Welcome back to Text x Context, the new BtT feature that examines multiple light novels at the same time! Previously on Text x Context, we began a discussion of the first four volumes of the popular Haruhi Suzumiya series. We had so much to talk about with this thought-provoking story that we needed two posts for it. Let’s get back to it!
Why does Haruhi choose Kyon?
Jeskai: I think Kyon starts out as a mirror for Haruhi. Both are self-centered, hypocritical, hypercritical know-it-alls who understand far less about the people around them than they realize. If Haruhi is a god, then Kyon is made in her image. Haruhi obviously considers herself the smartest person in the room, and though Kyon is more subtle about his sense of superiority, he frequently expounds on how he’s the straight man, the voice of reason, the only “normal” member of the group. That’s Kyon’s role in Haruhi’s world: he’s the one who is most like her, the one who is most truly her peer, friend, and fellow protagonist.
Twwk: I’ll have to chew on that explanation a bit. I’ll go with something more obvious, which is that even though Kyon finds Haruhi attractive, he doesn’t talk to her in order to try to date her. He’s genuine with her and keeps talking to her even when the whole world thinks she’s crazy. In other words, he accepts her as she is. That in itself makes him unique, and a character worth bringing into her vision of the world.
Gaheret: I think it’s the shared feeling of despair and the desire for adventure, hope, depth, and even heroism. Haruhi shares her experience of hopelessness as a child with Kyon because she correctly perceives that he is going through a similar crisis of hope, even if he denies it. The Haruhi in Disappearance had no SOS Brigade because Kyon is the reason for it. Here, she is trying to get him to live differently, to grow, and to take the initiative, regarding her and more generally because, from the first arc, his appreciation for the world inspires her to try to appreciate it too. Disappearance shows us just how lost Kyon is without that.
sleepminusminus: Haruhi represents the extraordinary, the transcendent, the supernatural, while Kyon represents the ordinary, the everyday, and the natural. Haruhi chooses Kyon because while she longs for more than this world, she also doesn’t want any less. She loves this world. That’s why she doesn’t recreate it in Melancholy. That’s why she spends so much time working on the cultural festival in Sigh (after all, cultural festivals happen every year—it’s not like a once-in-a-lifetime extraordinary event!) That’s why she signs up for a baseball tournament in Boredom. And that’s why her idea of the perfect Christmas in Disappearance is actually a somewhat tame hot pot party.
What do you think about Haruhi’s rebellion against her everyday life?
Gaheret: It really resonates with me. I’m trying to live a heroic life, in touch with wonder and what I believe to be the meaning of the Universe. While there are many dangers in the life of a Christian, mundanity, a thirst for worldly things, and an apathetic attitude are among the most dangerous. The melancholy of despair, the lies we tell ourselves, and the “rebellion of the wonder” are themes that really speak to my heart, and Haruhi’s fight, even if flawed, unites them with a great appreciation for daily things and ordinary people.
Jeskai: I mostly agree with everything you said, Gaheret, but I do think that like Kyon, Haruhi’s initial outlook is flawed and later shows signs of growth. I specifically take issue with Haruhi’s dismissal of “ordinary humans.” In context, it’s ironic and funny because she and everyone in the SOS Brigade are far from ordinary, but it also reminds me of a famous C. S. Lewis quotation:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.The Weight of Glory
I think Haruhi starts to acknowledge this as the story slowly hints that she cares more about her brigade members than she lets on. She comes to treasure Kyon and the others—perhaps even more than she herself realizes—despite how “ordinary” she believes them to be. So, with the caveat that everyday life can be more extraordinary than we (or Haruhi) realize, I do appreciate her pursuit of wonder and meaning.
What are your thoughts on the story’s worldbuilding?
And especially the way in which sci-fi/fantasy (or imagination) crosses over into the (seemingly) prosaic real-world setting?
Jeskai: To me, the obvious comparison here is the Rascal Does Not Dream series, which feels like it sometimes tries to skew closer to hard sci-fi, but ends up as pure fantasy, with the science taking a back seat. The “rules” of the paranormal phenomena are all over the place, giving the story more of a fantasy vibe even though it actually makes more explicit references to science. Yet, though the world-building of Haruhi Suzumiya doesn’t even pretend to be truly scientific, a couple of elements actually make it feel more “sci-fi” than I expected. First, we hear competing theories about Haruhi’s nature from Koizumi, Nagato, and Asahina. This shows us that the characters within the setting are trying to make sense of Haruhi rationally, thereby encouraging us as the readers to join them in looking for some underlying rationale to all the weirdness. Second, the story seems to make an effort to be internally consistent with some of its strange phenomena (e.g., treating the different instances of time travel according to the same set of rules). The result is a tale that feels more like sci-fi than fantasy.
