You're cute when you're melancholic.
In her introductory speech at North High, Haruhi Suzumiya establishes herself to be anything but ordinary. "If any of you are aliens, time-travelers, or ESPer, please come see me. That is all." Claiming to hold no interest in “ordinary” humans, the overly eccentric and mildly insane freshman cutie outlines the entire series in her first sentence. The girl sits ostracized in class, changes her hairstyle daily, and refuses to join any after-school activities despite her extraordinary athletic/intellectual prowess. I’ve never met anyone quite like Haruhi Suzumiya. Fair enough, as I’ve never seen a show quite like hers, either.
There are no villains or antagonists, no “take over the world schemes,” high school melodrama, oversized mechanical death robots or physically impossible action acrobatics, or even a large cast of characters. The series barely ventures beyond the confines of the school grounds, and in the rare instances when it does, it quickly retreats.
Which is not to say that North High is a boring locale; it's bursting with life at the seams, from school art festivals larger than a state fair, to rock concerts and imaginary space battles, to closed-off dimensions in all the classrooms. In one episode, the cast break their way into another student’s apartment, and in another spend a vacation getaway on a private island (which quickly devolves into a nightmare scenario, but that’s besides the point.) Perhaps the greatest achievement of Kyoto Animation is how it presents each new locale distinctly, not simply as places conjured up for the moment, but real inhabited cornerstones of life.
That's right! Space battles!
Although Haruhi is the titular protagonist, the show chronicles the misfortunes of Kyon, a freshman boy who had the unfortunate daringness to talk to Haruhi. We are informed of this social taboo by Kyon's friend Taniguchi. ("If you've got the hots for her, take my advice: forget it.") In a masterstroke, the show provides a constant feed of his introverted thoughts. Kyon has a habit of voicing not only his opinions, but ours as well. It is impossible to distinguish thoughts from declarations from time to time, and it can be infuriating watching Kyon quietly dismiss the truth for the sake of apathy. It’s all the more daunting to discover that we, essentially, act the same way.
Have you met my friend Kyon? He's real nice...
Attempting to strike up a conversation nonetheless, Kyon unwittingly inspires Haruhi to establish her own after-school social club, the SOS Brigade
, in constant search of ESPers, time-travelers, aliens, and whatnot. Within a few days, she (literally) drags in three other participants. Although no one appears to have any reason to join in on Haruhi's antics, one by one the trio reveal their true colors to Kyon; indeed, one is an ESPer, another a time-traveler, and the latter an extra terrestrial. The ESPer, Koizumi, assures Kyon that this is no mere coincidence, and that Haruhi Suzumiya would best be left ignorant to the fact that her very conscience controls the tides of time, space, and reality. “For millennia, people have come to such an entity as God.” Kyon is now tasked with letting said sleeping god lie
, at any cost.
All of the members are present as Haruhi wished. But why was Kyon there? He’s a regular human being, a rather vanilla one at that. He possesses no superpowers, nor a vast understanding of the cosmos. It is important that the series is headed by his narration, his inner psyche visible, but his intimate fear and denial distorting our view of the truth. Is it love? Does Kyon make her feel grounded? Safe? Would you really want to know the answer? The mystery is just as intriguing to us as it is to him.
Twelve of the fourteen episode roster can rightfully be called perfect. There’s a general air of hilarity and inappropriateness that remains consistent from scene to scene, with sublime comedic timing and good-humored observations. Sexual jokes are commonplace, and Haruhi certainly isn’t a role model of sorts, but much of the show's humor is derived from careful observations of the club members through Kyon’s eyes, and his fruitless attempts to cope in the wake of Haruhi’s insanity. “Anyone caught surrendering will be forced to run ten laps around the school. Naked! And they’ll have to yell ‘Green Martians are chasing me!’ for the whole ten laps!” At that moment, Kyon realized that Haruhi might take video games a bit too seriously.
Although not quite as seriously as this guy.
It would be incorrect to label Haruhi Suzumiya
as a comedy, however. Interspersed between each running gag or mischief-maker is lovingly textured science fiction. These sequences are painted with broad brush strokes, and while it upkeeps the otherwise barrage-like quality of the comedy scenes, it also makes these events awkward and tiresome. Haruhi Suzumiya
parades itself as an action-comedy series, but none of the action delivers a significant punch or necessarily moves the story along. When, for example, one of Kyon’s classmates attempts to murder him with a kitchen knife (to evoke a reaction from Haruhi) it’s hard to understand or sympathize with Kyon because the whole situation seems so absurd and out-of-place to comprehend. Another scene has Koizumi, being an ESPer, reveal his powers by fighting figments of Haruhi imagination with his comrades. These sequences play out over vast cityscapes encased in "closed space", as giant kinescopian blob-men wreck havok as red spirit orbs sever them limb by limb. The plot doesn’t go much further with this in mind.
Do not try this at home.
An identity crisis is ignorable, true, but the show really begins to lose its focus (and in turn its perfect score) after the sixth episode. Rather than continuing to adapt the second novel and the original storyline, all of the narrative structure is abandoned in order to create seven independent, unrelated plotlines from the other eight novels. Two episodes accompany one another, and one is a new story altogether. The aforementioned pair deals with a murder (this time by fruit knife) on a secluded island paradise, opening up the possibility that Haruhi could bring forth death should it keep her occupied. Haruhi expresses her desire to become a detective, and there’s a clever Phoenix Wright parody thrown in for good measure. The final outcome doesn’t disappoint.
Not all of these episodes are immaculate, however. The series finale, “Someday in the Rain” is particularly disappointing, overloaded with filler sequences literally comprised of the alien reading a book in complete solitude for minutes on end. It fails to investigate the story by any means. Another episode deals with the computer club seeking revenge for the computer Haruhi “commandeered” from them in episode two (which is so horrifyingly clever for me to spoil here) by challenging the brigade to a homebrewed computer game. This is so detached from the rest of the series that it could be viewed as the first episode of any series, as there is no relation to the rest of the show.
"So your last ten minutes of screen time are spent reading books?"
Quite a bit of attention was paid towards the realism of the show. Characters animated smoothly and convincingly, evincing subtle nuances in their faces. More notably, "anime" expressions are non-existent, and people remain always in correct proportion to themselves and the environment. Computer graphics are used sparingly. The effect is a prestine, albeit sterile, art style that further clashes with the fantastical elements on screen.
The soundtrack is also a mixed bag. While the opening and closing salvos are orchestrated crack so addictive that Filipino prisoners have been taped dancing the “Hare Hare Yukai,” the music played within each episode is less than stellar. Most of them are overly jolly, while others are overly dramatic. A few, such as the opening theme in the first episode, hit the right notes regardless, and the two musical numbers in episode twelve are serviceable and completely dubbed. More importantly, it's recycled ad nauseum.
It is baffling for such a rare work of originality to be so crippled by poor design decisions enacted halfway through. The fact that two of the fourteen episodes are boorish filler is unacceptable, and the action scenes are blunt, bland, and unnecessary. And it all ends so abruptly, just when things begin to ascend into something unrecognizably brilliant. It left me wanting. I wanted to know why Haruhi torts Kyon around. I wanted to know if Kyon’s life and memories were all manufactured figments of Haruhi's Imagination. I wanted, in short, a third act.