Review for The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
What a 'mare Haruhi Suzumiya has been, a franchise that in the West has turned out to be as unpredictable and temperamental as its titular heroine. The first season was released in the UK without incident, but subsequent incarnations have been plagued by the equivalent of King Tut's curse. There's scheduling that I can't quite get my head around, a deluxe boxset of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2, complete with part one of the Haruhi-chan shorts, followed by a stand alone release of part 2 of the Haruhi-chan shorts, followed in December by the standalone release of Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2, and the standalone release of Part 1 of Haruhi-chan, an ass-backwards way of doing things. Then there are the technical flaws, with Haruhi Suzumiya Season 2 released in English speaking territories with a mono Japanese soundtrack. That's even before the content, with Season 2's Endless Eight arc possibly the biggest troll in anime history, one that makes the End of Evangelion saga seem like a minor kerfuffle.
To top it all off, there are the delays. This Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya feature film was originally intended for release alongside Season 2, but got pushed back by four months to November instead. Then, just as I was getting all fired up for its release, word emerged that the Blu-ray disc had failed its QC; it wouldn't play on PS3s. The Blu-ray release of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya has now been pushed back even further to the end of February. At least we get the DVD before Christmas, which given the movie's story is appropriate. All of that is enough to have me gnashing my teeth and cursing at the screen as I put the check disc into the player. And then, after the pre-credits teaser, the familiar theme tune plays, Bouken Desho Desho that was used in Season 1, and all of my concerns and gripes vanish, and I get this indescribable, and wholly illogical certainty that this movie will be the best thing I've seen this year.
A quick recap, a.k.a. cut and paste of what Haruhi Suzumiya is all about…
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. But no one in the SOS Brigade is exactly as they seem, and odd things start to happen around Haruhi Suzumiya.
That was the description most apt for the two TV series. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is adapted from the fourth light novel, and takes place after the series; so all events that happen in those 28 episodes are past when this movie starts.
December 16th… Winter's chill makes it extremely difficult for Kyon to escape the covers in the morning, but knowing what is most likely awaiting him at school doesn't make it any easier. SOS Brigade Leader Haruhi Suzumiya has a hyper event planned, a Christmas party to end all Christmas parties, and it's all hands to deck to prepare for the big event. That means lackey Kyon of course.
December 17th… That cold is biting, but no less than the knowledge of what Haruhi expects from him. But, maybe donning a reindeer outfit won't be so bad, as long as Mikuru is wearing that cute Santa outfit. Classmate Taniguchi won't be attending the party though, he's gone and done the impossible and gotten a date.
December 18th… It's a good thing that his sister is a sadist that enjoys dragging him out of bed, or Kyon would never get out from under the covers. Today, more than ever he wishes he hadn't woken up. Going to school, he learns that Taniguchi doesn't have a date, he has cold. In fact the whole school is coming down with the sniffles. And there isn't going to be a Christmas Party for the SOS Brigade. There isn't an SOS Brigade. There isn't a Haruhi Suzumiya! Instead, sitting behind him in class is Ryoko Asakura, the same Asakura that vanished after trying to kill him back in spring; only she's a normal school girl again. There's no Class 9 in the school, and no Itsuki Koizumi. Mikuru Asahina has no idea who he is, has no idea what time travel is, and when Kyon tries to press her, is quickly convinced that he's a creep. In desperation he heads for the Brigade headquarters, only to find that it's still the Literature Club, and solitary in the corner behind a book is Yuki Nagato. This isn't the Yuki Nagato he knows, This Yuki is a shy, easily flustered girl, hiding behind her glasses, and even more, nursing something of a crush on Kyon. The SOS Brigade never existed, and the world is suddenly normal again. The question isn't how to change things back; the question is whether Kyon actually wants to change it back?
