The view from 5930 miles away:
Nearly two years ago I started up this blog with Mike, a great friend who lives in the US, on the “other side of the pond” from me. We started by writing about every episode of Doctor Who, giving both our views, and it was a fascinating project for reasons we have covered elsewhere. Since then, we have started writing about Babylon 5, which is Mike’s favourite sci-fi series, using the same dual-review format. It was a series I had never seen, and our articles are an ongoing project. Now I’ve persuaded (well, brow-beaten) Mike into returning the favour and writing together about a series of my choice. It’s my turn mwahahaha! He’s not an anime fan, so this is my opportunity to broaden his horizons and bring him kicking and screaming into the weird and wonderful world of Japanese animation.
So why Haruhi? I am quite well aware that it is a challenging choice of anime to show somebody who has hardly ever watched any. There are series that I could pretty much guarantee Mike will love, such as Charlotte or Erased, and Haruhi on the other hand is something of a coin toss. But I just couldn’t resist. Haruhi is one of the first series I ever watched, and it’s still my favourite. I suspect it always will be. Showing Haruhi to Mike raises the stakes significantly. I suspect he will love it or hate it. If he loves it, then it just might be the thing that opens his eyes to what anime can do. If he hates it, well, we’ve at least got some interesting discussions ahead of us.
Before we get started, just a note about spoilers. I’m going to do my very best to avoid spoiling episodes that come after the one I am writing about, but I’ll be making no attempt not to spoil the episode in question, so for anyone wanting to join us on this journey I strongly recommend watching each episode before you read what we have to say about them. I’ll be writing about each one in some detail. With that out of the way, let’s dive into the bizarre world of Haruhi Suzumiya…
We start with a monologue from Kyon, about how he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, or anything else for that matter. This sets him up as a sceptic, and they are the most fun kinds of characters to get their minds blown about paranormal stuff. His monologue is accompanied by Itsumono Fuukei, a great bit of background music. There’s a ten minute version on youtube. It goes well with the morning routine, getting the kids ready for school! Kyon’s monologue takes place against a backdrop of falling cherry blossom, which is pretty much how all school anime series start. Showing off this magnificent natural spectacle is too much of a temptation for animators, and the trees are in blossom when the new school year starts.
Then we’re into the first of two different opening sequences, and the most famous tune from the Haruhi series, Bouken Desho Desho. As evidence of the power of this opening sequence, I will just mention that it was the one thing that was guaranteed to settle my baby daughter when she was younger, if she was ever upset. Something about that song and opening animated sequence mesmerised her.
But we also here encounter the first example of something that I think Mike might just flag up as distasteful. After watching so much anime it’s all too easy to forget the slight feeling of discomfort that can be created by a title sequence like this, with bouncy boobed girls (Mikaru Asahina’s bounce independently of each other, which is quite a talent). It doesn’t take too long before this kind of thing just washes over you as a viewer, but it’s worth recognising that it’s not something we’re used to in the Western world in terms of animation, especially considering the age of the characters being animated. Let’s just acknowledge that there are cultural differences and move on, because that’s the only thing we can do other than choose to be offended and not watch, which of course results in missing out on the entire output of a nation of quite possibly the most talented animators in the world, combined with some of the most creative and imaginative writers.
Post credits, we are introduced to Haruhi, who is “beyond eccentric”. What she wants more than anything in life is to find aliens, time travellers or ESPers, or ideally all three. Let’s see if she finds any…
Haruhi is immediately a fascinating character. She doesn’t care what people think of her (perhaps with one exception), and she always speaks her mind. Normal life makes her bored, and she has tried every different club in school. She doesn’t seem to understand how undressing in front of a group of boys could be considered inappropriate behaviour.
Almost immediately her relationship with Kyon (that’s a nickname, by the way, which means something akin to calling somebody “Bambi” – the meaning is lost in the dub) is different to anybody else. For a start, there are clear hints that she cares about what he thinks. In an amusing sequence we see how her hair changes every day of the week, but when Kyon mentions it that stops, and we arrive at the familiar Haruhi look. There are also hints that they are connected in some way. When they pick new seats at random they end up together again, which is quite a coincidence. It is also worth recognising that the seats they end up with are traditionally considered to be the best seats in a Japanese classroom – near the back (so they can fall under the teacher’s radar), and with a view out of the window. In nearly every school anime you will ever watch, you will find the main characters sat in this position in the classroom. It has become a massive cliché, but it’s one that works so well in terms of the narrative that it’s too tempting for manga and anime creators to ignore.
Mike has often praised his favourite television series, Babylon 5, for the intelligent way everything links together, and the planning that went into that. I am hoping that he will appreciate a similar approach here, because every detail in this episode matters. Nothing is there for no reason. We are casually introduced to Ryoko Asakura, who just happens to have an interest in Haruhi. The “quod scribbles incident” is mentioned, and later Haruhi says this to Kyon:
“Have I met you somewhere before, like maybe in the past or something like that?”
These are all moments that will pay off in the fullness of time.
