Sunday, 8 November 2020

Thoughts before The Intuition of Haruhi Suzumiya

I.

A tweet:

II.

I want to expand on this a bit.

There's a decent hypothesis floating around the Internet that Tanigawa wrote the Haruhi Suzumiya series as an embellished version of his own high school experiences, although written in such a way as to make the characters more archetypal. The setting is somewhat suburban, and the description of the locale is very clearly based on the places he grew up. The events are a mix of simple life and fantasy: what high school kid hasn't mythologised their friendships, imagined that their highs and lows, their triumphs and tragedies have fantastical depth to them?


III.

A lot of attention is paid, especially in the later novels, to the fact that the characters are growing up. Unlike a manga such as Azumanga Daioh, though, which ran in real time, such that someone who began reading it from the beginning as a first-year would effectively graduate alongside the characters, Haruhi Suzumiya is splayed out over now 17 years—Haruhi herself would be 33 this year. Hold that thought in your head.

Much of the series is the dialectic between, on the one hand, Kyon's desire to live normally and not stand out at all, and on the other, Haruhi's desire to live an extraordinary, outstanding life. Of course, to the age range it's targeted at, these are extremely familiar desires; ones that more often than not coexist in the same person.

And one of its greatest strengths is that neither of these desires are ever fully satisfied: Kyon keeps finding himself unwillingly dragged into situations of life and death, where the fate of the world depends on his actions, while Haruhi, oblivious to her own power, is forced to live a relatively normal high school life, and compensates by overloading herself and her club members with (comparatively mundane) excitement.

I suspect this is familiar too. A very (un)lucky few people ever live a truly average life; something always comes up to preempt it, whether it's a death or a birth, a crisis or an adventure. And yet everyone is deeply familiar with the experience of having their grander dreams and stranger schemes foiled and trampled into the dust. That's the way we all go.

Further, the emphasis on the passage of time complicates this. The characters start to look back on their old activities, all the adventures and pain and joy they had just a year ago, and realise they can't recreate that. It's in the past, whether they like it or not, and the "feel" of it can't be created anew. And meanwhile, a brand new cast of characters show up, and several new kinds of situations occur, and the mixture of these with the existing cast and their memories introduces us to ever-larger and more complex dramas. Everything is changing. Slowly, but nonetheless.


IV.

At this point it should be obvious that the series is trying to speak to its readers. One might look at it and extract a sort of trite moral about the necessity and beneficence of change, but considering the utterly strange and alien nature of several of the new characters, as well as the fact that Sasaki, who is practically a second centre of gravity for the last couple of novels, is someone from both Kyon's and Haruhi's pasts, this seems unlikely.

(Quick spoiler warning for the last uhhh three Haruhi Suzumiya novels here, also later for The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya)

The new characters are immediately established as a threat to the SOS Brigade. They have a cohesive agenda, and from the perspective of the main protagonists, it's malevolent. Yet it's very interesting how they're written: their motives are simultaneously incomprehensibly other and (yet) thoroughly understandable. Just as Koizumi, Mikuru, and Yuki are dedicated to the preservation of the world by keeping Haruhi entertained, so Kyouko, Fujiwara, and Kuyou are dedicated to the preservation of the world by sacrificing Haruhi and transferring her powers to Sasaki.

And yet it's their erratic behaviour, willingness to sacrifice, and general hostility toward the SOS Brigade that cements them as a threat. Kuyou in particular is characterised as a person who, like Yuki, is basically alien, yet her relationship with humanity is so fundamentally other, even in comparison to Yuki's, that she takes on eldritch qualities.

At the same time they're dealing with these newcomers, the SOS Brigade is struggling with trying to recruit new members to carry it on, as Haruhi realises their graduation is coming sooner than they thought. The pressures introduced by these new forces make Kyon debate whether to reveal to Haruhi that he's "John Smith".

Importantly, the mantra of "three years ago" changes to "four years ago".

Why is this so important? "Three years ago" signifies the beginning of the story temporally, and the beginning of the world of the series spatially. The time loop created in "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody" effectively creates the world. It signifies many things, and is used both casually and impactfully throughout the series. In the first place, it's literally the first major event in the series' timeline. Again, it's a reference to the passing of time, and has some universal connotations: how many people, especially young people, are in situations where they can recall that they can trace much of their present lives to a handful of seemingly insignificant events from a few years ago?


V.

But one of the most important things it signifies, albeit indirectly, is the message Haruhi was trying to send that Tanabata night:


"I am here." If Haruhi Suzumiya revolves plotwise around the fantastic results of that message, then it thematically revolves around that message itself.

When you stop to consider it, Haruhi is at her core a very lonely person. At a young age, she came to see her total insignificance in the world, how in a huge crowd, she was indistinguishable. How in a country of millions, a planet of billions, a universe teeming with life, she was nothing more than a short-lived speck. Her whole life has been an attempt to fight off the implications of this existence, to give herself a role in such a petrifying life. If she comes across as narcissistic, it's because she kind of is. She's utterly terrified by the possibility she will die without recognition, and she ruthlessly dedicates every second of her life to staving this off. Outwardly, she's larger than life; inwardly, she's small and terrified of the fact she was born at all.

