"There's nothing to do so you just stay in bed
(oh, poor thing)
Why live in the world when you can live in your head?"
- Pulp, "Monday Morning"
A lot of people who claim to out-and-out hate anime usually have a fairly good reason for that: a lot of anime is derivative of other, more successful anime. Granted, this is just like any industry, where the cool thing du jour is immediately cloned and recycled over and over until it's neither cool nor du jour. (Discuss.) If there is anything special about this practice as it applies to anime, it's likely the specialty aspect of the product, that it comes from Japan, that it's animated, that it contains identifiable style characteristics. To the uninitiated, all magical girls, for instance, may look alike. A Sailor Scout is as good as a Magical Knight Rayearth, etc. Hell, to the initiated it can all get a little bit hazy.
Every once in a while, though, something truly special comes along, an anime series that not only sets itself apart content-wise, but that does so by taking familiar genres and twisting them into imaginative new contortions. Think of how FLCL warped post-Evangelion giant robot conventions into a hormonal metaphor for teenage angst, and you might start to get an idea of what The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya does to all kinds of shojo fantasy subgenres. Released in Japan in 2006, and directed by Tatsuya Ishihara, a veteran of Fushigi Yugi, Tenchi Muyo, and other popular series, it was an instant sensation, prompting Bandai to release the series stateside on four DVDs in rather quick succession over the following year. Now those four discs have been collected in one box called The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Complete Collection. For those who have kept up with the original releases, this is a superfluous bundling, retaining the same packaging on the individual discs while sliding them into a thin, decorated box; if you haven't bought the series, though, this is the easiest way to collect them all. Four DVDs, the whole shebang, all in one go!
Though our young and cute heroine Haruhi gets the title slot, the story is told from the point-of-view of Kyon, a high-school freshman in Haruhi's class. Kyon is trying to grow beyond childish things and has every intention of leaving his preoccupations with fantasy behind when he enters high school--particularly since this school is in a different district than his junior high, meaning a whole new student body. A little shy, a little awkward, he wants to fit in, not stand out. Like many a plan of mice and men, this one goes wrong when he ends up sitting in front of Haruhi, a girl well-known for her odd proclivities. She has all the preoccupations that Kyon has been trying to shed, and she actively wants to uncover her own x-files. Thus, she forms the SOS Brigade, a school club devoted to finding aliens, psychics (which she calles "espers"), and time travelers. Her first member is Kyon, the second is the bookish Yuki Nagato, the last remaining member of the literature club, whose meeting room Haruhi commandeers. The first disc is mainly devoted to establishing the Brigade, and so we see Haruhi recruit the attractive and bubbly Mikuru Asahina and "mysterious" transfer student Itsuki Koizumi. Once the club is set-up, though, the show is off and running, with Kyon learning that Haruhi may not be as crazy as she seems and that all of the weirdness she longs for actually exists.
As FLCL used giant robots as a manifestation of one boy's changing body, so too is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya a story about a pubescent girl's displacement and anxiety in a world that is far too boring for her burgeoning imagination. As it turns out, Haruhi doesn't just think she's the center of the universe, she actually is, and the fantasies born from her ennui are changing the fabric of space and time. All three of her desired supernatural phenomena are represented in the SOS Brigade: Nagato is an android from beyond the stars, Mikuru has come to Haruhi's time from the future, and Koizumi is an esper with psychic abilities. Just what is going to happen if Haruhi's mental powers are not brought into check and what Kyon's role in all this will be is the driving force behind the anime's narrative. With each episode, another piece of the puzzle comes into view, and the deeper Kyon is drawn into her world. At some point, Haruhi has to be persuaded to accept life as it is, or she might destroy all of existence in favor of her ideal way of living.
Kyon is one part hero, one part sidekick, and one part comic foil. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya audaciously flaunts the sexy conventions that get many male viewers to tune in to romantic fantasy anime. Haruhi is constantly putting Mikuru into new, skimpier costumes, dressing her as a maid and as a bunny rabbit to try to attract more attention to the SOS Brigade. Kyon is outwardly disgusted by her techinques, but then chides himself in voiceover for being turned on by the get-ups, even resorting to stealing some photos Haruhi took. Similarly, he flirts with the robotic Nagato, complimenting her when she forgets to make herself a pair of glasses when she has to reconstruct herself. Like Tenchi Muyo and other single-guy-amongst-many-girls before him, Kyon is in a kind of teenage boy fairy tale (the warnings by way of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty references being purposeful in their design), in love with all the girls, and having all of them possibly in love with him. Who will he choose? Where is the real love? Can the over-stimulated perv ever reconcile his noble intentions with his base impulses? Or is that even just too damn conventional for an unconventional series like this?
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has fourteen episodes in total, including a bizarre Episode 0 that, if viewed as an introduction, is slightly baffling. It shows the SOS Brigade making a fake movie about their exploits, and only really makes sense if you've seen the shows that have followed it.
