Those moving drawings.

*Very nice interview up with Sammy Harkham, editor of Kramers Ergot, at the Comics Reporter. My copy of Kramers 6 is on its way, and I'm pretty excited, and this little chat will give you some good insights into its editor's mind.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

I finally got around to finishing up this hugely popular, still-unlicensed anime, which I now like to refer to as Tenchi Muyo! for the 21st century. Nice ring, eh?

Anyone remember Tenchi? Back in the early ‘90s, when I first started watching anime as ‘anime’ rather than ‘the odd looking cartoons they had on Nick Jr.,’ Tenchi was one of the shows everyone had to watch. It was hyped up really good, kind of an exemplar of the then-current anime style, with a detailed backstory and a jumbled production history and lots of genre self-awareness and everything - of course, fundamentally it belonged to the ‘magical girlfriend’ romantic comedy genre, with a lovely lady from beyond reality or the stars or something arriving to plunge a male character into zany innuendo-laden hi-jinx with a bevy of additional pretty girls who come to live with him, and it really never strayed very far from the formula (indeed, some say Tenchi’s popularity helped mightily toward installing the genre, plus its non-fantastical mutation, the ‘harem’ anime, as a perennial among US licensed anime and manga).

Truth be told, it was never a great show, and rarely came within spitting distance of living up to the regard so many of its fans held it in, and today a ceaseless spew of (so I’ve been told) increasingly dire spin-offs and revamps has devalued the brand to a shadow of its former authority, but back in the day Tenchi was the shit. If you hadn’t seen it (on one $29.99 VHS tape per half-hour episode!), you weren’t really into anime, man!!

Looking at The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, it’s kind of hard not to see history repeating itself. Let me get one thing out right away - this show is a good deal better than Tenchi Muyo! ever was. It’s fairly clever, well constructed, arty enough to get people chattering but not so much that anyone is even really in danger of getting too flummoxed, there’s an evident grasp of narrative sophistication at work, and the music and animation quality is pretty high for a contemporary television series, even one that’s only 14 episodes long. As far as high school comedy/sci-fi/light romance pretty-girls-from-beyond-bothering-an-average-slob goes, it’s an above-average example of its type.

But I do think the intense attention paid it by fans is perhaps overvaluing its achievements; I would absolutely not call this a masterpiece or classic of anything, nor would I deem it a deconstruction of the genre, and if it’s supposed to be satire, it’s lukewarm, wishy-washy, kid’s gloves stuff all the way. Yeah, I expect the creative team is attentive to the implications of having, say, a typical moé-bait girl (basically a cute, helpless, utterly non-threatening naïf with whom the male viewer is invited to develop a paternalistic interest in) on the show, and there’s hints sprinkled around that the popularity of such characters is sort of creepy and sexist and depressing, but in the end… well, cute lil’ Mikuru sure is darling, isn’t she? And wasn’t it nice to have that silent girl character from Neon Genesis Evangelion in the show, under the name of Yuki, and wink at the viewer and have other characters refer to her as “the indispensable silent character,” and then… er… just use her as these characters are generally used? At its best, this sort of treatment of anime tropes is little more that cutesy poking, little more interesting than what was done with horror clichés in Scream a decade ago, and at its worst it’s akin to an American comics reader feeling bold enough to post to message boards about how much superhero comics suck while never wanting to go so far as to stop purchasing Uncanny X-Men.

And I think pressing The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya into boxes which it’s not ready to fit only distracts attention from its appeal as a bright, breezy stroll down familiar but well-maintained roads. It doesn’t succeed as well as some might want it to on other levels. It can be addicting - nearly all of the program’s episodes are intentionally presented out of chronological order, certain scenes given one emphasis on a first viewing, then taking on a new light upon a more educated review. Really, the show is built for segmented views, each episode followed by frantic posting to discussion groups frequented by like-minded fans to hash out what every new clue might possibly mean - needless to say, multiple viewings and purchases of the dvds will be necessary to unlock every secret. It's good work in that way: just from my single viewing, I picked up on repeated lines that only totally make sense once you've watched everything, characters seemingly vanishing for no reason only to have their absence explained via a gap-filling prior/future episode, even major character moments hidden away in the post-credits 'next episode preview' section. It's impressive, the construction of it all, and I can see why so many fans have gotten so crazy over it.

I guess I should say something about the plot? That's actually pretty hard to do without wrecking some of the series' effect, but I'll say it's about a high school boy called Kyon, who becomes involved with the eccentric, bossy, spunky girl of the title, whose melancholy springs from her boredom with the world, the product of some existential strife. Haruhi wants to discover aliens, psychics, and time-travelers, anything to convince her that life isn't a slog of mostly interchangeable people through a pasteurized world. Naturally, odd things quickly start happening, and it turns out that a whole lot of strange forces have their eye on Haruhi for a number of different reasons, and soon assorted anime archetypes start showing up to join Haruhi's SOS Brigade at school, though their true import is ironically never grasped by Haruhi, who by the end of the series emerges as an almost tragic character despite being one of the most wonderous girls in her world. Metafiction ultimately piles atop metafiction, questions of free will vis a vis fictional characters springing up, with even the opening credits harboring secrets, but it never amounts to all that much beyond a fresh way of looking at some old story types and some philosophical brooding on the part of the male lead.

Which isn't a failure or anything.

I get the feeling that this show might have been hassled by circumstances surrounding its creation - it's an adaptation of only the first in a series of prose novels, currently up to book 8, which seems to have cut off any chance for closure. Looking back on it as a whole, the anime often feels like a very long introduction to its own second season (which I don't think has actually been announced yet), which sort of retards the possibility of the project's ongoing themes quite reaching their concluded state. More than anything, it's like the creative team is holding back, unwilling to really push the project beyond tricky/pleasing fandom fun, maybe to shore up their chances of actually getting a second spin (which, mind you, would essentially bring the show up to just above a 'full' season's worth of episodes). It's a hard economic world out there for anime, and even the modest experimentation of Haruhi might not be an easy sell at first.

So I guess I'm leaving open the possibility that the show might one day transform into swaggering anime masterwork it's getting hyped as. Tenchi didn't get much better from extension to extension, but the crew here has got be convinced that they're a little more careful. And for what it is now, it's a fun show, cunning, and willing to at least play with notions of industry critique and postmodern ideas in a realm where innovation often seems to be secondary. The backlash will no doubt be on its way, but it's hard not to feel some affection for the whole precocious thing.