Twwk: I agree that the series has a surprisingly strong sci-fi edge to it. I’ve struggled with the Rascal Does Not Dream series because while I fully enjoy the interactions between characters, I hate hate hate the “science” that it weaves into its world. I can’t buy it. It’s too silly. But Haruhi, which chooses to be six or seven different things (and I would say does all of them well), also throws in “science fiction” among the bunch, most emphatically when Koizumi, Asahina, or Nagato give long explanations related to who they are. It’s such a shift in tone as these otherwise comical and fairly representative characters show themselves to be experts in their fields. And it helps make the leaps in the series—both tonal and temporal—believable.
Gaheret: I think it’s brilliant. And I think we can trace the cheeky and character-driven use of sci-fi conventions that somehow manages to be consistent back to Evangelion. Haruhi has a lot of fun with its science, both in what it says and what it implies. For example, I think that the idea that the iterations of Kyon and Asahina from the third novel are sleeping in a nearby room when Kyon visits Nagato for the first time in Melancholy is just too funny. The daily world is pretty lively, with compelling characters and scenarios, and I really like the tone of Kyon’s normal school life.
sleepminusminus: I agree with Twwk and Jeskai that this series does sci-fi far better than Rascal does, though I would say that Kamoshida, the author of the Rascal Does Not Dream series, isn’t even writing science-fiction—science is just Rio’s language for the fantastic events going on, and one of many languages that Sakuta employs in trying to find his way around Adolescence Syndrome. In contrast, Tanigawa is explicitly writing science-fiction with the convoluted accounts of Haruhi and her origin, purpose, and destiny.
The reading experience:
Next year will be 20 years since the first novel was published, leading to widespread acclaim and excitement. If you read it for the first time years ago, how might your experience differ if you experienced it for the first time now, or if this is your first reading, how might your reception have been different two decades ago?
Jeskai: Hmm, back in 2003, I think my high school self’s initial reaction would have been…exactly the same as it was a few years ago when I first tried to pick up vol. 1. I would have found it completely unenjoyable and dropped it halfway through due to Haruhi’s abrasive personality and cruel behavior. Of course, I was barely aware of anime and completely ignorant of light novels back in 2003, so that would have been another barrier to appreciating it. And I was conservative as all get-out back then, so I suspect I would have found the story morally unacceptable in one way or another. This question is really making me aware of how much my attitudes and interests have changed.
Twwk: If I were to have read these novels now instead of when I first did, years ago, I don’t know if I could enjoy them as much. The crazy arcs, mystery elements, and jumps in time are elements that I think are still courageous to use and fairly unique to light novels, but the characters themselves are less so, now more than ever. Haruhi and Kyon, particularly, have been copied a thousand times over. Hachiman, at least for the first half to two-thirds of the Oregairu run, is a better Kyon, which might lead me to pull him off the pedestal I’ve placed him on—at least partially.
But you know what? At the same time, I only read the last several volumes of Haruhi in recent years. And I still find them as entertaining as virtually any light novels I’ve ever read.
Gaheret: I was nine in 2003, and I was reading the likes of Harry Potter and Around the World in Eighty Days. I don’t think I would have enjoyed Haruhi. Specifically, I suspect the fanservice would have led me to drop it instantly, too.
sleepminusminus: Along with the fanservice, the one thing I noticed is an oddity of the English localization; the translators make frequent use of the r-word, which made me cringe every single time I read it. The first time they used the word I had to do a double-take and check when the book was published. It’s wild to me that they were able to publish this book in the US without controversy just a little over ten years ago (though in fairness, maybe there was a backlash that I’m not aware of).
Taking into account these first volumes, where do you think this story could be going?