The shows on the first disc mainly establish the characters, while the second disc explains to us who they are in relation to Haruhi. By the end of disc 2, Episode 7, "The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya," the concept is established enough where the creative team can stretch their legs a little, enjoying a few sidebar stories, such as this installment's baseball tournament. Disc 3 continues this on the two-part run over Episodes 9 and 10, where the team goes on vacation, whereas Episode 8, "Mysterious Sign," offers a tangential look into the negative aspects of the alternative space that Haruhi creates and how it affects others.
The animation throughout the series is quite good, featuring a vibrant, clean style and detailed backgrounds. There are only a couple of episodes where quality seems to suffer, which is pretty good for a series of this kind. There are some playful experimental sequences in some episodes, including the computer-animated bug battle in Episode 7 and the spaceships in Episode 12, as well as the rotoscope style of the murder mystery theories in Episode 10 (nicely contrasted by Kyon's primitive hand-drawn version). The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a good looking show with cute characters and slick action.
The last disc brings us back full circle to the making of the movie that would be Episode 0, as well as showing us the stabilization amongst the loosely joined friends. I particularly enjoyed the smart metafictional parallel reference to the movie within the movie by having Koizumi performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard's tribute to Hamlet and the ultimate play within a play. The final program, Episode 13, "Someday in the Rain," is an appropriately melancholy conclusion. No big fights, no cataclysmic events, but rather, a show that is largely devoted to a reflective Kyon sorting out all that has happened and his role in all of it. What the viewer is left to infer is that by gathering around Haruhi as the Brigade members have done, it has brought a sense of normalcy to the heroine--a skewed normalcy, no doubt, but therein lies her happiness. The unexpected thing is that it has done the same thing for Kyon. It has given him a sense of purpose, a place to belong, and a feeling of having matured.
Fittingly, the final shots are of Kyon and Haruhi together--she boisterous and a little annoying, and he happily gritting his teeth and going along--two friends enjoying each other's company
DVD Talk has noted in its past reviews of this series how Bandai has done an amazing job of rendering these shows to DVD, and this reviewer is not going to change that tune. The 1.78:1 widescreen transfers are pure gorgeousness. Great colors, excellent resolution, nothing at all to find fault with. On each disc, though no "play all" option is provided, you will be happy to find that once you start playing the episodes, they will keep running. I also like the handy chapter stops at convenient points, allowing you to skip the credits sequences and "next episode" bumpers if you so choose.
The audio options for all the discs give us the original Japanese soundtrack mixed in 2.0 and two versions of a new English dub mixed in both 2.0 and 5.1. All of the mixes are of fine quality, with the 5.1 track having a little more interplay between the speakers, pushing effects around to the back channels to give a more rounded atmosphere. I like the Japanese voices, personally, but your mileage will very. Both voice casts are actually really good, though the Japanese casts always sound more natural to me, with the English actors often playing the scenes with too much ebullience. Subtitles on the Japanese mix are written well and paced at a readable speed.
Since this Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Complete Collection just collects the previously released discs, the episode listing and extras are exactly the same. In terms of special features, we get a variety of different things across the various discs, including the obligatory textless opening and closing sequences, strange "Nekoman" art galleries with drawings of various character types remodeled as cats, live action TV commercials from Japan's original airings of the Haruhi Suzumiya along with behind-the-scenes featurettes about their filming, "fan-made" live-action take-offs from the series made for the internet, and the usual gathering of trailers for other anime releases. These are all generally fun and keeping in the anything-goes spirit of the 'toons. The fake fan videos, in particular, fit with the show, which carries the conceit that Haruhi and her friends actually made the programs, going so far as to credit them alongside the actual animators. These are called "The Adventures of the ASOS Brigade."
A disc-by-disc rundown is as follows:
* Episodes 0, 1, 2, 3
* Clean opening and closing animation for the zero episode
* Live-action television commercials/previews
* Two behind-the-scenes documentaries about those commercials
* Three installments of "The Adventures of the ASOS Brigade."
* Episodes 4, 5, 6, 7
* Clean opening and closing for the main series
* Commercials and bumpers
* Nekoman galleries
* More from "The Adventures of the ASOS Brigade," as well as some behind-the-scenes footage for this fun promo series.
* Episodes 8, 9, 10
* Commercials and bumpers.
* Nekoman galleries
* Three more from "The Adventures of the ASOS Brigade," and more behind-the-scenes footage.
* Episodes 11, 12, 13
* Commercials and bumpers.
* Neko-Man gallery
* Trailer for Lucky Star, which features a good-natured poke at Haruhi Suzumiya
* Two more behind-the-scenes documentaries featuring people involved with the show promotion
* Three more from "The Adventures of the ASOS Brigade"
* Promo video from Anime Expo 2007
* A special clean version of the closing credits billed as a "Special Ending."
Highly Recommended. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Complete Collection brings together all fourteen episodes of the series on four DVDs and puts them in a handy cardboard box. Though the discs are no different than the ones previously available on their own, this is a convenient way to get your hands on this fun anime series, and since the original discs were stellar packages, there was no real need for any further upgrade anyway. A sly, bubbly metafictional runthrough of anime conventions, Haruhi Suzumiya is ultimately a story about a group of friends and the wild child at their center. A true sensation in Japan, the show is like a breath of fresh air in the anime world, and it more than delivers on its hype.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.