It’s 2006 all over again: Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu

Movies based upon popular television series are kind of a gamble. You tend to get one of three things: a clip show, a directionless side story, or a fairly entertaining and meaningful addition to the franchise. However, sometimes a rare fourth outcome appears: A work that defines the franchise. If I had to think of examples, I would cite the End of Evangelion and the original Gundam trilogy. Time will tell whether or not Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu will live up to those two momentous works, but for now, it’s a pretty damn good movie!

The film opens up with typical slice-of-life antics for the Haruhi world–it’s the holidays, and Haruhi (of course) wants to have some sort of celebration. Between Haruhi yelling about partying it up for the holidays, Yuki remains quiet, Itsuki smiles, Mikuru is sexually harassed, and Kyon sighs. After another day of setting up for the Christmas party, along with the usual interactions with his sister, Taniguchi and Kunikida, Kyon goes to bed.

However, upon waking up the next morning, things aren’t as they seem. Taniguchi–once full of energy the day before, yelling about a Christmas date with some girl–is now sick and has no holiday plans. Kyon figures Taniguchi is deep in denial after being rejected, but the strangeness doesn’t end there. As it turns out, Kyon and his classmates simply aren’t on the same page. But the cracker–the one that slays him–is that no one seems to remember Suzumiya Haruhi! And to make matters worse, Kyon finds a very unexpected person sitting at Haruhi’s desk.

Up is down, left is right, and black is white. Kyon runs around raving like a lunatic in a world where his beloved Mikuru doesn’t even know who he is, and Yuki is bizarrely timid. To make matters worse, along with Haruhi being gone, Itsuki is nowhere in sight. Strange things are going on in Haruhi town, and Kyon has to get to the bottom of it… if he doesn’t lose his mind first.

One of the things I liked the most about the original Haruhi TV series was how it brilliantly blended the unusual with the mundane. Haruhi is a science fiction show, but fantastical SF elements only manifest in an overt way a few times over the course of the series. Aside from strolls through alternate dimensions with gigantic otherworldly beings, or dances with psychotic alien androids, the show presents an otherwise normal world, with strange things happening only in the corner of the screen.

It’s this balance that makes Haruhi compelling to me, and it’s this balance that’s played with wonderfully in this film. A lot of the film is portrayed in a very straight faced, realistic manner. Bits of SF weirdness are either portrayed as very matter-of-fact things, or only the results of otherworldly phenomenon are shown. We’re only treated to actual otherworldly phenomenon on screen a few times throughout the film, and only for brief moments, making them seem even more impressive.

This isn’t a fast paced film either. It’s not incredibly slow, but KyoAni gives the story enough time to breathe, and nothing feels particularly rushed or unfinished. The plot is laid out very logically, and nothing feels as if it was given insufficient thought. The film is all about throwing the viewer for a loop, but it explains everything in a satisfying manner by the end.

A lot of time in the beginning is spent on Kyon coming to terms with his situation. Him running around and assessing his situation is slow moving, but frighteningly realistic. The film generally has an acute sense of realism, and goes the extra mile to put the viewer in the characters’ shoes. The characters all take their situation very seriously, and it’s hard not to be pulled in. Similarly, the are a good number of scenes with poignant character interaction that help Kyon–and the viewer–get to know these slight-to-drastic variations on people he knows. These moments also breathe life into an otherwise strange and cold world.

But the movie isn’t completely slow moving and straight faced–Kyon’s awkward moments with Yuki and his meanderings around town are punctuated by compelling moments of inspiration. Each time there’s a new turn in the plot–like, say, when Haruhi finally makes her entrance–characters run from point A to point B with a purpose, and get things done. A number of twists in the film are accompanied by engaging directorial ques, like characters moving in slow motion, as well as shifts in color, lighting, and camera movement.

One scene which particularly stands out comes near the climax. Kyon is given an extended bit of contemplation to confront his true feelings towards his own idiosyncratic world and this seemingly normal one he’s been flung into. His internal monologue is matched to all manner of interesting imagery–there are abrupt shifts in locale used to frame the thoughts going through Kyon’s head, as well onscreen text used to emphasize the issue at hand. One pivotal bit of imagery depicts Kyon on one side of a line of endless train gates–a magnificently surreal and effective visual metaphor employed to illustrate Kyon’s final decision.

Animation wise, a lot of the scenes are in keeping with the quality of Haruhi’s top-tier episodes, with movie production values resulting in a number of nuanced cuts of animation. Characters move smoothly, and their “acting” is filled with drama, life and intention. There are a number of very well executed physical exclamations throughout the movie, which go a long way towards injecting visual drama into a number of scenes. These exclamations are pretty over-the-top, but considering the circumstances, they do well to portray the gravity of the situation at hand.

