I absolutely hated this movie when it was first released almost a decade ago.
The first season of the TV show is one of my personal favorites, especially the TV order that shows events out of sync chronologically but totally in sync in terms of their emotional and dramatic impacts. That first episode, where you see the gang’s short magical girl movie that tells the entire series’ story without your knowing it, may be my all-time favorite single episode of a TV anime.
The series’ titular character, Haruhi, is very much my type of anime girl (or really, woman in general)– brash, pushy, and, as a friend of mine puts it, “a bitch with a heart of gold.” Yeah, her antics go too far sometimes– the whole “forcing Mikuru do strip down and wear revealing outfits” thing is something you’d totally frown upon in reality– but those extremes are more genre conceits than irredeemable character flaws.
The series ACTUAL lead character, Kyon, reminds me of myself in a lot of ways: feeling like a supporting character in his own life despite all rational, objective evidence saying otherwise– the unearned, ironic distancing of himself from everything around him– a knack for attracting the “weirdos” despite seemingly being the “normal” guy– he’s the classic anime cipher dude with enough quirks to him that lined up with my own to make me really relate with the dude.
The whole concept behind the series is something that really clicks with me. A bunch of high school kids are all special things— an alien cyborg data entity thing, a time traveler from an idyllic future, a psychic from a secret government conspiracy agency– who are in the “present” to monitor a supposedly god-like being who doesn’t realize she has the power to subconsciously manipulate, and possibly destroy, reality. It’s a pretty great mix of “slice of life” high school antics, weird sci-fi tangents, conspiratorial nonsense, and adolescent melodrama. It’s very much in the vein of stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other “urban fantasy” stuff with a bunch of anime tropes tossed into the mix, with enough actual personality and charm to keep from feeling like some rehash of any of those things.
It inspired me in ways few pop culture artifacts have over the years. Along with The Venture Bros and Space Adventure Cobra, it’s the closest I’ve come as an adult to having something like this work its mojo on my creative psyche, and given the fiction I’ve managed to churn out “recently,” it’s probably the biggest influence on all of that.
And yet I hated this movie when I first saw it. Well, I went into it already hating it because I hated the light novel upon which its based.
At the time, I almost felt betrayed by The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. I loved the first season of the TV. I sought out fan translations of the novels and loved them too. I loved the much-derided second season of the TV series. Endless Eight is a formalist masterpiece, y’all. Yeah, it’s a pain to watch, but that pain is perfect. But Disappearance’s narrative really hit a nerve with me.
Part of it is the literal disappearance of Haruhi. I’m here for her. Well, her and Kyon, but her absence really bugged me. I got that this was the point of the story– it is the title after all– but it still got to me. But that alone wasn’t enough to turn me off of the movie. Looking back on my reviews of the light novel and the movie, I was annoyed by its lack of quirky narrative tricks and by its supposed lack of importance in the development of its characters.
My annoyance with the narrative seems pretty silly now. The disjointed way the episodes were presented in the first season worked for that first season because it was adapting several novels into a coherent series, and lining up each story’s finale with one another was a brilliant organizational move. If you’re focusing on one novel, you aren’t going to have that sort of wiggle room. So expecting more of the same was silly of me. I can admit I was flat out wrong there.
As for the story and its development of the characters?
Yeah, looking back on it ten years after the fact, I was even more wrong there.
So the crux of Disappearance is how Yuki, the alien cyborg date entity from a universal computer consciousness from deep space, alters reality so as to make everything “normal.” She and all of the other “weird” kids now have no recollection of their strange origins. The friendships between the central characters are broken, as they no longer have “keeping an eye on god-like Haruhi” to unite them. Haruhi and Koizumi, the secret agent esper, are shunted off to a different school all-together. And Yuki gets something of a Pinocchio makeover, as she’s made into a “real girl,” complete with the sort of overt insecurities and shyness she never seemed to possess as an alien.
