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Anime Gets Religion: A Retrospective of "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya"

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Nigel, AKA Bubblegum Senpai was voted most likely to die due to accident involving a cuddle pillow. Haruhi Suzumiya for Life.

Promotional image for "the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya" featuring the members of the SOS Brigade.

Promotional image for "the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya" featuring the members of the SOS Brigade.

I suppose in hindsight, a better title would have been "The Retrospective of Haruhi Suzumiya," but I'm here to do a retrospective of the series that turned me from a casual watcher of some anime to an all out otaku, not to do a retrospective of an article that I'm in the middle of writing.

The Haruhi Suzumiya franchise was quite popular in its day, from the original light novel series by Nagaru Tanigawa (which I've also read all of) and a manga that included chapters not found in either the novels or anime. There was a movie adapting the fourth novel, and it became an obsession for fans like myself. It would not be unfair to call this obsession a religion, since the series did spawn a tongue-in-cheek religion.

But why was the series so popular? Did people just enjoy it ironically? It's time to take a critical look at the series while also try to figure out why this show was so popular—despite its best effort—and the impact it had on the anime fandom, even series detractors.

A Personal History With the Series

Now, I wasn't always a huge fan of anime. I mean, I watched shows like Samurai Pizza Cats as a kid, and of course Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and a few other gems that were popular in the West and aired on children and youth channels. I didn't know what an "otaku" meant, and even most of the anime fans in my high school were making music videos using popular shows like Dragonball Z and Escaflowne. I mean, the anime fandom subculture was around, but much of it was underground at the time. The more hardcore fans would order pirated fansubs from countries like Thailand or Malaysia, translated by other fans for whom neither English or Japanese was a first language. This was back in an era where VHS was still a relevant medium. There was no streaming services and while Napster was just starting out, online piracy was still in its infancy as most household internet speeds didn't make downloading video viable. Basically, today's otaku subculture had yet to reach the mainstream.

This was my life until my early 20s. Advances in the internet meant that illegal streaming had become easier—including sites that now have legal streaming arrangements started off as fansub hosters and were involved in piracy—and the subculture was experiencing a renaissance. I was getting involved in a particular trading card game that itself was kind of underground and after tournaments we'd often go to the club founder's home and hang out as a group, trying to improve each other's decks and help new players like myself understand the game better.

It was on one of these evenings we popped in a DVD of some anime music videos. I had a ton of questions because I was of course watching a lot of clips that had absolutely no context. The two series I seemed interested in most were a series I had heard of through the manga being at my local library, Oh My Goddess!, and one I had never heard of called The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The host Immediately stopped the DVD and switched video over to his server and showed my the first episode of the Haruhi series. To this day, I still think it was a trap—and I'll get into why later—but then we watched the second episode, and then the third.

I was hooked. I began watching episodes online at the library—I didn't have great internet at the time—and them watched them again in chronological order. I read all the light novels, and then purchased them as soon as they were published in English. I bought posters. I began watching other shows that weren't available on TV or on English DVD. Finally, I had to admit it to myself. I became on of "them." I was an otaku. And it was all because of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Haruhi literally drags Kyon to the first meeting of the SOS Brigade

Haruhi literally drags Kyon to the first meeting of the SOS Brigade

Synopsis

It's going to be rather difficult to explain other things about the series without discussing what the series is actually about, so the plot about Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya goes something like this (light spoilers ahead):

In his first year of high school, Kyon just wishes for a normal life. However, he ends up seated next to the eccentric Haruhi who only wishes to meet "aliens, time travelers, espers, or sliders." One could brush it off as a case of eight grade sickness, but Haruhi excels both academically and athletically. She's just bored of a normal world.

Eventually, after trying out, excelling, and quitting almost every club in school, she announces to Kyon that they are going to create their own club, and after commandeering the Literary Club that had only one member, Nagato Yuki, the SOS Brigade was born. The purpose? To find interesting things that aren't boring, like aliens, time travelers, and espers. She also recruits—through suspect means—the beautiful Mikuru Asahina, and shortly after "mysterious transfer student" Itsuki Koizumi. And to be clear, Haruhi doesn't actually believe aliens or any of that stuff are real or on Earth. She just wants them to be real. This is important.

After saving Kyon from a murder attempt, Nagato reveals herself to be a physical form to a traditionally formless extraterrestrial mind, or in common parlance, and alien. Then Mikuru confesses to him that she's actually from the future, which is proven when he gets visited by a much older Mikuru from the future. Finally to round out the collection, so to speak, Itsuki reveals himself to be part of a wealthy and powerful organization of espers that have the psychic ability to defeat monsters that come into existence whenever Haruhi is angry or frustrated.

