Review for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Complete Series 2 Deluxe Box Set [4 Discs]
Can there be a series any more hyped than The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya? The thing is that with that first series, the hype was more or less deserved. When the series first appeared in 2006, it was like a breath of fresh air, injecting vitality and energy into an industry that was beginning to coast, to rest on its laurels. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, based on a series of light novels mixed up sci-fi with a slice of life ethos, a mix of comedy, drama, and action with a collection of truly amazing characters, all the while keeping a finger on the pulse of fandom to produce something that was really relevant and of the moment. It also chose to court controversy from the outset, with the series deliberately broadcast out of sequence, in an initially confusing, and then revealed to be an absolutely inspired method of storytelling. I reviewed the boxset of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 1 a few years ago, and my feelings for that first series haven't changed in the slightest.
You can bet that when this second season was announced, I was rubbing my hands in anticipation from that moment, until the day that the first episode actually streamed on Youtube, courtesy of Kadokawa Video. There I was, every week, glued to my Internet connection and… well I'm getting ahead of myself here. But suffice it to say that since the first season, the Haruhi Suzumiya phenomenon has skyrocketed, the hype has grown exponentially and it courts controversy like never before, and that's not just the actual anime. The English language release of Season 2 hasn't been without its problems in any territory, while if you happen to Google the name of the Japanese lead voice actress, Aya Hirano, you're presented with an online life so bizarre that it's as if she's living the movie Perfect Blue. That's before we get to the series itself and the Endless Eight phenomenon, a tale so marmite, that it had Hitler ranting in his bunker.
If you're wondering just where season 2 fits in with season 1, once again it's no simple matter. These episodes actually shuffle into season 1, filling the gaps in that continuity. When it came to showing Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2 on Japanese television, all 28 episodes of both seasons were shown in chronological order; indeed there is no season 1 and season 2 now in Japan, it's all one 28 episode series. That's not all. While the second season was being shown on TV and Youtube the first time around, fans of the series were also treated to some ONAs, original net animations, featuring the chibi-versions of the cast, in The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya, and Nyoron! Churuya-san. As part of the deluxe UK boxset for Season 2, Manga Entertainment are also including part 1 of these ONAs, the first half on a fourth disc. And… he says breathlessly… this was all the prelude for the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya feature film, which Manga Entertainment currently have scheduled for November this year. Anyway, cutting and pasting from my previous review…
One of the peculiarities of the Japanese education system is the emphasis on extra-curricular activity. It's practically expected that students take part in some sort of interest outside of lessons, to foster individual or team development, and encourage initiative. The dropouts who go home at the end of the school day are the exception rather than the rule. It's a little factette worth noting when watching any anime set in a school environment, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in particular, as it focuses on a rather peculiar set of dropouts. The anime is based on a set of novels by Nagaru Tanigawa, and is told from the point of view of a boy starting High School. Kyon like many other young teens had a brief flirtation with the paranormal, the extra-terrestrial and the just plain weird, but now that he is starting high school he has put such juvenile pursuits behind him as he begins the road to adulthood. But then, on the first day of school he winds up sat in front of the class cutie, Haruhi Suzumiya, who promptly makes a statement when introducing herself, that unless they are aliens, espers or time travellers, that no one should bother her. The students who came up to high school with her tell Kyon that she has always been the eccentric, and that befriending her would take more energy than it is worth. She's obviously smart and capable, she winds up trying all the after school clubs, yet packs them in as a waste of time. Then Kyon, on his umpteenth attempt to make conversation tells a rather sullen and withdrawn Haruhi that she should just start her own club.
Suddenly she's energised and enthused, and Kyon has a new role in life, that of Haruhi's lackey. "The Spreading Excitement All Over the World with Haruhi Suzumiya Brigade" is born, the SOS Brigade for short, and they soon find a headquarters for the club. But school regulations state that an after school group needs a minimum of five members. Fortunately the clubroom comes with the sole member of the otherwise graduated Literature club, Yuki Nagato, a rather introverted girl who always has her nose in a book, and she gets co-opted by Haruhi as the first member of the Brigade. Next comes Mikuru Asahina, a timid young thing who's pleasing on the eye in Kyon's opinion, but who Haruhi sees as her personal plaything, ideal for advertising the Brigade by handing out leaflets in a bunny-girl outfit, until the teachers nix that idea. Of course the oddest students of all according to Haruhi are exchange students, with mysterious pasts and hidden abilities. The first such student that arrives at school gets press-ganged by Haruhi, and with Itsuki Koizumi, the Brigade has its mandatory five members. And so the search for weird phenomenon, time travellers, espers and aliens, begins, although the rational Kyon isn't expecting it to bear fruit. But no one in the SOS Brigade is exactly as they seem, and odd things start to happen around Haruhi Suzumiya.
