Revisiting The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
(This post is part of a series of posts covering Christmas-themed anime episodes. For more posts like these, check out the 12 Days of Anime tag.)
It’s gotten fashionable to say these days that Haruhi Suzumiya has not aged well as a franchise. I can sorta see the argument there. Haruhi popularised the “snarky guy joins a high school club” genre of light novel adaptations, and many of its tropes have been relentlessly copied ever since. I haven’t seen the TV series for a few years now, so I can’t really comment on it.
But for what it’s worth, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is still a good film. A bloated one, perhaps, and probably too faithful to the wordiness of the novel, but still one of KyoAni’s finest works.
If there’s one thing really distinctive about KyoAni’s animation style, it’s the sheer level of detail put into the character animation. Every single subtle movement is drawn out with excruciatingly realistic detail. This is used to great effect in Disappearance. Here, the mundane is alienating and stifling, and the silences speak more than words are capable of.
One thing I found particularly interesting from a cinematography angle is the frequent use of long distance shots. These shots are used during long pauses and little action. They depict a world frozen in time, disconnected from both Kyon and the audience.
The scene where Kyon confronts Nagato for the first time is a particularly strong example of this. It’s a scene laced with tension, as Kyon desperately clings to Nagato in the hope that she can fix everything for him. But she cannot. Her discomfort is obvious from her body language; she is only a normal girl.
I really enjoyed the first half of Disappearance. The careful buildup of tension leaves you engrossed in what is happening onscreen, even if nothing seems to be moving forward. Each subtle clue to the mystery feels like a revelation. It’s hard not to be drawn into Kyon’s shoes and to feel his horror and sense of displacement as keenly as he does.
The second half of the film, from the moment Kyon chooses to hit the enter key, is not quite as effective. Perhaps this is due to me already knowing the major plot developments, so the plot twists and explanations did not grip me as they did the first time. But it’s a lot wordier than I remembered it as well. The last hour or so consists of Kyon explaining to us through his narration all the intricacies behind his own motivation and Nagato’s. Their motivations were self-evident through their behaviour earlier in the film, so being spoonfed the character development was distracting, to say the least.
That being said, the scene where Kyon confronts himself manages to combine introspection with visual symbolism in such a way that the monologue’s message feels visceral. Kyon is discovering himself through his words, not explaining things for the audience’s benefit.
Overall, I enjoyed this introspective take on the Haruhi story. I especially appreciated the message of valuing one’s youth and embracing one’s own agency. In many ways, this was a quintessential coming of age story.
To me, the sci-fi angle was never what Haruhi was really about. This is a story about a girl who wishes she could have been extraordinary and a boy who wishes for the same. It’s about as honest and empathetic a take on the teenage “chuunibyou” complex as you can get – and this franchise predated the chuunibyou fad several years!
So to those who are tempted to think that Haruhi is outdated now with nothing new to offer to an anime fan these days: I’d say you’re wrong. Haruhi is still relevant and the story it tells is still resonant. As long as we as human beings continue to value that which we do not have over that which we do have, I think Kyon’s character journey will strike a chord.
The story ends on Christmas Eve, with Kyon poised to spend the rest of his afternoon with the SOS Brigade and putting up with Haruhi’s nonsense. But this time, it’s a choice he makes with full awareness of what it means to him. By spending his Christmas with the friends he treasures, he chooses to live his life to the very fullest.