Haruhi has both good looks and the desire for romance, yet she blows away her chances at it in the most spectacular ways. She’s fairly athletic, has an artistic sensibility, and yet won’t join any of the clubs that actively compete to recruit her. She has a vivid personality but makes herself an outcast.
And she’s alone, day after day, even if she’s intelligent enough to fit in when she wants to. So… why?
Itsuki Koizumi has a theory. Inside, Haruhi’s an intelligent person who sees clearly the endgame of a “normal” life. And she… hates it. In a rare moment of openness, she confesses how she used to be this quick-witted, enthusiastic kid, convinced that her class was the most interesting place there was.
One day, though, she went to a stadium to watch a massive baseball game, and the crowd there prompted her, when she returned home, to use her calculator to estimate the number of people living on this Earth. The Universe felt impossibly big. Instantly, her class and her life lost all color.
Have you, dear reader, experienced this? Existential vertigo, the darkness, the void?
You see, you will die. You will eventually be forgotten. Everyone around you will have the same fate. Your country, your civilization, your planet, will all eventually disappear. Whatever you achieve in your time is compromised. Even more, you’re deeply flawed, more than you know, perhaps. And so is everybody else, too. So then, what’s the point?
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. This is just the kind of stuff Haruhi, a romantic comedy of the Evangelion era, deals with.
In the Shadow of Youngsters in Despair
A specter is haunting anime: the specter of the existential void. Evangelion combined the traditional Japanese mecha with the existential themes of writers like Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard, whose The Sickness Unto Death lends its name to episode 14. It was a perfect fit.
Since then, Hikki, Taiga, Spike Spiegel, Lain, Emma, Madoka, Utena, Eren, Dr. Tenma, and the Elric siblings, among others, have found existential horrors amid their everyday realities. A blind, cruel Cosmos whose very atoms speak of destruction, where human connections are a Hedgehog’s Dilemma. A world that will crush our hearts.
Some fragments of meaning persist there, like childhood memories. Also, governments, heroes, and scientific and cultural institutions with familiar-sounding names. You still hear of angels, gods, and supernatural beings, of life and love, of freedom. But then, you come nearer. And your mind unveils the darkness.
Why is Evangelion so influential? Because it’s true to life. I’m no existentialist, but in the France of Sartre and Camus, even believers with an appreciation for the richness of life felt this void. Meet Julien Green, a Catholic novelist who, through both magical and strict realism, explores spiritual crises and the intricacies of hope.
“I’m a little afraid”, he once wrote, “of a feeling that grows in me with the years, and that cannot be expressed but by saying that at the bottom of life, as the world thinks of it, there is nothing. Do these words make sense?”
He continues, “It would be convenient to try to explain them, but I cannot do it without creating further confusion. Feeling the nothingness of this life is perhaps a grace, but a pretty terrible one…
“I was passionate about the great picture of life, and I observed with attention all the changes that I made an effort to notice because I believed in this all. A beautiful face seen in the street would be minutely described in my Journal. Not now…”
Depression is an illness that may be treated. But what about the philosophical, existential problem underlying these doubts? What are we to do when our narratives collapse and our minds find the void? Do we respond with self-deception? Distraction?
What about… fighting?
The void inside Haruhi… and me
While afflicted by existential doubts and at war with the world at large, Haruhi believes that wonder and meaning may still exist out there, perhaps within discreet, out-of-the-ordinary intelligent beings of various sorts. And she’s willing to do everything in her power to reach them. But how?
In the soil of the Nazca Desert, some great signs visible only from above were drawn by an ancient culture. Inspired by this, Haruhi creates a similar-looking drawing in her school’s playground, to everyone’s astonishment. In her language (don’t ask), the sign reads: “I am here”.
Receiving what she believes is a sign, she enrolls in North High School. Perhaps someone will help her find something meaningful. But nothing happens for years, despite her sacrifices to discard every other wish and everything inauthentic.
How do the SOS Brigade and Kyon fit into this picture? Is this, in truth, the tale of “the fall of the world’s greatest dreamer”, of “someone who dared to think outside the box” gradually being lured into a meaningless “normal” life? Is Haruhi a masked tragedy?
The show doesn’t evade the question. Is Kyon the definitive distraction, as Koizumi planned? The clown near the abyss, keeping her chained to this soul-crushing world? Let me say something harsh. Romantic love sometimes serves that role for us. Then, one day, it disappears, and the void is still there.
Haruhi is wiser than that though, and its heroine isn’t just an uncompromising pioneer. Her eccentric way of life is not only a quest but also a convenient expedient to ignore others.
Why? Because she’s proud. She’s capricious, jealous, tyrannical, petty—and cruel. Shockingly so, sometimes. And she hasn’t repented of any of this, has she?
Banality and meaninglessness have often been the choices of her own heart when dealing with others. She’s part of the existential void too.
If there’s indeed meaning in this Universe, perhaps Haruhi has disconnected herself from it. And I’m not the one to throw stones at her. As a mirror, Evangelion showed us the darkness in Shinji’s heart… and in ours. Haruhi does the same.
Geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert
To fight against the void, Haruhi wrote a message on the ground. Why? Because a written message conveys meaning.
If someone or something understood the question and responded, then perhaps that “special” person would have a wider knowledge and a wider perspective about the Universe. And if there’s meaning in the Universe, perhaps there’s meaning in our lives too.
Let us look to the signs—those lines, circles, spirals, and tree-like forms that convey meaning—and then to the night sky above them. Visually at least, they are not so so different from the orbits, lines, laws, and regularities that constitute the Cosmos, from the atoms to the galaxies to us. Might those mean something, too?
What a Haruhi-esque idea, right? To read the sky! We know now that things may seem orderly, but they are a dull, chaotic, blind mess driven by chance, right? We have discovered the blind laws of Nature, and in them, we have a self-sufficient map of reality.
Do we, though? The laws of Nature are not only a map of the present state of the Universe. They’re “laws” because they point to the future. They describe systems at work, in which a certain kind of thing will behave in a specific way. We’ve discovered tendencies.
That’s an interesting feature of our reality, don’t you think? Chaos is unpredictable, so, why are things capable of any systematic behavior at all? Why does water consistently get things wet? You see, we deal with order and chance in very different ways.
Let’s take a look at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the absurdist, existential tragicomedy (ahem) that Koizumi is interpreting in the cultural festival. Rosencrantz, his character, is betting on coin flips. Betting heads each time, he has won 92 flips in a row.
Now, if the laws of Nature were only descriptive, they’d be like this bet. Nothing allows you to rationally determine that flip no. 93 will be heads. There’s nothing in the coin or the toss that is connected to returning that result rather than tails. So it’s all a big coincidence.
Laws of Nature aren’t mere records of coin flips, though. Rather, the result and the present state are connected, and the law is the built-in property that connects them. If we get this connection right, future experiments will work. That’s the proof.
We speak of “blind forces”, but gravity is nothing so mysterious. It’s the built-in tendency of stars, planets, and bodies of all sorts to draw other objects toward their center, thus creating more stable systems.
And so the scientific method doesn’t tell us that the Universe is a dull, chaotic mess. It counts on it being a regulated mess, with stable built-in tendencies.
On some eccentric intelligences
Okay, that’s all well and good. But stable tendencies and the language of Nazca signs are surely different things!
Yet, these laws or tendencies are peculiar in that they can be understood. That is, they can be translated into words or even mathematical language. And they had better be. We count on those formulas to do science. You can see a bunch of them written out around Haruhi in the opening title sequence, as the craziness unfolds. Ever wondered why?
Things at work are themselves messages, telling us about their tendencies in a certain language, one much like software, Japanese or visual art. A language is a system of communication open to intelligence. And what’s intelligence? The word comes from the terms “inter legere”, “read the interior”.
An intelligent being may possess the order of various things in itself, as ideas. Non-intelligent beings can keep something else in their own physical order, as a cage keeps a cricket, or retain its order externally, as a piece of paper contains some abstract and mind-boggling thought.
But intelligence goes beyond that. There’s no connection between the idea and the piece of paper it’s written on, but when that idea enters Haruhi’s mind, it becomes hers to keep, develop, write elsewhere or discard. Intelligence “reads the interior” of beings too, including ourselves, and keeps them in itself, as soft wax does with an old-fashioned seal, holding its imprint.
Working with that, Haruhi may find deeper levels of order by reasoning. If her reasoning is wrong, her new idea will retain elements of order and truth, but won’t be accurate as a portrayal of reality. It will be like a motor that has all the necessary parts, only they’re arranged in such a way that it cannot run.
Experiments are one way to see if the motor does run, if an idea fits reality. An intelligent being tests his or her understanding of a system by conceiving it at work and seeing if it fits—seeing its endgame, as our intelligent Haruhi sees the endgame of a “normal life”.
So, why is any given thing capable of systematic behavior? Because the endgame is already inbuilt through its tendencies and is literally written in it in a sophisticated language. We see it more clearly when the language is decoded, as with DNA.
If we “read” a being with our minds, we’ll thus find a future built into that being, which includes systematic relationships with other beings. DNA includes the information that will allow an adult human to function, including in that system the possibility of eating and assimilating things external to him or her.
Intelligent beings may come up with such a plan, and adjust their conduct to an outcome that doesn’t exist yet. But if mere objects do so, then they must have a cause that already contains that result conceptually.
If that cause contains it externally, as in a written message, we have the same problem. But if that cause contains it internally, then it is by definition an intelligence.
To say that such an ordering happens “blindly” or “by chance” reduces the system to coin tosses. To say that it happens “naturally” or “by default” points precisely to the question we’re trying to answer: why?
To have an order, we need ordering. To have language, we need preexisting meaning. To have a linguistic reality and built-in laws referencing future things, we would need… what?
