‘Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya’ near perfect film

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The wait is over. “The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya” (涼宮ハルヒの消失), the first movie in the phenomenal animated series, started its Japan run on February 6. The second season of ”The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” caused quite a ruckus when Kyoto Animation decided to repeat the sequence of “The Endless Eight” for eight episodes. In their defense, the animation was not recycled, and they were attempting a grand experiment with viewers’ perception of time. There was a true feeling of helplessness as those episodes repeated relentlessly week after week. However, fan response was mixed. If anything is going to redeem the series, though, it is this movie, which is a nearly flawless conclusion to the two seasons of “Haruhi” leading into it.

The art is vibrant, as one would expect of Kyoto Animation, and the score is lush. Though the movie is three hours long, it feels equivalent to the 30-minute TV episodes. This is not intended as a criticism; especially the second season of “Haruhi” was notable for the way blocks of episodes flowed together like mini-movies. The episode break down was more an issue of time rather than narrative arcs. Image if the intro and ending were taken out of those sections and they were run together, and you’ve a good idea what the movie is like. The tempo is excellent, and time flies by (as one would expect when having fun with Haruhi). The intro is also memorable, with a pleasant rendition of “Boken Desho Desho” and colored silhouettes of Haruhi doing calisthenics and movements.

****SPOILERS****

But where “The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya” shines is its story. Nagato Yuki, the alien humanoid computer, comes to the fore and does what at least this reviewer has on occasion wanted to: she creates a normal, stable world where Haruhi never awoke to her powers. Logical, but this in essence erases the Haruhi we know. Throughout the series, Nagato was gradually gaining emotions, and somewhere along the way the pressure and anxiety of keeping things under control with Haruhi must have gotten to her. I’d like to think it was during The Endless Eight. Seriously, could anyone repeat the same two weeks of summer 15,000 plus times and remain sane? Yes, the girls of “Haruhi” are cute and are in all sorts of moe situations, but enough is too much. Imagine watching every moe anime in unbroken succession and remembering every single moment of it. Yeah, killing someone doesn’t seem so unreasonable. I never really cared much for Nagato in the series, but after watching this, and getting a glimpse of her tortured and lonely existence, I kind of came around. It helps that I can’t stand Haruhi and got sick of Mikuru during The Endless Eight (she is just too damn cute).

Her other motive seems to be a (possible) desire to be with Kyon. After she resets things, everyone, including herself, forgets about the strange world with Haruhi at its center. Only Kyon remembers. It seems she has given him a choice: search for Haruhi, who no longer goes to North High School, or accept a world without her. The scenes of Kyon realizing that no one remembers Haruhi are painful to watch. He comes off like a total mad man talking about his imaginary girlfriend. Worse, in the restructured world, Asakura, who attempted to knife him in the series, is now sitting in Haruhi’s seat. Mikuru not only does not know him, but thinks he is a pervert and punches him when he asks to see her chest to “make sure you are my Asahina-san.” When a girl as meek as Mikuru thinks you are gross enough to warrant a physical attack, it is time to be depressed. And depressed Kyon does become.

But this world is not all bad. After all, isn’t a normal world devoid of Haruhi’s antics exactly what Kyon wanted? He constantly complains about Haruhi. One would almost think that Nagato was granting his wish by erasing her disturbance. And, in this world, Nagato is a normal girl, bookish and painfully shy, but also totally into Kyon. Nagato fans can rejoice, as this is like a Nagato matsuri – nothing but moe Nagato brimming with the emotion denied her in the series. This is who she wants to be: a normal(er) girl. Kyon confronts her in the club room (no longer SOS, but literature). She wears glasses, can’t maintain eye contact and blushes profusely. Kyon thinks Nagato knows more than she is letting on and goes crazy on her, pushing her up against a wall and shouting at her. The way it is drawn is disturbingly erotic, much like the rape scenes of eroge. She begs him to stop, then let’s him hang out in the club room before inviting him to join. The next day, she invites him to her room and admits she has had a thing for him since they met at the public library. She was unable to thank him at the time, and does so: “Arigato.” One word. The way the line is delivered, along with the exquisite animation, is hauntingly similar to Ayanami Rei from “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” It does not, however, feel forced or unnatural. In this setting and for this character, it works. A character that echoes Ayanami but is not in her shadow is quite an accomplishment.

