The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

Perhaps it's fitting this review of a movie taking place around Christmas time completely missed the season. It is very hard for me to get in "Christmas mode" as far as entertainment is concerned. Maybe it's because I was in a play version of It's a Wonderful Life, spent three months on nothing but it, and got sick of everything related to the venture including Christmas movies, bells, and James Stewart impersonations.  Maybe it's because I equate the season more with trying to stuff as many Oscar bait/Christmas Day releases as I possibly can in-between family gatherings. My viewing habits around Christmas involve watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Les Mis√©rables rather than National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

In any case, how does a movie become a Christmas classic for a person like me? The cardinal rule: BE A GOOD MOVIE FIRST, STUPID! If I have to forgive acting, story, writing, etc. because it has the right spirit, no, I'm not going to do that. Along similar lines-and this can have many exceptions-is the idea that it can be a movie I can break out more than once a year. Would it still be a good movie if I weren't specifically in the mood for Christmas? So most of my selections are more Christmas "flavored" with set pieces that suggest the time of year or maybe have a scene or two that involves the season. This brings me around to my latest Christmas classic, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.

It is pretty much the perfect Christmas movie for people like me. Well, maybe not perfect (We'll get to that), but as far as a movie built around Christmas I can watch any time I'd like and still get the full warmth, humor, and love it exudes, it is pretty ideal. It is also kind of a Christmas miracle in of itself in that the Haruhi franchise was losing its luster rather quickly around the time it came out. Some audiences were still simmering about the second season of the TV series with the infamous "Endless Eight" experiment in which eight different episodes covered nearly the exact same story, and the voice of Haruhi Suzumiya, Aya Hirano, was being railroaded out of superstardom because she had the nerve to publicly admit to having sex with someone (Which is a big no-no in Japanese otaku culture when you're an idol). I waited until the U.S. release for the movie and during that time, I heard so many quibbles about how it's painfully long and faithful to its source material to a fault, and I was ready to completely drift away from the franchise. Thankfully, Aya Hirano is still gainfully employed in the industry, and if you can stand a little indulgence, the film is a fantastically enjoyable expansion of the characters and a simple-but-profound statement about what it means to grow up.

A quick disclaimer: The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is a continuation of an ongoing story, so knowledge of what came before is almost essential. There's enough information to follow the movie's story, but it contains so many references to events outside of the movie's scope that it can be easy to get lost. For a basic refresher, Kyon is an average high school student who gets drawn into a strange existence when choosing to interacting with Haruhi Suzumiya, an eccentric, brash, and willful high school girl who turns out to unknowingly be a god with the power to re-write existence to her will.Unaware of her powers, the members of her club, the S.O.S. Brigade, are actually representatives of different organizations trying to keep her accidentally rewriting the world. Clumsy, buxom Mikuru is reality a time traveler, monotone Yuki is an alien artificial intelligence, and Itsuki is an esper with special telepathic power. All of them follow Haruhi Suzumiya's antics in order to keep her in check, but it may be Kyon, the sarcastic, absolutely average high school student who has the best shot at consistently saving the the world.

At the start of Disappearance, everything is perfectly normal. Haruhi is as stable as she's ever been and the only burden is the S.O.S. Brigade being rushed into a holiday party that has suddenly devoured their Christmas Eve plans (Which is only a bother for Kyon). On one seemingly not-so-special morning in December, he wakes up to find the entire world has changed. The members of the S.O.S. Brigade are living entirely different lives. A person who should've been erased out of existence is the student representative of his class. Most importantly, Haruhi Suzumiya is completely gone, and it seems nobody even knows who she is.

Kyon's realizations leave him a bit unhinged to say the least. He has a series of freakouts in front of just about everyone in school and especially those who used to be members of the S.O.S. Brigade. Strangely enough, his responses to Mikuru and Yuki result in near sexual assault which suggests things about his nature under severe pressure that I hope are not true. Thankfully, Kyon calms down a bit and he finally decides to investigate the new world on its own terms in an attempt to discover a way back. The movie becomes equal parts Back to the Future Part 2 and It's a Wonderful Life as circumstances of his rude transferral slowly unravel and he has to make his choice on where he truly wants to be.

The little synopsis may be misleading in how much screen time passes before the story really gets rolling. Approximately 50 minutes of the movie's 163-minute runtime has passed at this point. One Internet Movie Database trivia tidbit suggests it's the longest animated movie ever made, though some prints of 1983's Final Yamato outrun it by 13 minutes, so that's not exactly true. The question arises: Does something like The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya really need to have a feature with a length that approaches Gone With the Wind? The answer depends on how much you care about  what production company Kyoto Animation brings to the table.

