Welcome to Text x Context, a new Beneath the Tangles feature that explores light novels on a multi-volume scale!
With the old Light Novel Club, each post dealt with only one volume at a time and there were often long gaps between posts on the same series, meaning it could take a very long time indeed to get through a series, leading to disjointed volume-by-volume analysis and discussion. The goal of Text x Context is to tackle multiple volumes at once, be they from the same series or from across several different series that share some key attribute. This way, we will be able to detect themes, arcs, and other contextual facets that span multiple works and that might otherwise be hard to spot when reading a single volume.
Without any further ado, let’s get started! And what better way to kick off this new project than with the first four novels of the famed Haruhi Suzumiya light novel series, especially since today is Haruhi’s birthday! I do believe she would approve (even if none of us are aliens, time travelers, or espers).
Check out our initial discussion below. We’ll conclude this first Text x Context a week from today!
Just what genre is this story exactly?
Jeskai: I’d call this a “high school paranormal mystery-comedy.” Start with the setting and characters of a high school romcom. Drop the romance and replace it with The X-Files. Genderswap the lead roles so the “true believer” is the girl and the skeptic is the guy. Done. (Okey-day, I know it’s not quite that simple, but I think my point stands.) It’s actually a pretty interesting concept.
Twwk: Okay, as someone who used “Mulder” in his usernames all through high school, I’m [NOT? the next sentence reads like a concession, which means this first sentence should be a critique.] feeling the whole comparison to The X-Files. Haruhi Suzumiya definitely feels like a paranormal mystery romcom.
Gaheret: I once called it “a romantic comedy of the Evangelion era”. I agree with the above, and I also think that, at its core, Haruhi is a romantic comedy with existential themes, and some science-fiction, mystery, fantasy and parody thrown in for good measure—whatever the concept it’s exploring happens to need. That’s more or less what Neon Genesis Evangelion did with its mecha lore.
sleepminusminus: Although it’s not slice-of-life in the traditional sense, I still want to call Haruhi that, because the backdrop for all the extraordinary occurrences is an ordinary school setting, and some of the arcs can tend toward slice-of-life. I’m thinking specifically about the short stories in book three (The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya), where the focus is less on plot development and more on vignettes of Haruhi-adjacent shenanigans.
Or maybe it’s just because at the time of this discussion we’re in the thick of the Summer of SoL series at BtT? Slice-of-life is just on the brain, I guess. Anyways, I’d probably say Haruhi is a slice-of-life science-fiction comedy. I hesitate to call it a romcom, because the romance features in Melancholy and then sits on the back burner for the rest of the volumes. It’s like with Hyouka. Chitanda and Oreki definitely have a thing going, but the show is more interested in everyday mysteries and character analysis than their budding romance. Similarly, the Haruhi series, in my view, is more interested in its science-fiction setting and Haruhi’s shenanigans than Haruhi x Kyon.
What are your thoughts on the exceedingly quirky characters?
Jeskai: I think Haruhi is an acquired taste. I once tried to read vol. 1 of this series, but quickly dropped it when the title character turned out to be such a jerk. I later powered through the anime and found her somewhat more palatable. She was even more likable in the spinoff that seems to have been inspired by the altered universe of Disappearance. And finally, I read these four volumes and she continued to grow on me. When she’s not being a horrible person, she’s an entertaining mix of silliness, wit, and childlike curiosity. She’s also got some subtle tsundere vibes, where she’s actually a bit more caring than her usual cavalier bombast would lead you to think. Sometimes she’s a bully who could be the mean girl antagonist in a lot of more conventional high school romantic comedies. However, her desire for something wondrous, something beyond the mundanity of the world as we know it, makes her deeply relatable. By the end, I found that Haruhi reminded me a little of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s mischievous, godlike entity known as Q.
Twwk: First of all, it makes me so very happy that Haruhi has grown on you! She’s an all-time favorite character for me. I think tastes have changed over time, but when I first watched the anime (I didn’t read the light novels until much later), I found Haruhi to be a perfect blend: she’s high energy and rude, but rarely to the point of being obnoxious, and has a tenderness to her that is stronger than other famous tsunderes like Asuka. She’s a bit more mysterious to me in the light novels, a character more frequently talked about, giving her that goddess aura that the novelist is going for.
