Anime Review: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Kyon thought he was going to have a normal, uneventful high school life. Then he meets Haruhi, who claims she has no interest in ordinary people. She chooses him on a whim to be her partner in creating the SOS Brigade, her own after-school club to search out everything mysterious and wondrous in the world. They are joined by three peculiar people: the taciturn Yuki, the shy Mikuru, and the gregarious Koizumi. Although Haruhi never seems to acknowledge the strange events happening all around her, Kyon is let in on the secret, and discovers that he plays a pivotal role in the preservation of the world.

Plot

Not content to be just another quirky school life drama, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya ups the ante by introducing a sci-fi element into the usual proceedings. This adds a new, vital dimension to the story, but feels very out of place at first. Eventually, as Kyon does, you just live with it and see what happens. Despite the fantasy elements of the story, the show rings with a strange sort of authenticity. That’s not to say it all seems realistic, but you never truly think that the show is as over the top and ridiculous as it really is. By being frugal with the science fiction themes, the plot manages to stay fresh and unpredictable.

When not concerned with espers, aliens, and time travelers, Haruhi is mostly concerned with the lives of Kyon and the SOS Brigade. Even in this endeavour, the show avoids simply going through the motions. The bits about school are treated with surprising care and sensitivity, and there are a lot of character driven episodes to help us understand who Haruhi really is. The narrative is in Kyon’s perspective. Because of this, we get a lot of partiality, especially concering his reactions to the other members of the SOS Brigade. His presence is like a color commentator, usually making self-aware comments about the various ironies of the show.

As I watched the series, though, I was forced to wonder how much Kyoto Animation modified the source material. Admittedly, I’m not too far into the novels (on which the anime is based), but it seems like the anime version is a bit more keen on making fun of the otaku culture. We are, at times, drawn away from the more interesting topic of Haruhi’s supposed ability. What are the implications of her existence (and her titular melancholy)? Several episodes are devoted to this, yet I would still like to have seen this featured in more depth.

The best part about Haruhi is how it works with the unexpected. The episodes were aired out of chronological order, which disrupts the pacing quite a bit, but at least keeps things changing. Sometimes, you’ll get long stretches of exposition about abstract ideas. Other times, you’ll get scenes with great thoughtfulness and subtlety contrasted against chaos, action, comedy, or pervertedness. The series does its best to break down the expectations of the audience, making every episode a different experience.

Unfortunately, because of its inconsistent nature, the plot tends to lose momentum at times. This isn’t a serious drawback, but it does make me believe that the plot would have been more effective if the story arcs weren’t interrupted so frequently. However, in the anachronistic framework, the build up to the ending and the catharsis therein are very worthwhile. The end product is an anime series that desperately needs a second season. Although I appreciate its lighthearted comedic side, it was ultimately the fantasy element that kept me watching. Through these elements, Haruhi raises poignant metaphysical questions that mesh extremely well with Haruhi’s character. I only wish director Ishihara Tatsuya sought the answers to these questions with equal cleverness and conviction.

Characters

Haruhi features a superb ensemble cast that does a fantastic job of endearing itself to the viewers. The characterization is solid, especially for Haruhi, who is wrought with complexities that a lesser show would have just skipped over. Good thing for us, then, that so much of the show is devoted to exploring and developing her personality. Kyon, too, is going through an important stage of his life (he just refuses to admit it). His relationship with Haruhi takes center stage, and the lessons he learns about emotional attachment feel relevant and true.

I’d go so far as to say the show is sustained by the quality of Kyon’s narrative along with the strength of Haruhi’s characterization. The often antagonistic relationship between Haruhi, Kyon the character, and Kyon the narrator serves as a source of humor as well as a window into Haruhi’s mind. Since she’s not so fond of expressing her emotions, Kyon’s interpretation shapes much of the viewer’s early understanding of her. This is a good effect as long as Haruhi is allowed to develop on her own, which happens as soon as the major plot elements come into place.

The supporting cast is used to good effect. Itsuki and Yuki both serve as guides for Kyon’s entry into the abnormal world. Although their characters mostly stay the same, the show does humanize them to some degree by the end. Mikuru, the SOS Brigade’s “lolita” mascot, does not have an apparent story function at first. We eventually see, though, that she acts as an anchor for Kyon, to ensure that he always has a footing in reality, and also to remind him (in an unusual way) of why he and Haruhi are so important. Actually, I would have like to see more of this angle, because it has potential to turn into a tragedy.

Aside from the SOS Brigade members, outside characters don’t play much of a role. The only person of note is Mikuru’s friend Tsuruya, who manages to brighten up even the most dreary of episodes through her hyperactively happy dialog (her internet nickname is LOL-tan). There is an even larger extended cast (which I guess only has significance in the novels), but they move in and out of the story without much fanfare.

With a good cast supporting a solid plot, Haruhi gets the two most fundamental ingredients of storytelling right. The SOS Brigade members are a memorable bunch, uniquely fitted to their dramatic functions. But the most important part of the show, and the biggest surprise, is its namesake. Written with careful attention to detail and subtlety, Haruhi – being more than just the star of her own show – raises the bar for characterization in anime.

Technical

I was impressed by the visual artistry in this series. The scene composition and atmosphere rival many higher budget works that I’ve seen – a specialty of Kyoto Animation. Aside from just looking pretty, though, a lot of the story is reinforced by the series’ visual style, which alternates effortlessly between the earthy and the surreal.

The character designs aren’t bad either, although male characters tend to look a little too similar. Thanks to the proliferation of computers in animation, a lot of visual details were recreated rather accurately, including Windows XP. The outright use of CG is sparing, although when it is warranted, can be quite spectacular.

For the most part, the audio production is forgettable (except for the ending credits sequence). Even so, Haruhi contains some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard. Sugita Tomokazu captures Kyon’s confusion, irritation, and pragmatism perfectly. Hirano Aya, who voices Haruhi, also does a commendable job at providing her with many delicate inflections. Unsurprisingly, voicing Haruhi became Hirano’s breakout role. I also have to give props to Goto Yuko for her work as Mikuru. Maintaining such an unnaturally high and timid voice can’t be easy.

Haruhi is a very well-produced show, leaving little to be desired in terms of visual consistency and acting quality. The song and dance number in the credits sequence is just icing on the cake. If anything, this just proves that Kyoto Animation is reliable on the technical end. Whatever they put out, chances are it’ll look and sound great.