Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi Movie

Last Edited Jan 20, 2011

Yes, I finally got around to watching it. I wasn't in a special hurry to do so, both because I'd read the novel (vol. 4 in the series) something like three years ago, and also because I was not all that enthused with what Kyo-Ani had decided to do with the lump of short stories they had animated in to series season 2.

At left: the OST disc cover art catches the mood well.

I'm not going to provide a review. I've read five or six, and the best one indubitably was Gia Manry's at Anime News Network which hits all the high points and correctly determines that this movie is so plot-bound that nobody should watch it who hasn't watched both the Haruhi anime series, or (equivalently) read the light novel volumes 1-3. You simply won't know who these people are, what's going on, or why it is going on.

Instead, I'm going to point out what I noticed in the film having read the novel twice previously. Animation shows differently than novels tell, and the animators did pull out some details that weren't so obvious to me in the text. Think of this as a reader's guide to the story as told by Kyoto Animation.

Here psygremlin and I are on Mangacityforums discussing the movie as a potentiality near the end of 2009:

Psygremlin: Might be jumping the gun a little here, but after the horror story that was Suzumiya Harumi season 2, I see next year we're getting a movie-length feature on "the Disappearance of Suzumiya Harumi", which was one of my favourite tales in the light novels. Even with a 2 hour playing time, it'll be shorter than the hideous "Endless Eight" sequence, for which I'll never forgive Kyoto Animation.

Me: This actually makes sense to me. In fact, this explains everything Psy suffered through. Kyo Ani was stuck with a problem: a bunch of short stories in two volumes, and arguably the most compact and continuous narrative in the entire series in another volume.

I suspect there was a /lot/ of political/internal wrangling about what to do with the material. They all knew that they had to be faithful to it or alienate the fans. They also knew that Tanigawa seemed to have taken an indefinite break, so couldn't be relied on for help or additional material.

So they padded the promised (and probably contractually-required) anime season with a nearly-endless Endless Eight, and saved all of volume 4 for a theatrical release. I wonder if they're going to put vol 4 and vol 7 in the film together - the same plotline continues there...
I must, not so modestly, admit that I called this one. The only thing I got wrong was that I underestimated the care that Kyo Ani were going to take with the story, which was a perhaps understandable mistake on my part after the fan abuse that was Endless Eight in the second TV series, and Kyon no imouto stealing Kyon's spotlight in Lone Island Syndrome with Phoenix Wright gags in the first series. They didn't cram Volume 7 in the movie with Volume 4, which would have created a hurried mishmash of epic proportion. Nope. Instead, they did something that Hollywood has forgotten entirely how to do: They took their time just with one story: Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu and did it right. There was not an excess of pratfalls, explosions, panty shots, or imouto moe development (imouto, in fact, occurs exactly as much in the movie as in the novel). There wasn't even a noticeable amount of blue and orange going on.

There were many quiet sequences. There were places where characters stopped and stared, sometimes for five seconds at a time.

At Right: Tsuruya has a word with Kyon. Note the wintry grey brightness of the sky and the leafless tree peeking into the middle of the shot.

Before some of the most detailed backgrounds I've ever seen in an animated film the entire plot of the novel was very carefully and literally spun on screen. It is not (mostly) Ghibli-bright, for the simple and honest reason that the story mostly happens near the end of December in urban Japan, when it's frozen winter and nothing is bright and colorful.

The backgrounds are cleverer and subtler than that, though. Not only are they literally correct, they also set moods perfectly. Most of the backgrounds are simultaneously detailed and uninteresting for the simple reason that they echo the world in which Kyon has found himself - Haruhi has gone missing along with the supernatural, and he has discovered how lackluster such a world is.

The one noticeable point in the film where the gray world bursts with color is when Kyon has finally tracked Haruhi down.

At left: Haruhi's world is just as gray without the SOS-dan as Kyon's is without her supernatural whimsies.

He waits impatiently for her to emerge from her exclusive private school in front of a colorful flower shop that (after all that gray) looks like it belongs in Kiki's Delivery Service. It portrays his inner mood more vividly than any monologue could.

At Right: Kyon's flower shop. How do they keep the plants from freezing?

I haven't seen a movie that so deliberately and successfully manipulated viewer mood with backgrounds and color palette since I watched Blade Runner in the theater 30-odd years ago.

There's yet another reason that the world of the Disappearance is gray. The principal character sharing screen time with Kyon through most of the film is Nagato Yuuki. The SOS-dan's slightest, palest, and subtlest member is not exactly the life of the party here, either. But she is as changed as Kyon's world is, and it could be said that some of the world's missing color has brightened her cheeks.