I Am Here
Plato thought that the perfect state of each being existed without matter in a separate “world of Ideas”. But ideas cannot simply be out there floating by themselves. They exist in intelligences. Yet, what sort of intelligence may contain and cause the future order of things?
Would Haruhi, aliens, time travelers, or espers do? Well, no. We order our thoughts, sure, but not the blood flowing through our veins to make them possible—which is instead a process that follows its own laws. Haruhi & co. are intelligent beings, but not “purely intelligent”.
Rather, they’re a mixture of mind and matter, or mind and limitations, developing knowledge in a limited way. Their own built-in tendencies would remain unexplained if they were the writers of reality’s DNA. So we need an unlimited, free intelligence here.
Only such an unlimited mind could guarantee that things are caused, when the time comes, in such a way as to contain their own road map.
But perhaps that’s too much, and the coin thing sounds more attractive. Perhaps it’s preferable to think that order and language exist only in our minds, right?
Well, I’m a realist. If I see the world turning, I’ll say that there’s a circular pattern there, and not “wow, haven’t I created some good circles!” Likewise with the laws or tendencies that Mathematics, Physics, Biology, and Anthropology have discovered and may yet discover.
Our Ordering Intelligence would contain the fullness of truth without restriction, and thus, all the order that is or can be. Yet, some possible things exist while others don’t, or at least not yet. So, the Ordering Intelligence must also have a will that chooses. Intelligence and will imply personhood. This is St. Thomas Aquinas’ Fifth Way. His version is explained here.
If everything that exists is meaningful and has the hope of a future written in it, perhaps life is not so empty after all. Perhaps the existential void may be overcome. Perhaps feeling it is indeed a grace, like Julien Green said—a call to walk out of meaningless realities and into meaningful ones.
Fire and water, dawns and sunsets, a falling leaf, the trees, the animals and the parts of ourselves that enable us to think and act—all these things are in their own order a giant message to be read. They say that there is order, method, and wisdom at their cause.
When Haruhi writes on the ground, an Ordering Intelligence is ultimately saying back to her, regardless of whether or not she is worthy of a response, “I am here too”. And since she didn’t get it right away, perhaps the Ordering Intelligence also sent her a messenger in a North High uniform.
Every time a new thing with a built-in tendency begins to exist, and every time a new system starts functioning, we have proof that whatever the intermediate causes are, finality is still a feature of this Universe. Right here, right now.
See, God is not a craftsman putting pieces together. He’s more like a film director, giving every being in the scene a role that makes it exist in the movie. His direction allows each element in this very real scenery to be itself and to do something in connection with the whole. Even those things that cannot think and may only be wood or fire, star or animal.
Some of these beings, though, are intelligent actors who are also expected to improvise and add to the role that’s been given. God has nothing to gain by doing any of this, so this is happening entirely for the actor’s sake. The role comes with freedom as well, meaning the actor may fail to perform his or her role and instead fall into the void once and for all.
Will that happen to Haruhi? I don’t think so. Is Haruhi taking a long time to complete? Yes. But every word, every scene, every arc so far, is loaded with meaning: personal meaning, thematic meaning, the foreshadowing of future twists and turns in the plot, and insights into the characters and the human condition. All for the purpose of overcoming the void, and giving Haruhi (and us) hope.
As with the Universe, learning to read this series is no easy task. But if you ask me, Melancholy and Disappearance form a stunning work of art that achieves much on the way to overcoming the void for the Brigade—and I hope that future installments will do the same for everyone with whom they cross paths. You see, Haruhi’s author, Nagaru Tanigawa, pays attention to everyone else too. Tsuruya, Kunikida, and Taniguchi. Kyon’s sister, Mori, Arakawa, and the Computer Club President.
I don’t think this tale is a masked tragedy or a capricious story. Rather, with his prodigious intelligence, Tanigawa is subtly leading every character to his or her own fulfillment. And I hope Haruhi can one day achieve what Evangelion couldn’t in 1996, refused to try in End of Evangelion, and almost did in the Rebuild.
Like Haruhi, our own story is likewise loaded with meaning, and boasts a Director who brings us, the very real actors, onto the scene with the built-in power to be ourselves and be with others.
How can we find purpose? Perhaps by imitating Haruhi and fighting to discover the language of the Cosmos, by starting the conversation. And then walking on from there, trusting the wisdom and loving will of our film director, and saying “I am here” too.
Perhaps this crazy quest, this odd story, is also going somewhere. Perhaps the acute perception of nothingness, this “terrible grace”, was granted for a reason. Perhaps the void is the inverse of the burning meaning that permeates existence, so that the void is an absence that attests to its opposite, namely, the presence of an all-encompassing Love and a deep endgame.
I said that Haruhi has yet to repent from her misdeeds. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.
As she walks, as she fights, as she receives help, she’s slowly changing. Haruhi Suzumiya is special to her author. So are we. May we also live our crazy tragicomedy like this, fiercely fighting the distractions that amount to nothing. There is a design, and, as Haruhi herself sings in the cultural festival, God Knows.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya can be streamed at Funimation.