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer on the DVD, which given that most theatrical presentations are at 1.85:1, might suggest some cropping, or extra information in the frame. It doesn't make much difference either way, as the native PAL transfer looks gorgeous, bringing across the film without flaw. It's the characters, the world, the ambience of the television show, but raised to a wholly different level, with much more detail and care given to it. At the start of the film when Haruhi wheels out a whiteboard on which to illustrate her grand Christmas plans, you can actually see the imperfections in the surface of the board. That level of care is applied to the whole film, and I'm salivating at the prospect of seeing it on the eventual Blu-ray.
As mentioned, the detail in the film is amazing, but what also appeals is the effect that mood and lighting have on the film. There's a subtly different palette of colours used once reality alters, it's almost subliminal, but there is a duller, less lively outlook to the world, colours subdued, and a slightly darker feel to proceedings. The animation is excellent, the characters are realistically animated, and quieter, introspective moments contrast well with the big 'action' scenes. The film is the world of Haruhi Suzumiya at its most detailed, most striking, and given the quality of the original television series, that's really saying something.
Audio comes in DD 5.1 English and Japanese, with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. It's a full-throated surround track, even if this isn't exactly an action heavy picture, with the dialogue, music and effects getting decent placement. The music is exceptional, the film has the orchestral upgrade from the television series, and the use of classical music, as well as a proper cinematic score makes it really stand out as a feature film. I went with the original language track; with this much Haruhi under my belt, it would have felt weird to switch at this point. But I did start watching the film in English just to see how the dub felt. I would have watched the film through again, then and there, had I not noticed the time, so you can be assured that this is one of the good dubs.
The film on disc 1 comes with static menus and a jacket picture.
All of the extras are on disc 2, and evidently this will be the same disc that will accompany the eventual Blu-ray release.
Location Hunting "Kounan Hospital" lasts 10 minutes and sees the crew, accompanied by voice actor Minoru Shiraishi (Taniguchi) visiting the hospital that inspired one of the key locations in the film. As they explore the building, the screen pops up picture in picture clips from the film for you to compare and contrast.
Behind the Scenes: BGM Recording at Victor Studio, Australia lasts 16 minutes. First we get to see pianist Seiji Honda finding the tempo that best suits the filmmakers for his rendition of a classical piece of music. Then we shift to Australia where the film's score is recorded.
Stage Greetings at Tokyo Shinjuku Wald 9, Ikebukuro Cinema Sunshine lasts 64 minutes. The voice cast and crew of the film appear on stage at one of the cinemas where the film premiered to greet the audience and speak about their experiences. Then they move to another cinema and go through the whole process again. As you can imagine, there is a fair bit of repetition in what they have to say.
You may feel a little concern then at the Stage Greeting at Kyoto: Kyoto Cinema featurette, but this time, it's the animation directors and producer on stage, not the actors and directors, so the Q & A session here covers different topics. It's shorter too at just 17 minutes.
Behind The Scenes: Cutting, Dubbing, Video Editing lasts 29 minutes, and follows the film being put together at various stages. There is an early look at editing taking place at the storyboard stage. It's cheaper to edit a film before it's animated. The dubbing shows the final sound mix being put together, and Video Editing looks at the credit sequences being created, as well as some last minute fixes and changes to various scenes.
Theme Song "Yasashii Boukyaku" PV Making lasts 26 minutes, and sees Yuki's voice actress, Minori Chihara on location as she shoots the video for the theme song, as well as doing the photoshoot for the CD cover. Surprisingly enough, there isn't much actual music to be had in this featurette.
The disc concludes with the Theatrical Trailer, the Teasers, the Commercials and the TV Spots for the movie.
