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Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
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  • Bluejack
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  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

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  • Sarah L. Edwards
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Publisher: Bluejack

February, 2008 : Review:

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya [HA-rue-he*sue-zoo-ME-yah] is an animated TV series from Japan that became an internet phenomenon, then a worldwide cult hit. Now it is available on American DVD.

The first episode features a curvaceous high school girl in a variety of sexy costumes (waitress and bunny girl) in an opening sequence artfully constructed to seem like the work of rank amateurs—the titling is awkward; the film editing is rough; the music sounds tinny; and the vocalist sounds as though she is singing a karaoke song for the first time. It looks like a student film project, an unintentional parody of teen-exploitation movies, or perhaps an amateur Barbarella.

The story that follows is delightfully incoherent. It involves Mikuru [ME-coo- rue], a "combat waitress" (!) sent from the future to secretly protect Koizumi [coy-ZOO-me], a high school boy who doesn't know about his own untapped psionic powers. As a part of her undercover role she has a day job as a shopping mall booster, during which she wears the bunny girl costume and waves signs to draw business to a number of small shops (This is how they attempt to justify the use of the sexy costumes). Her secret mission is to foil the villain Yuki [YOU-key], an evil sorceress from another planet who wants to subvert the boy for her own unfathomable alien purposes.

Kyon the cameraman provides the movie's deadpan narration, pointing out flaws in technique as well as the huge holes in the plot. It becomes clear that Kyon has feelings for Mikuru and wants to protect her from exploitation, even though he was the one who filmed her. That being the case, there seems to be some sort of coercion going on behind the scenes.

Things go wildly awry in the first combat between Mikuru and Yuki, and the schoolgirl director herself briefly enters the scene, shouting, "Cut!" and making a fuss. Then there is a commercial for a local electronics store featuring Mikuru in the bunny costume and Yuki holding the sign.

The movie downshifts into a high school love triangle, then morphs into a newlywed comedy, before finding its way to a climactic rooftop battle scene.

When the movie ends after about twenty minutes, we see the cast and crew in a projection room where they have just previewed their project for the first time. The narrator Kyon is appalled by the poor quality of the movie, but the director gushes with enthusiasm, and her name is Haruhi Suzumiya. This hints at the true structure of the series, in which Haruhi is the madcap star and Kyon is the deadpan straight man who is narrating directly to us.

The second episode is actually the one that comes first in chronological order (the series ping-pongs around in a nonlinear way—the first episode is chronologically the eleventh). It is the first day of high school and the new students are introducing themselves to their homeroom classmates. Haruhi stands up and says, "I have no interest in ordinary humans. If there are any aliens, time travelers, sliders, or psionic mutants here, come join me. That is all!"

The students and the teacher look at her in open-mouthed shock.

This is Haruhi—beautiful, headstrong, eccentric, highly competitive, and highly competent. She is a mercurial dictator searching for something she can't quite name, and she quickly draws the four other characters of the series into orbiting around her. Each episode has Haruhi leading them through a different madcap adventure—playing in an amateur baseball league, trying to locate a missing student, beating the computer club president at his favorite video game, or making a movie for the school festival. Each time, Kyon tries to talk her out of her new brainstorm, then tries to prevent exploitation of Mikuru, and usually fails at both. It might seem like the standard setup for a mundane high school comedy, yet there is a weirdness going on, even from the first episode, that clearly signals true science fictional content.

Involving aliens, time travelers, sliders, and psionic mutants.

In addition to dictator Haruhi and narrator Kyon, the main cast is rounded out with the three characters seen in the student movie of the first episode. Mikuru (who played the combat waitress) is an upperclassman selected by Haruhi precisely because she is super-cute and super-pliable. Koizumi (who played the boy unaware of his psionic powers) is a mysterious transfer student who acts as an enabler for Haruhi, much to Kyon's dismay. And Yuki (who played the alien magician) is a bookworm who says little and seems to go along with whatever Haruhi comes up with. Obviously Kyon has his hands full trying to keep things from spinning out of control.

