Note: this is the first part of my Haruhi rant, written while the series was still airing. The second part will be posted eventually soon.
Before its first episode aired, there were precious few people who had even heard of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Flash forward a couple of weeks, however, and suddenly practically everyone was calling it the best thing since sliced bread (a saying which has always perplexed me, sliced bread is convenient, to be sure, but so are many other things, such as remote controls). And yes, I have to admit that I was amongst the thronging crowd eager to sing its praises…or at least, I was at first.
In those days it seemed inconceivable that I would ever be sitting here writing a rant about Haruhi, because just like the infamous trainwreck series that go by the names of Mai-Otome and Fate/Stay Night, it seemed to have such potential. Episode one (or, if you prefer, episode zero), was as off-kilter as you could get; instead of introducing the characters as your run-of-the-mill series would, we are thrust straight into a home movie made by our protagonists. Seemingly a parody of all the clichés that go into the magical girl genre, their shaky effort at filmmaking comprised the 25 minutes that changed the world, sparking a whole new subculture absolutely committed to the pursuit of Haruhi worship (or, as it came to be known, Haruhiism).
Now, naturally there are few things in the world that everyone can agree on, and so it was that there were still isolated pockets who were unimpressed with the whole thing- and it is at this point that I have a small confession to make. No, I didn’t dislike episode one as various others did, in fact I even chuckled at a large part of it, but I do have to admit that it dragged a bit towards the end, and at that point I wasn’t completely won over. It would take a ‘proper’ episode one to do that, and that was just what we were about to get the following week.
Haruhi is far from the first show to start at or towards the end and then go back to the beginning- we’d seen it in Gungrave, Berserk, selected episodes of Alias, Mission Impossible III and numerous other places, and so it was easy to accept that this series would be doing the same. Yes, little did we realise that ‘chronological order’ was not to be in Haruhi’s lexicon- ‘confusing gimmick’ was more the order of the day.
But that was still to come; for now, all seemed well, and if episode one hadn’t been entirely convincing, then episode two was. Our narrator, Kyon, was your average student just starting his first year at high school, with one important exception; in class, he was seated in front of the eponymous Haruhi Suzumiya, a girl who firmly declared on the first day of school that she had no interest in normal humans- espers, aliens and time travellers were more her sort of fare. The sort of temperamental weirdo you’d be inclined to leave alone, right? Well, that may be the case in real life, but here she’s the main character, and so it was that Kyon repeatedly tried to strike up a conversation with her.
In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure what made this episode so enjoyable, but at the time, it certainly seemed entertaining. We learned about the strange beast that is Haruhi Suzumiya, her brief flirtations with styling her hair differently every day of the week, her lack of concern about getting changed in front of the boys, and finally, her disappointment with all the school’s clubs- a key point which led the formation of her own club, the SOS Brigade (Sekai wo Oini moriagerutame no Suzumiya Haruhi no Dan, or in English, The Suzumiya Haruhi Brigade to Bring More Excitement to the World). In short order, this new brigade had snagged the Literature Club room, and Haruhi had forcibly added Kyon, quiet bookworm and sole Literature Club member Nagato Yuki, and obligatory moé character Asahina Mikuru to the team. This, surely, was the perfect setup- not because of any outstanding originality, but because it was poised to parody high school clichés as they had never been parodied before.
In what was to be an exception for the series, episode three followed straight on from number two, and for much of the episode, it carried on in the same vein as before. Haruhi had got her club room, and her somewhat unwilling members, so what better object to acquire next than her own computer? Of course, buying a computer would be too straightforward and boring, so instead our heroine blackmails the computer club into giving her one- by placing the club president’s hand on Mikuru’s breast and snapping a few photographs. Any protest from the club, and she’ll claim that they all gang-raped poor Mikuru. It was part amusing but also a little discomfiting- and far from the end for poor Mikuru, who was later forced to wear a bunny girl outfit (just the first in a range of ‘fetish’ costumes she would don at Haruhi’s insistence).