The thing that tie all three of them together? Something Haruhi did three years ago, It turns out, Haruhi has the ability to shape reality to her will, though she doesn't know it. In fact, it appears as though the current world is only three years old, having once been completely destroyed and recreated by Haruhi. This time, a world where aliens, time travelers, and espers exist, though no one believes in them. In other words, because Haruhi wants them to exist, they actually do. But because of her awesome powers to shape reality and the fact she doesn't believe they exist, no one else believes in them either. Or as Koizumi puts it, she can change reality to her wishes, and created the world and the aliens, time travelers, and espers. She is essentially God.

Suddenly, the SOS Brigade—and more specifically Kyon—have new, secret purposes: keep Haruhi from being bored enough that she subconsciously destroys the world, learn about Haruhi and why she has this ability, and keep her from knowing the truth about her powers and her club members, lest she destroy the world on purpose. So much for a normal high school life.

The very first episode of "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" features a home movie complete with product placement of fictional shops

The very first episode of "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" features a home movie complete with product placement of fictional shops

Unironically Ironic

Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is not easy to get into. I mean, I was hooked after a few episodes, but admittedly, without any context that first episode was difficult to watch. It's a series that unabashedly trolls its audience. You see, the studio decided to air episodes out of order, intentionally. And that first episode? Well, it's intentionally bad. In episodes that don't air until the next season, Haruhi decides that the SOS Brigade should make a movie for the cultural festival. This first episode of the series? It was that film. Complete with bad acting and bad writing.

The next two episodes are the proper order, the first two episodes in the series, chronologically. Then it breaks to a side story that takes place after the first story arc. Now myself, I watched the episodes first in what has now become known as "broadcast order" and after a bit was able to follow what was going on. Then, just to be sure, I rewatched the series in "chronological order."

It gets better though! They announced the second season—I was by this time already a fan of the series—and the second season was 14 new episodes plus the first season, all airing in chronological order. Sounds great, right? Well just you wait. One of the new story arcs was called "Endless Eight." In it, Haruhi doesn't want summer to end, so she subconsciously creates a time loop. Specifically, the only time that exists is a two-week period in August. Mikuru can't contact the future or the past because time outside of those two weeks has been removed from reality. The only member of the SOS brigade that knows what's happening is Yuki, because as an alien race made up of information—like a computer program—she exists outside of time. How does the series handle this? This story—which was just one short chapter in the novels—repeats the same episode eight times in a row, with minor differences. The first episode is the beginning of the time loop, where they don't discover that they are in a loop. The final episode Kyon figures out the one thing they didn't do during the summer to break the time loop (homework). Other than that, the episodes are almost identical, save some clothing changes. They made us watch this eight times.

This is a series that needs gamer achievements. The show trolls its audience, and I'm certain most folks who weren't familiar with the source material only watched it ironically at first. It's like My Little Pony that way. But as the series continued on, it grew in popularity until eventually, people weren't watching it ironically, but genuinely engrossed in the franchise.

A crowd outside Anime Expo in Los Angeles perform the "Hare Hare Yukai" dance together, 2007.

A crowd outside Anime Expo in Los Angeles perform the "Hare Hare Yukai" dance together, 2007.

A Worldwide Phenomenon

So how did the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise bring overseas anime to the mainstream? Interestingly, the internet—and to a lesser extent—piracy. As is common in anime, the series closing credits involve a cast dance, and of course, there is abridged series and anime music videos, and other online things involving anime. In the pre-Google days, full episodes were being posted online to YouTube and Nico Nico Douga, a Japanese video site similar to YouTube. In addition, countless thousands of parodies and clips were being uploaded to these sites. The situation with Haruhi being put into so much content was so prevalent that it could be argued that it led directly to the situation we're in today regarding anime studios being so strict about copyright claims on such video outlets, which has of course impacted the AMV and abridges series communities. And much of this is just fan content in Japan.

In a subculture that relies very heavily on news from Japan, news exploding like this led to a massive interest in the West, and not just from people who were already anime fans. This drove the piracy community as well. Fansubbers were scrambling to get translations made for the North American audience, and Bandai Entertainment and Funimation were scrambling to get legal copies to audiences in order to counter such piracy. Meanwhile, almost any video that contained Haruhi content, no matter how brief, was getting pulled from YouTube and Nico Nico Douga. Deals were struck with many European networks to air the series on television. Haruhi had broken into the mainstream and taken much of subculture with it. Fansubbers were translating the novels, trying to catch up to the next annouced release before Yen Press announced they were going to publish the novels in English.