Apparently Nagato is a bit of a hikikomori, as Asakura visits to bring her food as a sort of social worker. I have never liked this character, and she is as creepy as ever. Those thick eyebrows, the way she gets her face so close when she talks, stares, acts so damn benevolent. Kyon agrees, and tries to get out of there. Nagato grabs his sleeve and begs him to stay – without a word. Just a look. That is how much emotion this character conveys. It is incredible. Kyon gives in eats hotpot with Asakura and Nagato. He asks if he can visit the club room tomorrow. Close up on Nagato’s smile. Repeat: a smiling Nagato. There may as well have been sparkles on screen with all the moe energy. At this point even probably everyone in the theater was ready to accept a world without Haruhi.

But not Kyon. Oh, no. He is hanging out with her hoping for a hint to find Haruhi. He finds one in a message left by the other Nagato on a bookmark tucked away on the stacks in the club room. It refers to a key. Kyon then learns that Haruhi is a student at another prestigious school and he runs to her. She has long hair and is wearing a black uniform. He depression and absolute contempt for Kyon are palpable. She is with Koizumi, who seems to have a thing for her in this world. Kyon tells her that he is John Smith, the man who helped her write a message to aliens on tanabata when she was in middle school. That get’s her attention, as it is a memory that only she and he share (quite romantic, actually). Koizumi is jealous and passive aggressive, as to be expected, but Haruhi gets all excited and decides to believe Kyon because the world he describes is an interesting one. The three of them sneak into North High School in a very cute sequence where Haruhi changes into Kyon’s track gear and they all pretend to be out running. After Haruhi kidnaps Mikuru, the four of them end up in the club room, where mousey moe Nagato waits. The computer turns on, and a reset program pops up. Kyon returns the form to join the literature club, and Nagato seems about to cry, missing it when she tries to snatch it back. Kyon acknowledges that he is a member of the SOS Dan, and presses enter. He ends up at tanabata three years ago, when he as John Smith met Haruhi as a middle-school student.

He rendezvouses with adult Mikuru from the future, and together they go to visit Nagato from the past. She reveals that it is she who three years in the future will erase Haruhi from their lives. She does not know why at this time, and willingly assists them to deal with this “error” in her programing. Kyon must go back to the future and stop Nagato. When he and adult Mikuru arrive, they find Nagato there engaged in what appears to be a protocol to remove Haruhi from the center of the world. The animation of Nagato here is top notch, and she appears almost god-like herself. Kyon confronts her, but she is already a normal girl without any idea what he is talking about. Kyon starts his typical monologue and has a trippy battle with himself in an abstract animated sequence. This is very much in the mode of Shinji confronting himself in “Evangelion.” He forces himself to accept that he wants a world with Haruhi, and also to accept the responsibility of ignoring Nagato and her suffering. Not a Kyon fan, but it was awesome to see him step up, especially since it was partly the fault of his apathy that The Endless Eight continued as long as it did.

Out of nowhere, Asakura jumps out and knifes Kyon. Seriously, this girl is scary… She dances around in a shower of blood, and tortures Kyon to death. He wakes up, somehow alive, in the correct time and world, and discovers he fell down the stairs and has been hospitalized for three days. The “it was a dream” conclusion, a bit of a cop out, but hey. Haruhi is in a sleeping bag next to his bed, and the promised reunion ensues. She can’t get out of the bag and thrashes around like a worm. Nagato visits Kyon on the roof that night, and seems back to her normal self. But she is slightly different. Kyon says to her, “Sorry, Nagato. Yuki” (Warukatta, Nagato. Yuki). For an instant it looks as if she might cry. Was this what she wanted him to say during her lonely repetition of The Endless Eight? As the snow begins to fall, Nagato worries that she will be destroyed as a defective unit. Kyon goes through a whole thing in his mind about how he and Haruhi will reset the world and find her no matter what. This time, though, he actually tells her that he won’t let them take her. She says thank you, and it seems more genuine.

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The verdict? There is something for everyone in “Haruhi.” It has the story, the compelling characters, the great visuals, the cinematic execution. Don’t let the moe characters discourage you. For me, the dichotomy of Nagato as we have come to know her in the series was an incredible contrast to the “moe” Nagato in the movie. It felt artificial and cheap, somehow, to see her as the bookish girl in the club room scenario. Much the same way, The Endless Eight called into question the compulsion to repeat the moments of affect with moe characters in moe scenes. In this way, “Haruhi” is challenging the very genre conventions that define it. This is a series that will shine years from now. The TV series and the film are well worth a look.