Spotlight on Japan: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

Merry Christmas, readers of Forced Perspective! This is my “Christmas special” in the Spotlight on Japan series.

Kyon is a witty high school student who never believed in Santa Claus, but always found it hard to believe that aliens, time travellers and espers were lies. After accidentally inspiring an eccentric, hyperactive and selfish girl into creating a club investigating the supernatural activities, he is more than just a bit surprised to find out that the other club members she recruit include an alien, a time traveller and an esper. That is the premise of the animated TV series, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which is based on a popular franchise of light novels by Nagaru Tanigawa. After two seasons, Kyoto Animation decided to adapt the most talked about story, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, into a full feature film.

It is December and the main characters are preparing for a Christmas party, but that’s just the long prologue, as Kyon jokingly narrates. One day he wakes up and realizes the world around him is not the same – everything has gone back to “normal”. As he looks for the truth behind this change, he embarks on a journey where he needs to understand who and what he cares about the most. It’s a huge leap in his character development. He has to come to terms with his inner conflict in this extreme situation: does he really yearn for a “normal” life or does he love the weird adventures he always makes cynical remarks of? Even the characters around Kyon gain way more emotional resonance than the TV series ever had – it was just hiding under the comic relief before this film exposed it for the audience. The whole story is put to motion thanks to a certain character’s mental breakdown – which is just one of the complex issues Disappearance deals with surprisingly successfully. The characters are upgraded from flat yet colorful caricatures to full-fledged personalities that are now ready for major conflicts in future.

To be able to develop characters so thoroughly, you need a magnificent narrative – and Disappearance certainly has that. First and foremost, it has a vast amount of strong motifs that are cleverly introduced and used throughout the film. For example, Erik Satie’s famous “Gymnopedie” is used magnificently as Yuki’s theme – it creates the needed connection between the important scenes and serves well as one of the minor (but important) emotional peaks of the film. Even though the motifs are strongly emphasized throughout the film everything pales in comparison to the climax that is simply full of them. Thanks to these sneaky inclusion, the climax packs a punch that you will still feel in your stomach days after the credits start rolling. With a long film like this (nearly 3 hours long!), the narrative needs to relax once in a while. It requires proper “punctuation” to be endearing. The screenplay is cleverly split into different days that are marked by repeating the scene of Kyon waking up – which also provides much needed comic relief. Even though the narrative runs relatively slowly sometimes it’s always interesting. The writers have successfully come up with ingredients that keep you glued to the screen until the last shot fades away.

More often than not, a narrative relies on visual storytelling. Hence compositions and cutting are essential for the film’s success. Kyoto Animation has really upped the ante (that was impressive already) this time by refining the compositions and animation quality. The latter is very visible in the “fake moving camera” shots that blur the line between a real camera and the pseudo-camera used in anime. The background art is glorious as well – there isn’t a scene without at least one wallpaper-worthy shot full of lovely detail. All of this put smartly together in the editing room: the rhythm of the film is pretty much pitch-perfect.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya immediately establishes itself as anime classic: it’s not only an impressive showcase of talent, it also redeems a franchise from doom and makes it even better than it ever was.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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