Sunday 29 May 2011

Anime REVIEW: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

NB. This is a review of the 28 episode ‘season 2’ airing of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, rather than the 14 episode season 1 version. The episodes were watched in chronological order as they were aired, and shall be reviewed as such. Any differences between that and the out of sequence season 1 edition will not be addressed in any detail. This review also includes coverage of the ‘Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya’ movie.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is an internet phenomenon. Any anime fan who surfs the web is sure to be aware of this series, and its likely that the fans who don't have also heard of it in one way or another. The series revolves around a group of high school students, who are part of the SOS Brigade, who go out looking for fun and adventure. An ordinary boy gets somehow gets caught up with a girl who can seemingly alter the universe at will and 3 other students who each monitor Haruhi with their own secret identities. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is the end result of when science fiction and high school slice-of-life animes collide.

On paper the characters are a varied and interesting bunch. The titular Haruhi Suzumiya is a seemingly ordinary girl with a big imagination who just happens to have the ability to shape the world around her and Kyon is an ordinary boy completely unprepared for the situations he’s about to be thrust into. Watching Haruhi closely are Yuki Nagato – an alien ‘humanoid interface’ created by the Data Integration Thought Entity, Mikuru Asahina – a time traveller and Itsuki Kozumi – an ESPer from a group known as ‘The Agency’. Each of the three are all aware of each other and have different theories on Haruhi’s abilities, which they share with Kyon (much to his dismay). The problem is aside from Kyon the characters are horribly one dimensional. Haruhi is a bitch, Mikuru is a cry baby, Yuki is the silent type and Itsuki overly cheerful. Haruhi will often go through moments of personal growth, only for it to be completely forgotten about 5 minutes later because her friends are too concerned that it will make the world unbalanced. Mikuru and Yuki get some great moments where their abilities are further explored (particularly Yuki) but I felt more could have been done with Itsuki. Kyon is definitely the most likeable character of the bunch, his constant irritation at Haruhi being something that was easily relatable and his confusion/lack of interest in the supernatural occurrences around him enjoyable.

But without a shadow of a doubt Haruhi’s biggest flaw is the ‘Endless Eight’ story arc – eight whole episodes where the characters are trapped in an endless time loop due to Haruhi’s wish for summer not to end. Each episode has some very minor differences (such as clothing, camera angles etc.) but are narrative wise almost identical. It was a bold move to do a story arc consisting of the same story over and over again and as a concept I can’t praise it enough, but eight out of 28 episodes dedicated to it is simply too much. It’s boring and it’s lazy. The point could have easily been gotten across in three episodes, five at the most.

Episode-wise, Haruhi’s excellence shines in its one shot episodes, particularly the episodes ‘Live Alive’, ‘The Day of Sagittarius’ and ‘Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody’ (the latter is undoubtedly the highlight of the season 2 episodes). Sagittarius and Bamboo Leaf give some much needed development to both Mikuru and Yuki (Bamboo also having a brilliant Doctor Who reference, which immediately put a smile on my face) and ‘Live Alive’ not only featuring the fantastic ‘God Knows’ song, but also displaying some of Haruhi’s qualities other than being a bitch to everyone around her. Unfortunately, the series is utterly dominated by multi part stories. Aside from the aforementioned ‘Endless Eight’, there is also one 6-parter, one 5-parter and one 2-part story (although that is a particularly good one, including a sequence that frame by frame homages Capcom’s Phoenix Wright games). That’s already 21 episodes out of 28 spent. Both 6 part ‘Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’ and the 5 part ‘Sigh of…” have strong episodes, but it both cases they are at the beginning and end of the arcs, with the middle taken up by horrendously drawn out sequences of whatever they happen to be doing at the time.

On the other hand, ‘The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya’ movie is missing a lot of the flaws the series had. Despite its enormous length (the film clocks in at a huge 2 hours 40 minutes) it makes perfect use of the time, depicting an alternate world where Haruhi is powerless and the SOS brigade never existed – Yuki is a normal human, Mikuru isn’t a time traveller and Itsuki is powerless. Only Kyon still has any memory of his time with his world’s Haruhi and the SOS brigade, and he attempts to fix the timeline he also has to decide between his old chaotic world or this new one where he can live a normal life. It gives great fleshing out to all of the side characters (the absence of Haruhi for the majority of the film making a huge difference), fills in a lot of the plot holes and questions left by the series and its twist moving. The animation is simply stunning, and if the series has been of this calibre it really would have been something to rave about.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is by no means a bad series, but it doesn’t deserve even half the praise it seems to get. I don’t honestly know how much difference watching the out of sequence season one version (which excludes Endless Eight so already wins points in my eyes) makes to overall experience, but the season 2 chronological version is average at best. The concept is completely sound , but with so much focus on multi-part stories and a cast of mostly one dimensional characters makes Haruhi really fail to live up to its potential.

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