Gaheret: Ever since the first arc of the anime, Haruhi became a special character to me, and she remains so in the novels. I like how terrible she is at the beginning, absolutely disregarding everything but her own ideas and her own enjoyment, and her slow-burn redemption arc conveyed to us through small changes. Through romantic love and an unlikely hope, she gradually becomes capable of making greater and greater sacrifices for those around her. I like her initiative, her relapses when she’s jealous, and how her hope and her despair are portrayed. And her attempts to change herself and the world really speak to me.
sleepminusminus: I definitely agree with Jeskai; I sympathize with Haruhi’s desire for wonder and for the transcendent. I loved that scene with Haruhi and Kyon by the train tracks, where she tells the story about the baseball game and feeling insignificant in the crowd. That’s where she felt most real to me: like a teenage girl genuinely struggling with finding herself in a world that feels so suffocatingly mundane and meaningless.
That’s probably the only thing I like about Haruhi, though. I think she’s obnoxious, and even after reading these four volumes, I don’t see the tenderness that Twwk is talking about (unless it’s the scene I described above), though I can see small moments of growth, like her asking for people’s plans before forcing everyone to come to the Christmas party. Not to mention her uncomfortable interactions with Asahina, which almost made me stop reading at times.
Interestingly enough, I liked her better in the anime than I did here, if only because she definitely had a softer edge in the Disappearance movie, with her alternate-reality self and her care for Kyon.
Jeskai: I think Haruhi’s tsundere tenderness was most apparent in how she camped out in Kyon’s hospital room when he was injured, only to bombastically insist it wasn’t because she was worried about him or anything.
Twwk: I have an anime figure of Haruhi—it’s of her from Disappearance, complete with sleeping bag to pose near Kyon’s bedside. It is apparently a game-changing scene for many of us.
Jeskai: Kyon brings to mind other droll, cynical high school boy narrators like those in Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki and Oregairu, except less fun. He’s downright aggressively passive throughout most of the first three volumes, repeatedly going out of his way to insist that he’s helpless and has no choice in whatever is going on. Much like the ancient Israelites, Kyon is constantly murmuring and complaining, and it gets pretty tiresome. Haruhi is pretty unlikeable at first, but as I kept reading I found myself deciding Kyon is actually even more obnoxious (though the fourth volume did go a long way toward redeeming him). The Kyon of the first three volumes reminded of American president / imperialist / adventurer Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech (1910), and not in a good way. It’s a long speech, but a famous part of it includes the following:
The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes second to achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority, but of weakness.
That’s exactly who Kyon is. I said before that he reminded me of other high school boy narrators, but the big difference is that for most of the first three volumes, he isn’t witty, but rather just a kid trying unsuccessfully to be cool and clever and coming across as a whiny loser instead. Haruhi, for all her faults, is at least seeking something, trying to accomplish something, aspiring rather than just giving up and going with the flow like Kyon does. She is much closer to Roosevelt’s “man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive…” This difference is why, after three volumes, I liked the unlikeable Haruhi more than I did Kyon.
But then I read that fourth volume! Kyon finally acknowledges that he has agency. He admits to himself that he is Haruhi’s willing accomplice. He admits that he’s having fun and stops grumbling as much, or at least limits it to genuinely distressing situations. He gets quite literally bloody down in the arena. I still can’t quite say I like Kyon as a character after the fourth volume, but Disappearance did convince me that he has more potential to be interesting than the first three volumes let on. I wonder if he retains this character growth in subsequent volumes of the series.
Twwk: I love Kyon. I like all the main characters of the series very much, but Kyon is among my all-time favorites. His sass is just unbelievable, and I find it really, really funny, particularly because Kyon knows that he’s a loser but talks and thinks quite high and mighty until he’s pushed back down, usually by Haruhi. So he gives these grandiose asides that I often find quite witty, then realizes or is forced to realize that yeah, he’s just a normal dude.
I don’t know enough about light novels to really trace the impact of Haruhi Suzumiya on future light novels, but I can’t remember many featuring a “Kyon type” before this series, while we see so many nowadays. And though I’m partial to Oregairu’s Hikigaya, I still find Kyon to be the most entertaining of this type. He carries the narrative with his personality and humor—I would read a regular romcom with him as the lead—and is, I think, the perfect character to be the “normal” one experiencing all these unusual people and phenomena: he’s dry enough to add humorous reactions to all that’s happening, “weak” enough to let Haruhi trample all over him, and at heart, kind enough to try to protect Haruhi and his world, even when his only real power is the power of sass.
