I am so excited to finally talk about this series (recently re-licenced and re-released by Funimation). For a bit of a confession, this is actually one of my favorite anime series (in fact, only Eva and FMA2003 hold closer connections to me personally), having found it years after the zeitgeist for it had ended (that zeitgeist occurred when I was in middle school, so before I looked deeply into anime as a medium). So, allow me to act as a guide through this little oddity, this decade-old relic, of anime fandom.
So, before I go into more context on the scene the show premiered in, lets look at the first episode. First, a disclaimer: this episode is a film within the show, specifically a student film our protagonists made. Out of our main cast, the three supporting characters are our actors, our lead is the cameraman and narrator, and our title character is the screenwriter, director, editor (at least, I think she edited it), and is not in the film at all. The episode is showing us a film that high-schoolers made (“This plot seems like it was written by a drunk twelve-year-old!”), so it is awkward, incomprehensible, and off-putting to people either not familiarized with the series and it’s sense of humor, or are looking for an animated masterpiece from Kyoto Animation. Granted, in my opinion, this is KyoAni’s masterpiece and a vast majority of their output (like K-On!) are well-animated garbage, but that’s besides the point.
On the topic of KyoAni, I applaud them for going all-out with the attempts to turn this episode into a bad student film. If the screenshot above is any indication, while not sacrificing their character animation, the episode uses filters and lighting to make the screen resemble a DV recording (well, either DV or some cassette format, which is just my way of saying that it looks cheap), which is no small task for an animation studio (let alone a television anime studio). The way that the animation replicates that specific look (which is different from most modern camcorders, which shoot some form of HD video, or even phone cameras) would itself be enough to make me praise this episode.
Thankfully, the actual writing is great. The episode essentially plays out like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or their many, many imitators), where a bad movie is playing and we are treated to sarcastic commentary mocking it. The “film’s” plot is about a battle-waitress from the future shadowing a young boy with esper abilities whose powers haven’t awakened while trying to stop an alien who wants to control him. In case you couldn’t tell, it is impossible to understand the plot without the protagonist Kyon’s commentary. Of course, his commentary also serves to make fun of the project (he’s the source of the “drunk twelve-year-old” quote from earlier, as well as his repeated mentionings of when the camera is just shooting the sky). While his presence makes the episode seem obnoxious, he helps liven up what could’ve been a dull, cringe-inducing mess.
Of special note, despite being episode 00 and not actually focusing on the same misadventures the rest of the series does, it actually serves as an introduction to the main cast’s group dynamic. Haruhi acts as a leader, energetic and enthusiastic, but not really thinking out many of her plans or ambitions (as I mentioned before, she is the drunk twelve-year-old). Mikuru (the bunnygirl in the image above and the one playing the battle waitress) is essentially her plaything, made to parade in whatever outfit she decides and never feeling comfortable in them, as well as being eternally embarrassed and easily shamed. Nagato (the other girl in the image above) just dully goes around, barely, if at all, getting involved with Haruhi’s plots anymore than “I’m here”. Itsuki (the one playing the esper) exists to follow Haruhi’s every command and gives us all of the worst lines (to quote Kyon: “I mean, I think that’s what happened. Seriously, that dialogue was incomprehensible.”). Kyon, while also having to listen to Haruhi, is not doing so silently, spending the whole ordeal criticizing everyone’s blanket acceptance of her every command, commenting on every cliche they end up trying to fulfill, and giving us a creepy inner monologue about his attraction towards Mikuru (I know he’s the cameraman because of the many shots with her that just focus on her chest, which happens a lot). Given that this dynamic is given to us in an indirect manner, I applaud the adaptation staff for giving us this episode.
Finally, after the “film” ends, we finally get to see our eponymous character as she boasts about how great the film was while trying to get validation from a now-miserable Kyon (another character dynamic introduced). And with that, the episode ends, hopefully serving to interest the viewers to check out episode 1.
If you couldn’t tell, this is actually my favorite episode. Beyond setting up many different aspects of the series, this episode also just panders to the part of my that just likes snide remarks towards mediocrity, as well as being able to appreciate the way KyoAni actually made the episode look like a no-budget student film (the difference between the film and the ending scene is like night and day). I was expecting this to not age well, but it is just as funny now, if not just a bit more (mainly due to having seen this before and being interested in filmmaking), as when I first saw this. I am genuinely looking forward to revisiting the upcoming episodes and seeing if they hold up nearly as well.
FINAL GRADE: A+
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is available on home video from Funimation and is streaming on Funimation.com