Throughout the series, there was a feeling of great love and care in the animation. From episode 00, where the pitfalls of amateur filmmaking are amazingly replicated (Coming from someone who was a crappy amateur filmmaker in college), to the smooth motion in the "Hare Hare Yukai" dance, the effort KyoAni put into everything was above and beyond most television series, and their love of the subject matter radiated a bit. It's not just the quality, but also the little character moments, like Yuki's absolutely perfect home run trot that many studios would neglect and plenty of viewers wouldn't even notice. I've read two-and-a-half of the light novels that act as the source material, and even though they have the same stories told with the same sarcastic first-person narrative by Kyon and the same subtle tics, the animations have a certain extra magic where the novels are fairly effective and efficient but don't set the world on fire.

If those touches don't charm you, then it's kind of a typical anime series with some harem tropes that just happens to be better written at times than most. With that in mind, if the little flourishes involved with perfectly establishing a time, place, and mood don't particularly suit the need for immediate gratification, then the movie's start is pretty slow. KyoAni incredibly step up their game to make Disappearance properly cinematic, but the details may not be noticeable at first. The efforts in the first half of the movie mostly encapsulate creating a gray, frozen high school environment with safe spots in the cocoon of bed or the warmth of a holiday gathering. It's more equatable to a film directed by Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second, Voices of a Distant Star) for awhile in its deliberate pacing and getting the mood of the individual scenes absolutely right. The landscape eventually turns from drab to oppressive when the world is turned on Kyon's head with much of the school wearing unsettling illness masks, and all of Kyon's places of comfort seem to be gone. If I were to cut a few minutes, it would be during Kyon's freakouts after the transition to the changed world, as his crazed amazement does get tedious, and with the previously noted encounters with Mikuru and Yuki, kind of creepy.

The movie is obviously a slow build, starting with the absolutely ordinary, flipping it into menacing, and then transitioning into the extraordinary. There is a definite wall when discussing the film because the twists, surprises, and reveals are worth experiencing fresh. What I can say is when the movie starts rolling, it really gets moving. It becomes more colorful and inventive, laying on visual metaphor, playing with lighting and reflection, and generally having more charge and verve. There is a scene where two characters are walking by passing traffic late at night that is absolutely beautiful even if it's far from the most noteworthy scene. The music plays a similar role, beginning as typical backing for the show with the exact same opening theme, wacky antics cues, and only the occasional hum of an orchestra. By the end, the score is pulsing with goosebumps-inducing phrases and absolute warmth (Though between this and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, KyoAni really likes themselves some "Gymnopedie" by Erik Satie). The most outstanding feature of the film is what it eventually reveals about the characters.

While the events before this certainly haven't been without powerful character moments or the human element (Haruhi's monologue of how she realized she was not special is as touching as it is ironic), the main cast still fell within the bounds of archetypical anime prototypes. Disappearance gives many of them soul and dimension. For some, just seeing them separate from their normal duties is enough to get a peek at their conflicted hearts. Most eye-opening is Yuki, who normally acts as an archivist of plot devices and deadpan comedic moments. In the alternate dimension, she is a delicate flower of an introvert that seems to be what Yuki secretly desires to be if she didn't have the restrictions of an logically-driven AI put upon her. Even being essentially a computer and a character who gets lost in the shuffle many times, the entire emotional weight of the movie hinges on being able to sympathize with her, and it absolutely nails it. So much so, they made a manga spinoff based on Yuki in this timeline. It's unfortunately a bait-and-switch and what we're actually given is a far inferior product, but that's a whole other mess that shall be reviewed at a later date.

The plot is the usual array of fun twists and turns that come with dimensional/time traveling stories. It's not exactly paving any new roads (It utilizes the Back to the Future Part 2 "break out a chart for the sake or orienting the audience"maneuver not once, but twice), and its ultimate point is the lesson of most high school anime-supernatural or not-that growing up is difficult and complicated, but this one comes with an especially resonant message. Children merely react to what's happening to them, and the path to growing up not only dealing with what's being thrown at you, but taking responsibility for it. What exactly Kyon will take responsibility for I will leave a mystery, but even if you consider him a self-insertion character, that only makes its message more valuable.

The journey of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya may be a smidge too long and could do with one less plot twist, but it can hardly be faulted for making sure it earns every tear, smile, and laugh of which its conclusion features all of the above in massive quantities. And it does so without needing to bring up the true meaning of Christmas. The movie is bookended by a Christmas party that offers a lovely reflection of the changing S.O.S. Brigade, but should you find the itch for this movie during a heatwave in August, its impact will be just as potent. So, regardless of whether it's Christmas, the Fourth of July, or Columbus Day, with the film, the event will likely be merry.

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