Gaheret: I also like Kyon a lot. I think he’s comedy gold, and I would say that he’s more like Shinji than Hikigaya. He reminds me of self-satisfied noir protagonists like the narrator of Out of the Past. All in all, Kyon is very similar to Haruhi, only he is trapped by his own passive, complicit attitude. Like her, he’s pretty awful at first. The things he does and the things he allows are beyond the pale, and he is incredibly dishonest with himself (and us), but he manages to be at the same time a believable, normal person. And yet, beneath the endless stream of small talk, comparisons he’s proud of, cynical reactions, and ridiculously erudite references, there is a hero in the making, and much like with the rest of the characters, Disappearance shows us a truth that was always there.
sleepminusminus: JeskaiAngel hit the nail on the head (also, I loved that comparison to the Israelites). Kyon’s great with his snark and grandiose speeches and dry humor, but he’s also continually cynical and downright lecherous at times, which really put me off. But I’d say that the visible change comes two volumes earlier, in The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya, where he gets annoyed at his friends for talking down on Haruhi’s efforts to make a success of the cultural festival. That’s one of the first times that he supports Haruhi on his own terms, rather than convincing himself that he’s just being dragged along.
Overall, Kyon’s a difficult character. He longs for the extraordinary but resigns himself to the ordinary, dreams up lofty ideals but lacks the courage to believe in them, recognizes his hypocrisy but lingers in apathy, and spends his time navel-gazing rather than opening his heart to the world and the people around him. He calls himself powerless to change his circumstances when he’s clearly capable of doing so. In many ways, he manifests the sin of acedia: the sin of willingly refusing to engage actively with the world, instead preferring idleness and despair.
And I find myself relating to that. It’s easy to see the brokenness of the world and close yourself off, convincing yourself that you don’t have the power to change things because you’re tired of the struggle. It’s easy to make peace with your idleness, even at the same time as you hate idleness in other people, because it’s just hard to put up a fight. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your inward gaze when engaging with the world runs the serious risk of pain or loss or disappointment. So while I don’t like Kyon’s character, I can see where he’s coming from.
Also, I’ll just throw out there that Kyon is much more fun in the anime. The boke-tsukkomi routine he does with himself is just funnier when spoken than when read.
Mikuru Asahina, Itsuki Koizumi, Nagato Yuki
Jeskai: I’m going to deal with all three of these at once because I think they share a major trait: Kyon doesn’t describe them fairly. I felt like I never really had a solid grasp on their motives, goals, or personalities, except for little hints. I don’t trust Kyon’s narration because of how one-dimensionally he tends to describe all characters besides Haruhi. Koizumi is always smiling. Asahina is always cute. Nagato is always emotionless. It’s not that the characters themselves are actually one-dimensional, but Kyon’s depictions of them are mostly flat, even when the characters’ actions and words imply they have more depth than he is acknowledging. The most obvious example of this is of course Nagato in vol. 4, where Kyon finally recognizes that she’s more than just a robot devoid of personality. I got the sense that there was also more to Koizumi and Asahina than Kyon’s stock descriptions would have us believe. In the end, I’m inclined to say these three characters are the biggest mysteries of the story. What really makes them tick? What are they really thinking and feeling, beyond the outward, superficial qualities that Kyon emphasizes?
Twwk: And that’s part of the charm of the novels—we know there’s more to the characters than what first meets the eye or what Kyon sees in them, but how much more? At the point we’ve left off, Asahina and Koizumi could potentially be antagonists for Kyon. This all feels a little like a silly Steins;gate: who do these characters become in the future? I don’t quite remember what I felt when first reading about Nagato’s self-sacrificial fight against Asakura, but it seems that by this point, she’s the character we know most about. Her motivations seem clearest and she is perhaps most supportive, though all three are proving to be good friends to Kyon (probably).
Mikuru, though, is my favorite—and probably because we get two in one. The “adorable” (as Kyon describes her) high school Mikuru is fun, but taken together with the wise, strong adult she becomes, her character has an added dimension that makes her more interesting. I think I may be the only Haruhi fan, though, that would pull for Mikuru ahead of Nagato when it comes to having Kyon’s affections.
Gaheret: Like Haruhi, those three are some of my favorite anime/LN characters ever. Tanigawa does many things well with them, but the thing I’m more impressed about is his foreshadowing. By Disappearance, we know that Yuki Nagato and Itsuki Koizumi have secrets that are hidden in plain sight, and each of them is quite compelling on its own. The three of them have very intriguing backgrounds and stories that we literally cannot imagine. How cool is that?
Koizumi’s jealousy towards Kyon and the fact that he likes Haruhi, put a spin on everything he has felt and done since he received his powers three years ago. I love how, as Jeskai mentions, we come to perceive that our narrator is being unfair to him. Even if Koizumi has a sometimes flawed way of thinking, he is a hero that sacrifices his chances at a normal life on a daily basis to save the world without any reward. Which is exactly what Kyon mentioned that he wanted to be himself in the first chapter. So maybe these two are just jealous of each other.