The fourteen episodes of The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2 are presented across 3 discs. Actually, it's seven episodes…
01. Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody
It's a hot summer day in High School, just prior to the exams, but it's an important day for Haruhi Suzumiya, and she won't rest until Kyon guesses just why. It's the Tanabata festival of course, the day when people write down their wishes and tie them to a bamboo branch in the hope that they will be granted. Of course, Haruhi has a set of rules and conditions that must be obeyed. It isn't long before a depression hits her when she realises what those rules mean. But there are far more important things for Kyon to deal with. Mikuru has asked him to stay behind at the end of the day. She wants him to grant a wish, the wish of a middle school girl named Haruhi Suzumiya.
02. Endless Eight
It's the summer holidays, and the SOS Brigade has just two weeks to cram as much summer activities in as possible. Of course Haruhi is directing everyone's leisure time, and doing so at a breakneck pace. She's made a list of all the things that they ought to experience as year 10 High School students, whether it is the swimming pool, the beach, festivals, fireworks, part time jobs, baseball practice, stargazing, bug hunts, and tests of courage… Will Kyon have the time left to do his homework? Of course Haruhi being the smart, organised Brigade Leader that she is, finished hers at the start of the holiday.
03. Endless Eight
It's the summer holidays, and the SOS Brigade has just two weeks to cram as much summer activities in as possible. Of course Haruhi is directing everyone's leisure time…
04. Endless Eight
It's the summer holidays, and the SOS Brigade has just two weeks to cram as much summer activities in as possible. Of course Haruhi…
05. Endless Eight
It's the summer holidays, and the SOS Brigade has just two weeks to cram as much summer activities in as possible…
06. Endless Eight
It's the summer holidays, and the SOS Brigade has just two weeks…
07. Endless Eight
It's the summer holidays…
08. Endless Eight
Does anyone get that weird déjà vu feeling?
09. Endless Eight
Someone needs to figure something out!
10. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya: Part 1
11. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya: Part 2
12. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya: Part 3
13. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya: Part 4
14. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya: Part 5
As I mentioned before, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has always courted controversy. The very first episode broadcast in season 1 was The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00, which is an absolute oddity, and would put the casual viewer straight off continuing with the rest of the series. All of a sudden we were in 4:3, shaky and blurry video, and some really poor acting in what amounts to a high school project. The only clue that we're not just watching a really cheap and awful sci-fi home movie is the narration by cameraman Kyon. But as the film progressed, there were little hints of strangeness and oddity popping up, little indications that there is something more than just bad acting going on here. Of course the talking cat was a whopping great indication. It wasn't until close to the end of the series that you learn that this was a movie made by the SOS Brigade for the school's cultural festival.
The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is the story of that production. It follows Haruhi and her minions after their unearthly performance in the school's sports day, realising that the Cultural Festival was impending, and with Kyon and Haruhi's class utterly apathetic about the whole thing. Of course apathy and Haruhi don't mix, so when the class doesn't step up to the plate, she decides that the SOS Brigade will produce a world-class movie for the Festival, starring none other than Mikuru Asahina. Not content with being Brigade Leader, Haruhi will take on the role of scriptwriter, producer, and Super Director. In a brainstorm of uncanny casting, it will star Mikuru Asahina as a time travelling superhero, Yuki Nagato as her evil alien witch enemy, and Itsuki Koizumi as an esper high school student that helps Mikuru. Of course Kyon will be cameraman, editor, gofer, dogsbody, and any other menial task that Haruhi can come up with. That casting should have been an omen, but with Haruhi's tendency to rewrite the laws of reality, it isn't long before odd things are happening during the filming of the movie. And with Haruhi's enthusiasm for the project taking over, as well as her joy at getting Mikuru to be her personal plaything, can Kyon keep her reined in before things spiral out of control?
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2 gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Also, courtesy of Madman Entertainment from where these discs are sourced, the transfer is a native PAL one, 4% speedup in place, but with a crystal clear, sharp and fluid image, free of ghosting, judder, and the low resolution typical of an NTSC-PAL conversion. The image is clear and sharp throughout, bringing across the rich and colourful KyoAni artwork to excellent effect. That's with the exception of the opening sequence; as yet again, Haruhi's opening animation is a little too complex for the DVD format, resulting in compression artefacts and noise.