At left: Yuuki is as changed as the world.

I've run across a few curmudgeonly old bloggers like me recently who decry moe and moe otaku culture as the root of all evil. I can certainly agree that otaku self-affirmation and lolicon/moe fascination has not been one of my favorite trends in the last decade of Anime, but I think my crabby cohorts miss some important points here:

  1. Anime has always been ephemeral. This particular decade it is moe blobs. Last decade it was magical girlfriends. Before that it was supernatural or supertechnological cop shows. Before that it was mecha shows. Remember Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crud. In any decade, most anime created is junk, just like anything else. There has always been a herd mentality to anime creation and it is always and forever steeped in the Japanese pop culture of the constantly-changing moment.
  2. Artists create. It doesn't matter what the limitations of the medium are. They will always find a way to create their art. And their art will be exactly as good as they are capable of making it. Making anime is expensive. There are therefore big limitations in concept attached to getting money to make the stuff. But an artist with the drive to tell a story will find a way to tell that story whether or not the sponsors (and viewership) require moe blobs/giant mecha/whatever. Nothing else explains shows like Sora no Woto, for instance.
  3. Sometimes, artists create things that are very well made and rise above the limitations imposed on them. Toulouse-Lautrec painted mass-printed posters to advertise the "Gentlemen's Clubs" of his day. Some of them were good enough that they hang in the Louvre today. The concept of the lotus blossom is not only applicable to seeking human perfection in an imperfect world.
I am not leading up to the idea that this movie made by a studio that specializes in animating dating sim games is great art that deserves to be enshrined for the ages in the Japanese national gallery of art. That said, it's a fair sight better than OK, especially taken on its own terms - moe character designs or no.

That said, there's definitely more to the Suzumiya Haruhi franchise than moe stereotypes prancing around for otaku amusement. Tanigawa is a clever writer who has cooked up a very interesting post-modern stew of geeky trope deconstructions and recursive self-references in an otherwise very serious plot with excellent character design and development. Because this movie (in particular) is so slavishly faithful to the source novel, it isn't really even on the axis of otaku moe infatuation, as dotdash points out so successfully in his blog posting about SHnY TV series I. If I ever make it to Japan, having a beer with this guy is definitely on my list of things to do. I suspect he could point me to some good music I've never heard, as well...

The moe Yuuki of this movie is both detailed in the book and derives logically from the plot in which she is elucidated. There's also some clever analysis of Kyon's character going on here: Kyon has protested for three volumes that he likes to look at Haruhi, but really can't stand her when she opens her mouth and gets domineering. What he says he finds attractive in girls is helpless femininity - personified in Asahina Mikuru.

But Mikuru is fairly fully defined to Kyon by the beginning of volume 4. He even knows how she's going to turn out, because he's met her future 20-something self.

At right: Mikuru traded in her moe for something more powerful during the transition between little and big.

Asahina-san (big) as he refers to her has grown into a calm and poised pinup-grade bombshell, and is no longer moe. But confronted with the cipher of a breathing, blushing Nagato Yuuki with a silent crush on him, Kyon (and the viewer) finds Asahina-san (small) suddenly the absurd over-the-top moe poster child she is undoubtedly supposed to be (and, it is suggested in later volumes, that she might actually have been designed in the future to be, specifically to appeal to teenage Kyon's protective urges.) Blushing Yuuki, by comparison, is almost irresistible to him (and to the viewer). This isn't moe designed to sell hug pillows. It is completely logical as a plot device. I, at least, remember being Kyon's age, and I certainly remember feeling that half-parental, half-desiring abstract feeling that the otaku community have dubbed moe. It would be odd if teenage, pensive, literary Kyon were immune to the sensation. It's notable how quickly the viewer gets accustomed to the Humanized Nagato Yuuki. When we eventually meet the AI original again, the difference is stark, for all that it is composed mostly of vocal intonation and gesture. Neither Yuuki is verbose or prone to verbal introspection, but the differences between the two are instantly obvious to the viewer thanks to excellent voice acting and detailed character animation.

It is also worth mentioning that there's a sort of cold-war dialectic between Mikuru and Yuuki: both are representatives of powerful shadowy organizations that have specific and somewhat-opposing interests in the outcome of Haruhi's evolution. Mikuru, the clumsy, moe 'waitress from the future' (who even manages to lose her implanted time-travel gadget at one point in the series) is in constant low-grade fear of the immense poised power that Yuuki controls without visible effort. It's so bad that Asahina-san (big) is still terrified of ethereal, silent, powerful Yuuki when she returns to the past to help Kyon deal with his changed world.

