The Cataphasis of Haruhi Suzumiya

Anime is an art movement that has encapsulated thousands of different competing threads and there’s no true centralising canon because it’s fragmented across all sorts of cultural anchor points. Australians of my age that are into anime so often got started because Aggro’s Cartoon Connection screened Sailor Moon, the ABC screened Astro Boy, Cheez TV screened Teknoman and SBS, in the late 90s, screened Neon Genesis Evangelion, meaning that those four anime are sometimes seen as ‘common ground’ topics. Common ground for one age bracket in one country, and even then, only sometimes.

There are some events that can be looked upon, in the english-speaking anime fandom, though, in terms of their impact on shared cultural spaces, typically conventions, but also just, anime releases that somehow managed to be widespread enough at the right time that they became foundation to the conversation. The big three of Naruto, Bleach and One Piece. Evangelion movies. Fullmetal Alchemist, then Fullmetal Alchemist again. A collection of trans girls and boys and nonbinary people that can trace a lineage from Ranma 1/2 through to Kampfer and Haku and Soul Eater and maybe a few tracing lines to Vandread.

There is a category of people I can annoy enormously by responding to a Touhou picture with which anime is this from?

There’s only so much room for any given series to suck up a lot of the oxygen in the fandom space. You can’t typically have five or six ‘big name’ anime that ‘everyone’ has an opinion on. One of those ‘event’ Anime, that rose, became incredibly prominent, and then deformed the culture at large, becoming one of the rings in the tree trunk that is this strange cultural enclaves, was the enormous franchise known as Haruhi Suzumiya.

Haruhi Suzumiya is a character, central to the media franchise of light novels and two different anime and movies and videogames and so many media merchandising opportunities and there’s so much stuff and it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s hard to get a handle on it all. The root of the story that Haruhi is part of, which started as a series of light novels, is told through meeting a boring young man named Kyon who is living a boring teenage high schooler life, until an extremely extra young woman named Haruhi enters his life. I say ‘extremely extra’ but she’s basically a classic chuunibyou before that word had entered mainstream anime consciousness (which probably relates to the release date of the anime Chuunibyou).

Chuunibyou, or chuuni, as it’s known amongst my weeb friends who are also all insistent they’re time travelling witches from Gensokyo, and I do mean more than one of them, is known as ‘middle school sickness’ or ‘being a really imaginative young kid.’ It’s this social phenomenon where someone will describe themselves as being special or haunted or magical or whatnot, and it’s seen as sort of a thing to grow out of. In this case, Haruhi establishes her chuuni credentials by establishing very firmly that she is not interested in forming friendships with anyone mundane or normal, but if anyone in the room is an alien or time traveller or ESPer (there’s a whole category of things ‘ESP’ covers in Japanese pop culture), they should contact her, because that’s what actually interests her.

Kyon is none of those things, and Haruhi is mad at how normal he is, and mad at how normal she is, and bullies him into joining a club with her dedicated to the task of finding those people who she deems as interesting. Her choices are kinda stupid, though, picking a girl because she’s easily bullied and has big boobs, a boy because he’s pliable and mysterious, and a girl because she was in the clubhouse at the time.

And as a pure coincidence, Kyon then founds, when Haruhi isn’t available, that actually, they are respectively, a time traveller, an ESPer, and an alien super-consciousness, and they are all there, in the club, because they are trying to ensure the containment of Haruhi, herself, because she is, essentially, god. Like, god god. Like, can remake the entire universe at a whim, god. The thing that keeps her from rewriting reality deliberately at any time, and probably causing a lot of harm with her limited brain that operates and behaves like a human’s brain, is that she is unaware that she is god. The capacity of Haruhi to make the world more exciting is directly at odds with her belief that the world she lives in is boring, and so the group, in the interest of keeping reality existing the way it does, while dealing with their own competing interests and wants and try to keep this immensely powerful god-entity busy and distracted and happy.

Can’t be too happy, by the way.

Because then she’d get bored.

Now, you might think this is an interesting new idea, but it’s kind of not – there’s a history of anime and manga and other stories about keeping a powerful entity distracted, a monkey with a shotgun that needs some kind of control or containment. If nothing else, It’s A Good Life is a Twilight Zone episode that first aired in 1961, where the story is oriented around satisfying the whims of a small child with godlike powers. In that story, of course, the child is aware of their power or at least aware of how they are different (probably??) and the whole town is in on the terrifying secret.

It’s also not unlike anime in general to say ‘this character is important and it’s our job to keep them happy, even if they’re an asshole’ – that’s more often the premise of a single episode, and it’s a stock episode plot after someone gets injured in the west. To spin an entire series out of it requires there to be a layer of complication that you can use to do different things, which in this case, is presented by the four competing needs of the group around her, who are each individually, perfectly interesting and legitimate premises for entire urban science fiction narratives of their own, and Itsuki and Kyon.

