Written by Fernando Ramos
[Review] The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
When creating a theatrical version of a beloved TV franchise, there are two routes to take. The first is to just stick the exact same thing with some prettied-up animation and plaster it on the big screen. Just look at any Shonen Jump franchise. The other is to remember that a film allows for many possibilities and create something a little more innovative. Two relevant examples of this are Tenchi Muyo in Love and the amazing Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer. Those were movies that were unmistakably connected to their series yet used the theatrical format in a way to create something that can be an experience that stands well enough on its own while giving fans a chance to see their favorite characters in Tyranovision.
In case that lead-in wasn’t making things obvious enough, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, belongs squarely in the latter category.
I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Haruhi. To be honest, most of my interest in the series dropped after realizing that the series wasn’t going to follow the style of the brilliant opening episode, which introduced the premise and characters via a cheaply made home movie. That episode was memorable not just because it brought back memories of messing around with a Hi8 camcorder on the campus but because it subtly yet definitively played with the very nature of reality.
For the newcomer unfamiliar with the ever-increasing library of novels, we were left uncertain in how much of this nonsense was Haruhi’s demented imagination and how much was a reflection of the behind-the-scenes reality. There was a lot of dumb comedy on the surface; but it bubbled with smart ideas delivered in a way that respected the audience’s intelligence. The rest of the show wasn’t bad by any means, it just never became as clever as the initial amateur filmmaker concept.
Some years after capturing the hearts and wallets of fans, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya has armies of corporate sponsors and a whopping 168-minute running time. It’s amazing to see the show going back to that core question: isn’t this all just crazy-talk?
Our story opens on December 17th. Haruhi’s S.O.S. Brigade is preparing for their Christmas party. Kyon, as always, is above all of the spontaneous nonsense that the perpetually perky Haruhi is going on about. As she talks about plans for a big Christmas barbecue party and molests the hapless Mikuru into a sexy Santa outfit, Kyon looks on in his perpetual chagrin. It looks like another day ready to start up.
Then the next day, she’s gone. Not to be seen. Poof. Adios.
Nobody at school recognizes Haruhi’s name. In her place is Asakura, who was (for lack of a better term) killed in the series proper. Even Kyon’s beloved Mikuru doesn’t recognize him. Kyon starts to question his very sanity as he discovers his only clue: a single bookmark left by Yuki telling him to find “the keys” to run a program to return things to normal. But what is normal? Has Kyon been living in a dream world after all? What is a memory? Isn’t it better to just be done with this craziness?
It is some heady stuff to be sure, more Sartre than satire. The TV series was never at a loss for big ideas, but it always had a smile as it casually tossed around acronyms and super-sciencey words. Here, the overly-verbose jargon is turned to a minimum. Kyon’s faux-intellectual ramblings become tainted with genuine pain as he faces the possibility of loss in several forms.
What deserves quite a bit of commendation on the part of Kyoto Animation’s team is that the big budget isn’t devoted to big explosions or fancy special effects. On the contrary, the budget is reserved for quiet character beats. The contrast in a character tossing his shoes carelessly to the floor as opposed to in the TV series, the events that transpired were larger than life and convoluted as possible. Baseball games determined the fate of our existence; show-stopping rock concerts were performed in bunny costumes; reality kept looping itself for eight weeks that kept twitter and the blogosphere on fire.
The movie does away with almost all of that. De-saturated with a blue haze filter covering nearly everything, the bright colors of the original are mostly gone. The bouncy soundtrack of the TV show is largely scrapped, taken over by string-led symphonic pieces. The emotions here are more nuanced and not in the brain-dead monotone that anime sometimes tries to pass as nuanced. Like Beautiful Dreamer’s Ataru before him, Kyon is forced to admit that the annoying girl who has made his life a living hell for so long is also the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
And it looks damn good while doing it. The cinematography in this film is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a movie, period. Each frame is a work of art and expertly shot, creating an emotional impact. The recurring use of reflections; the constant isolation of characters into their frames to reflect (no pun intended) the fractured nature of the story; the frequent use of wide shots to show Kyon’s vulnerability; in a world when too many movie adaptations look like TV episodes with a few extra frames and colors. this looks and feels like a movie. It stacks up against anything coming out of the American Society of Cinematographers.
The only problem is that it’s much too long. Supposedly, in an effort to be a faithful adaptation, the movie takes nearly three hours long to resolve itself. In some ways, it allows the movie to be as contemplative as it is, but after the first act it just drags way too long to get to where we all know its going to go. Ditto for the three consecutive climaxes that sum up everything that at times I wondered how a two-hour version would fare. It’s a relatively minor gripe, given that at least the images look gorgeous.
So, is it as good as Beautiful Dreamer? No, but it’s close and sure as hell tries. The film is an artistic triumph for all involved and it is fairly accessible even to those who would otherwise not even touch anything remotely associated with Hare Hare Yukai (mercifully absent here). Highly recommended to both fan and newcomer alike.
Just don’t raise your expectations and the rest of the franchise after watching.
Overall Grade: A
Review by: Fernando Ramos
Director: Tatsuya Ishihara
Animation Production: Kyoto Animation
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