Waiting for Haruhi; or, My Anime Series Can’t Be This Original!

The howling critical reactions (and counterreactions) in the anime blogosphere about the fourth episode of Oreimo have prompted some further thought, as a follow-up to wintermuted’s last essay and my own thoughts on Oreimo 3: have many of us gotten so desperate for anything surprising in anime that we will grasp onto even the barest scraps of originality and quality? It’s almost as if we were waiting for a great series to sweep us off our feet and remind us of why we love this medium to begin with. It’s almost as if we were waiting…for another Haruhi?

Pessimists often say in self-defense that being pessimistic makes them more prone to surprise and delight when good things do happen. Many bloggers, myself included, have become pessimistic about the state of TV anime today. After having slogged through many seasons since that golden year of 2006, it’s easy to become jaded—which is why when something that upsets the status quo comes along, as Oreimo did when it first aired and promised a subversion of the imouto trope, the blogosphere erupts in excitement. The truth is many of us seem more like bruised idealists than genuine pessimists when it comes to anime quality. I remember the touchstone series that cemented my love for the medium: Evangelion, Honey and Clover, Welcome to the NHK, Fullmetal Alchemist…and even though shows of A-class caliber are necessarily rare, I always enter every season hoping that at least one series might turn out to be the next one. NHK appeared out of the blue for me, not followed by a trail of raves and recommendations. Gurren Lagann, which at first seemed jokey and over-the-top, has turned into a modern classic and Gainax’s salvation. Of course most series are going to not aim their sights so high—they’re going to pander or coast or otherwise laze about in familiar territory. Lambasting those series can even be fun. But the search for the fresh continues.

That was the dynamic at work, I believe, when the blogosphere started excitedly discussing Oreimo. Like for many, the title alone put me off and I had no thought of exploring the show until I heard whispers: “this is actually believable.” “They act like real siblings.” “It’s not what you think it is.” This is exactly what the jaded fan and critic longs to hear: that something is actually a good surprise and that the surprise is believable characters and good writing! (Oh, for a repeat of Toradora, where it turned out to be true.) In retrospect, the title of the show and its premise should have been a giveaway of its later intentions, and readers of the light novel already knew the road it was going. But onward we marched, in my case actually introducing the first episode to my anime club and saying in full earnestness, “It’s NOT the kind of show that you think it is! I promise!” What an encapsulation of expressed hope and change! In another way too, this is the standard fan defense: I want to share something odd and potentially off-putting with you because I think it’s awesome. You just need to open your mind and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It is, of course, exactly the thought that Kirino had in sharing her siscon eroges with her brother. It is what we all want to do if we love our hobby.

We want to be surprised and delighted. We want to believe.

That’s why there was such disappointment over episode 4. It was a feeling, however unreasonable and laughable, of betrayal of expectations. It was supposed to be different, it wasn’t supposed to be this kind of production where accidental gropes are happening (though I think it was less about the scene in itself and what it stood for. Personally, I think the slide began earlier, in the previous episode; the groping was not surprising to me though it was groan-worthy). It also forced a reevaluation: why were we taken with this show so much initially? If we were more observant, or asked the light novel readers, we should have seen it coming. Why was there not as much discussion over productions coming from staff/creators with quality track records like Bakuman (Kenichi Kasai, the Death Note team), Star Driver (Yoji Enokido of Utena and FLCL), etc?

I would like to propose a theory. Call it the Haruhi/Ouran Complex. It is no accident that the aniblogosphere first took off in 2006, the year of Haruhi Suzumiya no Yuutsu and Ouran High School Host Club. They are both funny and engaging shows in their own right, with interesting stories and characters. But what they have in common is their style of deconstructive humor: they took the tropes of male and female otakuhood and used them as fuel for winking, insider jokes that rewarded the audience for its knowledge. (Its spinoffs are shows about otaku themselves, as seen in Genshiken and Welcome to the NHK and Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu.) Haruhi—as emblematic a character for our age of anime as Rei Ayanami was in the 1990s—also is arguably responsible for the current moe boom, which is self-aware in its exploitive cuteness and sentimentality, even if as in the case of Key it tries to combine it with real emotion as well. This kind of quality is uniquely suited to fan analysis: picking apart the source of the pastiche, talking about what it subverted, crowing at its cleverness or being moved by how far it has been pushed.

This sort of show, in other words, is uniquely suited for blogging. We’ve been enjoying Lucky Star and Bakemonogatari ever since. And Oreimo looked like another show of that ilk at first, an accomplished one at that: self-aware like Haruhi Suzumiya and written with a close attention to the way people actually behaved around one another. What a show like Haruhi or Ouran offered was not only fan tropes held up for loving ridicule, but a distinctive voice: that of Kyon, for instance, or Haruhi Fujioka in playing the straight woman among wacky stereotypes. Kyousuke played Kyon to Kirino’s Haruhi in Oreimo, and it offered the pleasure of identifying with both sides at the same time. However, a series’ enduring appeal ultimately depends on memorable writing and characterization, and scenes like the grope and others seemed to indicate a deterioration in those qualities. It was becoming another tsundere imouto wish-fulfillment property, with otaku tropes added on top. That’s not what was expected or hoped for.

Maybe the answer is to stop getting so damned excited all the time. It’s far too easy, after all, to prejudge a series too soon—I’ve been guilty of it quite a few times. But given the nature of blogging, and the fact that many of us are watching this “in real time” with the Japanese broadcast, it’s hard not to—or else no one would have anything to say until the end of each season. In a way it’s a contemporary problem, a technology-enabled issue where not only the content but also the means of consumption is guiding expectations for anime. Watching a show rise and fall week by week is exciting, social, and potentially misleading. You can’t really know until the show’s over, but if you’re a fan, you can’t simply shut up about it. You talk, comment, blog. And hope.

Which is why, though I’ve said otherwise on a few of your blogs, I’m going to watch the next episode of Oreimo after all. Just to see what happens. One can dream, right?

3 thoughts on “Waiting for Haruhi; or, My Anime Series Can’t Be This Original!”

  1. Pardon me for playing devil’s advocate.

    This sort of show, in other words, is uniquely suited for blogging.

    Suited for lazy blogging, perhaps. Doesn’t it take more effort and inventiveness — and isn’t it therefore more rewarding, and more entertaining for readers — to scrape a clever argument together when your material is something ostensibly simple, like hentai or a children’s mecha show? A lot of blogging about shows which are particularly self-aware consists mostly of bloggers saying that they’re aware of how self-aware these self-aware shows are, and demonstrating no self-awareness of quite how boring they themselves are.

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