I have to say that this second season loses a little something in comparison to the first. The character models are slightly altered, certainly the girls seem to be a little more endowed in the cheek area, making them look a little like chipmunks. Also, the animation lacks the glow that I mentioned in the season 1 review, there was a rich, layering effect that gave that first season a slight 3D feel to it. That's absent this time around. Still, the animators do work wonders, and the effort, variety, and imagination shown in this series reveals that Haruhi is still a labour of love, for the creators at least.
While the visuals may be a case of personal preference, the audio definitely has taken a knock with this release. Season 1 had a DD 5.1 English dub, and DD 2.0 Stereo Japanese. This release of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2 offers DD 2.0 Stereo English and DD 2.0 Mono Japanese, with the usual subtitles and signs. The English Stereo is to be expected with the majority of anime released today, but the Japanese Mono is just a cock-up. It's a mistake that has afflicted every English region release of Haruhi so far, and can be traced back to the initial materials supplied to Bandai last year, the same materials supplied to Madman, and then on to Manga. Bandai learned of the problem almost as soon as the first discs were sold, and earlier this year they issued a replacement program in the US. To my knowledge, Madman haven't even realised they have a problem as yet, while Manga have apologised. Still, when a problem like this is red-flagged by fans so far in advance, and the QC dept still lets you down…
Still, lets put this in context. The majority of UK anime fans that buy DVDs, do so to watch their anime in dub format. You are not going to be disappointed with this release, as the DD 2.0 Stereo English dub works just fine in terms of stereo placement and effects. Too, Haruhi Suzumiya Season 1's dub was an anime highlight, and when you have Wendee Lee as Haruhi, and Crispin Freeman as Kyon, you know you're going to get quality. For season 2, Bandai reunited the same dub cast at Ocean Studios and as you would expect, the same level of high quality has been maintained for this second season.
There is that vocal minority that prefers to watch anime in the original language though, a group of which I'm a member. It boils down to how you watch your anime. Do you watch it on a laptop? Do you have your DVD player hooked up to a flat panel TV, and you use its onboard tinny little speakers (seriously, the audio on modern TVs has stepped back in time a couple of decades!)? Then you may indeed not notice that the Japanese audio is monaural. I tried Haruhi on two TVs. One flat panel with a 5.1 home cinema attached, and an older CRT with Nicam stereo (big chunky, and responsive speakers at the side), as well as a couple of Prologic speakers for surround sound. Believe me I noticed. All of a sudden I feel like I'm watching TV back in 1978 again. Don't get me wrong, I am in no way implying that Haruhi Suzumiya is at all unwatchable in this way. It's just that the sound does nothing to enhance the experience, and you really do want the sound design to match up to the visual imagination on screen.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2 is even more richly endowed with extra features than season 1, although most of that is down to the Haruhi-chan bonus disc.
All discs get static menus, with the theme song playing in the background, and some variety to the imagery depending on which options you select.
Disc 1's supplementary material is mostly the promo stuff that comes with the show, although the Special Ending is actually the Haruhi Dance from Season 1 in full animation, a clip that was previously only visible on Youtube.
Regarding Season 2, you get the textless credit sequences, 2 TV Commercial Spots, the Retail Promo, and 7 more Promo Spots (running to a total of 21 minutes). These are pretty dull fare.
Of more interest will be the Location Scouting Videos, of which there are two, running to a total of 20 minutes. These take us to that hill that Kyon climbs every day to school, and the school itself.
Finally, there is an Easter Egg secreted away on this disc. I won't tell you what it is, but I will tell you that it lasts 22 minutes.
Disc 2 has more Location Scouting Videos to peruse, six in total. Once more the production crew and a couple of voice actors wander around the Kobe landscape taking in the various buildings, locations and vistas that make it to the Haruhi television series in animated form. The attention to detail that becomes apparent is pretty amazing. The total run time for all six videos is 61 minutes.
Disc 3's extras take us behind the scenes of Aya Hirano's music video. There are 8 featurettes in total, with a combined running time of 41 minutes. There's filming, photo shoots, rehearsals, TV appearances, and promotional footage. The one thing that there isn't is the actual, final, completed music video.
You'll also find the Endless Eight Prologue: Summer - An Audio Slideshow that runs to two minutes.