The film also utilizes 3D effect shots here and there. While I appreciate the effort put into some of these effects, they are in the uncanny valley somewhat. 3D work is primarily used for some impressive runs through scenery, or simple tracking shots. While the applications of textures are perfect, the camera moves a bit too fast for my tastes. At times characters are given a type of super-detailed–perhaps 3D modeled–animation, which also crosses into the uncanny valley a bit too much for my tastes. However, in those cases, it almost works to emphasize the importance of those scenes. This effect works better when it’s rendered in slow-motion.

As far as general visual aesthetics go, the film creates a number of amazing atmospheres through its visuals. The original Haruhi series was already good at atmosphere, but it’s shot up to 110% here. Kyon’s initial shock is complemented by an immediate shift in framing–straightforward shooting gives way to a series of canted, dynamic angles–visually reinforcing how crooked everything has become. This unorthodox shooting, matched to a heavily desaturated color palette, as well as a strong contrast between light and dark, creates a subtly surreal and nightmarish world for Kyon to lose his mind in.

Color and lighting are utilized to great effect in the film to give each of its locales an immersive sense of place. Even when Kyon grows familiar with his new world, the winter is still depicted with oppressive, desaturated colors. Timid Yuki’s apartment is painted in uncharacteristically warm colors, made warmer by a subtle bloom. In contrast, normal Yuki’s apartment is painted in colder colors, with the bloom giving it a more space-age feeling. Kyon’s scene of contemplation at the end is also made more effective by a keen eye on color and lighting.

But what makes all this attention to atmosphere work is amazing attention to detail in the  background art. The characters’ sleepy little down is bestowed with lots of realistic grit, and no details are overlooked. It’s a world you can really live and breathe in.

Accompanying the characters every step of the way is a brilliant musical score. While the opening minutes of the film are backed by typical Haruhi background music, the film’s big revelations are matched to rousing orchestral backing. Otherwise, a lot of the film makes good use of ambient noise to further strengthen its already strong sense of atmosphere. Certain scenes are underscored by quiet piano pieces to inject a subtle shift of tone when needed. The film’s opening sequence is matched to–the somewhat nostalgic at this point–Bouken Desho Desho, bringing it all back to when Haruhi was a big hit in 2006, as opposed to the more recent Super Driver, used as the opening for the second season.

What I’m trying to say with upwards of 1500 words talking about atmosphere, direction, animation, and music is that Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu is a very well put together film. It presents us with a very grave and engaging problem, and delivers a clever solution. If any story deserved this very serious, cinematic treatment, it’s certainly Shoushitsu. It’s exactly what I wanted out of a Haruhi film. It’s three hours, but if you’ve gotten anything out of this review, I hope it’s that this film is worth the time. I certainly think it is!

6 thoughts on “It’s 2006 all over again: Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu

  1. Excellent review! The movie certainly was a masterpiece =) What made it even more excellent for me is being able to see it in the theater during its two premieres in California (San Fransisco in May and LA in late June). You could call me a biased Haruhi fan but I’m sure many who have seen the movie will agree that you don’t have to be a fan of the series to see how good it is.

  2. As expected, this was a good read. I was trying to pay attention to visuals when I watched the movie but I completely failed to notice the desaturated colours used in the alternate universe. It just goes to show how much visual direction goes into building the atmosphere and “feeling” that viewers take for granted. Speaking of atmosphere, the scene with Kyon and Yuki walking to her apartment stood out in my memory as being particularly immersive. The car headlights were a really unique source of light for the scene and I remember that the animation for their expression changes (or “acting” I suppose) was beautiful.

    On another note, it isn’t terribly important, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention the piano tune “Gymnopedies”, which appears to be alt-universe Yuki’s musical motif. It was actually a famous piece written back in… some time or the other. At least a century ago, I think. Admittedly, I only recognized it because there’s an arrangement of it in one of the Beatmania IIDX games, but I thought it was pretty cool.

  3. @Yumeka
    I do think you need to be a fan to understand the story, as lots of plot points are dependent on prior knowledge. But just from a technical level, I think it’s rather sound, and anyone who knows whats what will probably concede that it’s at the very least well made.

    @eternal
    If I remember correctly, the winter palette in the alternate world is only slightly more desaturated than the colors used earlier in the movie. I could also be bullshitting a little.

    One thing I neglected to mention was how good all of the expressions in particular were. Well, I guess I’ve said it now.

    As far as the music goes, I’m not that well versed in music, so I just didn’t notice.

  4. I simply cannot agree more and I really hope KyoAni continues to do great work if they intend to do the rest of the Haruhi novels as well. (e.g. Not Endless Eight)

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