Now, meritocracy is fake so let’s not get fooling ourselves into thinking that this series succeeded because it was smart and funny and charming and good, but, thankfully, it was also smart and funny and charming and good, and it succeeded. The characters had appeal, the light novels were clever in interesting ways that were both legitimately smart but also made you feel really smart for getting them and appreciating how they worked, and did a bunch of interesting things with their idea space, including notably, one time when to represent a time loop, two chapters of a book, back to back, were identical up until the very end. Put a pin in that one, we’re coming back to it later.

The light novels got an anime adaptation, and that anime adaptation didn’t just operate on interpreting the basic stories of the light novels but on redoing them for the TV format, with some of the basic plot structures all the same, but the actual narrative of the TV show deliberately doing some things confusingly, differently, and also with some extremely marketable details like fanservice and a opening song that was a bop and bringing moe girls to life in a way that audiences just hecking loved. There was a real love of music in the series, too, with a major music number given special attention in the first season, which served not just to be a pretty good musical performance and a real fun moment in the story, and a great song, but also showed animation doing a really impressive job of conveying something real.

Most infamously for people who weren’t watching it, though, was the dance. See, the ending of each episode of Haruhi was the characters doing a dance. I don’t know if it was technically impressive (odds are good, it’s not, per se), but it was visually memorable and it didn’t look like other things. And that made it memeable, and that meant that suddenly you’d see fanart of characters you did know doing something they’d never done, fan animations (when they were newish!), and even in-person performances from both cosplayers and just people at conventions.

Then people started to joke about being Haruhi worshippers.

It’s easy to say this anime was ‘a phenomenon’ but I need to underscore, it wasn’t an anime that was a phenomenon. It was a light novel series, and an anime, and a cultural space. It was successful before the anime hit the west and it was successful after that. Haruhi is a shared cultural memeplex and it is vast.

Anyway, then they announced a second season of the much-anticipated anime.

The second season of Haruhi was announced with much fanfare, and by much fanfare, I mean it was practically something you needed to do an actual scavenger hunt to piece together the information. It was cancelled in secret (??) and then restarted in secret (???) but you could see those statements together, it was promoted, it was advertised, things happened, it’s genre media in a specialised niche, things happened in a way that was complicated. Then, the series finally started to air, and there was much rejoicing.

There was one episode, called Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, and it was built out of something beloved in the fandom, and there was much rejoicing. Then there was another episode, called Endless Eight, which was oh hey, this is about a time loop, in August, hence ‘eight’ and ‘endless,’ and that was that thing the light novel did by repeating a chapter. And then, the next episode is the same.

And then, the next episode is the same.

And then, the next episode is the same.

And then, the next episode is the same.

And then, the next episode is the same.

And then, the next episode is the same.

And then, the next episode is the same, until the last minute where they break the time loop.

Out of a 14 episode long anime season, 8 episodes were nearly identical; similar scripts, similar scene composition, similar costuming, the same sequence of events, with only minor changes between them. And they weren’t shortcutting anything in them, no ‘well you know about this scene already so we’ll jump through it fast.’ What’s more, the actual events the episode focused on wasn’t action packed or social tangling or jammed with hot hot fanservice (which for this series is probably math and lesbian harrassment), but was instead a nice breather episode showing the characters basically durdling around with the last days of their summer vacation.

It was nice, but it was boring.

And they screened it eight times.

Eight times in a row.

Eight times in a row with a week wait for each episode.

A large body of my examination here is going to derive from the work of Red Bard, who made this video in 2020 about it. It’s a good video and it will cover a lot of the same material, though their analysis is much more about fan reaction to Endless Eight. They don’t explicitly state it, but in the video, there’s a distance where Red Bard brings in sources external to themself; they focus on introducing things that can be measured or proven, like ratings on (western, English-speaking) anime ranking sites, while still framing the thing with a judgment call that’s kind of hard to make.

I am not interested in examining Endless Eight in that kind of way. I’m not interested in holding the work at arm’s reach, or putting the reactions of the voice actors or the apologies of the creators in as proxies for my opinions. I’m not going to talk about Endless Eight in so basic a way.

In so cowardly a way.

What I want to talk about here is not reactions to it. I want to talk about my reaction to it.

And why I think Endless Eight rules.

Okay, let’s just give you the most rudimentary and obvious point here: The entire point of the Endless Eight is characters trapped inside a time loop working out what’s going on little by little despite being literally powerless to address it in the face of the impossibility of their situation. This narrative was told by presenting a time loop where you had to work out what was going on little by little and being literally powerless to address it in the face of your impossible situation. The time loop is a sense of helplessness, of growing helplessness, of an agony, and then, then, then, at the end,

You’re free.

