Home > Series Reviews > The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – Metanarrative

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – Metanarrative

There are different ways for a show to stand out from the usual crowd. One, as I covered recently in my review of Toradora, is to exemplify a standard genre. This method requires skill in vivifying cliches and personalities, but is arguably the easiest method. Another is to try something unique and innovative, eschewing normal models altogether. Tatami Galaxy gives an example of this, as does Time of Eve.

There is a third option, which is redefinition: simultaneously accepting and deconstructing the basic concepts of a genre. A show like this seems to follow a stereotypical mold on paper, but if you examine it closely, you’ll find it doing something else entirely. These shows are arguably the most influential, as they are the ones which spawn the largest hoard of imitators.

One of the more recent of these genre-redefining shows—one we mentioned in passing in very first review for this site—is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Melancholy is one of those shows which took otaku both in Japan and abroad by storm, and its popularity demonstrates some of the best and worst trends in the community.

Google "Hare Hare Yukai" and you can find links not just to the song, but specific instructions on how to dance to it, and multiple live presentations of the same. This show inspires serious devotion even by the standards of otaku, who are obsessive about everything

My co-blogger has discussed the concept of “Anime anime“—a particular genre of anime that is unique to the medium. Melancholy, at first glance, fits this mold to a tee. It’s a quasi-harem romantic comedy set in high school, with action elements, plenty of knowing fanservice, and (as befits its origin as a light novel) lots of talking.

But there’s an element that provides a rather unique context to its presentation, in that just about everything stereotypical about the show has an in-built excuse. On the surface Melancholy plays out exactly how these stories always play out. But that is because the “creator” of the story exists within the story, and she is seeking out a stereotypical world because that’s the world in which she wants to live.

Haruhi announces her desire to find all the weird things of the world as part of her high school introduction. The show is based on her failing and succeeding simultaneously

The show “begins”—as the original episodes were deliberately broadcast without regard to the story’s internal chronology, “begins” is a relative term—by introducing Kyon, whose real name remains unknown. (Kyon is a nickname.) His singular misfortune in life is to share his high school class with Haruhi Suzumiya, a beautiful and talented girl who is typically avoided for her many eccentricities and quirks. Kyon makes the mistake of befriending her, and gets far more than he bargains for.

Haruhi is obsessed with the unique and the abnormal, specifically the espers, time-travelers, and aliens that populate science fiction and popular media. At Kyon’s unwitting suggestion, she even founds a eponymous group to find such creatures, bullying her way into other people’s club space and recruiting whomever she can cajole, intimidate, or just drag into coming. The group then searches out the paranormal and supernatural, although Haruhi is perpetually disappointed when they don’t find it.

When I said "drag" I meant it: Haruhi is no respecter of other persons, particularly Kyon. Haruhi also popularized the tie grab maneuver for non-BL contexts

Overall, it feels more like the premise for a quirky slice of life show than a genre-redefining international hit, but what makes it unique is the catch. Unbeknownst to Haruhi, the three members of the club aside from Kyon are an alien, a time-traveler, and an esper, respectively. And all of them have a particular interest in Haruhi Suzumiya.

Haruhi, three years prior, somehow gained the ability to remake reality according to her wishes. Unaware of the ability, and psychologically convinced of the reality of the “normal” world, she can’t use the ability directly. But her subconscious knows she wants to be surrounded by aliens, time-travelers, and espers, so that’s what happens.

Yuki Nagato is the obligatory quiet girl, whose various facial expressions differ by millimeters. She is also an "interface device" for an utterly alien intelligence, and the best character in the show

The three groups are united in their interest in Haruhi, but have radically different opinions about what she is. (We later discover the three all represent particular factions of those groups, further confusing the issue.) Further, the three have contradictory ways of viewing the very basis of reality, providing continual opportunities for philosophical tangents, as well as making the nature of the world a constant question.

The idea of uncertainty comes out in other ways as well. Following the light novels, the distinction between what Kyon is thinking and what he says aloud isn’t always clear, and there are times when his stated opinions don’t quite seem to line up with the action on screen. The entire story is told from his perspective, and ultimately we don’t know how honest that perspective is.

Itsuki Koizumi is the perhaps too friendly club vice-president whom Haruhi recruits because he's a "mysterious" transfer student. He is also an esper working for a secret conspiracy that worships Haruhi

The result is a narrative best described as “layered.” At any given moment, there’s the reality that Haruhi talks about (one populated by paranormal activity), the reality she perceives (where she “knows” that paranormal activity doesn’t exist and thus denies it), and the reality the rest of her group has to deal with (created by her subconscious). The series manages to check all the boxes of a stereotypical sci-fi Anime anime, but goes about it in a completely roundabout manner.

In many ways the entire show can be summed up in the first broadcast episode. In a move that utterly confused the audience (at least, it confused the heck out of me for the first five minutes), the series started by airing an episode of “The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina.” Thus the viewers are treated to a non-sequitur story concocted by Haruhi and shown as if it were recorded on a handheld camera. Haruhi and Kyon themselves only appear on screen for about ten seconds between them.

Mikuru Asahina is the beautiful and excessively endowed club mascot and personal plaything of Haruhi, who is regularly forced into fetishized costumes even when she isn't starring in a film. She is also a time traveler sent to investigate the temporal disturbance Haruhi created

Shot as a video project for the school culture festival, it “introduces” the club members as the aliens, time-travelers, and espers that they are, without the audience realizing that it should be taken seriously, just as Haruhi doesn’t realize it should be taken seriously. At the same time, careful watchers can detect hints of deeper realities at work as the actors improvise lines and strange events get caught on camera. The episode foreshadows not only the entire first season, but events that won’t happen until long after that.

