December 16: the S.O.S. Brigade is being dragged around as usual by a spirited Haruhi, who decides to hold a Christmas party. Kyon dreads the inevitable trouble that will arise. December 18: Kyon awakes to what he thinks will be another day full of Haruhi’s mischief. To his shock, he finds that things have changed. Everyone’s memory of the last few weeks has been altered. More importantly, no one in his class has heard of Haruhi Suzumiya. Kyon goes to seek answers from the S.O.S. Brigade members, only to find that they don’t know who he is. At wit’s end, Kyon siezes upon a clue that could unravel the universe itself.
To properly discuss The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, I have to invoke another celebrated science fiction franchise: Star Trek. In many ways, Disappearance is like an extra-long installment of Star Trek. It is an earnest attempt at telling a sci-fi story, using several fantastical plot devices to build drama. Also like Star Trek, it keeps a healthy dose of character-oriented writing. The result is a film that is in some ways unambitious, but still enjoyable and affecting at its core.
Disappearance is made for Haruhi fans through and through. If you haven’t developed a relationship with the characters from the series, and a knowledge of its sometimes convoluted plots, you’ll have little luck deciphering the key plot points in the film. This is unfortunate for non-fans, and I am sorry you’ve been excluded. But viewed through the lens of a fan, it’s an unqualified success.
The film installment takes many of the themes from the series, but trims out the bits of execution that didn’t work. Overlong exposition is mostly gone, as well as the repetitive mess that made up the “Endless Eight” story arc. The end product moves along at a pace that always feels just right, and delivers the important story developments with suitable buildup and tension.
I say Disappearance is unambitious because it doesn’t try to amp up every little thing that was in the series. It uses the foundations of character and story laid by Melancholy, and weaves them into a coherent tale. While we may have seen the individual components of this tale, the tapestry as a whole is refreshingly new thanks to the artistic freedom the film medium provides. This movie is structured like a movie, not a collection of episodes, and as such enough time can be given to develop the drama, tension, tragedy, and humor.
The story itself reads more like a Star Trek episode than Haruhi. In particular, it opens with shades of The Next Generation‘s “Remember Me” and climaxes with clear parallels to “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. Disappearance skillfully integrates the thematic sophistication of a time travel/parallel universe story with Haruhi‘s usual humor and moe fanservice.
Specifically, I like how the film sets up its central mystery, and lets it play out without handing out all the answers right away. I felt Kyon’s confusion and desperation as he searched for clues – or anything at all – from the world that he knew. Second, the film made me think about Kyon’s role in the fate of this altered universe. The Trek episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” has a line: “Who is to say that this history is any less proper than the other?” In the episode, the timeline gets altered and no one is aware except for one Enterprise crew member. Rather than jumping on board to “restore” the timeline, Captain Picard faces the difficult question of what “restoring the timeline” actually means. Which version was “meant” to happen?
In Disappearance, a similar moral dilemma briefly arises. I was disappointed, though, in the resolution. In fact, it’s not really a resolution at all. We get an answer, an outcome without a justification – at least an adequate justification. The Star Trek episode justified its ending in a rather obvious manner, but Disappearance just kinds of skirts around the explanation.
Discussing any further will unleash some massive spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that. It takes a certain level of quality to get me so mentally engaged in a film that I want to see more of its complexities. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya can go that far, and manages to be funny, sweet, sad, scary, and entertaining for most of its (nearly three hours long!) run. But if it had gone further, dived deeper, it could have been a great movie. In its current form, it’s good – on the condition that you know the series inside and out – and you’ll find yourself time displaced 161 minutes into the future before you know it.
In retrospect, I find it oddly sorrowful that the cast is played slightly out of character for much of the movie. Their basic personalities remain intact, but enough details are different that you start thinking of them as new people (in a sense, they are). Still, you know that the universe could somehow “reset”, and these people will be gone forever – replaced by their original incarnations.
Most of the attention is given to Yuki Nagato and Kyon. Yuki unsurprisingly becomes a timid bookworm, the sole member of the literary club. In the Disappearance universe, she has developed an attraction to Kyon, but his erratic behavior terrifies her. However, she undergoes an internal struggle in order to reach out to him. That you can see this process is indicative of the attention that Disappearance pays to character development in general.
Like any good dilemma, neither of Disappearance‘s possible resolutions are entirely desirable. Having to choose between the two – either the original characters “die” or their new incarnations do is tough and rightly so. The altered characters are developed with enough care that you kind of start to root for them. Perhaps it’s a cruel irony that the mystery they’re trying to solve would lead to the annihilation of their universe.
Indeed, I didn’t want the new Yuki to go away… but I didn’t want the old Yuki to vanish either. Kyoto Animation boosted Yuki’s moe factor by about a million for the film using a few cheap tricks, but I was still able to find value in her growth. Sure, her mannerisms play on some easy moe archetypes, but her budding relationship with Kyon and reckoning with her emotions are both real. These lend an emotional weight to the film; who would have thought that Yuki would become its human center?
Kyon’s development mostly centers around him growing a spine. Left on his own, he takes the lead in his life. It’s maybe a bit farcical that the changed universe spurs him to become a new man, to take command of his destiny, and to ultimately return to a world where he is Haruhi’s peon. Intentional or not, the thought gives me a laugh, and falls appropriately in line with the Haruhi franchise’s brand of humor.
Beyond these two, most of the characters from the series make appearances. Their roles are slightly less remarkable than Yuki’s and Kyon’s, but I did take interest in Mikuru. She shows some body language in the last act that foreshadows some intriguing but as-yet unknown questions.
Kyoto Animation must have sunk a considerable amount of money into this production, because every frame is about as technically excellent as a frame can be. Normally I don’t fawn over lavish animation, but it’s used to good effect here. This is one of the only examples I can think of where an animated character truly acts. Kyoto doesn’t use big, exaggerated gestures like you might see in a Western CGI movie. Instead they put a lot of effort into capturing subtle mannerisms – nuanced expressions and movements that help the character emote in a natural way. It adds a lot to the film. An errant smirk can put you right into Kyon’s mindset, while a few nervous dashes of the eyes betray Yuki’s timidness and inner turmoil.
In addition to overall excellent animation, I really enjoyed the cinematography. Scenes are composed and framed with purpose, often making the characters appear small in relation to their surroundings. These disengaged scenes feel dreamy, and are punctuated by more intimate shots with creative angles. The coloring, too, can tell you a lot about a scene. Some parts are desaturated, some cloaked in a gray drab, and others are lit with brilliant reds and oranges.
Unfortunately the sound design is less measured, and everyone’s favorite dance-along “Hare Hare Yukai” is a no-show. Voice acting is par for course for the Haruhi series, drawing from a pool of serious talent: Aya Hirano (very glad to hear her outside of boobie anime) providing various flavors of Haruhi, Minori Chihara giving subtle depth to Yuki, and Tomokazu Sugita driving Kyon and his trademark inner monologue.