The iterations are not subsequent. It wasn’t a time loop they were in eight times. It was a time loop they went through 15,527 times! You only saw eight iterations, probably the first, and definitely the last. And when it was all over, there was tangible and physical relief. There was a strain to it.

But you couldn’t just stop watching, usually. Not the kind of nerds who found themselves attached to Haruhi. After all, Haruhi is a smart, cool show that has these really impressive plots and this constantly bubbling undercurrent of science fiction supernatural horror. There was going to be a secret, right, or some subtle message, or some clever idea, or something going on in Endless Eight that you could use, that you could bring to the conversation, that you could use to engage with that online space, with that play. And that meant that if you wanted to be part of that group, if you wanted to be part of the guidance of Haruhi stuff, if you wanted to be part of the discourse, you had to be there for all of Endless Eight.

It’s beautiful. It’s brilliant.

I didn’t experience this personally; when I watched Season 2, I watched it on DVD. And I watched every single one of the episodes. And I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know it was going to happen, so instead, the second episode I had a moment of : Hang on, did my DVD player skip? Is something wrong? Or wait, no, this seems different.

Then the next episode, I found myself wondering: Hang on, what just happened.

And again.

And again.

By episode six I had worked it out. But by then I’d lost track of how many episodes it was. Eventually, I had to give up and look on the internet and be jolly amused that oh damn, they really did that. That’s cool, how cool is that?

I’ve talked about Fanagement, but what sometimes gets lost is that fanagement is the second term of its type to come up. The first was fantagonism, an idea that started out in a hazy time during the 1970s where showrunners were told that they had to fight their fans. That fans demanded ownership, that fans demanded control, that fans would take your show from you if you let them, and that meant that running the show stopped being about doing a job and started being about guessing at something a nebulous other could do, and with things like Zebracon (a gay fanfic convention for fans of Starsky and Hutch) showing that what the fans wanted was sometimes deeply inimical to what you, the showrunner, wanted to do.

This isn’t to say that there’s something right there, but in anime fandoms especially, we have a history of when anime fans and showrunners were at odds with one another. You can look to the ongoing procession of Evangelion, a show that was twenty six episodes long, and that concluded in 1996, and yet which also was supposed to have a cinematic release continuing to conclude that story in January of 2021. The history of Evangelion is this sequence of a work being made from this really weird, intimate, personal place with real-world limitations, but where what was delivered was seen as not good enough, and so, there was a demand for more. There’s a whole dialogue about how Evangelion has basically become a merchandising wing where once upon a time there was a story with a point, and now it’s this brand.

Now, there is a commonality there of course. Endless Eight was a filler arc. It was literally done as a way to stretch budget while the otherwise ballooning costs of the creation of the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. But it wasn’t done cheaply; it was animated differently each time, though with nothing too challenging. It was scripted differently, creating the impression that things were almost the same, but not quite the same. It was done with a strong feeling of continuity, where background elements like sofas and walkways were all the same colour, but things that could change day to day like outfits and movement of bugs were different. There was a lot of work put into this cheaper sequence, which I find interesting. The cheapest version of this can be produced for the budget of a single episode, but they didn’t do that. They definitely made a cheaper set of episodes, but not a cheap episode.

Yet it drove people away, is the narrative. People who were invested in the series, despite everything it’d done prior to this point, stopped touting how much they loved it. Haruhi-ism took a blow, as a cultural joke, and boy… lemme tell you, repetition? In religion? If your religion’s biggest trial is asking you to watch an anime episode seven times more, boy you wouldn’t last through catechism.

And look — I don’t need an excuse for Endless Eight. It’s definitely justified to work the way it did; simply put, they didn’t have the budget to do bigger or better versions of what they did. Normally, I’d discard extrinsic influences like that, when they don’t have an impact on the narrative (though I know, Korra). The thing is, The Melancholoy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a television series that played with its medium. It was a TV show that used the fact it was a TV show to be part of the show, and it used the fact that it was loved by extremely online nerds to fill itself with details and rewatch value and references that were all about playing with its place. The show was screened out of order. It used announcements to mess with audience. It shifted animation style at times. It deliberately opened with an episode that was incomprehensibly weird.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and its connected works is, and has always been a deliberately meta-aware piece of media that wants to resist easy engagement. It wants to make its audience fight with it.

Playfully.

I love Endless Eight. I love the Haruhi franchise. I love this anime, despite the fact that the protagonist honestly grates on me. I got real tired of the dance at cons, I got even more tired of people ‘preaching’ Haruhi-ism ironically. I haven’t gone back to rewatch Endless Eight any time recently, because uh, thanks Funimation.

My reaction at the time was surprise, then confusion, and then a slow, dry laugh. And now, even now, all the time later, I feel that grin creeping on my face again.

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