Speaking of which, do you ever notice how there are never any depicted parents, and extremely few adults in general, throughout this series? If there wasn't occasional reference to them, you'd be justified in thinking that this is a world where children just pop into being of their own volition. This is one of the things that's most attractive about it, to me at least: more fundamental than Haruhi's powers, more basic than the presence of the paranormal and the necessary masquerade disguising it, the core law of this series is individuation. Every single aspect of this series is dedicated to who the characters are in and for themselves, and for their chosen relationships. It avoids pre√ęstablished necessity as often as possible; the necessity of the series is almost entirely determined by the characters' own selves and actions.

Underneath it all, underneath all the enjoyment and excitement, the characters feel real pain. Their interpersonal relationships are often strained, and it's not uncommon for them to overstep each other's bounds. That one scene in The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is a perfect example of this: Haruhi's actions toward Mikuru are obviously hurtful and indefensible, but Kyon's reaction, though emotionally justified, is unwise and just creates more potential trouble. As the series goes on, things that were played for laughs in earlier instalments—things like Haruhi's harassment of Mikuru, Yuki's detachment from humanity, Kyon's moral and personal struggle with his role in Haruhi's entourage—all get treated more seriously. The hurt that they feel is made more concrete.

And yet, the series insists, this does not negate the enjoyment. Just as the joy doesn't negate the pain, the pain doesn't negate the joy; to pull them apart would butcher the essence. And it's illustrated in one of the most incredible scenes in film that I can remember:


This is the ultimate message of the series; this is what it's trying to tell its readers. Read between the lines here.

Back in that world you rejected, Haruhi is just some stuck-up girl. And Miss Asahina is just some cutesy moe character. Koizumi is just a normal high schooler. And Nagato is just a super-shy bookworm. Well, most of the time, anyway. But if she heard some stupid joke, I bet she'd laugh. And then she'd blush. And as she got older, her heart would open up a little more every day. You never know. She might've been like that. But you had to go and throw away a normal life by hitting that button. Why is that?

Why is that? Because in the context of the show, this isn't a normal life; it's a parody of normality. It's a frozen world where everyone is reduced to one thing, where the possibility of conflict is practically nonexistent. And without conflict, there is no growth. It's a dead world. What's special about the world that Kyon chose to return to is that it's real. Kyon isn't—you aren't facing agony and hardship because your world is filled with aliens, espers, and time travellers; you're facing agony precisely because your life isn't normal, because no one's life ever is. And yet, paradoxically, it's also the banality of it that drives many people figuratively—and Kyon literally—to try to create worlds where everything is "normal", to try to eliminate conflict from their lives, to embrace stasis and what is often called "peace".


VI.

This is what the series is saying: this is impossible. More of an anomaly than time travel, more of a fantasy than ESP, more of a futility than humanoid aliens. And you might ask, then why is it that The Disappearance leads us to grieve over the alternate Yuki? Why is "Yasashii Boukyaku" written to reduce people to tears? And it's very simple: it's about change and loss in general. The film wants you to think very carefully about this, and process your feelings fully. It's saying that trying to impose this stasis is perverse, but it's also perverse to take the fact of constant change as a reason not to care. That's the mistake Yuki sees herself making: when she resets the world, she doesn't make the choice for herself, she offloads it onto Kyon. She's been taking a passive attitude to the world around her, accepting her "role" as an all-powerful cleanup hitter, only being involved to the bare minimum of what's needed of her. This is safe for her, but even then it's exhausting. It's only after Kyon decides once and for all that he wants the "old" world back that both of them understand that this is a destructive way of being.

And so the series encourages them, and us, to grieve. Not for the loss of stasis, but that stasis never truly existed in the first place. It at once affirms that it is right to feel sad that everything must plod on in the storm of history, and denies that this is a reason to give up and sink back. I promised myself that I wasn't going to say these words, but: mono no aware.

So Haruhi Suzumiya is about you, as you experience it. The memories that the characters make, which become their driving force throughout, are meant as parallel to the memories you make as you live in the world. Their games are supposed to be your games; their pain and joy are supposed to be yours; the terror they feel at their existence is supposed to be your terror. It's meant, in a way, to be something you look back on fondly, because its whole story is something the creator and the characters are to look back on fondly.

There's something nostalgic about the whole series, and much has been written of the idea of toxic nostalgia in the present day. People are always pining for a bygone past and the idylls of their childhoods. Sometimes this can be dangerous; the return to an idealised past is the hallmark of reaction, and many people use the fact they'll never recover their allegedly happiest days as a reason to give up and retreat. Nagaru Tanigawa has written something opposite to that: in the series, it's the memories the characters make and cherish that give them the reason to keep going on, and in the real world, it hopes that your memories of it help give you a reason to go forward.


It fell from the sky
with all the wishes still on it.
Maybe they were just a bit too heavy for a single star?

As I thought, something's wrong;
the you in my heart has vanished.
Can I even say that I really remember?

STOP!

The past is one's own;
naturally, I wouldn't want to trade mine away to anyone.

That's because...

It was a birthday to us—
the time our meeting was born
was when we had our first dream.
"What should we do?" and worrying about it.
Even though now we can laugh thinking back on it,
why am I crying over it?

Harmony for you, harmony once more.
Let's just dream our dreams together.

I'll do it somehow, facing forward—
hey! The clues behind you are escaping!
So catch 'em right away! I'm connected to you!
That incident is your footprints...

...I've already forgotten it. I'll search for you!

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