(The following article will contain spoilers for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. We’re just saving you some time.)
Now haters gonna hate, ladies and gentlemen, but the fact remains that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has been one of the most popular and influential Japan-cartoons of the decade. One of many results is that the show is an effective representation of everything terrible about the medium. Colony Drop Inc. has been remiss in failing to address the many ways in which this role model for the anime industry is proudly insipid, unbearably self-satisfied trash, and we are sorry. We will now resume our duty as haters.
Not even can we argue that Haruhi is poorly made: the production values are consistently outstanding and Kyoto Animation certainly knows how to do the best possible job adapting their source material. It’s just that the material, in this case a light novel series we never intend to read, is such insufferable tripe.
At first glance a simple harem anime, Haruhi promises something more. Unfortunately that something more is a sci-fi metastory that takes a convoluted path all to reaffirm the fact that the story is in fact a simple harem anime. Many fans will deny this fact to the death, citing bit and pieces of said metastory, but that’s all a layer above. It doesn’t have to be thought about, and in the end it turns out not to be that important. What’s up front—what the story is about, what pays the bills—is an ingeniously manufactured harem anime, built specifically to sell as much merchandise as humanly possible.
(We at Colony Drop are also not so reality-impaired as to deny that in this respect Haruhi is an overwhelming success.)
Let’s cut away the frills and the fluff and take a look at what’s actually in front of us in the SOS Brigade club room: a set of rigid, well-worn archetypes built to appeal to as many geeks as possible. The anime harem is a proven, efficient machine that pulls twee love out of the codified-fetish sections of any otaku’s heart. As otaku, however, are only capable of creepy, one-sided financial obsessions, the harem settles for what’s in their wallets.
The core of any decent anime harem is a self-insertion character: you want the audience to identify with one character so strongly that they place themselves in his head, in turn vicariously experiencing all the “onii-chan”s and “I’m not doing this because I like you”s flung his way. Haruhi has two of these characters for your enjoyment, in case you didn’t feel identified-with enough.
Kyon, a young man without a proper name, serves as our narrator and the target of the harem’s affections. Kyon represents a “new”-style harem lead: the ironic harem king. This guy’s not outright repugnant, as the usual Keitaro Urashima “I sure hate being around all these women who want my dick!” blank slate is, but that doesn’t mean he reaches anything approaching tolerable. Sarcastic and exasperated at all times, Kyon effectively distances himself from the typical harem anime goings-on by reminding the viewer repeatedly of how ridiculous his situation is (a la Zack in Saved by the Bell, another notable high school comedy drama). The problem with this approach is that simply pointing out your own tired genre tropes doesn’t exempt you from leaning so hard on them. Case in point, even the transcendentally awful Crystal Triangle has a scene where the hero says “this is really turning into a cliche.” We still weren’t laughing with him.
The other audience-identification character is harem star and moé idol Haruhi herself. Let’s not mince words here: this character is unbearable. She is also literally deified, both by the show and in turn by the fanbase. How does this happen? Simple: she’s an otaku. She can’t communicate with people: if she existed, you wouldn’t be able to make it through five minutes’ conversation with her. She’s an ADD case whose every whim must be entertained right now. She can only express herself to the guy she likes, and only then on the level of a petulant toddler (unfortunately, no abbreviation for “petulant toddler” rings quite the same way “tsundere” does). Otherwise the apparent height of physical and mental perfection, Haruhi’s only worry is the creeping fear that she is in not fact special enough.
And it gets worse from there! I will give you the Cliff’s Notes version of Haruhi’s back story and just tell you that she turns out to be a godlike entity who unconsciously wills everything that she wants into happening, including the appearance of all of her friends. Furthermore, if Haruhi is ever unhappy or confused or in any way psychologically shook up, she might inadvertently destroy the universe. So she’s not just a spoiled brat, she’s a spoiled brat with a divine mandate to get everything she wants all the time. You might ask “what’s to empathize with there?”, and I will point towards the nearest geek convention and tell you that a lot of whiny, self-obsessed teenagers watch Japanese cartoons these days.
(There is a fan theory that Kyon is, in fact, the godlike entity who unwittingly willed Haruhi into being. To this, I argue that as they’re both audience substitutes, either possibility is pandering wish fulfillment, so it doesn’t really matter.)
The final irony of the plot is that these revelations change nothing. The original TV broadcast that I watched was aired out of chronological order, leaving the big reveals for the very end, stringing the audience along in hopes that the final secret might have been an interesting one. Ultimately, all it means is that the main heroine is still reverently treated by the viewer and must be kept happy by the protagonist at all costs, just like every other moé heroine ever. It was just never literally stated before that the world would end if she was sad.
The rest of the harem consists of a set of simple fetish objects that hit the bases for a variety of fan demographics: a pretty boy, for the tiniest dash of sexual tension that is all that is necessary to set the heart of the yaoi fangirl ablaze, a chesty airheaded abuse target and Rei Ayanami.
There’s little to say about the other two, so let’s just go for the victim. There are a lot of terrible things about this show, but she’s a strong competitor for the top spot. Mikuru Asahina’s distinguishing features include huge boobs, doe eyes, and the worn-down abuse victim’s perpetual “please don’t hurt me anymore” frightened stare, with an accompanying mousy stammer between embarrassed squeals. The character’s entire purpose in the show is to be sexually abused by Haruhi: this ranges from being subject to fondling at all times to being forced to wear various otaku fetish outfits to, in a particularly classy scene, being used as a prop in a gang-rape blackmail threat. Nobody really seems to mind, least of all Mikuru herself. I’m hardly averse to T&A in my Japtoons, but this is just fucking creepy.
This, combined with Kyon’s above-it-all narration, is one of the things I find particularly intolerable about Haruhi: its smugness, its insistence that it is somehow clever for simply being conscious that it is trotting out the same old shit. Frankly, I have more respect for a softcore skin-fest like Queen’s Blade–a simple piece of borderline pornography that knows what its audience wants and delivers with neither shame nor hesitation–than Haruhi with its smirking and eye rolling as the heroine hilariously molests the one with the big tits for the eighth time this episode and the audience pretends they’re