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Ten Years Later: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

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Whether as the pinnacle of a franchise, a hallmark of a celebrated studio, or a reminder of the irreplaceable artists we’ve lost, this film stands the test of time.

I knew The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya would be the one anime from 2010 for which I’d have to do a Ten Years Later article, well before I could’ve imagined that it would end up being something of a memorial piece. It stands out in an otherwise unremarkable year for anime as by far the best, and it maintains that position after a decade has passed, perhaps more now than ever.

At the time, I was naturally familiar with the phenomenon that was Haruhi Suzumiya; it was a defining component of the zeitgeist of late-2000s-to-early-2010s anime fandom worldwide. I was interested, but I was still subscribed to just enough rhetoric dismissing anime with certain demographics or aesthetics as “moe” – which was of course treated as a pejorative by those who demanded on such meaningless pigeonholing – that I hadn’t quite dived in just yet. However, around this time and shortly thereafter, I began to see two Kyoto Animation productions chiefly directed by Tatsuya Ishihara and written by Fumihiko Shimo – Clannad: After Story and later this film – climb to the top of anime ranking lists, and I knew I needed to branch out and expand my horizons with an open mind. I explored the prerequisites for each for the rest of 2010, while I’d wait until later North American releases of the finales were released in 2011 to experience the respective payoffs. While I didn’t immediately acquire new all-time favorites, both franchises proved to me that such categorizations with negative connotations were only impeding me from seeing some very good series, and that this was a team that could make incredible art from premises that seem simple, uneventful, or difficult to take seriously.

I wrote about the impact watching Clannad: After Story in early 2011 had on my life in its own Ten Years Later article from 2018, but a few months later, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya was finally released on domestic Blu-ray, and I was able to complete another journey from this incredible team. Experiencing both of those for the first time within a few months nearly elevated KyoAni, Ishihara, and Shimo to godlike statuses in their respective fields at the time, and they each remain very near the top of those lists to this day.

Although I had of course watched all episodes of Melancholy by this point, as well as the two ONA series, I wasn’t familiar enough with the original light novel series nor involved enough in specific community discussions to realize that Disappearance was originally supposed to be adapted as part of the new TV episodes aired within the 2009 broadcast of the series (those episodes now commonly referred to as the “second season”). Perhaps if that plan was executed, we’d have an excellent arc of the TV series that would propel the 2009 batch of episodes far past the high bar set by the original 2006 season, instead of the majority of new content consisting of eight excruciating weeks of virtually the same episode. But knowing how things turned out, I couldn’t imagine this story working half as well if it were anything but a film.

One obvious reason that Disappearance benefitted from begin a movie was the increase in quality thanks to the increased budgets, timeframes, and other resources available to produce a feature film. It was the studio’s second film of any kind, preceded only by the film version of KyoAni’s original and largely forgotten Munto. By this point KyoAni was already very well established as the studio with the most consistently high-quality productions around, their TV work often outdoing feature films by other studios, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t keep raising their own bar, and what better stage to showcase that than the feature continuation of their hottest property? It was probably their most impressive production at the time, perhaps even for a few years to follow, and it set the template for the KyoAni film. That’s not to say that the studio’s output has ever been rote or formulaic, only that their films have featured certain trademarks throughout their history, much as their entire catalog features a more consistent vision than that of any other studio close to as prolific. Beyond even similar continuations of television series, echoes of Disappearance can even be felt in standalone features like the more recent masterpiece of A Silent Voice. As far as that insurmountable bar of quality goes, KyoAni has, of course, raised it themselves countless times over the past decade, but Disappearance still holds up better than plenty of new productions made a decade later.

But it wasn’t just that it was a shinier version of this story than we might’ve gotten on TV at the time. The art of perfectly crafting a TV anime into the exact right number of seconds per episode is incredibly impressive, but there’s a certain freedom of pacing allotted by a feature film, and Disappearance takes full advantage of that. This is one of the most deliberately paced pieces of animation ever made, evoking a similar feeling to that of some of the great long films throughout cinema history. In some ways its closest tonal equivalent, perhaps appropriately, is the chronologically final episode of the TV series, which famously featured a memorably protracted sequence of virtually nothing happening, and was largely uneventful on the whole. This is more effective, though, because something is always happening; it’s just not afraid to take its sweet time letting you marinate in Kyon’s psyche as you experience this entire phenomenon alongside him and, in quieter moments, letting your sense of time be stretched out by the palpable cold of the winter and the sense of ennui brought upon by the less thrilling slices of life. This is Haruhi at its most measured, atmospheric, and, ironically enough, melancholy. It commits to its decision to never rush to the point of still standing as the second longest animated film of all time, with an extended cut of fellow anime series conclusion Final Yamato exceeding it by only one minute.

