Aside from last week's jaunt into the bizarre world of Akikan, I have largely avoided the high school drama subgenre of anime. I've never really heard enough good things about it to justify sitting and watching more than a few episodes of any particular series. The exception to this rule is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a show adapted from a series of light novels written by Nagaru Tanigawa. Up until I watched Haruhi, I had no concept of the light novel, at least not directly. Western literature has always had the novella, which really just straddles the line between novel and short story. Certain writers have been known to pen thin volumes out of habit, like Marguerite Duras and Stanislaw Lem, but that was always more of a stylistic choice of the individual author than a genre on its own. In Japan, light novels are targeted to the teen market. It's fluffy fare they read on the train and during lunch at school. Unlike a lot of anime adapted from long fiction, Haruhi retains its literary tone. The story is told from the perspective of a young man nicknamed Kyon who becomes fascinated by an eccentric girl at school named Haruhi Suzumiya. Haruhi has a lot of strange habits and she doesn't really mix well with others. She has an open contempt for those she deems "regular" people and often mentions how she would prefer to interact with elements of the supernatural or creatures from science fiction. This leads her to start a school club, the SOS Brigade, with the sole purpose of finding such weird things, but eventually serves to reveal the actual supernatural qualities of some of the people in club. Without giving away too much, there's magic and robots and shadowy agencies, only it's not as bad or as over-done as that sounds. At first I knew there was something different about this anime, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I got to the key scene at the initial creation of the SOS Brigade. Haruhi essentially kidnaps a girl from another class named Mikuru and forces her to be a part of the club. Her reason? Because Mikuru is quintessentially Moe. I had a friend explain Moe to me. It's pronounced "moh-eh" and it's an increasingly ridiculous convention in manga and anime to make a female character who is shy and weak, but also inherently sexualized, often to the point of fetish. In her introductory scene, Mikuru stands silent and sheepish while Haruhi explains Moe to Kyon.
Haruhi: It's a rule that in stories with strange things going on, you have to have one Moe character...After that, Haruhi proceeds to grab Mikuru's breasts and rave about how awesome it is that she's completely out of proportion: tiny body, huge tits. Add shyness to that and you've got Moe. The above is why Haruhi works as an anime for me. It's a smirking, postmodern approach to what is essentially a long procession of cliche. Once again, it seems the best of the genre comes from a mind that has more than a little contempt for it. Comprehension: 10/10- The weirdness here is right out in front. Maybe I'm just getting used to it, but nothing really confused me here. Enjoyment: 8/10- It was still a high school plot and it was still very anime-ish, but the punky genre references rescued Haruhi for me. Improvement of Understanding: 10/10- More than its willingness to make fun of otaku and modern anime conventions, I loved the solid narrative. It made me realize what I feel has been missing in so many other anime series and movies. A strong voice with more than a rudimentary understanding of words is required to make a decent story. Tanigawa's literary bent sets Haruhi apart from the crowd. Next Week: Because it must be done... Three animes about giant robots.