At the end, though, Mikuru has empathy and pity for her notional opponent Yuuki, who gave away the strength of her nature in order to gain what she hopes is to Kyon an appealing frailty. Kyon understands most of her motivation, but misses (with an undetermined amount of willfulness) the romantic element in her efforts, as he does with Haruhi. Thus we see some character growth even for Mikuru in this mostly Yuuki and Kyon show.

The other interesting items of character development happen toward the end of the film: We see a world in which 'normal' Haruhi and 'normal' Koizumi are just classmates. Because Koizumi is not a member of a priest-like 'organization' devoted to serving the Goddess Haruhi, he is, instead rather smitten with her and has enjoyed being the momentary center of her attention since his transfer to her school. He retains his astute analytical mind, however, and quickly decides that Goddess Haruhi adopted Kyon out of simple liking because he alone among the SOS dan has no supernormal powers. Koizumi is disappointed, but not surprised that normal Haruhi seems just as responsive to Kyon as the notional Goddess Haruhi was reported to be.

For her part, normal Haruhi is the same bored, frustrated Haruhi we meet at the beginning of the series - an older version of the same bored, frustrated middle-school Haruhi that Kyon assisted at Tanabata three years ago.

At left: Kyon wordlessly tells Haruhi to calm down and sit still. That he doesn't get a beating for it tells you all you need to know about 'normal' Haruhi's reaction to Kyon.

Here, too, there's a subtle surprise in the story - Haruhi starts out sullen and bored, but very quickly latches onto the idea of the SOS-dan when it is explained to her, and just as quickly starts responding to Kyon as her governor and stabilizer, which is, if you think about it, remarkable given that she has known Kyon for all of an hour or so at this point.

At right: Haruhi's charm increases by 38% after meeting Kyon. Here, incidentally, is more of the greenery that was missing from the first half of the film.

Some stuff doesn't change, though. The story, as in the book, is told from Kyon's point of view. As it is a complicated story, Kyon spends a fair amount of time narrating his thoughts. I'm sure that Kyo Ani hate it just as much now as when they did the first TV series, but I suspect that they, now as then, realize that there is just no other way to get you the necessary information that is in Kyon's head except for monologues - lots of the plot happens there, and flashbacks or dream sequences would inform the viewer with emotional, but not factual content. The good news is that here, as everywhere else, they never hurry. Kyon has time to speak his piece at a normal human rate. If he's nonplussed and silent for a few seconds, he is allowed those few seconds. It's definitely not the wordless Russian formalism of Tarkovsky, but it does share with his works a willingness to let the story come out at its own pace, the clock be damned.

Watching the last third of the movie, the thought occurred to me that Tanigawa might have started off by thinking of Pinocchio, the greatest creation of a master toymaker, who wished with all his heart to be a 'real' boy, instead of a wooden toy. What if Pinocchio had been able to make himself flesh and blood, but only by altering the world so that his toymaker no longer existed? This movie provides one possible answer to the question.

Kyon, for his part, decides that the problem is with Yuuki's character design itself. As she is an A.I., she could have been designed any way at all.

At left: blushing, or logical Yuuki?

Having been made completely logical and emotionless and then thrown into an illogical and emotional world, one could reasonably expect interesting results. One would be right in this expectation...

I would be remiss in not mentioning the quality of the score. The OP is predictable, but everything else is new, different, and evocative for the moment. The BGM uses off-the-shelf classical material in some places, but it is to good effect, and it sets the mood well. I have to say, though, that the lurking aural prize is the ED song, sung by CHIHARA Minori, Yuuki's seiyuu, who, it turns out, isn't a seiyuu so much as she is a musician and singer who does seiyuu work on the side. Having done some recording studio work, I know how this must have been recorded. Even with a click track, a rough track, and accutune it's still a hell of a job of singing. The song is perfect for the movie, the character, and the moment, and Chihara's delivery of it, as well as all of her voice work in the film, could not be improved upon.

Yes, I know I'm a subtitle snob. But seriously, even if you hate subs, watch this movie with them in order to get the benefit of the Japanese audio track - you've got two of the best seiyuus working today in it and I strongly doubt that an American dub crew will manage as good a job.

At Right: Ryoko says eat your veggies and watch it subbed or else

In conclusion: It's a fun movie. It's long. It's better than anything mainstream Hollywood will release this year. Or last year. Or next year. Don't watch it unless you've either read volumes 1-3 of the light novels or have watched seasons 1 and 2 of the TV series. And lastly, watch (and listen to) all the credits. There's an easter egg at the end, a-la Miyazaki movies, and you don't want to miss it.

It's worth your time - all three hours. Enjoy.