Gaheret: I think that Disappearance proves that everything that happens is meaningful foreshadowing. And while the center of the story is the struggle of Haruhi and Kyon to live a meaningful life, the secondary characters receive their fair share of attention and compelling twists. I hope to see an all-out confrontation with a hopeful resolution that has an impact on the lives of major and minor characters alike. And one that serves as a foundation for Haruhi and Kyon’s romance, too. Something like the ending of the first arc, only everyone sees it.
Jeskai: I agree. Disappearance shows that despite how choppy and episodic the story sometimes feels in the first three volumes, there IS an overall plot (complete with foreshadowing) that ties everything together. The author isn’t just writing a slice-of-life series. I imagine Haruhi’s continued story will be much the same as these volumes, with escalating high-stakes sci-fi adventure juxtaposed with comical absurdity and high school relationship drama. Ugh. I almost feel tempted to read more of the series now. LOL.
Twwk: I won’t answer this question since I’ve completed the run of light novels that are currently published, but I just wanted to chime in here and say YESSSSSS to Jeskai being tempted to continue with the series!
sleepminusminus: Seeing as we got more details about Yuki’s character in Disappearance, I’d expect more detail for the other two side characters, Asahina and Koizumi. I don’t see the series going much farther with the romance.
What is the Haruhi franchise trying to say?
Gaheret: I think it has a message of existential hope and the appreciation of life and love, both for the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Jeskai: I might be overthinking it, but I also kind of see the light novels (less so the anime) as a critique of the modern, rationalist, materialist tendency to deny or explain away the supernatural, to treat science as opposing faith, and to preen our feathers and look down our noses at those ignorant and superstitious people of the past who had such quaint misconceptions about the world. The first volume opens with Kyon’s smug monologue about how he was too smart to ever believe in Santa Claus. I hate Santa Claus myself, so I don’t really mind Kyon’s statement, but his initial attitude seems emblematic of a broader dismissal of the supernatural. The rest of the story proceeds to beat him over the head with the fact that although not all strange phenomena are paranormal, there is indeed more to reality than the physical world we perceive.
Twwk: I don’t think you’re overthinking it, Jeskai. There’s enough depth here to believe that the author really wanted to impress that thoughtful theme, as well as the philosophical ideas that Gaheret has discussed in his ongoing series of posts on the anime.
There’s also the idea that we matter. Haruhi is obsessed with how little she matters, though the series shows her to be rather the most important being of all. Kyon, in contrast, has nothing of what Haruhi is apparently looking for that would make him significant, but he’s more significant than anyone else to her. And yet, he’s normal. Is there meaning in being just a regular person? Yes, and this is expressed through Kyon’s centrality to the series. And so we, perhaps as sarcastic 16-year-olds reading this series, must matter too.
And I would add to all this something simpler as well, which harkens back to the Santa introduction: maybe believing in the unknown, the spiritual, and the fantastic isn’t something we should ever grow out of or abandon. Maybe being a chuunibyou isn’t so bad after all.
sleepminusminus: The chuunibyou parallels are definitely palpable: the love for both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the interplay between the dramatic and the everyday, and the search for meaning and identity somewhere outside this world.
To Jeskai’s point, I think the series expresses a critique of modernism even if doing so wasn’t the author’s conscious intent. Modern culture is both starved of and starving for the transcendent. We want magic to be real even if we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not. And so there’s probably that theme at work implicitly here as well.
How do these novels compare to the well-known anime adaptation The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya?
Jeskai: I think I like the anime slightly better overall. Like other anime adaptations of heavily comedic stories, the addition of visual and aural elements helps to convey the humor in a way that the written word can’t quite accomplish. Then again, the anime had the “Endless Eight” and the light novel thankfully didn’t, so that’s at least one point (eight points?) in favor of the books. There’s also the fact that Disappearance isn’t part of the anime. (I understand there’s a movie based on it, but it’s not as accessible as just watching anime on Crunchyroll, so I haven’t seen it.) This matters because I enjoyed the fourth volume quite a bit more than the first three; in other words, the anime is missing the best part of the story so far.
Twwk: If you like the anime a little more now, you’ll like it a whole lot better after the movie. It is an all-time great anime film (though I guess I would say Disappearance is an all-time great light novel volume—at least based on my reading). I have such a love for the series, and if we’re talking about only the first four novels, I would go with the anime + film. We’re not covering the rest of the Haruhi volumes here, but with how the story has expanded, I now enjoy the light novels more.
