Tuesday 21 July 2015

Anime REVIEW: The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

Even the most casual fans are probably familiar with the name Haruhi Suzumiya. Back in 2006 the then-still-relatively-new studio Kyoto Animation made their mark with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and after two seasons and a movie the show (based on a series of light novels by Noizi Ito) went on to become something of a phenomenon in both Japan and in the West. Figure collectors will also probably know that the Haruhi cast were a key part of the early Figma line up. Now after five years since the release of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya the franchise has returned to the anime world once again, but this time in a slightly different form. Formerly a stoic humanoid interface for the Data Integration Thought Entity, Yuki Nagato takes centre stage in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, an alternate universe tale which reimagines the cast in a more "normal" setting. The series saw the main voice cast all return to their respective roles, however this time animation duties were handed over to Satelight.

Nagato and Kyon get close
Unbearable romantic tension

In world fans previously saw a glimpse of in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Yuki Nagato is a shy high schooler who loves to spend her time playing video games. Her best friends are Ryoko Asakura and Kyon, the latter of whom she has a rather large crush on. The series follows Yuki as her feelings for Kyon develop and experiences high school life with her friends (who also include Mikuru Asahina and Tsuruya). However despite Haruhi not attending North High School in this universe, it isn't long before she and Itsuki Koizumi become tangled in their lives anyway - leading them to go on all sorts of adventures even without her reality warping powers!

The idea that The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan takes away all the supernatural mystique of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya might sound like sacrilege to some, especially since it's a key factor that originally gave it the edge over other slice of life anime shows. However as The Disapperance of Haruhi Suzimiya movie proved there is good reason for its existence, and the perfect reason to get more out of these memorable characters. With Yuki taking centre stage in this production she's had to go through a pretty huge overhaul, transforming from the quiet, monotone alien she was into a loveable, klutzy goofball. Meanwhile the rest of the cast have perhaps received some minor tinkering here and there, but are all still clearly the characters we known them as. Kyon still has his sarcastic wit, Mikuru is still timid and easily embarrassed etc. The newest element to the dynamic is of course Ryoko Asakura, who's no longer the (reasonably important) bit part she was in the original series, acting here as the mother figure of the group. Despite being a rather cliche character, Ryoko fits really comfortably into this much bigger core cast (as Tsuruya's role has been considerably upped as well, even if her actual contributions to the plot are mostly superficial), providing a tempered balance that the group needed. Of course that isn't to say that darker side of her original personality has gone completely, but here it's purely used for comical effect.

Ryoko Asakura
The missing ingredient

Of course this Haruhi-less world wasn't going to last forever, and the girl herself eventually shows up with Itsuki in tow a few episodes in. However there's something a little different about the Haruhi of this universe, most likely due to the fact that she isn't talking centre stage in this story. Her no-nonsense, take-charge personality from the original series is very much intact - only now it's been reigned in to better suit the position of a supporting character. Haruhi is still very much the catalyst that creates many of the show's events, but it's far less about her in those situations. To someone (like me) who found Haruhi far too much to handle in the original series, this comes as extremely refreshing and makes her into a genuinely likeable character with a good dash of emotion behind her. Unfortunately the same level of positive character change can't be said for Itsuki, who's arguably suffered the most in the dynamic shuffling of Yuki-chan. Outside of a few comedic moments with Kyon, Itsuki is largely relegated to Haruhi's yes man - willing to anything she wants and painfully in love with her, yet knows full well nothing will ever come of it.

Haruhi Suzumiya returns
Didn't think she'd be gone long did you?

Eventually the happy-go-lucky slice of life element of Yuki-chan all comes to a crashing halt at episode ten, for a four-episode arc in which three of the episodes take the title from the series itself. Without giving too much away, these episodes begin exhibiting a very different Yuki Nagato - one that will be all too familiar with those that watched the original series. How this new (or old, depending on how you want to look at it) Yuki reacts with the characters around her and vice versa creates undoubtedly the strongest set of episodes in the entire series, playing the change in a way that suits both the grounded setting of Yuki-chan and the more fantastical elements of the original series. While the few episodes that follow return to the earlier standard rom-com setting (albeit with the previous events firmly still in mind) and manage to provide a somewhat satisfying conclusion, they never quite reach the drama and emotional heights of this "Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan" arc.

Yuki's memory crisis
Things start getting a bit existentialist in here

Newcomers to the franchise will be pleased to know that should they so wish Yuki-chan is a perfectly acceptable place to start their Haruhi journey, with the show not at all relying on knowledge of the previous show to be properly understood. Of course that isn't to say it is completely detached from its predecessor, featuring all kinda of nods and references to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya for eagle-eyed fans to pick up on. These range from really blatant references to comedy effect to more subtle touches that could quite easily be missed. It adds an extra layer to the show that entices you to give it multiple watches, especially if you have chosen this as your starting point for the franchise. And while many fans will argue that Satelight can't quite live up to the animation quality previously provided by Kyoto, that isn't to say their efforts should go completely unnoticed. Despite sporting a slightly different style this is still visibly the Haruhi cast, and little touches like Mikuru's darker red hairtips are nice splash of originality. The show doesn't suffer from any obvious animation flaws, and once you've comfortably sunk into its style you'll find yourself pleasantly rewarded.

Mikuru encounters Haruhi for the first time
The more things change, the more they stay the same

While The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan may not be as groundbreaking as its predecessor, it is nonetheless a very worthy spin-off tale that provides plenty of laughs and emotion. This whole new setting causes a shift in the balance of power, creating a new dynamic between the characters that may appeal to those who found some of the original interpretations a bit overbearing at times. Careful references at key times make this a show that can appeal just as much to newcomers and it does existing Haruhi fans, and only those with the stoniest of hearts will be able to resist the clumsy charm of this world's Yuki.

No comments: