It’s interesting to be making this video at all, because I’ve already reviewed The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, the movie sequel to this TV series.
First off, if you somehow both haven’t seen Haruhi and don’t know anything about it, I would recommend stopping here and watching it before that changes. Sub or dub, you can’t go wrong, and I think it would be an interesting experience going into Haruhi blind.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Now then, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a throwback for me. It is for most people, but for me it’s a little different. I wasn’t around for Haruhi’s heyday, I didn’t struggle through Endless Eight week by week or witness the apparent phenomenon that the ending dance was, but in 2013, the series was still by chance my eighth anime ever. So I too have a nostalgia for it, and many fond memories. I’ve read all the light novels, and I’ve rewatched the Disappearance film a number of times, but it’s been at least three years since I actually sat down with the series itself, so if nothing else, I enjoyed this excuse to return to the SOS Brigade.
The reason I told anyone unfamiliar with Haruhi to leave is that I really love how the show sets itself up, if you’re not aware of the premise. You’re set right in Kyon’s shoes; it’s just a normal high school with some eccentric students, aka the anime norm! The atmosphere is oddly serious or melancholic at times, and some of those students might in passing make cryptic remarks that don’t exactly make sense, but Kyon and the uninformed viewer brush it off. Even when the cat’s out of the bag and you’re told point-blank, Nagato is an alien, Asahina a time-traveller and Koizumi an esper, it’s hard to really take that seriously until you have to. This experience is somewhat complicated, and arguably enhanced, by how you watch the show, but more on that later. For now, let’s just talk about the story as it exists.
What really makes the series click for me is the fun of the characters; this band of misfits brought together by the presence of Haruhi Suzumiya. I haven’t made it clear, so on the off chance that someone ignored my recommendation and has no idea what Haruhi is about, these three special members of Haruhi’s club, the SOS Brigade, have been tasked by their respective organizations to observe Haruhi Suzumiya, because she is unknowingly a godlike entity, able to manipulate reality on a whim at a subconscious level. In fact, it’s very likely that these three individuals gathered around her in the first place because she wished for such supernatural entities to exist, and each one fills out an archetype; Asahina the time traveller is a moe girl, Nagato the alien is a deadpan, emotionless bookworm and Koizumi the esper is a mysterious transfer student.
Uh, it might sound simplistic to put it this way, but I like these three for very basic reasons; I just find them fun to watch. Asahina can get a little annoying, but Nagato’s matter-of-fact revelations and straightforward attitude as well as Koizumi’s vaguely sleazy, yes-man personality… I just find it fun. All three of ‘em have good chemistry, if not necessarily with each other, then certainly with Kyon.
Kyon being the centerpiece of it all, the one normal human in the SOS Brigade. Thankfully, despite an admittedly somewhat bland appearance, Kyon is far from a bland main character, like we so often get in modern anime. He is the grounding factor of the narrative. His role is not only to keep Haruhi in check, but to give the audience something to latch onto, a voice for the normal guy in this maelstrom of absurdity. As such, Kyon does play a straight man to the rest of the cast, commenting on the crazy goings-on or lamenting an over-the-top decision by Haruhi, but what I find makes him endearing and entertaining is his delivery.
Plenty of characters, especially in comedies (not that Haruhi exactly is one), have their role as the straight man, and play it to a T, devolving into shouting fits over the tiniest oddities, but Kyon’s weapon of choice is more quiet snark than manzai outrage. He’s content to quip and complain to himself, mentally, and simply let things proceed. We just don’t get enough snarky anime protagonists, in my opinion, and that snark is so perfect here. It undercuts the drama or idiocy of a situation in just the right way, not to lose its potency, but feel lighter, easier to deal with. I wouldn’t describe Kyon as cynical, though; his quips are more just that, quips, and not meant to illustrate an actually pessimistic person, as is made clear by both his genuine worry for others when the situation takes a turn for the worse and later, by the events of the movie, which I have a whole other review on.