As stylistically distinct as it manages to be in some ways, though, there’s no entertaining the idea that this film could be viewed in a vacuum. The TV episodes that preceded it are absolutely essential prerequisites, and even if you were to try to figure out what happened as you went along, none of the pathos of the movie would mean anything without the context of having experienced it all alongside the SOS Brigade. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya isn’t the most straightforward series to sit down and burn through, for better or worse depending on your perspective.

Forgive the sidebar, but I have to talk about “Endless Eight” for a moment. Even if you understand and commit to a certain viewing order you’re happy with, this chunk of episodes is true to its name in endlessly providing a stumbling block to people trying to enjoy Haruhi all the way through. I suppose it’s the one case in which it’s fair to simply skip some episodes, even up to six or seven of them, although I would never do such a thing, which is why I’ve seen essentially the same episode 32 or 40 times. As painful as it is, I do have a certain respect for “Endless Eight” as an exhibition of the nuances of animation filmmaking, but that makes it a better candidate for a college course than part of a series you’re trying to get your friend to watch. The Haruhi series was simultaneously infamous and beloved for its peerlessly bold presentation choices, and much like the measured pacing of Disappearance and the apparent nothingness of “Someday in the Rain,” it can be argued that you can only begin to truly empathize with Yuki by having experienced at least as much of “Endless Eight” as the series gives you. People may not be happy with this particular decision, but as alienating as many of these bold choices have seemed, they seem to have worked out in the long run, especially for the first run.

But even if you want to pare “Endless Eight” down to its final installment or perhaps that and one other, Disappearance ensures that you can’t simply skip any of the stories from the series. Kyon explicitly references nearly every one of them, and while that may not seem like enough to justify the likes of “Endless Eight,” it could be argued that knowing what Yuki had to experience throughout that ordeal goes a long way toward understanding why the events of this story unfold. While the two “arcs” from the 2009 episodes are only vaguely mentioned, though, the first new episode from that batch is not only one of the best of the series but easily the most important to Disappearance beyond the original Melancholy arc. This movie truly is the culmination of everything that came before it, and another reason it’s better for being a film is a factor that only applies to a series as bizarre as Haruhi: no matter what order you choose to watch those 28 episodes in, you have to watch Disappearance last. Even if you didn’t love every arc in the series, this movie is likely to deliver a satisfying coda that will make it all retroactively worthwhile.

Kyon has always been the protagonist of this series, and Haruhi’s name belongs in the title only because she’s the centerpiece of this story from Kyon’s perspective. As the title of this film implies, though, Haruhi is absent for much of its run, and Kyon more singularly the star than ever before. We spend every moment of the film seated firmly in his mind, spending large periods of time with no other characters around, treated to more of his internal monologues than cumulative dialogue, and whisked out of reality to sit in on all the intricacies of his almost Evangelion-esque existential debates with himself. This is 100% the Kyon Show far more than ever before, and it’s a good thing he’s such a likable, relatable, and entertaining character to fill that role. Credit goes to both Tomokazu Sugita and Crispin Freeman for nailing the performance that would make or break this film, each tasked with the majority of lines in a nearly three-hour movie. With Haruhi on the sidelines, the only candidate for a heroine of this film is Yuki in one form or another, and it develops her into a complex character, probably the next best after Kyon.

Any expectations of a new season of Haruhi should’ve been dropped years ago, but now that ten years have passed since the last entry in the Haruhi canon, I can’t imagine anyone is still holding out hope. For a while I felt disappointed by this reality, but if it had to end early, I couldn’t imagine a more satisfying conclusion. It’s the culmination of everything that came before, it’s the best of the series by far, and it’s a perfect coda. Kyon is finally face to face with the cynicism he loves to wear and forced to drop any pretenses and honestly answer the big question looming behind all of his interactions with the rest of the cast: how does he really feel about this life, and what’s he going to do about it? That’s the core of Haruhi to me, and this film addresses it with uncompromising clarity. I know there are plenty of other novels after this point, but I’d rather leave on that high note than risk a drop in quality that could easily be more disappointing than the reality of not getting any more.

