Monday, May 2, 2016

Animondo Spotlight: Endless Eight (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Season 2)


Welcome back to Animondo, where today I've decided, against my better judgment, to talk about a particular series of episodes from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's second season: "Endless Eight."

This is the first of an intermittent series I'll call "spotlights," where I shine a light on a particularly noteworthy episode or plotline of a show and dig into it more than I do in my series reviews.

So of course I chose to start with one of the worst things ever to happen in an anime I otherwise love.

Let's get this out of the way: "Endless Eight" is bad. No question. In my review of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's second season, I advised people to watch only, at most, the first and last episodes of it, and I stand by that. Whether you love the show or not...actually, especially if you love the show...don't watch the whole thing, at least not until you've watched the rest of the series. Then, if you're morbidly curious, you can come back and bore yourself to death.
"Endless Eight" is an eight-episode time loop arc which covers Haruhi's attempts to do everything she possibly can to have fun during summer vacation. Haruhi being Haruhi, this leads to temporal weirdness because she continually feels unsatisfied and always seems to want to do something more. Thus, since she's not ready for summer vacation to end, it doesn't - it restarts at the beginning.

I love time loop stories. I should love this. I don't.

What's wrong with "Endless Eight?" I went into this a little before, but "Endless Eight" is a time loop story that consists of eight episodes...which are, mostly, exactly the same episode repeated over and over. The same events happen again and again, eight times, with only the most minor variations save for some shifts in tone.

So...let's go with a best-case scenario. Let's say that the events were really amazing, interesting, fascinating ones, the sort that brought out the best in every character on the show. Pick your favorite TV show. Now pick your absolute favorite episode of that TV show (for me, I think we're probably talking "City on the Edge of Forever" from Star Trek).

Now sit down and watch that episode eight times in a row.

You might not hate the episode if you did that, but you'd be pretty darn bored, wouldn't you?
That's the thing with "Endless Eight." An individual episode of it is actually pretty good--not the best on the show, no, but pretty good. Taken as a single episode, it's a fun romp with Haruhi and friends as she tries to pack in every last possible fun activity during summer vacation. But you have to watch that episode eight times.

And that suuuuuuucks.

I've described "Endless Eight" to friends as "the best-written bad story I've ever seen," and it is. It's astonishingly well-written. It's just a terrible idea.
The characterization is strong, the characters are interesting, the relationships are fun, and there's a great sense of a group of friends just having a good time together--with an undercurrent of worry from Kyon, who always knows things with Haruhi are going to get strange and keeps watching out for when that's going to happen this time. Taken as a single episode, an "Endless Eight" episode fits in absolutely perfectly with the rest of the show.

It even has one of my favorite moments ever on the show, where Mikuru the time-traveling girl tries to explain her discovery that they're stuck in a time loop without revealing anything she's not supposed to reveal--leading to roughly every third word in a lengthy explanation being "classified information."

And that's all well and good...but again, it repeats eight times.

I'm repeating myself here. See what it does to you?
The other thing that's actually good about "Endless Eight" is how much effort clearly went into it. The episode repeats eight times...but the art and voice acting is different each time. The artists drew eight different interpretations of every moment in the story, and the actors performed it eight different ways! It's genuinely fascinating to see all the different variations on how to show and act a particular scene.

As a study on the ways to tell a story..."Endless Eight" is actually very interesting. I'd even call it downright useful if you're looking for different ideas on how to present scenes in something you're writing or producing or what-have-you.

As an anime plot, though, it's absolutely horrid.

I don't understand what led the Haruhi Suzumiya team to believe that they could realistically devote eight full episodes to virtually the same exact story and expect people to like it. Watching "Endless Eight" is torturous. When I did it, it nearly killed the show for me entirely, and I loved this show. I still like it...but I can't claim nearly as much love for it as I had before "Endless Eight." It really does just boil down to the repetition. There's far, far too much, and the episodes owe that to how they decided the time loop would work.

Here's the problem in a nutshell:
  • No one except Yuki the kindasorta computer girl initially recognizes that they are experiencing a time loop.
  • Yuki's primary objective is observation, so she does not share her knowledge.
  • When the others realize they are in a time loop via Mikuru's explanation, Yuki still does not share anything more than confirmation of that fact. She does not explain what they have tried before or help them arrive at a conclusion.
  • Therefore, they try exactly the same resolutions, over and over.
  • Until they don't, for no apparent reason.
If the concept had been that Kyon and company tried different things each time and realized they were in a time loop earlier in each "repeat," this might have been an amazingly fun plot. Unfortunately, things just repeat and they don't vary their strategy.

Until the very, very unsatisfying ending.

Spoilers follow.

So here's the thing. Each time the characters repeat the run, there's a theme of Haruhi trying to get as much out of vacation as possible. Each run ends with her tapped out for ideas and asking the others to come up with something to do for the last day. Since none of them can, they get rewound and stuck for another cycle through the vacation.

Each time, Kyon at some points thinks about how he still needs to get his summer homework done.

So, on the final loop, for some reason that's not really clear since--remember--he's not being told what did or didn't work on previous loops, he decides to invite everyone to work on their homework together.

And that works.

It's pretty deeply unsatisfying, honestly. It wouldn't be that bad if we hadn't spent eight episodes repeatedly seeing the characters fail to come up with anything to do...and if the rules established for the time loop didn't seem like they kind of should prevent Kyon from coming up with the idea anyway. It is suggested by Yuki each time they discover the event that things don't go quite the same each time, with them sometimes not going to the same summer events (the loop happens over 15,000 times, as I recall, so I guess we should be happy we only have to see it as few times as we do), so I guess you can reason that they just finally found the instance of the loop where Kyon grows a brain, but still...

You wasted my time with eight episodes identical in every way that mattered, and then your resolution to this irritating, lengthy ordeal of a story is that...simple?

I least if maybe they'd had Yuki suggest it, it would show character growth for her--it'd show her moving beyond observation to being willing to take action in a circumstance like this. For Kyon to just suddenly have the solution just feels wrong.

Spoilers over.

I guess I'd sum up the problem with "Endless Eight" as twofold. It focuses on the wrong person - if you're doing a time loop plot, focus on the person who remembers the loops. In this case, that's Yuki. And secondly, the person who remembers the loops should in some way be active in trying to stop them or use them in some way. Yuki is pretty much inactive--the show plays with her thinking about telling Kyon about the loop, but she doesn't reveal her information until they already have it, basically. If you used "Endless Eight" to show a Yuki character arc--to show her developing by wrestling in her non-emotional way with the fact that her observation subjects, her friends, are stuck, and ultimately deciding to help them, it could be a very worthwhile story.

As it is, it is only useful as an interesting study of different ways to present the same scenes.

Over...and over...and over...and over...and over...and over...and over...and over.

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