Adding “voice” to the characters is a huge win for the anime. Both English and Japanese versions were well-cast, but I think maybe the American version is better. Hearing Crispin Freeman reading Kyon’s thoughts in my head makes the novel oh so entertaining.
A positive for the light novel series though is that I think those long asides from Koizumi, Asahina, and Nagato are more palatable in book form. They’re expected when you read novels. But when 25% of an episode is a character talking about being a data interface unit, I tend to tune out.
Gaheret: KyoAni’s direction is brilliant. The music is spot on, the visuals are very cool, and the contrasts between the normal and the weird are clearer than in the novels. By now, I even like the Endless Eight. Kyon’s dialogue gets much less tiresome when he doesn’t need to narrate (and comment on) everything that is happening. Plus, the anime has small moments without him that are very clarifying, especially in the chapter Someday in the Rain. Tanigawa’s style has clearly improved over time too, so I found Melancholy underwhelming (not Disappearance though, which may have been the best LN I have read so far). I still like the anime slightly more, though.
The Remote Island arc, specifically, was elevated in the anime adaptation, with additional context, jokes and scenarios (like how Haruhi and Kyon fall into a cave when searching for the killer) and with some, ahem, questionable ideas removed. Why do Haruhi and Kyon need to get drunk? Things are already controversial enough as it is! I liked that Kyon had a mother and a father in the novels though, and that they are repeatedly mentioned as a part of his daily life.
sleepminusminus: I was wondering where that cave scene went! Makes a lot more sense now that I know that’s anime-original. As for me, I liked Kyon and Haruhi better in the anime, and it was Kyoto Animation, so it’s really a foregone conclusion.
What do you think about the parallels between Haruhi and other deconstructive shows like Evangelion or Monogatari?
Gaheret: Haruhi has some striking parallels with Evangelion, in terms of both characters and style (an established anime genre repurposed as an existential piece). Ayanami and Nagato are the names of ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Koizumi looks like Kaworu, and the influence of Asuka can definitively be felt in Haruhi. Even Taniguchi and Kunikida are similar to Shinji’s classmates. I think this can only be intentional. At some points, it works as a parody of NGE. At others, it’s a continuation of its themes. Monogatari is a different kind of deconstructive show, but Haruhi shares with it a strong focus on the central conflicts of the characters and the use of fantastical elements to explore them.
Twwk: This is an awesome question—I’ve never thought of comparing Haruhi to Evangelion, nor read of others making that comparison. But gosh, the similarities are indeed striking. Gaheret didn’t mention that Rei resembles Nagato (and I think far more than Haruhi does Asuka—wait, does that mean Mikuru is Misato? Or maybe…Pen-Pen?).
But now that the comparison is made, Haruhi seems like it could have been born in part out of a desire to make a happier, less depressing Evangelion. Though that was later done through manga adaptations of the “happy world” episode of NGE, and then somewhat through the Rebuild series years later, Haruhi is far better crafted than the NGE episode, and more thoroughly optimistic than Rebuild.
Jeskai: Well, I just realized that, given the seasonal timing and the alternate reality premise, Disappearance is slightly reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, and that’s hilarious. It could also be seen as a nod to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with a seasonally-timed supernatural experience that changes someone’s perspective. Another sudden realization: that black shape in the background of each of the novel covers is a giant H for Haruhi.
Finally, a moment I think worth highlighting: I thought it was super funny when Asakura came up and stabbed Kyon in vol. 4. Like, dude, you know you just need to shoot Nagato with the injection gun to fix the space-time continuum…so you stand there monologuing for ten minutes like a cliché, giving the opposition time to fight back. As he rambled on, I found myself thinking “Something will definitely go wrong,” and then a couple of pages later, behold, it came to pass! Pretty sure the protagonist getting stabbed isn’t normally supposed to be so entertaining, but Kyon pulled it off.
And that levity-filled moment concludes our first Text x Context post! If you made it this far, thanks for reading! And please let us know whether you like this sort of content! As for next time… we have a little surprise for you from another world! Normally we otaku associate the “isekai” premise—the idea of being transported to another world—with Japanese media, but it’s not a uniquely Japanese concept. So next time, we’re going to tackle a combination of old-school American “isekai” alongside some prominent Japanese examples of the genre. Tune in to see what mindblowing, earth-shattering discoveries we make!