Now of course, after that, there’s one more character to get to: Haruhi Suzumiya herself. I don’t know if this is true for a fact, but I could easily see Haruhi being the most divisive element of the show, and in fact I couldn’t fault someone who dislikes the show because they dislike Haruhi. She’s very easy to dislike. She’s selfish, abrasive, authoritative, and even abusive. She has no qualms about blackmailing or exploiting others, and frequently treats the rest of the Brigade as her playthings, especially Asahina, who is often on the receiving end of actions that could in a certain light be characterized as sexual assault, which the show in somewhat poor taste plays as a running gag — not that it’s the first or last series to do so. Haruhi’s a brat, honestly. In some ways, the conceit of the show is just about keeping a needy child happy, so she won’t get bored and maybe destroy the universe. This unlikability is at its height, but at least intentionally so, during the Sigh arc of the second season, in which she and Kyon very nearly come to blows.
It is clear, however, that she does change over time. Many of her most infuriating actions take place earlier in the series, when the SOS Brigade is still fresh and she’s never really had much of a chance to truly interact with others. As her time with the Brigade goes on, she’s still Haruhi, but slowly taken down maybe half a notch. She starts listening to Kyon a little, starts caring more about the wellbeing of her friends and, in a particularly uncharacteristic move, helps out some fellow unknown students in need, leading to one of my favorite character moments of the series.
You may recall, I started this foray into the characters by saying that the characters are what really makes it click for me, because the others aspects of the show are not without more significant fault. So at this point, we need to look into two things that always come up when people talk about Haruhi: the viewing order and Endless Eight.
Tackling them in that order, I very staunchly believe that the show’s original broadcast sequence produces the best experience of the series. To bring the uninformed up to speed, the first season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya originally aired its 14 episodes out of chronological order. The first episode that aired takes place near the end, the last episode that aired somewhere near the beginning, and it’s all tangled up in between. At face value, you might think “That’s a hassle, why would I bother?”, especially because many later services, including the blu-rays, list the series in order of chronology. But I very strongly feel that watching the show chronologically will produce a far less satisfying experience, for actually rather simple reasons. The basic structure of the first season, in a chronological sense, is one six-episode long dramatic arc, followed by eight episodes of one-off side stories.
Essentially, all the narrative weight is tied up early on, and nothing else afterward remotely reaches the same emotional level. So, what the broadcast order does is intersperse those side stories into the longer arc, which works so much better as long as you’re willing to put in the slight amount of extra effort that watching things out of order entails. It’s paced very naturally, slowly introducing the characters and their powers with increasing scale and importance. After the arc begins, you might then cut to a side story with mild supernatural elements, and as things ratchet up in that arc, you then might cut again to more side stories with even more extravagant use of the supernatural; it works to slowly get you accustomed to not only the world, but the characters just by virtue of spending more time with them before the big events happen. I truly feel that watching the show chronologically would really drag things down. The characters wouldn’t be especially well-established when the early drama hits, and the back half of the show would probably bore you due to the consistent lack of stakes.
And then, after that, you should just watch season two, the next 14 episodes, in chronological order; there’s no other way to watch that one, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. While we’re on the topic of story, I really like the two arcs that populate the series, one in season one and the other in season two. They both do clear things for the setting and cast, and come to a satisfying close, but when it comes to those side stories I mentioned, not every one is equally memorable or interesting. Curiously, the first side story (in broadcast order) isn’t even much of a “side story” at all; it’s a student film created by none other than Haruhi Suzumiya and the SOS Brigade. I like the concept of this episode, but I don’t love the execution. The number of amateur filming techniques is amusing, and the scenes are especially interesting to think about once we later see the actual filming process, but I think it’s overlong for its lack of point, and for once I don’t find Kyon’s commentary very funny at all, perhaps due to an overreliance on it. Regardless, its bizarrity makes for, if nothing else, a striking first episode, which I wish I could say for some of the others.
Certain side stories are great, and add a lot to the characters. Live Alive has some awesome Haruhi moments, not even counting the infamous concert scene, Day of Sagittarius does some neat stuff for Nagato and is just kind of generally a blast, and Someday in the Rain is slightly too slow but has the interesting role of depicting the SOS Brigade’s mundane life, between their many misadventures... but then there are others, like the two-part Remote Island Syndrome, that I don’t feel contribute nearly as much, and are generally a bit of a bore.
And speaking of a bore, it’s time we get to Endless Eight. Endless Eight is at this point a well-known piece of anime history, but for those unaware, eight episodes of the second Haruhi season are essentially the same episode. The cast is caught in a time loop, but their memories reset every time they loop, so they just keep doing the same things again and again. You might think that was just a way to cut costs, but every episode is entirely reanimated, and animated quite well at that.
