kingdoms being modest successes, but the vast majority of light novel adaptations that have come out did so after 2006, and you have Haruhi to thank for it. One of the ways it did this was by using odd camera angles and framing techniques to keep the viewer’s attention during long stretches of dialogue, an avant-garde tactical style it used sparingly, but was soon picked up by Akiyuki Shinbo, a Shaft director who would run it into the ground with the various Monogatari and Zetsubou Sensei titles that he put out, as well as other various properties, ultimately making the technique feel so cliched and pretentious that you really can’t look at Haruhi the same way anymore.

And it doesn’t stop there. The very premise of the series, which I won’t spoil, has been copied and twisted around over and over again by people trying to one up the original product and make their own little profit off of what they see as a proven trend. Some of these titles include Sasami-San@Ganbaranai, Kotoura-san, and Haganai, each of which take a different approach to recapturing Haruhi’s proverbial lightning in a bottle. On a more simple note, the premise of a socially unacceptable person forming a school club with unclear motives that has to find the necessary member count to stay open while filling itself up with odd characters and generally proving to be a nuisance for more people than not… Yes, all of that… Has become a very popular trend in and of itself thanks to Haruhi. Worst of all, this premise has been adopted by the harem genre, and is often used to sell merchandise based on color-coded characters from said clubs. That’s not even all, because it also proved how successful a series can be if it panders to otaku in just the right way, offering both a tongue-in-cheek parody and a sincere love letter to otaku culture, in a very for-the-fans, by-the-fans kind of way.

Where Haruhi Suzumiya was once one of the most popular and interesting shows around, It’s inspired so many copy-cats over the last decade that it’s kind of difficult to look at it with the same sense of awe that it originally inspired. What was once one of the most popular anime on the block is barely mentioned by contemporary audiences, and it’s all due to just how poorly the series has aged. Watching it in 2017, without that nostalgic context to back it up, it can get a bit cringey. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, I’ve been guilty of turning up my nose at older anime in favor of newer titles that managed to surpass them before, but I really don’t think any of the anime that Haruhi inspired have really managed to surpass it… They’ve instead drove it’s best qualities into the ground, and while I don’t think that’s entirely fair, it does become easier to see the flaws in the material with all of those distractions taken out of the way. This includes a certain weakness in characterization, as aside from our two leads, none of the characters really impress outside of their gimmicks and relations to the plot(at least not this season), and this lack of depth can be a serious flaw if you’re not totally engulfed in what you’re watching.

One of the biggest problems, however, is the story structure. This season of the series was released out of order in Japan, and while that may not come as a surprise to anybody who regularly watches the Fox network, it’s a rarity among anime. It was done this way because when you watch the season in chronological order, the climax of the series happens in episode 7, followed by a bunch of loosely related episodic stories. This is partially because of the fact that it follows the first few volumes of the light novel to an almost religious degree of accuracy, and the first book really is the main story, with every following novel expanding and continuing the universe. I’ve read the books, and yeah, once the first novel’s over, you don’t really get anything resembling a major plot until the Disappearance story several volumes later. Because of this, the first season peaks early, and while that never bothered me for the first few years after my initial viewing, I did start to get what people were complaining about upon my recent rewatch.

It turns out the solution they came up with, and that I alluded to earlier, was to air the episodes out of order, giving you a jumbled and confusing experience, but hey, at least the peak is near the end, and the spoilers aren’t given away early! I’ll be honest, I’ve never watched it this way, but I’m also pretty sure it would only work for you if you were coming into the series blind and for the first time. Either way, this does make for a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of experience, neither method really offering a complete, satisfying experience. Even when I was trying to expose one of my friends to the series, all I showed him was the first seven episodes, three episodes of season 2, and the movie. The rest is largely unimportant from a plot standpoint, pointless fluff that’s geared exclusively towards people who are in love with the style and characters and just want to see more of them, which I am, although I know that I’m in a vocal minority in that respect. And if that were it’s only problem, I’d be a lot more forgiving of it.

Aside from the innovations I mentioned earlier, the only trope that this series actually manages to subvert is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl one, as we’re initially led to believe that Haruhi will be filling that role, but no, Kyon winds up filling that role for HER. That’s really clever. But every other trope that appears in this show… Every cliche they used, every character archetype, every story convention… They just exist. They appear, someone mentions the fact that they’ve appeared, and that’s about as much effort as it puts in. This is a very self-aware series, to be sure, but self-awareness does not equal depth, nor does it qualify a story to call itself smart or satirical. You can’t even really call it mature, as even with the show’s biggest secret revealed, the premise ultimately boils down to humoring an insufferable brat to keep them from throwing a world-ending tantrum. Kyon and Haruhi are one of my favorite anime pairings, as I really do feel that they complete each other, but that dynamic is still pretty questionable, almost as much so as the self-insert stuff that’s going on, but don’t even get me started on that.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was available from Bandai Entertainment, and while that company did go under, it’s been rescued and redistributed by Funimation. The entire series can be found on DVD and Bluray in countless different collections and formats, very few of which are actually expensive. A second season, as well as a movie called The disappearance, are also similarly available. Spin-off series Haruhi-chan and Churuya-Chan are also available. Several different written versions, including the original light novel series by Nagaru Tanigawa a handful of manga adaptations are also available stateside.

Well, I did it… I went into this review as honest and unbiased as I could, and as a result, I wound up saying much worse things about it than I originally intended. I’m still not sure I’ve scratched the surface of it’s issues. It’s nowhere near as smart or well written as it pretends to be, and while that does fall well within the definition of pretension, it never really goes as far as to feel pretentious. It is, as another reviewer once pointed out, to moe what Evangeleon is to Mecha… An awesome blast of fun when taken at face value, but puddle deep at best, and it just gets more and more shallow under scrutiny. Now, with me saying all that, you probably think I’ve turned my back on this show, and that I wouldn’t recommend it to modern viewers. You’d be wrong. Not only do I still love it, not only is it still number three on my top ten favorite anime list, but I still believe that even with all of it’s problems, there are still very good reasons to watch this show, even in 2017. In addition to offering a look back at one of the biggest shows of the 2000s, and setting up it’s more modern analogues, it’s still just as fun and entertaining as it ever was, but don’t expect anything too profound from it. I give The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya a 7/10.

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2 comments
  1. I do love “God Knows”, but I think I prefer Shokotan’s cover over Hirano’s.

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