The show constantly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy (and fantasy as reality). Haruhi wants a world like in the stories, and so that comes to pass—along with every cliche of those stories, which are indulged in and winked at simultaneously. Improbable coincidences, like the entire setup of the series, are a result of the literal force that is Haruhi, and it might well be that every plot element is the result of her desires.

At one point Haruhi seems ready to remake the world and start over, though Kyon talks her out of it. It's clear even before then that what what Haruhi really wants is Kyon himself

Kyon himself is one of the plot elements that makes the show work; he manages the tricky balancing act of being normal without being bland. His sarcastic approach to life serves him well in a universe filled with the absurd. Yuki, Koizumi, and Mikuru fit their stereotypical roles well, even as they occasionally are asked to step beyond them as the series progresses. (Many of their best moments are still to be animated.)

Oddly enough, the show’s main problem is with its driving force: Haruhi is an incredibly divisive figure among the fanbase, and with good reason. She is vain, demanding, violent, and completely self-absorbed at the start of the show; she’s annoyed the world doesn’t revolve around her and conform to her wishes—even though, of course, it does—and takes that out on a variety of people. She wants to be special, and she wants everyone else to know it.

There are multiple different ways to translate what SOS-Dan means, but just about all of them boil down to "Haruhi Suzumiya's personal brigade." Have I mentioned she's extraordinarily vain?

That all this has an in-character explanation doesn’t make her more pleasant, so while she slowly mellows, it may come as too little, too late for some watchers. Even when in a mellow state, she remains concerned mostly with herself, and the supporting characters mostly act in ways that serve to confirm her natural bias. Her bossy personality, even taken to the extreme that it is, still serves as an influence on future characters of her type, with Oreimo and MM! serving as two current (and negative) examples.

Another potential problem is that while the show has an inbuilt excuse for all its fanservice thanks to Haruhi’s warped view of reality, it can still be excessively exploitative towards its cast. This is particularly the case with Mikuru, but extends to practically everyone at some point or another, and toward all conceivable audiences too. Koizumi acts ambiguously gay around Kyon simply because that’s how Haruhi would expect his “character” to act, providing some potential grist for a female audience.

Most of the fanservice is male-oriented, of course. Here Haruhi forces the president of the school computer club to molest Mikuru so she can blackmail a desktop out of him

Of course, some of that is what makes this show so popular. Because of the deliberate ambiguity, characters and events can be interpreted in multiple different ways, allowing the audience to form individual impressions and read events in ways that they would prefer to read them. The show extends that variability to the fanservice as much as it does to metaphysics, creating a fan community which reaches LOST levels of discussion and debate.

The show constantly invokes a “have your cake and eat it too” mindset—simultaneously respectful and exploitative of its cast, serious yet remarkably over-the-top, where deep philosophical musings and scientific theories can be combined with girls in bunny suits. The genius of Melancholy is to create, with its reality-bending heroine, a method to combine it all, an in-plot excuse for the silliness that doesn’t feel like a cop-out or undermine the main narrative.

Just because it doesn't feel like a cop-out doesn't mean the show doesn't cross lines here and there. The relentless sexualization of the cast is something I have to justify, not celebrate—even though this is likely another reason for the show's popularity

It also helps that Melancholy is genuinely smarter than your average show. Real theories about the nature of the universe get bandied about, along with mathematical puzzles and philosophical excursions made all the more pressing by Haruhi’s existence. Later light novels delve into these topics even further, making it likely that future seasons of Melancholy will be even more cerebral.

At least, one can hope for that after the disaster that was the second season. The first season combined random hijinks, life-threatening assaults on the nature of reality, and everything in between with a relatively good balance. When seen in chronological order, the natural climax of the series feels in the wrong place, but that is an easily correctable problem.

I haven't had the time to discuss the secondary characters, but the most popular of them is Tsuruya, a friend of Mikuru and occasional participant in club activities. There's even a spin-off gag series about a miniaturized version of her. Unfortunately, it sucks

The second season had one episode devoted to important foreshadowing and five devoted to the story of how the aforementioned film project was made, which was somewhat repetitive but fit in some decent character development. The majority of the season was spent on a one-shot story about the club caught in a time loop during summer vacation. That is, eight episodes were made with completely redone animation each time, but the same events and dialogue. Fan reaction was what one would expect. (Here’s a link predicting a response to a possible ninth episode continuing the pattern, just for your amusement.)

There’s also the fact that the story is still ongoing; after three years, author Nagaru Tanigawa has finally started publishing his tenth novel. (Keep in mind light novels are typically produced on a serialized basis.) With a full theatrical release restoring the interest of much of the fanbase, it’s clear the tale of the SOS Brigade is not over yet. And, with what little I’ve read about the later installments, I have cause to hope that my main complaints with the series will become less and less of a concern.

Another distinction between the two seasons is the willingness of the first to be far more experimental in its presentation. Both are fond of odd camera angles and unusual points of focus, but the first is more willing to reflect a warped reality (particularly when Yuki is talking)

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya doesn’t seem to be all the unique in the abstract, but when filled to bursting with Tanigawa’s creativity and ideas, and given proper treatment by the talented staff at Kyoto Animation, it becomes something unlike anything else on the market. It’s not a perfect show, but it is one that will continue to generate discussion a decade from now. And that by itself makes it worth watching.

The first season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is available streaming on Crunchyroll and also easily purchasable. I recommend watching the episodes in the original broadcast order, which conveniently is the order in which CR is streaming them. The second season is not available streaming but is available for purchase, although given its relative value I would recommend renting it through netflix or skipping it entirely. The movie is not currently available in any format worth noting in the US (although it will be, I’m sure), but the fourth light novel, on which the film is based, is.

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