Kyon gets the wish he seems to desire– to return to a normal, boring, mundane life. We the audience know that he really does enjoy the uncertainty that comes with being friends with the SOS Brigade, but he’s yet to have that epiphany himself. But as soon as he realizes that the world has changed around him, Kyon has an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like breakdown. Everyone around him has forgotten how things used to be, and their ignorance leads to Kyon freaking out big time. His detached attitude turns ugly, as he confronts his former friends in increasingly aggressive ways. He’s showing an extremely unhealthy level of privilege– that he never assumed that his “normalcy” would also include losing all of the things he enjoyed about his “troubled” life. It shows that his nonchalant attitude towards things come less from a capacity to roll with the punches and more to do with the fact that he’s never really been punched before. He’s just as much a bored youth as Haruhi, except instead of forging an odd world view and trying to find ways to make that a reality, he’s chosen to step away from reality itself, becoming an observer who believes himself above it all.
With nearly an extra decade of self-reflection added to my personal record, I can totally relate to this ugliness just as much as I can relate to Kyon’s more benign traits. Maybe I understood this on some level back then and hated to see that negativity reflected back at me? That may be a big reason why I rejected this movie so thoroughly at the time.
But that is a pretty major development in Kyon’s character. He realizes that he doesn’t actually want what he thinks he wants. Kyon realizes that, regardless of whatever troubles may come from knowing Haruhi and the others, it’s worth it for everything else they bring into his life. Small prices and all that. That capacity to accept is pretty crucial to being able to handle whatever reality you’re handed, and Disappearance handles Kyon’s reckoning with this pretty damn well. Yeah, apparently this gets walked back a bit in future novels, but taken by itself its pretty great.
As for Yuki? I remember disliking the fact that this new reality changed her personality completely. She went from this strange, almost ethereal entity to being a generic shy “glasses girl” type. It seemed strange to me that this is what she’d want to be if she were human– downright out of character. Yuki definitely showed flashes of humanity throughout the TV series, but none of it ever really felt like signs that this is how she’d be if she were never an alien.
But I think I get it now. The only reason why she’s able to express her little quirks is because of her lack of humanly inhibitions. The things blocking her emotional outbursts have more to do with her computer-like make-up– calculating rather than working off of intuition and the like. She acts out due to “bugs” in her system rather than cracks in her self-defenses. Maybe those “bugs” are her learning how to behave more human-like, but it isn’t the same as being a person with insecurities and trouble with expressing one’s emotions. As she is in these characters’ reality, her having emotions are the cracks, while in this alternate reality it’s simply showing them that are the cracks.
She’s effectively crafted her persona to mirror her own if she had the brain chemistry, environmental exposure, and expectations of being human. Instead of being a cold, eldritch entity that occasionally shows flashes of learned humanity, she’d be a shy, reserved type who struggles to show the feelings boiling over on the inside.
It totally makes sense to me now. I still totally prefer alien Yuki to “normal” Yuki, but I get the characterization. It’s no longer a deal breaker.
With all of that out of the way, I can now appreciate Disappearance for what it is:
It’s basically Back to the Future II.
We get the “altered” present part, where things change for the worse because of a decision in the past. The big difference being that instead of Biff going all Trumpian on us we get Asakura resurrected and being all sinister despite being a seemingly normal girl. Then she stabs Kyon in the back in a brilliantly shocking moment of violence that I’d forgotten about and was taken aback by in my rewatch. Seriously, the way this movie builds up Asakura from the moment Kyon sees her in their classroom, to how she just happens to show up at Yuki’s apartment and her subtle threats, to that moment during the finale is some downright horrifying stuff.
And once they get all of the “altered” reality stuff settled, we go into the “retread” half, as we revisit an important event in the past and see things from a different perspective. Everything ends up wrapping around back on itself, and hinting at even more folding yet to come, and now that all of my former baggage isn’t holding me back I can appreciate just how goofy and crazy it all is. These sorts of high school dramady shows have a certain degree of nostalgia built into them– our desire to experience an idealized youth that never happened to us but feels like it should have happened– and the way Disappearance, and Haruhi Suzumiya in general, constantly wraps back around to revisit these moments is very similar to the way those of us who watch these sorts of shows constantly come back around to that period of our lives in some way.
You’re gonna get it perfect one day, even if you’re closer to “retiring” than you are to the day you graduated high school.
Yeah. I really love this one upon revisiting it. I’ll have to revisit the entire TV series again now that I feel like I can appreciate the entire series as a whole.
But I wish this movie had more Haruhi. Worst movie ever, man.