The extras on these three discs offer much the same sort of material as the season 1 release did. But the four discs of season 1 had enough room left over to include the Adventures of the ASOS Brigade web videos, some cosplay fun from some serious US Haruhi fans created by Bandai to promote the show. Season 2 also had its ASOS Brigade net shorts associated with it, but none of those have made it to the final DVD discs.
The Review Within The Review
In the US or Australia, I'd be reviewing the Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya Part 1 in a separate review, as this disc was released separately in those two countries. It's probably down to the impression that most people preferred these original net animations to the actual season 2 of Haruhi Suzumiya that has prompted Manga to bundle them together. There's an odd chance that their presence will help to shift more units. This disc actually contains 13 out of 25 episodes of The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya, as well 6 out of 13 episodes of Nyoron! Churuya-san.
The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya, based on the manga of the same name takes the characters from Haruhi Suzumiya, reinvents them as short and cute chibi versions of themselves, exaggerates their more comical characteristics and plays a series of skits, purely for laughs. Each episode begins with Haruhi on the verge of introducing the show before being whacked in the face by the camera, and thereafter all sorts of insanity ensues. The total running time for these shorts is 49 minutes, although the length varies from 2½ minutes all the way up to 6.
Nyoron! Churuya-san on the other hand was a fan creation that got animated for its unique brilliance. It focuses on one of the lesser characters from the show, Churuya, reinvented as an uber-cute midget, in a world of taciturn larger characters, as we follow her on her search for smoked cheese. These are short 2-minute or less episodes, in 10-seconds or so worth of fast sketches, which boil down to Churuya being nonplussed by a turn of events at which she issues forth her catchphrase… Nyoron!
1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a native PAL conversion courtesy of Madman looks just fine. In addition you get DD 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese here, along with translated subtitles and a signs only track.
You get the TV Commercial Spot 1, The Retail Promo Video and the Textless Credits for Haruhi-chan.
Remember that I said that the ASOS Brigade videos weren't on the main Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya S2 discs. In the US, Bandai released them with the Haruhi-chan discs instead. Unfortunately, Madman Entertainment didn't licence them, which means neither the Australian release, nor this UK release have them. If you want them, you'll have to import the US release of Haruhi-chan (The first release of Haruhi-chan Part 1 from Bandai had dodgy mono audio too).
I don't get Nyoron! Churuya-san. Some people think it's amazing, but it's a taste I haven't been able to acquire, unlike smoked cheese that is. I like me a bit of Applewood smoked cheddar, just the right side of delectable, with that little smoky tang to it that goes fine with crackers, or makes a cheese salad sandwich that bit special. But the whole Nyoron thing… I don't get. I find it obvious and unfunny.
Haruhi-chan on the other hand I find hilarious. I'd looked forward to each new instalment when it aired originally, and every joke I found to be a zinger. Rewatching the episodes now, my opinion hasn't changed, and I was laughing uproariously throughout. It takes the characters and enhances their absurdity, which makes Yuki the star of the show, now into erotic videogames instead of reading, and taking mini-Asakura home in a bag and adopting her as a pet. Thankfully Haruhi-chan outnumbers Nyoron by around 5 to 1 in terms of run time, making this a plentiful disc of joy for me, and in some endless eight ways it is indeed better than Season 2 of Haruhi Suzumiya.
Endless Eight! It's either the biggest troll in anime history, or it's a work of pure genius. I can't make up my mind which one; although I suspect it may be both. But given that it takes up eight episodes of this fourteen-episode run, more than half the series, then it will most likely be that Endless Eight will determine your decision to purchase. For the uninformed, it's Haruhi's version of Groundhog Day, in which the same two weeks of summer vacation keep on repeating. Now I like Groundhog Day, it's a neat little film with an appealing story. The problem is that watching it once, feels like watching it five times. There's a reason why it is one of the least watched DVDs that I own. With Endless Eight, you get eight repetitions of an episode, eight summer holidays where the same things happen, with the exception of the first and the final loop. For me certainly, there is an issue with just how re-watchable this series of Haruhi Suzumiya is. This was the second time I had seen this series, following the initial Youtube streams broadcast by Kadokawa, and I already had a sinking feeling at the prospect.
That said, it must be emphasised that this isn't a cheap option on the part of the creators, this isn't just running the same footage over again, and there is no hint of anyone cutting any corners. Each episode of Endless Eight is animated anew. Each episode gets a different music score, the cast come in to record the lines again, in both the English and the Japanese versions, the sound effects are different, the characters are drawn with different costumes, the direction of each episode is different, the emotional tone is different, and there are minor differences in script, little hints and red herrings in each episode. One iteration may be ominous and doom laden, another jolly and energetic, another laid back. One episode has a cloud motif running through it, another has a bright over exposed look to it, and another keeps the characters in background and so on. The commitment to delivering the highest quality in animation, writing and imagination cannot be faulted. What can be faulted is the decision to make Endless Eight, originally a 30-page short story, in the first place.