Yet the episode had still more in store for us, and it is perhaps at this point that my feelings about the series began to change. For, as I was about to discover, Haruhi Suzumiya is not a parody of high school drama, it is something quite different. The aliens, espers and time travellers that Haruhi longed for actually existed- in the form of Yuki, Mikuru and Koizumi Itsuki (the fifth and final addition to the SOS Brigade) respectively. In fact, the reason why they exist is almost certainly due to Haruhi herself, for she is some kind of omnipotent being who shapes the world around her without even realising what she is doing or that she even has such abilities.
It is at this point that I must digress from the anime in order to talk about the original source of it all- that is to say, the Haruhi Suzumiya series of novels. In the days before the anime, they were picked up for online translation by someone wishing to improve their skills, and in the space of about four months, only the prologue and first chapter of volume one had been completed. After the anime struck, however, a wave of enthusiastic volunteers added their names to the project, and updates started coming thick and fast.
Perhaps I’ve just been scarred by a few bad experiences, but the novel translations I’ve read up to now have always lacked something in the writing style; maybe it’s the source material, maybe it’s the translators, without a command of Japanese I can’t really say. Nonetheless, the grip of obsession was briefly upon me, and despite its rather flat style, I became committed to keeping up to date with the online translation. And come episode four, I was eminently glad to have done so.
For, as I mentioned above, to Haruhi, order was not so much important as nonexistent, and rather than continuing on from the end of episode three, episode four jumped some way in the future, choosing as its inspiration a chapter from volume three rather than continuing to draw from volume one as episodes two and three had done. If not for the novels, I would have been sorely confused, and as it was I couldn’t help wondering if I had fallen asleep during the end of episode three. Yes, from out of nowhere, we had jumped ahead in time, leaving behind Nagato’s explanation of her alien status, and introducing Koizumi Itskui onscreen for the first time before those unacquainted with the written version even knew who he was or how he came to join the SOS Brigade.
Yes, the first seeds of discontent were beginning to detach from their parent plant and settle to earth, but even so, episode four wasn’t a total loss. The instalment charted Haruhi’s brief foray into the world of baseball, complete with a team thrown together from the SOS Brigade and assorted friends. I’ll credit the episode with the fact that baseball has never been so entertaining before or since, but even so, the treacherous thoughts wouldn’t go away. The whole point of the baseball match and ensuing events seemed to be to keep Haruhi occupied, for with her godlike powers, she could easily lock away a boring world and replace it with something far more to her liking. It was with these words that I began to dislike Haruhi, for what did that make her other than a spoiled child who must always be pandered to?
Still, even at that point, it seemed as if any discontent with episode four could be passed off as a blip, for episode five took us back to where we wanted to be; namely, the volume one timeline. In the space of twenty five minutes, Nagato, Mikuru and Itsuki (apologies for any naming inconsistencies) had all explained their various paranormal statuses, and everything seemed to be smoothly playing out according to the direction of the novels. Yes, it wasn’t what we had signed for, but it could still work out…right?
Of course, if all had been satisfactory, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this rant, and indeed, a scant week later, it all began to start crumbling. As if to herald these dark times, the novel translations began slowing down as the first flush of enthusiasm died away, and where once one could reasonably expect a chapter every couple of days, now half a chapter per week seemed plentiful. Worse yet, the translators seemed infected by the TV series’ lack of order- no longer were chapters tackled consecutively, but rather in whichever sequence they desired.
Meanwhile, with the airing of episode six, the series had jumped forward in time again, choosing to explore yet another chapter from volume three- or at least half of one. Yes, ‘Remote Island Syndrome’ was to mark Haruhi’s first official two-parter; a tale of a group trip to, unsurprisingly, a remote island. By now, expectations for the series had been lowered, and in that frame of mind it was an entertaining enough episode that ended on an unexpectedly morbid note when a minor character was stabbed. Could it be that Haruhi’s insatiable need for entertainment and mystery had actually caused this murder? Whatever the case, we would surely find out the next week…or perhaps not.
Yes, Oyashiro forbid that Haruhi could possibly air part two straight after part one, no, first we had to jump to yet another random point in the timeline, one that wasn’t connected to either episodes five or six. This time around, we were to be treated to another standalone story involving a missing boyfriend, a closed region of space (once again, without the novels you might find yourself floundering) and a giant CG insect. Kyoto Animation even went so far as to include unsubtle references to another of their series by naming Itsuki’s attacks “Fumoffu” and “Second Raid”.
