Monday, April 4, 2016

Animondo: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Season 1)

Welcome back to Animondo. Today, we're exploring what happens when a time traveler, a espers, and an alien robot all join a club run by an all-powerful god...and what the normal guy stuck in the middle can do about all of it.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya concerns the exploits of one Haruhi Suzumiya, who forms a school club called the S.O.S. Brigade with the stated purpose of finding aliens, espers, time travelers, and other strange and fantastic things because life, otherwise, is dull. For this purpose, she drags along normal guy Kyon, the only non-alien, non-esper, non-time traveler she will tolerate, and together the two do their best...well, Haruhi does her best to find strange things and investigate mysteries, and Kyon does his best to control Haruhi and survive.

Oh, yes, and Haruhi happens to be, unbeknownst to her, an extraordinarily powerful entity whose wishes and emotions can utterly redefine reality...effectively, she's an omnipotent god, but without the omniscience and omnipresence. So if she ever gets too fed up with how boring life is, the world could end and be replaced with something more to her liking.

Which would be bad.

I'm addressing Season 1 of the show today, and just want to make a brief note regarding Season 2 before I go on. A lot of what I'll say below does apply to Season 2, but Season 2 has some notable flaws--so while (spoiler) I'll be recommending Season 1 of this show easily, Season 2 is...less easy to recommend.

Also need to note that I'm addressing this assuming you watch in DVD episode order, rather than original aired order. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya suffered from a very strange airing decision when first aired. Because the first plot contains the most dramatic moment in the series, the decision was made to air the episodes somewhat out of order--some episodes of the first plot were aired to start, then other episodes were interspersed with the remainder of the first plot. This means that if you were watching the show, characters often discussed things that you hadn't actually seen yet because they were referring to episodes that hadn't aired. I suppose it might work if you were already familiar with the light novels this is based on, but if you aren't...well, I vastly prefer the DVD order, which just shows the episodes in actual chronological order, storywise. If you want to see it the other way, Crunchyroll currently has the episodes listed in the original order they aired (though the end of episode previews still give the name of the episode that would follow chronologically instead).

Got it? On with the review.

The main focus of the story is Kyon, an ordinary high school boy who would like to live an ordinary life. Unfortunately for him, he's in class with Haruhi and makes the mistake of trying to be friends with her...which gets him dragged along with her on her escapades. Quickly, the show adds three other main cast members. Yuki, a girl who acts oddly emotionless and robotic. Itsuki, a boy with an easygoing demeanor and something of a know-it-all attitude. And Mikuru, a shy girl who easily panics.

Of course, they all have secrets. Yuki is a kind of alien robot with limited reality control powers. Itsuki is an esper--a psychic with telekinetic abilities. And Mikuru is a time traveler.

Somehow, Haruhi has managed to gather exactly what she's looking for in her club...but isn't aware of it. Kyon, on the other hand, is made aware by each, and gets saddled with the mission of making sure Haruhi doesn't destroy the world.

Therein is the show's main conflict: Haruhi is a selfish, energetic, driven girl, and Kyon is, effectively, her conscience. She dreams up investigations or adventures, he calms her down or ensures that everything proceeds in a relatively sane manner. The show is largely lighthearted and comedic, with only the first set of episodes delving into anything particularly serious (including a rather awesome battle scene involving Yuki). That said, despite the powers of the characters, this is not by any means an "anything goes" comedy--it has a strong sense of internal reality and follows its universe's rules quite well. The conflict between Kyon and Haruhi is a good driving force for the show, and is open enough to allow a wide variety of episode concepts.

Characters are very, very strongly written--Kyon and Haruhi in particular, but the other three main cast members as well. I felt like I really got to know who they were, and saw them each develop as the show went on. Kyon grows more accepting of his role as Haruhi's conscience, Haruhi slowly begins to value other people (especially Kyon), Yuki starts to slowly humanize a little, Mikuru gains a bit of confidence as things go on...only Itsuki doesn't really have a development that I can call out in particular, but even he at least does get closer to the others as time goes by. Even though the show largely focuses on Kyon and Haruhi, the other main cast members still feel fully explored and develop into more than their initial tropes.

Episode plots vary, as does story length. The first set of episodes concerns the establishment of the S.O.S. Brigade and the gathering of the main cast, and features most of the series more dramatic moments. Afterwards, with things firmly established, the show moves in to shorter tales--the longest being two episodes--which mostly concern the S.O.S. Brigade either investigating something weird or getting involved in school activities that get a little wild thanks to Haruhi's unconscious wishes (or thanks to the group's efforts to stave off the effects of her boredom). The club plays in a community baseball tournament, battles the computer club at a strategy game they made, gets involved in a murder mystery on an island, and more. Through it all, Kyon desperately tries to have some semblance of a normal life. (I particularly love the baseball episode, which probably strikes the best balance between Kyon trying to make everything just go normally and Kyon having to let things go crazy to stop Haruhi from getting upset. Yuki's cheating segment therein is hilarious.)

Most of the show's humor is from character interactions, but reference humor is fairly common as well, though less so than in Hayate the Combat Butler. I'm very fond of the moment where Haruhi and Itsuki are arguing and end up doing basically all of the courtroom poses from the Ace Attorney game series.

The show also makes great use of narration, as Kyon narrates the show and is not ashamed at all to share his opinions on events in the process. In both the English dub and the Japanese original, the actor playing Kyon has a wonderful, very casual narration style that very much sounds like he's just sitting down and sharing the story with a buddy, and his narration is full of "asides" where he makes a snarky comment about someone or emphasizes his longsuffering nature. It's a wonderfully strong element of the show and really helps bring Kyon to life even more than the other characters. (It feels very Burn Notice, just with less in the way of spycraft and more in the way of commentary on surviving high school with god.)

It isn't all perfect--there are a few flaws in the series. First, I have to say this is another show that suffers a bit from fanservice. Haruhi spends a lot of time dressing Mikuru up in various outfits, and while none are (to my recollection) particularly risque, Haruhi's aggression in doing so borders on disturbing. Second, though I do actually love how deep the show is willing to get into philosophy at times, there are some segments (particularly in the first plot) where it can kind of drone on and on about the nature of reality and god and such to the point where my eyes kind of glazed over, and I love that sort of stuff. Third, a few of the later episodes in the season are...not all that interesting. They have moments that are quite good, but "Live Alive" and "Someday in the Rain" just don't have all that much of interest going on, mostly existing just as character studies of a sort. "Live Alive" in particular ends up featuring Haruhi just flat-out getting on stage and singing a couple songs, and while the songs are actually fun in a J-Pop kind of way (and guitar master Yuki is awesome), there's not a heck of a lot going on plotwise there. All told, though, even those episodes are worthwhile for the characters--they just aren't as strong as the rest of the show.

Overall, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a strong show that excellently merges lighthearted slice-of-life school comedy with some interesting metaphysical and supernatural concepts in a way I honestly haven't seen before or since. It has a great style and tone, and though it isn't without its problems, it's a pretty easy recommendation.

Dubbed or Subbed? Both versions of the show feature some very strong performances. I lean towards dubbed in this one just because for me it was easier to enjoy some of the rapid-fire dialogues and wordplay by listening rather than by reading, but your mileage may vary. I actually have to call out this dub in particular for doing the best job I've ever seen of specifically choosing a voice for the dub that sounds as close as possible to the original Japanese voice. All the main characters sound a lot like their Japanese equivalents, and that's pretty impressive and unusual in my experience. Pick your preferred style--there's no better or worse way to watch this one.

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