Thursday, 25 June 2009

Suzumiya Haruhi: The Case for the Defence

A harsh and well-aimed salvo from the ever-enjoyable Colony Drop at the moment which puts me in the hateful position of being by default on the same side of the argument as hordes of people for whom I feel nothing but disdain and a smidgen of pity.

Summary of Colony Drop's position: Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu is shit.

Transcription of first comment beneath the original article: your a faget

Summary my feelings about typical Haruhi fans: Sigh.

My defence of Haruhi rests largely on four main pillars. Firstly, it is a postmodernist's paradise, not just for the wealth of references to other anime (Lucky Star has more and is a worse show), but also the way it uses genre cliches not as lazy "look at this, this often happens, now laugh" crimes of self-referentiality, but as metaphors that draw analogues between oft-repeated one-dimensional pop cultural tropes and the lives of the real people that were born out of the same culture.

Secondly and relatedly, as I have talked about at length before, it is a show with big themes that takes a sharp look at genuine contemporary sociological issues in Japan and other post-industrial societies. Yes, the members of the SOS-dan are stereotypes taken straight from Azuma Hiroki's database, but Haruhi is a distorted caricature that contains something real at her core. Similarly Kyon is an audience surrogate but he succeeds as an audience surrogate by actually being a character that not only articulates the superficial characteristics of his target audience, but also embodies their deeper concerns. Modern Japanese and other citizens of other post-industrial transnationalopolises emerge from childhood and face an adult world filled with employment practices that are either hangovers from previous generations (Japan's postwar work-all-the-hours-God-gives-and-never-change-careers lifetime formula) or dehumanised neo-liberal dystopias (free contracts with no benefits and you're fired at the first hint of economic bad times). There is a massive segment of society that is overeducated and immediately disenfranchised, and it clings to its memories of childhood as a response to its missing place in adult society, whilst at the same time being too clever and aware to be able to accept those memories on their own terms anymore. The tension between these two conflicting characteristics is represented by Kyon and Haruhi, and is what makes them real as characters, as well as what gives the show it's zeitgeist punch. Haruhi and Kyon are the only characters in the show that matter, because they alone embody the show's central dilemmas -- the intertwining strands that link childhood and adulthood, the known and unknown, the expected and the desired. One can find them irritating as characters and I can't help that, but in the context of the series, their motivations come across to me as as sincere and so I can be carried along by them.

The third pillar is Haruhi's mastery of structure, particularly in how it plays the plant and the payoff. The initial out of sequence broadcast was very carefully designed to drop hints in earlier episodes of things that wouldn't be explained until later ones -- the appearance of a pile of unused laptops in one episode, with the story of how they were acquired only appearing later, for example. The new series adds to this by each new episode coming in at a particular point within the chronology of the original series and illuminating details that had previously been left hanging such as the reason why Haruhi seemed to recognise Kyon on their first meeting. In addition, the show's non-sequential broadcast emphasises its own postmodern aspects. By cutting up the plot it shrugs its shoulders dismissively at the aspects of the show that are most open to criticism and by focussing on the key points in the relationship between Haruhi and Kyon, it nods its head towards the emotional meta-narrative that is the true heart of the drama.

The fourth pillar of my support for Haruhi is a little more (subtle pun alert) vaguely defined. In some ways it is just one of a number of cartoons that have appeared over the last dozen years or so that demonstrates the emergence in the world of anime of something resembling the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave movement in French cinema of the 1960s.

Like Haruhi, the classic French New Wave film takes delight in intellectualising trashy pop culture. In fact the origin of the Nouvelle Vague was the critics' journal Cahiers du Cinema, which was precisely that: a magazine where geeks over-analysed trashy Hollywood movies and took huge amounts of delight in aspects of the filmmaker's craft that the creators of those films themselves had likely never even considered. As a result, even when the Cahiers writers were directing films that played on traditional Hollywood themes, they were never simply repeating or pandering to Hollywood tastes, because firstly they were creating from the perspective of fans, which puts a layer between them and their source to begin with, and secondly they were creating from the perspective of critics, which meant that their own work could never take its source at face value.

The end result is a lot of clever-cleverness, which is undoubtedly a question of tolerance. A lot of people find Godard and early Truffaut unbearable because of the insufferable self-referentiality of their films, but they nevertheless represent something important in French cinema of the 1960s. Their fans would argue that rather than being a cold, introverted gang giggle, the self-referentiality is part of an exhuberant expression of their own generation, where the process of filmmaking and the romance of cinema's inherent deception is celebrated. The hero of French New Wave was often a faintly detached, bohemian, 1960s everyman who was dragged, half-interested, through a cinematic looking glass and then dumped at the end of it with a nonchalant Gallic shrug. Like Kyon, he was an audience surrogate (or at least a surrogate for what the audience wanted to be), but like Kyon he was also something seperate from the genre heroes he sometimes emulated. He could exist within the action whilst simultaneously being aware of the screen that framed him. In order to relate to him then, the audience too has to accept a world that is both within the frame, but also able to view the frame from a third person perspective. In essence, the audience becomes a participant in the events of the film rather than simply a passive viewer.

