Nothing can prepare you.
Haruhi Suzumiya is my favorite character in anime or manga. Haruhi Suzumiya is my favorite Japanese franchise. Haruhi Suzumiya was probably the woman my wife was most afraid of living up to after our marriage… and she isn’t even real.
So… just who the hay IS this woman?
This woman is the protagonist of the show that did for “slice of life” anime comedy what Evangelion did for the giant mecha-robot genre: completely rewriting the genre into something fresh, new, and mind-blowing, all while having a great deal of love and respect for what came before and being hilariously self-aware of it. Where Eva had people re-thinking life, the universe, and everything because of some bizarre apocalyptic messages, Haruhi manages to get you questioning everything you thought you knew, and everyone around you, because of the actions of a teenage schoolgirl.
It starts off simply enough: there’s a high school, and there are weird inhabitants of said high school. If this sounds anything like one of my other favorite anime shows of all time, Azumanga Daioh, then you’d be absolutely correct. You see, this is how I’d like to see “reality television” take place: you can keep your Survivor and your American Idol, I’d rather have a show about a reality that features people who are screwy in a humorous fashion, not in the fashion that makes you question the very worth of humanity at large. The key aspect of Japanese slice-of-life comedies is that, for as far-out freaky as they get, you can still look around your circle of friends or your office pool and see those people. Sure, they may not be acting as crazy at Tomo or as spacey as Osaka, but you know in your heart that if societal standards were lowered by juuuust that much, you’d be seeing all this crazy skite on a day to day basis.
So… what if, in your average, normal, run of the mill high school setting… someone decided that they were going to make their life like one of those shows, whether everyone else was in on it or not?
Basically, Haruhi is sick of living a normal life. And really, who isn’t? Sorry, I’d much rather fight aliens and tentacled beings from beyond good taste on a daily basis than go back to working in a call center every day. Or maybe the call center was like fighting the tentacles… and losing. Anyway, Haruhi decides that, unlike pretty much everyone else in this seemingly normal world, she’s going to make her life like one of those wacky shows, come hell or high water. Ergo, she begins to recruit the necessary factors for such a life, all of which follow your standard anime tropes. There’s the meek and ridiculously endowed domestic, the impassionate waif girl who speaks in a constant monotone, the mysterious transfer student who also happens to ooze faaaaaabulous out of every pore, and your charismatic leader character, which Haruhi takes to with all of the subtlety of your average fanfic Mary Sue character. But surely you can’t have such an idyllic setup, surely there has to be bumps in the road, trials and tribulations for our makeshift heroes to overcome, yes? Well, unlike the girls of Azumanga, Haruhi isn’t content to just worry about gaining weight or avoiding pervy teachers. Such a well-organized group of anime stock characters should be fighting pan-galactic threats, domestic spy rings, computer-hacking megalomaniacs, dimension-hopping psychopaths, and the like. So, naturally, Haruhi impressed all of her new “friends” into a new, unofficial and very unorthodox school club, designed to make contact with aliens, engage those who have traveled in time, and speak with those who have superhuman gifts.
But then nothing happens.
I’m serious. For the first part of the show, Haruhi keeps looking, but nothing ever really happens. This allows for the true antagonist to shine, a man known only as Kyon, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one. Kyon has given up on his childhood flights of fancy with aliens and space rangers, and has sunk into a nice cynical rut as the quintessential deadpan snarker of AnimeLand. So, to recap, we have an incredibly energetic girl wanting to explore the obscure, a ragtag school clubhouse full of chums, and a narrator who cares more about getting under the skin of the lead than actually accomplishing anything. If you’re starting to think that this sounds like my own personal heaven, and the personal heavens of several geeks, you’re right. I would have been fine laughing at all the crazy, delusional stuff Haruhi tries to make happen in her humdrum life, all while making it perfectly clear that she doesn’t like Kyon, no sir-ee Bob, not at all… but then the show crosses over from your average “borderline mental cases live in a normal world and do wacky stuff” premise to the “holy hell on a hoagie some of the stuff Haruhi wants to happen is actually happening now.” Aliens begin to identify themselves, time travel appears, and espers use their magical powers to defend large parts of Nishinomiya threatened by blobby bad guy… things…
They look like this.
So, why does this all start happening? Why does everything Kyon swear could never happen start happening? Why did this cute little day-to-day story suddenly sink to its armpits in wacked out sci-fi goodness? Well, the answer is muddy: you see, Haruhi might be God, or something like God, or merely have the power to warp reality like Bugs Bunny or Neo from the Matrix. When she’s happy, the world is fine, but when she’s mad (like when Kyon flirst with the buxom domestic mentioned above) you get the blob-men. What’s more important is that, if she does have these powers, she can’t know about it, or the world might go completely topsy-turvy. Instead, the plot quickly shifts to poor Kyon trying to balance all the crazy-as-balls happenings in this new world along with keeping the initially-hostile-but-eventually-defrosting-ice-queen-demi-God-who-may-have-a-crush-on-him-but-won’t-admit-it happy. So, add to the slice of life and sci fi trappings a bit of harem-style romance and the well-worn anime chestnut of “my alien girlfriend,” altered slightly to be more like “my deity girlfriend who could destroy creation if I so much as look at another woman.”
See what I mean when I say it bends genres like silly putty? And through the entire run of both current seasons and one spectacular movie, it continues to challenge what we expect certain anime shows to be and how they should behave, all while giving unique and interesting entertainment in the bargain. I love the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise because it’s everything I want in an anime and several things I didn’t know I was looking for. You know you’ve found a good show when it can catch your eye with an interesting concept or two, ensnare you after the first few episodes, and leave you BEGGING for more when it’s over. Much like the latest My Little Pony cartoon… but perhaps I’ve said too much…
Identify them by their stereotypes, but that’s where the similarities end…
I can even chalk Haruhi up there with The Dark Knight as one of those media experiences that caused me to reflect deeply within myself, in this case asking myself what I really wanted out of life. It’s a rare piece of entertainment that can actually change the way I go about my daily life and, thanks to Haruhi, I know it’s okay to want more out of life, and to not be afraid to take it. I urge anyone and everyone to pickup this show and at least make it through the first six episodes of the first season. I know it sounds silly, but it was a life-changing experience for me. If you get through both seasons and have a chance to see the movie (which will eventually be released over here, I hope) you’re in for an absolute delight. There’s books, too, recently translated and chock full of everything that makes this series stand out. I cannot recommend Suzumiya enough so, if you feel like being brave and trying something new, here’s where you can start.