All Haruhi Suzumiya anime is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Funimation. This was licensed later than the rest, and Funimation decided to release an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” before being able to include it. This is unfortunate and strange for a number of reasons. As I’ve mentioned, it’s the best entry in the franchise and the culmination of the series. But more than that, as the “ultimate” collection, this release included every other piece of Haruhi animation, not only the ONA spinoffs but the Yuki-chan spinoff, the least relevant entry of all. It doesn’t take place in the same universe as the rest of the franchise, it features no involvement from KyoAni or any of the prior staff, and most hilariously, it’s specifically a spinoff of this very movie of all things, the one piece that wasn’t included! The box was designed to remove a piece with some information on watching orders to replace with their later release of Disappearance, but I opted to keep the “filler box” and instead remove the Yuki-chan spinoff, both because it belongs less than any of the rest and because I think it’s pretty bad in general.

I mention Ishihara a lot because he also helmed my other favorite KyoAni work of the time – of all time, even. But while he led both Haruhi TV series, he opted for a more supervisory “chief director” role in this production, moving aside for Yasuhiro Takemoto to take the reigns as the more hands-on traditional director, after having become increasingly involved in the franchise, working on only one episode of the original series but directing both ONA series and then being heavily involved in the new episodes of the series proper. This was the dream team of KyoAni for a long time, and Takemoto’s strengths complement the tone that Ishihara had established so beautifully that the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without the former taking such a central role. Ishihara has been my favorite anime director after Miyazaki for over eight years, but Takemoto’s intuition for atmosphere and attention to detail are on full display here, and it has stood out as the crown jewel of Takemoto’s solid oeuvre as I’ve explored his varied works. Music is one of the most important aspects of any form of art with sound, and Satoru Kōsaki is one of my favorite composers primarily for his work on this and various Monogatari installments. But as fantastic as that is, no music is more iconic to this film than the Erik Satie pieces that are unquestionably present due to Takemoto’s love and expertise of classical music, which has made itself apparent in several of his works.

While “chief animation director” is a standard position in anime productions, Disappearance mirrors its director paradigm by introducing an even higher level of “Ultra Chief Animation Director,” in obvious reference to Haruhi’s own self-proclaimed filmmaking superlative. The parallels between directors and animation directors are remarkably consistent, with the “higher ranked” of the two, Shōko Ikeda, having served as chief animation director (and character designer, as the two often go together) on the Haruhi series from the beginning, and the new addition, Futoshi Nishiya, having led the charge for the ONAs before contributing significantly to the 2009 episodes. It’s appropriate that Ishihara would continue to have Ikeda serve those roles for his later series Sound! Euphonium and Takemoto would do the same with Nishiya in Hyouka. It’s not surprising that a production of this scale demanded two masters to oversee its animation. Not only is it incredibly long, it’s thoroughly animated throughout its entire run. It’s a KyoAni trademark to have even the most ostensibly inconsequential moments sumptuously animated, but this epitomized that concept at the time. The subtle character animations that permeate the entire film are as essential to its magnetic immersion as anything else. In this gold standard of animation, the highlights may be the multiple sequences of intricate fluidity rendered in shockingly successful slow motion. There is some minor CG enhancement within the movie, of course, but it’s amazing how much was clearly done simply by the hands of talented artists.

Color design doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but so much about what makes the aesthetic of a beautiful work of animation appealing is exactly that. KyoAni veteran Naomi Ishida served as the color designer, as she had for many of the studio’s productions before and after, including every piece of the Haruhi franchise. Even though the color palette had been well established for the series, much like Ikeda’s original character designs, Disappearance provided ample opportunity to explore ranges rarely used. Scenes depicting the bitter cold of the winter that it seems no life can exist in use much more muted colors and even some grays, as do scenes of Kyon experiencing a world devoid of the joy that characterized so much of the series. Stark contrasts are presented in Kyon’s internal world, and a similarly impactful juxtaposition arises when the dull is met with a vibrancy we’re more familiar with, allowing the latter to pop even more.

Devastatingly, Takemoto, Ikeda, Nishiya, and Ishida made up one-ninth of the unprecedented loss of life from the unimaginably tragic arson attack last summer. Re-watching this incredible work of art that they all poured so much into is now a bittersweet experience. It’s still painful to be reminded of what happened and that so many of these artists are now gone, but it’s important to celebrate the passion, creativity, and joy they dedicated themselves to delivering throughout each of their wonderful careers. This is a sensation I’ve felt with each KyoAni work I’ve re-watched since the incident, but this may be the foremost example of key positions being filled by people who are no longer with us, so for that, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya will always represent my primary memento of those we’ve lost.

The Haruhi Suzumiya juggernaut may not be a fraction of what it was 12 or 13 years ago, and it never really was all that to me, but even as enthusiasm for the former sensation has dramatically declined, Disappearance holds up as one of my top five anime movies of all time after ten years. Whether as the pinnacle of a franchise, a hallmark of a celebrated studio, or a reminder of the irreplaceable artists we’ve lost, this film stands the test of time.


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