If you weren’t an anime fan ten years ago, you may have missed the fuss around The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (then again, given the persistent internet presence of Haruhi its possible that you’ve since caught up on what was a massive craze that then pretty much completely dissipated). Whether you loved or hated Haruhi, you couldn’t ignore her if you were part of any anime community and today I want to look back at this fad that all but sparked its own religion (Haruhiism – not joking).
For those who still have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a brief overview. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is an anime based on a series of light novels and it follows Kyon, a typical highschool boy who is just a bit jaded with life, as he starts highschool and has the ‘pleasure’ of ending up in the same class of the girl who works hard at being the weirdest student around, Haruhi Suzumiya. And so begins the adventure as Kyon is literally dragged into Haruhi’s little world and she starts a club, dragging other students into it. That in and of itself is pretty standard and would work for a story but of course there is more.
It turns out that Haruhi really wants there to be magic in the world. She wants to meet aliens and espers and time travellers. Little does she know she already has as the other three members of her club represent each of these groups. Kyon, on the other hand, becomes very aware. As he is also aware that literally everything Haruhi wants, happens, though she’s all but clueless. Haruhi is in simplest terms, rewriting reality at her own whims. The main job of the club members is to keep Haruhi happy and on an even keel so she doesn’t decide to destroy the world. No problem.
Still, even with its off the wall protagonist and mish-mash of science, magic and religion why is it that Haruhi gained so many followers (and lost most of them just as quickly)?
For full disclosure I will point out I am a major fan of Haruhi Suzumiya including the Endless Eight (which we will get back to). It was kind of exactly what I was looking for at the time so even though other shows have done more or less the same kinds of things, the combination of elements in Haruhi just worked for me. I will get around to a review of this series at some point but like many of my favourites its actually kind of hard to review. But as this isn’t a review I won’t be examining Haruhi’s core character or some of the more problematic elements of the show.
I’m going to start with the format of the show. The DVD collection of this gave you two options for viewing. Broadcast Order and Chronological Order. Chronological Order mixes season 1 and 2 together and the events run in the actual order they occur which makes things much easier to follow but certainly takes a lot of the wow factor out of the series (particularly as the season 1 climax ends up at episode 5 – they need to warn people that things will never be that intense again). Broadcast Order is the order the episodes originally aired in and they are literally all over the place. No Haruhi wasn’t the first anime to mix up time like this and it certainly wasn’t the last but it is a defining feature of the show.
With the events all out of order the question is how do viewers figure out what is going on and how it relates to other events? In Haruhi they give the viewers their landmark which is the clubroom, which was originally the literature club’s room that Haruhi kind of took over given they only had one member. Over the course of the series the room gradually fills up with different artefacts (as noted by Kyon our narrator) and while some of these are simply functional, the vast majority are specifically linked to key events in the story. Therefore, by looking at what is and isn’t in the club room at any given time, you know where in the narrative the episode is taking place. Admittedly, the first time you watch it through this won’t be a big help to you as you won’t be familiar with most of the artefacts anyway.
Some purists absolutely believe you should only watch Haruhi in broadcast order but I disagree. I don’t mind the fact that we don’t end up with a climax if we watch it in chronological order because I like watching the character journey play out (though some will argue there is no character journey). I genuinely like how Kyon and Haruhi’s relationship changes and develops over the course of the show (even when those changes are at times miniscule). It’s kind of like real relationships where you aren’t sure when they started to change but they did and you end up somewhere different.
However, while not unique, the fact that Haruhi was originally aired in non-chronological order was one of the things that made it stand out from the vast array of anime of the time and the fact that it works in both broadcast and chronological order just makes it better as it gives people options. That said, this novelty isn’t enough to give the series staying power so while it contributed to the momentary popularity, if this was the only gimmick the show had rolled out it was never going to be remembered as anything more than vaguely quirky.
Other than the format, we have the fact that Haruhi is completely full of references to other stories (a lot of these are anime but we have references to a wide range of literature). Actually, watching Haruhi and counting the references could become one of the best drinking games ever. We’ve got Gundam references, Full Metal Panic references, Evangelion references, even a couple of obvious Dr Who shout outs, and while some of these work to create extra meaning in Haruhi, most of them are just plain entertaining.
Again, Haruhi is not the first anime to reference other anime or texts. Nor has it done it better than other shows, or in a unique fashion. However, what it did was to fully integrate those references within its central narrative. These characters live in the world (a real world even if it is one of Haruhi’s design) and as a result they read and watch TV and they do speak and refer to events in stories and discuss the parallels between the weird situations they end up in and works of fiction. It makes these characters more believable as characters even while the show mocks itself for being derivative.
This is both part of the short term draw of the show and part of the reason it became harder for newer fans to get on board. There is definite pleasure in recognising the reference and some of the references were old even when Haruhi aired. It got around this by mostly referencing very classic texts that were likely to still be known but there are still some comments and visuals that are clear references to something that I just don’t get and I know that a lot of the references go over the heads of people these days. It isn’t funny when you know a character has just said something in reference to a show you’ve never heard of.
Thirdly, defining Haruhi Suzumiya as a genre. It’s pretty much impossible to nail it into one category. The closest you could get is a high-school slice of life but that severely diminishes the importance of the fantasy and sci-fi elements that come through in the show. At times we get mystery, others romance, and there’s also a healthy amount of comedy thrown about. The slice of life stuff works as a frame for everything else and they literally cram in everything else.
This gives the show both broad appeal and limited appeal. There’s probably some parts of Haruhi you will like depending on your favourite genre but there will be other parts that just won’t work for you personally. So while you can get people to watch the show by dangling whatever genre might appeal to them in front of them, the show itself won’t be a brilliant anything because it doesn’t fit in to any genre exclusively.
Okay, there’s a bunch more stuff I could talk about but this post is already getting long so the last point I have to talk about is the Endless Eight. If you haven’t heard of this and want to know just how much the Endless Eight annoys some people just google it and you will find both a collection of some of the most intensely written justifications for eight almost identical episodes and some of the most vicious rants I’ve ever seen attributed to an anime.
Again, love or hate the Endless Eight, it is a defining part of Haruhi Suzumiya. Part of season 2, it is essentially eight episodes of a time loop. Literally. Each episode starts at the beginning of the loop and we watch the characters live about two weeks of their lives before they fail to stop the loop continuing and the episode ends. At least for viewers it is only eight episodes. For the characters they experience the loop 15,532 times which apparently equates to 595 years (googled that as I couldn’t remember).
For me, I enjoy watching the very minor changes in interactions and costumes that occur throughout this sequence am happy enough to watch through the eight episodes. For most people this is nothing short of torture and when the second season was only 14 episodes having 8 of them playing a time loop could be considered kind of a cheat. But it is very Haruhi. Yes, we’ve seen shows with time loops before. Yes, we’ve seen characters become aware they are stuck in a loop and struggle to break it and fail. What most shows don’t do (for good reason) is stick the viewer in the same loop. That frustration you are feeling at the fifth episode, imagine you are the character now.
It is again a defining trait of the series and one of the reasons it exploded across the internet but it is also one of the reasons why people turned away from the show and it clearly divided the fandom.
As I said, one day I’ll actual review this series, and look at the spin-off about Nagato (not such a fan), but today I just wanted to look back at an anime that whether people enjoyed it or not certainly got them talking. What are your thoughts on Haruhi?