This isn't of course, any effort to praise piracy. We have so many options available nowadays to legally watch and support a series, but many of those options that are now legal began as piracy groups and the large scale piracy of this particular series also helped pave the ways for Japanese studios and publishers to bring their work to new audiences as they tried to compete with the pirates. Is there still some room to be made? Of course, there are tons of shows and manga that never get a licensing agreement in North America or Europe. But we've come along way from the early days of single-disc DVDs containing four episodes of a series selling for sixty dollars. Anime was no longer a niche market.

This doesn't mean the publishers haven't fully supported the fans. In fact, a fanmade 4-koma (a type of comic that features four panels) was adapted in a web series and released on DVD by Haruhi's distributors, which helped popularize the "mini" animation spinoffs that accompanies many anime series today. Same with a manga series called the Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, which imagines a world where Haruhi was a normal girl, and there were no aliens, time travelers, or espers. The series started off online before being licensed and published by Haruhi's team. The anime adaptation even brought back the voice cast

Even the religion of Haruiism was founded, the idea that God is a high school girl who created the world three years ago (and by that, we don't mean a specific year, just . . . three years ago) and it is our duty as a fandom to keep the world from being boring. It is essentially the same belief that Itsuki Koizumi's esper organization shares, as they tend to regard Haruhi as a deity, though with a different kind of reverence than most religions do.

A poor Mikuru Asahina is distraught after learning she can't contact her peers in a future as that future no longer exists.

A poor Mikuru Asahina is distraught after learning she can't contact her peers in a future as that future no longer exists.

But . . . Why?

The anime as presented is an acquired taste, but if you just want to enjoy a good story, the DVD does present them in chronological order. It tells an interesting story, though it does have its moments where it pushes boundaries—literally—since Haruhi has no respect for boundaries. Haruhi is the least likeable deuteragonist that I can recall, and in hindsight is actually pretty abusive, but because all the members of the SOS Brigade have to deal with her or risk the destruction of the world they know and love, there is a lot of sympathy to be had for the members of the Brigade. In fact, the only person who is even capable of asserting themselves against Haruhi is Kyon, the one person who has nothing to gain or lose from angering Haruhi. I suppose in hindsight, I don't actually know what it is about the series that appealed to me. I know I enjoyed the tense and dramatic moments, and I loved the members of the SOS Brigade, minus Haruhi. Itsuki Koizumi, as smug as he is, is also quite the philosopher and there are philosophical motifs throughout the series, and I do enjoy a good spot of philosophy. I think, more than anything, I fell in love with the light novels as they get deeper, more complex, and raise the stakes for the SOS Brigade even more than the anime series ever did. The tie-in movie The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a beautifully animated story as well that really explores Kyon and Nagato—who up until this time, came across as mostly emotionless and lacking a personality of her own—and their desires.

While the series is great in its own right, Haruhi's outright abuse of her club members and their powerlessness may make some people uncomfortable, especially when because of Haruhi's godlike power, the only course of action they can come up with is to enable her repeatedly. This is contrasted heavily though with the world in the tie-in movie, where a Haruhi without powers, though still eccentric, also shows a little bit—just a little—more self control. The spinoff series to the movie the Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan which imagines a world where the world from the movie was all there ever was, expands this. Haruhi is almost likeable, and though a romantic rival to Nagato, is also a loyal and encouraging friend. And of course, there's the light novels which have many adventures taking place after the anime series had ended, and the stakes continually increasing as Kyon transitions from a glorified narrator to the only person who can actually help the members of the SOS Brigade through crisis after crisis. Won't lie, Nagato is my favorite character, so if I had to only recommend one part of the franchise, it would be her series. But I strongly recommend engrossing yourself in the whole franchise.

Mostly, beyond the franchise itself I think I loved the fandom. The puzzle-solving, the over-analyzing every detail, the fan theories, the dancing to Hare Hare Yukai (the end credits song for most every episode), and being able to discuss the latest chapters in the novels. The fandom isn't as active nowadays, but this was a long time ago and so of course I'd have very nostalgic feeling towards it. The fact that it was possible to watch and discover more anime, which I had fallen in love with. Fansubbers were now releasing episodes just hours after they aired in Japan, and many streaming sites were setting up licensing and distribution agreements with memberships I could afford. I even have a copy of the tie-in movie on Blu-ray signed by Wendee Lee, Haruhi's English language voice actress. The world of anime became my oyster, and it's all thanks to this one series.