The series has excellent production values. The animation itself is high quality; the writing is snappy; the music is great; and the strategy of making the series nonlinear turns out to be brilliant. There is an impressive balancing act between parody and originality, comedy and drama, with the wheels spinning within wheels throughout the show. The closing theme song is catchy enough to have become a pop hit in Japan and is boosted by animation showing the characters doing a very cute dance. This dance proved to be a big help in making the series an internet sensation.

Television programming is not nearly as nationwide in Japan as it is in America, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya had a limited audience when the first episode aired in the Tokyo area on April 2, 2006. The audience fell in love with the show and that little dance at the end of each episode provided an immediate catalyst.

Brief clips started showing up on YouTube. At first they were just the ending theme song sequence from the show, and home videos of fans performing the dance either solo or in full five-member ensembles. Then there was a stop-motion version of the dance using model robots from Gundam, a classic anime series. Parodies and homage burst forth. Fan activity was heating up and it suddenly became apparent that YouTube was very popular in Japan, even more popular than in America. Haruhi Suzumiya was an internet sensation. By May, there were videos of teams performing the dance on auditorium stages outside of Japan, in Taiwan and elsewhere. Full episodes were uploaded, with English subtitles provided by fans. It got to the point where the fan-subtitled episode was being uploaded only four days after the original broadcast, allowing YouTubers around the world to watch the Japanese TV series in something close to real time.

Increased interest led to wider broadcast in Japan. The show itself continued to deliver, never losing that initial sparkle. The last episode was aired on July 2. Two months later, Newsweek ran a story about the surprising popularity of YouTube in Japan, mentioning Haruhi Suzumiya by name. During that same month, sales figures confirmed the story—where a "smash hit" is defined as 10,000 discs sold, Episode 00 sold 70,000 discs and DVD 1 sold 90,000 discs.

And then the show came to America, only thirteen months after premiering in Japan.

After all my praise for the nonlinear aspect of the show, the DVDs themselves provide some complications—DVD 1 begins with episode eleven (the student film) but then proceeds in strictly chronological order from episode one. I think this is an outrage. I have nothing against watching the series in chronological order, but I think it is best done as a second viewing rather than as a first viewing (The broadcast order is more satisfying because the excitement of chronological episodes five and six provides a thunderous ending to the series.) Fortunately, the broadcast order will be available on three bonus discs, starting with the Special Limited Edition DVD 2 (the first disc has the first five episodes). While this is the best way to see the show, the Special Limited Edition is more expensive than the standard edition. Netflix carries the standard edition, but not the Special Limited Edition.

Here is a plan to trick out a broadcast order from the standard DVDs—rent DVD 1 and DVD 2; watch the first three episodes on DVD 1 (eleven, one, and two); watch "The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya" episode on DVD 2; finally go back to DVD 1 and watch episode three. This puts a third of the series in the right order. It lacks only the funny "Next Episode" segments, in which Kyon and Haruhi argue about the numbering, but that is relatively minor. Here is a table to help make sense of it all.

Broadcast Episode Chronological Episode DVD Order
1 11 1
2 1 2
3 2 3
4 7 8
5 3 4
6 9 10
7 8 9
8 10 11
9 14 14
10 4 5
11 13 13
12 12 12
13 5 6
14 6 7

Even science fiction fans who don't usually watch anime will get a big kick out of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. There are fourteen episodes, each one twenty-four minutes long, for a total of 5.6 hours of entertainment. The show rewards multiple viewing, but such is not required. (Once you know that a certain character really is an extraterrestrial android, then her previous statements turn out to be more revealing the second time around.) It is rated the equivalent of PG-13, since some of the teen-exploitation is inappropriate for younger viewers. Bandai Entertainment released the fist disc in North America on May 29, 2007, the second on July 3, the third on September 25, and the final disc on November 6.

Works Referenced

Kashiwagi, Akiko. "Japan Too, YouTube?" (Available online.)

"Haruhi Suzumiya DVD Sales Good" (Available online)

Copyright © 2008, Michael Andre-Driussi. All Rights Reserved.

About Michael Andre-Driussi

Michael Andre-Driussi has been studying anime for several years. His articles on sf anime in general have appeared in NYRSF. His main claim to fame, however, is Lexicon Urthus, a dictionary for the New Sun, now in its long awaited Second Edition.


Feb 19, 03:51 by IROSF
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