By the end of the episode we have been introduced to four of our five main characters. Yuki Nagato seems to be just a shy girl, but she is oddly impassive and emotionless, hardly speaking at all. As for Mikuru Asahina, Haruhi lampshades her moe appearance. Interestingly she is a junior, older than the others, and yet she acts like a frightened little girl. You would assume by their interactions that Haruhi was the older girl, but that’s not the case, and that’s an interesting vibe. There is the subtlest of hints of something more going on here, with Asahina’s glance across at Nagato, before she submits to Haruhi’s demands. Haruhi’s physical abuse of Asahina is hard to take, and moments like this seem to run counter to what we would expect from an anime establishing the title character. How are we supposed to warm to Haruhi when she behaves like this? The key is how much she sparks our interest. You don’t have to like her much at this stage. She’s a mystery to be solved, and that’s enough to make us want to keep watching.
So, as an opening episode this ticks all the right boxes, and packs a lot in. Within 20 minutes Haruhi’s SOS Brigade has been established, and four out of five club members are where they need to be. But so far this is just a series about a very bossy girl, pushing people around to stave off boredom. There’s got to be more to it than that, right? We’ll find out soon… RP
The view from 6,868 miles away:
When Roger told me he’d be up for giving Babylon 5 a shot, I was delighted. I still find it one of the best shows ever made. Little did I know, he was plotting. It’s ok though. I would have done the same had I thought of it first. I’ll blame school for distracting me! So I sat down to watch the first anime I had seen since high school which was a very long time ago indeed. Well, talk about strange!
The… let’s call it “prologue”, or pre-credit sequence was surprisingly normal and very engaging. This guy wants to believe in aliens, time travelers, espers, etc… but realizes none of it is real. Then he meets a girl who is eccentric in a wonderfully Susan Foreman-ish sort of way. But first, the opening credits…
Oh, look! A pen.
Cats are cute but not dimwitted.
I like chocolate. Find me.
Anchors hold down boats.
Random thoughts… glad school is over!
Hot dog! Yeahhh…
Ok, that’s my rendition of the utterly bizarre nature of the music that opens the series. It’s such an odd assortment of words that I think, maybe… might flow. Or not. Now, I realize this is a translation and in Japanese it might make a load more sense lyrically, but in the English translation, I felt totally derailed by the music. This was not a good start. I am grateful for the precredit sequence because the outre music would likely have ruined it. I think I like songs to have some rhyme scheme maybe, or pattern. This was just words! My son and I analyzed them and they are not so off-beat when read, but sung, it just seems like the deranged rambling of a psycho. Oh, wait… that might make sense. Let’s get back to the story.
Maybe I’m being overly charitable. I don’t know why but I found myself engrossed in the plight of this guy, Kyon. I like his narrative, even as his internal monologue speaks over what his newfound friend is saying, because there’s something so relatable to it. Kyon is a normal high school guy, if of slightly above average intellect. He hangs out with friends and likes pretty girls. I can relate to this. It might have been long ago, but I do remember. He meets a girl who is a mystery, the titular Haruhi Suzumiya. He finds her intriguing. I get that, too! I can appreciate it. Hell, anyone on our website can appreciate it if you came here initially because of Doctor Who. This girl truly is very much a modern (anime) Susan Foreman, just in far sexier attire. And, typically I take issue with this; specifically in that I don’t like the idea of making a cute little girl look all sexy. I feel we’re crossing some kind of line. I also realize: a) I need to be open minded, b) I need to acknowledge this is the product of another culture and c) I need to be fair in that these are high school seniors. This last realization is that there’s something very natural about the whole thing. Maybe I can accept what goes on here after all.
Then Haruhi takes off her shirt to undress because she has no sense of boundary and I was right back in the notion that: these are kids!!! What are they doing!? Then I found myself even more put off when Haruhi grabs the cutest girl she can find, Mikuru, drags her into their newly formed club and then gropes the hell out of her. She even grabs Kyon’s hand and helps him feel up Mikuru, to his horror. (Here, I find myself struggling to recall these parts of my high school days and my memory is depressingly devoid of any such reminiscences.) I tried to say to myself: ok, if I were Kyon, a senior in high school, how would I feel about this? I think I’d be rather pleased with my selection of friends. But it’s hard to get past because I’m watching this show. I suspect Roger knew quite well that this would take my comfort zone out the window. Almost like me asking him to watch a series set on a space station with a very bumpy first season…
So get past it I must! The show must go on! Did Roger bail on Babylon 5? No he did not! And I have to keep the open mind I accused him of closing when he first tried B5! So I suppressed any feelings of voyeurism I had and took the rest of the episode at face value. And when Haruhi comes up with the name of her club, I laughed out loud. Spreading excitement all Over the world with Haruhi Suzumiya Brigade, or the SOS Brigade. It would be like calling this write up the kazoo report. Very quirky, but very fun. As a first part, it definitely intrigued me. I feel as confused as Kyon, not really knowing what the club is all about, or for that matter, the series. So I already watched the second part. But alas, that’ll have to wait until next week… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya II