When The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya begins on the 16th of December, it appears to be just another episode: Kyon bemoans Haruhi’s now-permanent intrusion into his life, Haruhi voraciously feeds her Id, and the rest of the SOS Brigade try to keep up or risk annihilation of their egos. Their world remains one of vibrant, cartoonish colours and cheerful lighting, and with our ears, we barely notice the tuneless synth music that fills the gaps between lines of dialogue. But as soon as Kyon wakes up on the 18th December, the fateful day Haruhi disappears, the animation floods with heavy shadows and thick, muted lighting while haunting orchestral music floats on the edges of our attention like a barely-remembered nightmare. And then the special effects come in – the eerie wobble of a hallway, the unsettling zoom-in of a camera, the slow-motion stalk of an old enemy. In an instant, the ditzy, schizophrenic TV show transforms into an evocative cinematic experience with consistently stunning direction.
This is the success of the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise: it presents a surprisingly easy blend of plucky high school harem and sober metaphysical science fiction. I remember the grandiose final episodes of the first season and how naturally they seemed to flow from the preceding instalments of random adventures. Considering this is the same Kyoto Animation team behind Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid and Kanon 2006, their triumphant marriage of the unlikeliest tropes wrapped in superb animation here should be no surprise.
There are intriguing revolutions to Kyon’s quest for the missing Haruhi, accompanied by smatterings of metaphysical screwiness, but at the core, this movie is an excuse to talk about him. Haruhi, the dominant personality of the series, has a minimal role here and the emphasis on Kyon, I argue, is probably the only way this 163-minute marathon could have been any good. I struggle to take the egotistical Haruhi seriously as a human being, preferring to think of her more as a force like the weather, a dancing mascot, all chaos and funny gimmicks. No, I am not jumping on the ‘hate Haruhi’ bandwagon since I think she constitutes one of the most enjoyable plot devices in anime and plays perfectly off Kyon. But neither can I ignore the feeling that a Haruhi-focused movie of this length would have felt precisely as long as the 163 minutes imply. Instead, we can expect the endearingly neurotic Kyon to drive the story while his narration provides the satirical tang to complement the sombre narrative.
Arguably, this thematic focus organically picks up where the final episodes of the first season left off, namely confronting Kyon with some important questions. What does Haruhi mean to him? What impact has she had in his life? What does he want to be to her? Here we get to see him not so much struggle for words to answer but show it in his reaction to her disappearance. The mystery of Kyon is that he possesses a seemingly unending capacity to take the world as it is. If he reacts to his misadventures, he does so privately, choosing to express shock or irritation through diversionary quips rather than on his face. Here, for the first time, we get to see Kyon under duress and reveal it, and the effect is so moving precisely because it is he undergoing the trial.
I note that the performances are a smidgen more skilfully executed in the Japanese dub. Not that the US equivalents are bad – in fact, they’re excellent – but the finer details inevitably relegate them to a close second place. Take the difference between Tomokazu Sugita’s and Crispin Freeman’s performances as Kyon. The key to Kyon is that he must sound as though too intelligent for this whimsical high school drama and yet too lazy to escape it. His is a performance of accumulated weariness, barely-repressed annoyance, and cunning amusement. Freeman captures most of the serious traits but his deadpan delivery needs fine-tuning, especially when executing an instantaneous switch from one tone to the other. Granted, Sugita defined the character in the first place so there is little surprise in his ‘perfect’ performance, but Freeman once again does not compare. In most other respects that matter, the US dub rivals the Japanese: they nail the characters in the first instance (I like Wendee Lee as Haruhi so very, very much), and their comic timing and general matching of grunts and sighs to the movements on screen resonate wonderfully. This is a veteran American cast that has learned to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of a Japanese screenplay rather than trying fruitlessly to overcome them. The result is one of those rare releases where both dubs deliver equal amounts of pleasure.
The movie is too long. It could have lost half an hour with minimal shortcuts. Nevertheless, the fact that this remains a minor flaw is a testament to its quality. For the mammoth running time hampers not so much enjoyment as simply the capacity to watch it over and over again. In the end, it still made me believe that an overbearing harpy like Haruhi is worth fighting for.