It’s very easy to get despondent. It’s happened to us all, even if we’re in the middle of something we know we always wanted to be a part of. Sometimes we held our expectations too high, and sometimes we were never really sure what we wanted in the first place, and the despondency is purely a result of our coalescing feelings. Either way, you can be stuck wondering how you got to this point when all you’ve tried to do is the right thing.
It’s kind of an odd statement to start an anime review with; probably something you’re more akin to seeing on a personal blog, but for me it was a really important part of the Suzumiya movie, released today in the UK by Manga Entertainment. And, if you’re aware of my ambivalence towards the Haruhi series as I reviewed it however many episodes ago on our podcast, you might think I’m about to give a duff review. I’m actually happy to report that this is the sort of experience I was looking for with earlier Haruhi episodes, and I think this is so far the highest point the franchise has offered to its (somewhat) polarised viewers.
A history: Haruhi Suzumiya is a girl who has the weird and not really specified but hugely immense power to alter the universe, and as such she has several clandestine and intergalactic agencies interested in her, the powers and presence of whom are so great they can’t accurately be described, but even the largest demonstrations of their abilities we see suggests whole other awesome planes of existence that we’re not party to. The only person who is completely unaware of any of this is Haruhi herself, who can never find out that she has this ability, or else the universe would be put into severe jeopardy. As if it wasn’t already- when she sinks into ‘melancholy’ (hence the name of the first anime series) she creates ‘closed spaces’ which change reality around her and cause strange and sometimes dangerous events. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s boisterous, can’t keep her erratic personality in check by herself and has mood swings so wide that the oldest of pendulums goes green with envy. The key to solving her melancholies is Kyon, a boy who, despite meeting Haruhi for the first time in High school, has a history far more entwined with hers than you can begin to imagine (and very reluctantly so) – it’s worth watching the series for that backstory, to be honest.
It’s also based on a series of light novels, by the way.
Before you start having fantasies about high-level action and explosions, this isn’t that kind of anime. As you can understand from its literary origins, Haruhi works on a much more internal level, and damn, it really NEEDS to be written down before you can understand the circuitous storytelling, sometimes. It’s essentially a story of how a girl comes to understand a world while indulging in a fantasy that she wishes is real, and ultimately she could see for herself, were she not who she is. Despite Haruhi’s loudness and occasional delves into the obnoxious, you can’t help but feel sorry for her sometimes. But that’s in the story as a whole. The odd thing is, Kyon is generally the central character, and despite Haruhi being the catalyst for these major events, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya doesn’t centre around her particularly. And it works very well – it’s a very clever movie. Cleverer, admittedly, than I expected.
The plot is as follows: it begins in much the same way as any Haruhi story we’ve seen before, with the titular character pre-emptively volunteering everyone in to help with preparing for a Christmas charity event. For the first twenty minutes or so everything proceeds as we’ve seen before, until, as you can guess from the title, Haruhi disappears, and the world changes completely. The colours are muted, greyer, everyone seems to be sick, and the only one who even seems to remember Haruhi even existed is Kyon. Desperate to restore the world to it was, Kyon has to find out what happened, find Haruhi again and convince his friends he’s not mad.
If you’re a Haruhi fan, the first thing you’ll notice is that the animation is markedly better than the series’. It’s brilliant. It’s also in widescreen and makes full use of this subtle but very artistic change. This is also no typical anime spin-off movie- it’s two and a half hours long, so you get a lot of story, and boy, does it flow. Kyon’s journey from world to world and his conflicted feelings towards the way the world’s changed are really fascinating. I have to admit to his same feelings of cynicism sometimes, although ironically for watching the series rather than, for his part, being IN the series. As he battles with himself to discover whether Haruhi and his friends actually deserve the exposure to her powers or are better off without them in a calmer, peaceful world, we come to some really touching revelations about some of the other characters. I won’t say who for fear of spoiling it. But even for seeing how Haruhi herself could have been (or, indeed, wasn’t) changed by a world she unwittingly tries to change herself adds a new dimension to an already complex series.
The standout moments for me came within the final third of the movie, for me, when Kyon discovers the origin of the movie’s events. It gets incredibly exciting, and we discover some incredibly moving facets of the characters, and an inspiring promise for further developments. It’s almost like… the series is more closed, and almost claustrophobic sometimes, like you’re not really seeing everything, which is very true- some of the characters remain frustratingly enigmatic for the entirety. This feels like it all gets opened up, both informationally and emotionally. I’d love to talk more about it, but I don’t want to spoil anything – seriously, if you’re a Haruhi fan, or have even just been on the fence about the series, this is what you want to see. I definitely felt like I’d taken this journey with Kyon too, hence the statement at the beginning of the review. And, in the best of worlds, we discover that we wanted what we had in the first place. To twist a well-known cynical idiom: “The pessimists fear this is the best world we’re going to get; the optimists know this is true”.
I would probably recommend at least knowing some of the backstory to the series before taking this by the horns. If you know the gist, the rest isn’t technically essential, but there are some key moments that might leave you confused if you don’t know about some of the story elements established in the series.
As far as the production itself, the animation is excellent – a clear demonstration that traditional art (well, mostly) isn’t lost to CGI yet. If only someone could tell Hollywood that. The orchestral score took me completely by surprise, too. It’s brilliantly composed, and really evocative. As for the DVD package itself, it comes crammed with making-of extras and footage from the premiere, as well as some trailers, both for this movie and other Manga releases.
This is Haruhi you need to see, definitely. I hope future productions, should there be any, can follow this up with not only a continuation of the story but of its artistry and quality. An intelligent, touching movie well worth your time.