Although I don’t think that Kyon and Nagato fit together, she is my favorite character in the franchise. What we learn about the evolution of her feelings shows us the care with which all her small progressions have been depicted up to that point. Her becoming slightly angry, humorous, bored, friendly or lovestruck; her being surprised by these responses and reacting in small ways with the emotional resources that she has—all these things are a joy to watch and read about. Meanwhile, Kyon’s ignorance concerning her main motivation in Disappearance makes this story subtly tragic.
Lastly, I would say that Asahina’s dilemma is shown to us in the first Tanabata story. Only there, do we really learn how useless she feels, how confusing it is to receive instructions she doesn’t understand and is afraid to fail in carrying out, and how it all works out from the perspective of the older Asahina. I fully agree with Twwk that this comparison elevates her from a good character to a great one. Details like her being surprised that the ocean is salty, or the specific things she has (and hasn’t) told Tsuruya, are just so intriguing!
sleepminusminus: Kyon’s unreliable narration simultaneously fascinates and frustrates me. I agree with Jeskai: he’s stubbornly unfair to the other characters, which does add intrigue, but at the expense of getting me to actually care about them. As Gaheret said, I literally can’t imagine their backstories—but that’s more confusing than enticing to me.
But at the same time, it reminds me of that article Jeskai wrote a while ago about Tearmoon Empire‘s unreliable narration and what it says about Mia herself as the one whom the narrator fixates on. Why does Kyon speak so harshly about the others? What does he really think about them? What would they look like narrated from a more sympathetic perspective? So I can definitely see the appeal there.
Not too much to say about Asahina or Koizumi, though I appreciate Twwk and Gaheret’s perspective on the dynamics between Asahina’s teenage and adult selves—it’s something that I didn’t notice but that really deepens her character in my mind. And like Gaheret, my favorite is Yuki; I wish we had gone one volume further this time around so we could read the light-novel version of the Endless Eight.
Who is the protagonist of this story?
Jeskai: I thought I knew the answer to this question, but then Disappearance threw me off. I’d argue that for the first three volumes, Haruhi is the protagonist. In those volumes, I think you could replace Kyon with a snarky third-person narrator (a la Tearmoon Empire) without changing the story. He comments on what happens, but he doesn’t drive the plot. He’s the Watson to Haruhi’s Sherlock Holmes (or Hastings to Haruhi’s Hercule Poirot, if you prefer), narrating the tale without being the central character of it. In fact, considering how no one criticizes, opposes, or goes against the will of Haruhi as much as Kyon does, I think there’s a case for calling him the *antagonist* of the first three volumes.
But then I read the fourth volume. With Haruhi’s “disappearance,” Kyon becomes a real protagonist! Being the only one who understands that reality has been altered forces Kyon to really step up his game. For once, he must act on his own and can’t just go with the flow and be dragged around by the other four main characters. He is forced to make a real, meaningful choice about what he wants. Kyon previously dropped hints of protagonist-ism (like when he figured out Koizumi’s murder mystery scheme), but he displays greater character growth in the fourth volume, admitting that he had been too passive and unfairly critical of others. And in taking responsibility, he becomes a true protagonist in his own right, standing beside Haruhi as her peer, if not her equal, in the protagonist role.
Twwk: I agree that Kyon is the protagonist of the fourth volume and that Haruhi would be of the first three. But overall? I think it’s too early to tell. Is it Kyon that’s going to grow and learn and possibly save the universe? Or will Haruhi be the one who grows most considerably and ultimately makes a good decision for the universe? I would still tend toward Kyon, with perhaps his saving of Haruhi (and the world) in volume one a precursor of a larger future event. But we shall see…or we maybe won’t. I don’t think this series, unfortunately, will ever receive a proper ending.
Gaheret: For my part, I think it’s Kyon. Haruhi is a co-protagonist, but it’s his desires and worries that really move the plot forward. This story is completely different from Haruhi’s perspective because she is unaware of the supernatural plot. She can only try to instill hope blindly, but he is the one that may understand the situation and make the big decisions.
sleepminusminus: 4/4 for Kyon. What sells it for me in the first three books is a quirk of the storytelling. Kyon will often say things in the narration that the other characters respond to! Maybe it’s just a quirk of the English localization, but there are no quotation marks a lot of the time, and the other characters are still responding to his mental dialogue. Kyon’s telling the story, so Kyon’s the center of the conversation, even when he doesn’t explicitly say anything. Also, the previous discussion about Kyon’s unreliable narration supports this point. Decenter Kyon and the story would be significantly different. A lot more straightforward—and probably a lot duller.
We’ll finish off the discussion next week when we ask meaty questions like, Why is Haruhi rebelling, and dig into the fun stuff too, like comparing the franchise to Evangelion! See you then!