The most New Wave moment in Haruhi is the episode (Episode 0) that shows the film Haruhi directed for the school festival (Nooooooo! Heavy meta overload!) What it shares with its French cousins is a love bordering on obsession with the minor mechanics of filmmaking. It simultaneously indulges practically every cliche of bad anime and tokusatsu shows, whilst at the same time dissecting, critiquing and satirising them in a way that the Colony Drop writer would perhaps find deeply annoying; however, that argument only works if you take the position that firstly the indulgence trumps the critique, and secondly that these two aspects are the only things going on. The key aspect that makes this episode such a good piece of filmmaking and writing is really the attention to detail in the way it explores the whole filmmaking process through Haruhi's inept production. We don't see her physically on screen but we get to see Haruhi herself as a character by viewing the world through her own camera lens. She is made more human by the way she gets small things wrong like the many continuity errors and the appearance of boom mics in frame, and also by her unthinking adherence to meaningless directorial cliches such as the vertical panning shot at the end of a scene. At the same time she is recognisably herself by the manic and usually unexplained plot shifts that she forces on the viewers. There's something quite Spinal Tap about the way portraying something done badly can illuminate the process by which the good stuff is also created, and there's also a sense of postmodern romance and elation at seeing a character who is so into the process of creation that they don't care or even notice how bad it is. It was the first episode I ever saw of Haruhi and it provided the lens through which I viewed the entire series.

Of course I'm not saying that any fan of French New Wave would necessarily go for Haruhi because their frames of reference are entirely different, but structurally they are doing something similar. Part of what makes Haruhi so easy to hate is that it is wilfully of its own generation, in the process driving a wedge between itself and fans of the previous generation of anime fans (or fans of the previous generation of anime). Nevertheless, shows like the execreble Kannagi also do this, without any of the intelligence and attention to the minor details of plotting and filmmaking that Haruhi does.

Summary of this blog post: Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu is good.

7 comments:

omo said...

Well played. I enjoyed your reply to that Colony Drop post.

I also think you nailed it well, with each of your "pillars"; maybe except the "more vaguely defined" one since I'm not entirely sure how you connect French New Wave with Haruhi.

I do have to wonder what makes Kannagi particularly detestable to you. To me it is just as attentive to detail as anything from Haruhi. Perhaps it is over the top, rather, that makes it forced?

Botoggle said...

I still disagree with you on the overall merits of the show, but I'm very pleased our post elicited an intelligent response rather than some sort of three-part jerk-off session about flagrantly misinterpreting selected lines from the editorial. I'm really not sure how they got "all parody is bad" out of what we wrote; the majority of Haruhi is not the same type of work as Airplane! or This is Spinal Tap at all.

I remember being very fond of "Episode 0" back when the show first aired. I saw it as a goofy, sometimes even biting satire of the worst of Japanese cartoon plots, as well as a loving tribute to amateur film-making. Then I discovered that the joke was actually that the plot of the show really was like that, minus the amateur film-making gags, and I fell into despair.

moritheil said...

"Like Haruhi, the classic French New Wave film takes delight in intellectualising trashy pop culture."

I'd argue that's what a great many anime bloggers do. No surprise, then, that anime bloggers like Haruhi.

dotdash said...

>Omo
Kannagi just shows how thin the line can be between what works for me and what doesn't. It's hard to explain but the clip I link to is representative of something I don't like about the show: this slightly unpleasant glee in the pulling down of women from their pedestals and making them into something ridiculous to be mocked. I let Haruhi get away with the casual misogyny because I have this theory that there aren't actually any female characters in it. Asahina and Nagato aren't real enough to count as characters, and Haruhi herself is basically written as a boy.

The bottom line, though, is that I feel the central relationship of Haruhi is built on quite an original observation about people's lives in modern society, and this means that the two lead characters behave in a way I find believable. From what I've seen of Kannagi it has the surface of Haruhi but not the heart. To couch it in postmodern terms, Kannagi is flat, but Haruhi is "superflat".

>Boontoggle
Anime doesn't like to bite the hand that feeds it though, so you won't find much real satire. If you upset fans you get fired, like that one guy from Gainax who dared speak the truth. Even stuff like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei and Excel Saga always pull back from the brink. The best satire of otaku culture I can think of is Kon Satoshi's stuff. He seems to genuinely dislike them. With Haruhi though, I'd say that the anime references are at worst window dressing, and at best actually do something to illuminate the characters' inner lives.

>Moritheil
The Cahiers du Cinema crew were the bloggers of their age. Also note the way at the end of the clip from A Bout de Souffle that I link to in the article, a geeky, plain looking girl comes up to Jean-Paul Belmondo and tries to sell him a copy of Cahiers while spouting some guff about "youth" (he ignores her of course because he's far more interested in getting Jean Seberg into bed again). This is pretty similar in its reflexive self-mocking to Konata from Lucky Star logging onto the Internet after watching an episode of Haruhi so that she can start flaming it.

omo said...

> dotdash
I agree and understand what you say, but personally I found Takako, Akiba and Daitetsu all reasonable exaggeration of believable personalities. I have to confess that at times I feel just like how Takako feels...

And at the same time I don't think it degrades women any more or less than how it degrades men. There's fair treatment at the least compared to far most anime out there.

But I think Haruhi definitely was able to connect with a lot of its viewers via Kyon and Haruhi.

Sometimes I think the stuff does bite the hand that feeds, it's just more pointed and cunningly hidden.

guriguriblog said...

What an excellent article. I think you are spot on with your four pillars. Personally I rate Haruhi at about 8/10, since I believe there are opportunities to perform better in those pillar areas. Just one example would be the structure of episode airings (i.e. I would've aired the detective episodes together, didn't make sense to skip one for me), and maybe the characters could've been more rich (i.e. Yuki and Mikuru especially, who to me felt like they were there for the sake of plot only. no real connection. wonderful characterisation with Haruhi and Kyon though).

But I this is a wonderful in showing how Haruhi is innovative, ground-breaking and is definitely NOT crap :D

dotdash said...

I don't deny that there are numerous criticisms that can be legitimately levelled at Haruhi (and Colony Drop make those criticisms well), although I think that, like Evangelion, it's a show where those criticisms are rendered kind of irrelevant by the sheer generation-defining nowness of it.