With this episode, the halfway point had been reached, and the damage was clear; Haruhi had gone from being “the greatest show on earth” to merely “entertaining enough, but not outstanding”. Nonetheless, even a show in the “entertaining enough” category is worth carrying on with, and whilst it could no longer hope to stand tall with the likes of Ouran in the comedy stakes, nor was it subject to the shame of the bottom feeding category that housed Disgaea.
Unfortunately, the series was about to descend further into the realms of mediocrity, discarding its “entertaining enough” status for something wholly less enjoyable, the “hmm, average” category. Episode eight brought us the concluding half of the Remote Island story, and with it, the first time that I found my attention lapsing as the episode played. As the various ‘whodunnit’ theories played out, and the facts were revealed, I found myself staring down a more fundamental truth- did I, in fact, really care anymore?
The answer certainly seemed to be tending towards the negative end of the spectrum, and on re-examination, I couldn’t help wondering what had drawn me to the series in the first place. Kyon, once the straight man who had accompanied us on our voyage through this off-kilter world, now seemed little more than a dull and featureless personality with a Mikuru-complex, whilst the rest of the cast appeared equally insipid. What was Mikuru if not a one-joke character that needed to not only start standing up for herself, but invest in a bra so that we would no longer be subject to her breasts bouncing around in the opening sequence? Could one really attribute more to Nagato than being a flat and featureless Rei Ayanami clone? Was there any facet of Haruhi’s selfish personality that could convince viewers not to treat her with the contempt she deserved, apocalyptic consequences be damned? And finally, did anyone even care about stock character #89251, Koizumi Itsuki?
Even the novels offered no solace; the slow tide of progress was beginning to breach the shores of volume two, and whatever had made volume one readable had long since vanished. Nonetheless, a faint spark of hope and the oft-irresistible lure of completion beckoned us onwards, and so it was that we came to episode nine.
Not only had the timeline once more jumped to Yuuko knows where, but with this episode the anime was taking a bold new step- choosing to follow an original story instead of animating a chapter from the novels. This was perhaps not the best of choices, for not only did the episode have a particularly pointless and meandering quality to it, but it featured a soon to become infamous three minute period consisting of nothing but a static screen of Yuki reading in the SOS Brigade clubroom whilst children recited various rhymes and memes in the background. Was it a set piece of unrivalled and ineffable genius, or simply a budget-saving chunk of meaningless filler? Call me lacking if you will, but I’ve yet to grasp any sort of deeper meaning for the scene, and must therefore conclude that this is the mot boring sequence since the ‘still elevator scene’ way back in the latter stages of Evangelion.
By this point, my faith was at an all time low, but nonetheless, episode ten came along regardless, and after the weeks of messing around, it was time to get back to the ‘main’, volume one, storyline. The first half of the episode was a bit of struggle to get through, but admittedly matters improved somewhat later on, with an action scene that was not so much engaging as “ah, I remember reading that in the novel”.
As we’d come to expect by this point, episode eleven offered another chance to jump around, this time choosing volume five’s “Day of Sagittarius” as its inspiration. This segment saw a ‘rematch’ between Haruhi and the computer club, wagering new computers and brigade members as the stakes in a round of a space-based RTS game. Once again, Haruhi was aiming towards the ‘entertaining enough’ category, but in the light of my new cynicism towards the series, it wasn’t quite enough. Everything just seemed too predictable; Haruhi doing whatever she wanted regardless of others, the computer club cheating and having the tables turned on them, Nagato proving to be the computer whiz that saves the day- does it really get much more by the numbers than this?
At the time of writing, there are still three more episodes to come before we bid a relieved goodbye to Haruhi and the SOS Brigade, although with the amount of novel material left to explore, a second season could be with us sooner than we’d like. No doubt I shall watch up to the end of the season, and continue working my way through the novels as and when they are translated, but the bitter taste of disappointment will ever remain- not just because the series as a whole only just managed to drag itself over the ‘average’ line, but because for one brief and glorious period, it seemed poised to become so much more.
Coming soon: The Conclusion of Haruhi Suzumiya, in which I rant about the last three episodes.