Time loop tales, of which there are more than you would expect, have to have either a dramatic purpose, or some significant character growth. Endless Eight has neither. Enjoying two weeks of summer vacationing, only to have to repeat the experience again, none the wiser except for a few twinges of déjà vu, isn't the universe threatening peril that needs a dramatic solution. In fact, the whole purpose of the story is to figure a way to get out of the loop. When we do find out just what it takes to escape the relentless wheel of time… well lets just say that it would be better not to have any breakable objects at hand, or anything that could damage your TV if thrown at it. The other possibility is if the main character experiences growth through the loops. That only happens if someone remembers what happens across the loops. In Groundhog Day it was the purpose of the film to take a cynical, world-weary weatherman, and find his inner humanity, his joy in living, and in the process fall in love. In Endless Eight, there is a character that remembers the loops, and there is some character growth as well. But it's understated, almost implied, and if you are expecting a world shattering revelation, the sort of self realisation that will alter how you see that character, and how that character impacts on what happens after Endless Eight, you'll be disappointed.
I find Endless Eight to be a trivial, forgettable, and not all that entertaining a story, but one that is given the ultimate in terms of production values and effort from the creators. It's enjoyable and infuriating at the same time.
Season 2 of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya isn't all Endless Eight however, although it can feel that way. There is more to it than that. Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, the episode that kicks off the season is my favourite episode of this run, on a par with anything that came in the first season. It's a great way of reintroducing the characters, and with a very entertaining story too. The downside, if you can call it that, is that originally it set the expectation that the rest of the series would be as good as well. To hit a high point with the first episode and then suffer the downhill slide of Endless Eight actually made the disappointment worse.
It's after the cataclysm of Endless Eight that the series picks itself up and dusts itself down, giving us The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya. The problem is that not only does it have to find that brilliance that typifies this franchise again, it also has to wash out the sour taste of the preceding eight episodes. It doesn't quite manage it. The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina kicked off the first season, an out of the blue, home movie featuring the characters of the series, a total non-sequitor when taken by itself, but one whose secrets, and meaning were slowly revealed as the series progressed. It turns out that it's a movie that Haruhi and the SOS Brigade made for the school's cultural festival, the festival that took place close to the end of the series in Live Alive. It's the odd occurrences in the movie that point to the strange things that happen around Haruhi, and those events are explained as the series progresses. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya, all five episodes of it, is the story of the making of that film. It's how, following the school sports day, Haruhi decides to make a movie for the forthcoming Cultural Festival, naturally ropes the rest of the Brigade in, and it reveals the mayhem that ensues, as well as answering a few of the puzzles remaining about the film (i.e., talking calico cat).
Maybe it's the lingering after-effects of Endless Eight, maybe it's my extended experience of making of documentaries dispelling the magic of the movies they cover or maybe it's the fact that this is filling in the pieces of a story already touched on in Season 1, rather than delivering something brand new, but I don't really enjoy The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya as much as anything in the first season, or indeed Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody. It's still a damn sight better than Endless Eight though. The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is certainly interesting and entertaining, and it's full of neat little touches and appealing character moments. I don't like what it does with the Haruhi and Kyon characters though, really going overboard in highlighting Haruhi's obsessive and manipulative nature, and Kyon's reaction to it while understandable, makes me uncomfortable, and it stands at odds with the way that their relationship progressed in Season 1.
If Haruhi Season 2 was an attempt to capture the magic that enveloped Season 1, then the creators have failed completely. It's a telling indictment when the bonus Haruhi-chan disc is more entertaining than the series itself. After a great start with Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, it's a downhill tumble into the Endless Eight, and while Sigh does manage to salvage some dignity, it's no match for what has come before. But don't get me wrong. I'm enough of a Haruhi nut to want this in my collection regardless, and even disappointing Haruhi Suzumiya overflows with originality and verve when compared to the average anime release. Kadokawa and KyoAni squandered a lot of goodwill with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2. Apparently they got it all back, and more with the release of the feature film, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. Manga Entertainment currently have that scheduled for November, while they have tweeted that the Haruhi-chan Part 2 disc will also be released later this year. The best is yet to come. As for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Season 2, it's for dedicated Haruhiists only.