So, why did this happen? Well, if you don’t know, the events of the Disappearance film were originally going to be adapted by the second season, but once it got changed to a film at some point during production, the team had all these blank episodes and no more content to adapt. Thus, they chose to fill the gap with Endless Eight. Regardless of the circumstance of the decision, these eight episodes are almost unanimously scorned by the community, even after being mildly justified retroactively by the events of Disappearance (with the key word being “mildly”). In my own opinion, Endless Eight should’ve been three episodes, four tops. One where nothing unusual happens (it’s the first iteration of the loop), one or two where Kyon tries and fails to break the loop (two would cement the feeling of endlessness), and one final one where he successfully breaks it. But in its current form, with six episodes for that middle chunk, it’s just too much. I’ve seen it, all of it, and I don’t even hate it really, it’s just boring.
Moving on to the audio, as much as I would’ve loved another stroll down Crispin Freeman Lane, I felt that as I have already extolled the virtues of the Haruhi dub in my review of Disappearance, I should take this opportunity to finally watch Haruhi with its original Japanese cast, and unsurprisingly it’s good, but if anything, it only made me appreciate the dub ever more. Sure, Asahina is better in Japanese, moe girls almost always are, but I honestly do feel that everyone else in the main cast either meets or exceeds the performance of their Japanese counterpart. Heresy, I know. Michelle Ruff absolutely nails Nagato’s odd inflection and cadence, and Haruhi (while I’m going to backpedal on something I said in that Disappearance review, in that I no longer believe the two performances sound close to identical), I do still feel they are both valid interpretations of a peppy and hyperactive Haruhi Suzumiya. I would say Koizumi is the most different take on any character in the dub. In English, Johnny Yong Bosch has a sing-songy note to his delivery that is still present in Japanese, but dialed back a bit, going for more of an everyman approach to the character.
And oh yes, just as I expected, Tomokazu Sugita is really great as Kyon. He always brings it to any role he takes, and Kyon is no exception. This was on a higher end of Sugita’s vocal register than Jojo or Gintoki, and the delivery often fell into this raspy, exasperated style that Sugita has that I just love. But even so, Crispin Freeman’s Kyon is something else. It might be my favorite anime dub performance ever, and yes, I’m even counting stuff like Bebop. Freeman nails every bit of snark and emotion that the character brings to the table. I could take or leave everyone else in the dub, even Wendee Lee as Haruhi, but Freeman’s Kyon… god. So perfect.
In terms of production and animation quality, uh, the first season looks its age, over 10 years old. It’s definitely the worst looking show I watched for this KyoAni Month, probably due to a combination of it being the oldest as well as one of the studio’s first productions. Outside of some brief but very notable exceptions, there’s not much real animation, some lackluster CGI, a distinct absence of digital effects like lighting (at least in part due to the show’s age), and even a surprising lack of on-model or detailed drawing, especially when the characters are at anything more than a moderate distance. You can tell this is not a modern KyoAni production, but in classic fashion for the studio, the season is at least well-directed. When the show gets weird and leans supernatural, the shot composition takes note. When a conversation is important, there’s an effort made to keep things visually fresh despite the flagging production values, and it really does go a long way. Technical quality and all that is important in an anime’s visuals, but the merit of simple artistic vision should also not be understated.
Luckily enough, the second season maintains that strong direction and dramatically improves the technical quality. It looks far closer to the KyoAni of today, with an abundance of subtle motions, detailed lighting and backgrounds, and all the rest. It’s somewhat unfortunate that eight of those better looking episodes are Endless Eight (which for better or worse, they didn’t skimp on), but I can live with it since the rest still looks so good.
And that’s all I got. An overall fun time with fun characters, but not without its missteps, such as boring episodes, annoying personalities and telltale signs of a reserved production (in season one). So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… considering this is a review of the whole series, including Endless Eight… I gotta go with a B. Nonetheless, I would still highly recommend that you watch it if you haven’t already, because if nothing else, I very strongly feel that it’s worth pulling through the series just to get to the sequel film (which still stands as one of my favorite films of all time).
If you’d like to check out The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya for yourself, it is currently available on Funimation, both subbed and dubbed, so feel free to take your pick. But please note, both seasons are combined into the show’s chronological order on the site, so I highly encourage to look up the broadcast order, and watch it that way. You’ll almost certainly have a much better time.
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