This is simultaneously a very easy, and a rather difficult review to write. The nature of the story of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is such that discussing it any more than just superficially invites spoilers, and this is a film that you definitely do not want spoiled. It's a film that you want to discover for yourselves, a film that you want to embrace the wonder of, and experience again and again, without preconception, and without any external opinion. On the other hand, it's remarkably easy to just say that it is the best film, anime or otherwise, that I have seen this year, and that you really don't need to hesitate in buying it, unless of course you're holding out for the Blu-ray, but then again, the quality of the DVD is high enough that this may as well tide you over till February, and at least you'll know what every other Haruhi fan will be talking about.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. This isn't a stand-alone movie, although it will probably work on a lesser level that way. But you really need to have seen the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya series first to really appreciate it. You'll need to see Season 1 to get an idea of the Haruhi-verse and some idea of the characters. You'll also need to see Season 2 because the events of the Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody Episode play a major part in the film. The film also gives Endless Eight a point. I'll never really be comfortable watching Endless Eight, the series of eight episodes that repeat the same events over and over again as the SOS Brigade find themselves in a never ending time-loop of mundanity. But at least watching this film, I can see the point of them, given Yuki's character development in the film. If buying the film forces you to watch the 28 episodes of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, then so be it. You'll only be investing in some of the best-animated television around, at least in the case of season 1.
The obvious event in the film is the titular disappearance. That isn't the problem that you might expect, as the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise has always been the story of the narrator, Kyon, not Haruhi herself. She is a hyperactive force of nature, a deus ex machina given human form, whose sheer overwhelming existence puts the characters around her through various trials and tribulations. Her whims and desires can alter the fabric of reality itself, and dealing with those events is what the episodes of Melancholy have all been about. All of a sudden, she's absent from the world, and her absence is as much driver of events as is her presence, and the film becomes the story of Kyon trying deal with this tectonic shift in his perceptions.
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya does move the story and the characters onwards, which is what is most appealing about the film, the exploration of something new. Most obvious is the character growth in Kyon, who all of a sudden finds that his reality has been altered, that the constant bugbear in his life has vanished, has never even existed, and the world has gone back to normality. There is the initial shock to the event, the instinctive need to fix things, but it's only as the story progresses that he realises the choice that he has. Ever since Haruhi drafted him into the SOS Brigade, he's been the reluctant observer, the outraged cynic, the guy always complaining internally at Haruhi's shocking excesses, and adding his world-weary commentary to whatever bizarre events unfold. He's always seen himself as on the outside looking in. Now with the world finally back to normal, he no longer has anything to complain about, and if he so chooses he can have that normal existence again. At the same time, he begins to realise just what a major part of his life the SOS Brigade is, and how much of a difference Haruhi's presence makes. If he should choose to restore the world, then he has to accept that he is no longer just an outsider, an observer, but that he is an active member of Haruhi's clique, and that he'll have to be responsible for his actions.
On the other hand, there is Yuki's character, the quiet, logical, and unearthly alien construct in the SOS Brigade. She's a girl of few words, a stoic demeanour that slowly begins to develop a personality the longer that she stays around Haruhi and Kyon. Except all of a sudden she's just a shy little girl who's fond of reading, and finds it difficult to socialise. What's more, she's also nursing something of a crush on Kyon. While the world may have changed, the people in it markedly different from the way that Kyon remembers, for reasons that become apparent as the story unfolds, the alternate Yuki's character growth is intertwined with the way that the alien Yuki develops in the series, and shy Yuki is a curious, what-if reflection of the other. If there were one reason why Kyon would most want to keep the altered world, it would be seeing the utterly human side of Yuki.
Of course the other characters play a part too, with Mikuru's shy, vulnerable demeanour unchanged from before, even though she's wary of Kyon's bizarre behaviour. Koizumi turns out to be just as arrogant and annoying as before, while Haruhi learns just how much she needs and relies on Kyon. The film ends on a really positive and uplifting note that makes me desperate for more Haruhi anime.
I want to tell you about all the best bits in the film, but that too would invite spoilers, and blister my typing fingers as there are so many of them. There were moments in this film I felt like cheering, had a stupid grin on my face, or was immersed in the perfection of the moment. This is the best of Haruhi Suzumiya yet put to animation. I can't tell you exactly how good it is, as that would entail telling you why, which would spoil the fun of discovering it for yourself. I will tell you though that this movie makes me feel like some sort of weird anime Tellytubby, as I just want to watch it again… again, again!