A child of the 80s, I grew up in time to become an instant fan of Robert Zemeckis’s Back To The Future. A film as much about self-discovery as it ever is about tinkering with alternate dimensions. The adventures of a young man who’s strange fortune lands him 30 years before, to the days of his parents, only to endanger the future consumation of their marriage and thereby threatening his own existence was a brilliant throwback to the best of Capra. It’s A Wonderful Life for the Reagan-era is not too far a stratch for a film dealing with alternate realities, amidst a cinematically mundane setting. It also worked largely due to its colorful cast of characters, hair-pulling predicaments, and epic music. But the film’s core appeal at least to me was the core relationship between wizard & student. Why mention this uber mainsream offering from Hollywood? Because it was the first film to come to mind upon watching The Disappearance Of Haruhi Suzumiya. A film not too far removed from the memories of Marty McFly, albeit in a far more reflexively meta tone with just a touch of, dare I say it? Melancholy.
To the casual viewer, it is difficult at times to even attempt to explain the Haruhi phenomenon in any kind of shorthand. Just recently, there was a case in point where I realized that it took all of five minutes to encapsulate it with any kind of propriety. So I’ll attempt the digest version for the unfamiliar.
As told though the eyes of a grounded high-schooler known only to us as Kyon, we witness the strange misdadventures of a most bizarre school club, led by one Haruhi Suzumiya. A girl of beauty, brains, & a disdain for anything (or anyone) remotely ordinary.(Most specifically having a yen for meeting Aliens, Time Travelers & ESPers!) A mercurial spirit, with a slash & burn approach to life the likes would make obsessive-types like Fox Mulder cower in fear, takes in an idea first brought up by our hapless narrator, to create a unique club from which she could explore the mysteries of the world. Our less than willing cohort soon takes in the role of intermediary/errand boy as this murkily concieved club “attracts” a handful of unassuming, yet strangely appropriate new members. Things become stranger still, as each member soon takes Kyon aside, only to explain their respective secret identities as precisely the very fantastical beings she longs to meet, including quiet & bookish Yuki Nagato (secretly an alien entity), hapless moe bait ,Mikuru Asahina(a time traveler!) , and the ever agreeable pretty boy Itsuki Koizumi (a member of a secret sect of ESP-laden guardians!) Adding to the madness is the triumvirate of revelations that Miss Suzumiya herself is unknowingly anything but average, to the point of even deityhood some would even say! And living with this ludicrous bag of secrets lies the crux of Nagaru Tanigawa’s popular light novel series, and tremendously successful 2006 Kyoto Animation television series. (which only last year returned with a surprise second season, marred by KyoAni’s clever/prickly approach to the material in a move that many decried as one of the largest acts of fan troll ever attempted.)
Still here? Good. because from here on out, we’re sticking the rest out in sheer fan talk. And in the best non-spoiler speak I can, will do my part to share in my own views of this one-of-a-kind anime event.
And after several months of surviving/enduring the often supernatural antics of our intrepid band of weirdos & ruthless leader, a chilly winter has come, and Miss Suzumiya is feeling festive. In many ways it’s business as usual, with a few new wrinkles. As much as our cast has indeed maintained their roles, the feeling that perhaps the club has begun to warm up to its chief’s relentlessly fickle nature. And in turn, Miss Suzumiya’s happiness has possibly allowed the way for something akin to a calmer life for all. The standard definition of calm in this universe: exhasperating sans the occasionally troublesome adventure in bizarro-world.(with the good chief completely ignorant of these events, of course)
However, the jingle bells are calling. It is in this mad dash to celebrate the holidays, we join in on the SOS Brigade, as our resident voice of reason suddenly awakens to find that he is in a parallel world where not only this often troublesome force of nature never seems to have existed, but neither has the club ever met before! In a desperate dash to recollect his sanity amidst this bizarre new realm, Kyon’s voyage through the chilly days of winter grant him an opportunity to finally ask himself what many of the show’s fans have been asking for years..If this girl, and this reality you occupy is so bad, then why stay? A question as easily aimed at consumers of fantasy as it is at our protagonist.
The feature is based upon the novel of the same name, and plays it quite close to the source as it resides largely within the narrator as he comes to grips with this completely rearranged reality, and the shift in roles familar faces have now taken. Oh yes, some members of the SOS Brigade are certainly still attending Kenritsu Kita High, but know nothing of Kyon. As opposed to BTTF’s premise, it isn’t merely the pages of time that have been pulled back, but rather the fabric of relationships has. In this variation of his life, certain players are no longer attending the same school, as others have returned most ominously. But the biggest character alteration comes in the form of a popular cast character who had up until this point served as a mysterious outsider to the story’s often skewed human digressions. (in a turn that will no doubt increase fan followings into legion level numbers) And it is here where Kyon must either decide to stay in this blissfully quiet world, or return to the never-predictable, thankless role he had previously held. It gives regressive behavior a whole new bent when considering just how hard he is attempting to return to a place he so vocally/internally despised before. Until this point, he had often functioned as a voice of rationality within an increasingly irrational world, and is now on the other side of the mirror.
(Brass Tacks; The Greek Chorus has now been whisked into a scenario cut right out of a ridiculously idealized visual novel scenario, complete with “sad girls in snow”! Time to watch our boy squirm.It is in this decision that KyoAni milks the self-mockery cow with both fists. Quite a fun move for a studio that has risen to prominence embracing visual novel artifice.)
The blissfully meta humor of the franchise is in full-force here with startlingly big scale direction by Haruhi stalwarts, Tatsuya Ichihara & Yutaka Takemoto. After years of relative quiet, this film suddenly embraces not only the anticipation of more adventures of these popular characters, it also offers a uniquely bold take on film adaptations that we haven’t seen in nearly two decades. In what could have taken the easy route, and delivered an overly simplistic blockbuster movie treatment, Disappearance offers a meditative piece with perhaps even more internalization than moviegoers are used to witnessing. The expansion of the original show’s use of very real locations grants the film a haunted quality that is rare in even recent anime. Closer to the best days of GAINAX, the art crew have done an awe-inspiring job of creating a world bathed in grey & white, with all the embrace of a ghost, only amplifying the dreamlike world Kyon is now inhabiting. From frost forming on window sills, to the condensation of warm tea, the film is at times in love with this world, and it shows. Refreshingly relaxed in execution, the film almost creeps up on the viewer with grand ideas and pangs of longing. And with a record-breaking length of 180 minutes, it can either offer a long-awaited heaven for fans, or an indulgent bore. So mileage may vary.
Where I land is closer toward the former, as it is successful in delivering an at times poignant centerpiece to what were often my favorite elements of the original series for me which was the relationships between Kyon and those around him. For as intelligent, clever, and often closet-geeky as he has been, it is in his ability to grasp the timbre of this cast of characters that has often left him with a similar note of distance. For all of his smarts, he has often kept his truer feelings at arms length. So that when the charmingly messy play room has been rendered into a perfectly tuned space, his reactions become far more erratic & childish perhaps challenging certain aspects of life often exhibited, yet underexplored in fannish behavior. And in the role of Kyon, Sugita Tomokazu returns to explore some fun territory as suddenly it is he who very well may be fit for the asylum. The reversal alone is terrific fuel for most of the film’s funniest moments. (not to mention some of its most revealing) The remaining cast is in top form including Ono Daisuke, Goto Yuko & of course Hirano Aya, who’s performance as the title character launched her career into warp drive since the original series’ airing. But the biggest surprise comes from a standout performance by Chihara Minori, who’s return to the role of the enigmatic Nagato takes on wholly unexpected dimensions.
And let’s not forget fan favorites, Tsuruya-san (Matsuoka Yuki), Taniguchi (the ever fun Shiraishi Minoru), & Kunikida (Matsumoto Megumi) also provide some memorable moments.
Kyon’s displacement as convoluted as it is, the film does suffer from digressing a little more than some may be used to in cinemas.(most of it mired in references to the tv series, which range from fun to eye-roll inducing) So in that respect, it isn’t a perfect piece. And even the soaring, almost sarcastically placed score comes close at times toward distraction-town. (given the fact that on its own, the ensemble score is terrific) The film’s running time can definitely be felt most particularly during the second act, as it almost begins feeling less like a film in this section. As opposed to how the TV series stretched out some of the more complex mysteries via multiple episodes, the film aims to cover a little more of the book’s minute details, which at times may have viewers reaching for their cell phone clocks.
But feelings like this are only temporary as revelations continue to reward the willing. And in an interesting counterpoint to the more atypical BTTF-style of action set-piece shenanigans, Disappearance offers the ultimate end game with a MacGuffin not as a construct of technological wizardry, but in the guise of a single individual. It is in this exciting, heart-rending twist that helps take the film into some endearing, at at times shocking territory. Unfolding much like a book, and less like the bloated, cliche-riddled feature it easily could have been. And in the tradition of the best geek properties, it never loses sight of what makes the books such a mind-boggling delight.
For fans, this is in many ways an impressive return to form. Not only does the film deliver on what the addicted come to expect from the world of Haruhi, but works as a fitting culmination of two seasons of genre-mutating televison. So, The Disappearance Of Haruhi Suzumiya may be an imperfect, fan-centered epic, but still a wildly enjoyable one. The last statement perhaps being the one noteable gap in the film’s armor that may alienate some. But for those following the shows & novels, it is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind. That mutant delight that rarely takes sides, gives us breathing room, and allows us to enjoy the world of the SOS Brigade in a grandly expanded palette. And in a time where titles of the ilk are nearing the end of their glut, it’s always refreshing to witness the crown jewels in such high style past, present, or future.
A feature event of surprising warmth, Disappearance could likely thaw even the most hardened Endless Eight victim.