The Ever-Expanding Universe of Haruhi Suzumiya

This is the anime that never ends.

Last week I mentioned that anime was one of my favorite mediums because the story is never over just because the show ends. One of the most popular anime in existence, according to My Anime List is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

For starters, the anime is based on not a manga, but a light novel (think young adult novel) this time. The light novel series did also get a manga adaptation, as well, however. This is what I was talking about when I said the story never ends. You liked the anime? Great, go read the light novels. Enjoyed that, too? Here are the manga. Oh, and a couple movie adaptations!

But Melancholy also serves as an example of the kinds of things Japanese media is willing to try that you probably wouldn’t see in American media. The original 28-episode anime was not aired in chronological order, for example. The anime features an ensemble cast and one of them has god-like powers but doesn’t realize it. She is constantly, obliviously changing the universe to suit her whims while the rest of the cast struggles to both live their lives and to keep her happy so she doesn’t accidentally destroy the universe in a bout of depression. The ordering of the episodes is meant to help increase the audience’s perception of her abilities. At the end of every episode in the original Japanese version two characters would talk about which episode was coming next, Haruhi would name the next episode according to the chronological order while the male lead, Kyon, would name them according to original air order.

If you need any proof that things would not be done this way in the US, look no further than the dubbed versions of the series. The episodes don’t include anything describing what the next episode will be like and they’re always shown in chronological order with no mention that there ever was another order the show could be watched in. This is just the beginning of the wacky shenanigans that the anime has gotten up to, however.

The series also includes EIGHT episodes that are almost identical as the entire group gets trapped in a time loop. That’s 29% of the series. And they’re all shown in a row, regardless of which order you choose to watch the show in. Can you imagine an American show doing something like that? Under normal airing circumstances that would be 2 months of showing basically the same episode with only a small hint of when the torture might end. The series also received a sequel movie which was nearly 3 hours long, the second longest anime movie created at that point. That wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary for American media; cartoon shows in the states have gotten movie sequels, spin-offs, and adaptations many times even if they are often half that long. However, the movie features an alternate universe and the anime spun that off into an additional 16-episode series where one of the primary cast members acted completely differently, became the female lead instead of Haruhi, saw two of the primary cast members – including Haruhi herself – reduced to far diminished roles, and two other minor characters from the original anime were promoted to ensemble members. The entire genre was changed from a supernatural slice-of-life to just a simple slice-of-life anime. While we’re on the topic slice-of-life is a genre which, in and of itself, would be unlikely to be duplicated in American media, to begin with. They usually don’t have too much drama and they aren’t even always funny.

But probably the weirdest thing to come out of the intellectual property, however, is an anime movie called The Melancholy of Haruhi-Chan. The -chan suffix can mean a couple different things, but here it indicates an idea of being more diminutive or cuter. The animation style is changed to something chibi-like which is Japanese for “little” and is used to describe animation where the characters are far smaller in proportion than normal, usually with adorable giant heads. According to synopses I’ve read, all the characters have their quirks blown even further out of proportion to what you’re likely to see in reality. A complete overhaul in character and art-style? How often do you think you might see something like that in American media? And this isn’t a reboot, it’s just a continuation of the series.

Now, this isn’t to say that Japanese media is automatically better than American media. Trust me when I say there are plenty of things American media is far more willing to work with than Japanese – LGBT representation, for one. They are just different. And, of course, it doesn’t matter if you’re creating something unique if that unique thing isn’t also good. And The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is definitely good. The characters are all quirky but only rarely overdo it. The biggest flaws in the series are probably Mikuru Asahina’s English voice actress – I get so tired of breathy, helpless voice acting – and the fact that Haruhi doesn’t pull back from her insanity quite often enough for it to make sense why the other characters would want to be friends with her outside of their need to fulfill their study and protection missions.

The quality of the story is so high that even the eight repeated episodes were a joy to watch. Just enough subtle details were changed every time to highlight the sameness of everything else and give the audience a reason to keep watching. The final resolution to that story arc was clever enough to pay it off, as well. The 3-hour movie and subsequent spin-off series are equally enjoyable, even though they’re quite different from the original series.

So if you’re looking for something a little bit different from mainstream American media that takes different kinds of story-telling risks in order to tell more unique stories, you should try some anime. And if you’re going to try some anime, you can do a lot worse than The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. But if it’s your first time watching it, I definitely recommend watching it in the Kyon Order (called Anime Release Order in that spreadsheet) first. Might as well get the full experience and milk that story for all it’s worth.

 

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is almost entirely filler

And that’s not a bad thing

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is a simple, short show with an extremely straight-forward plot and charming characters. The show is only a single season of only 10 episodes. It’s cute, calm, and incredibly pleasant to watch in this day of high-tension serialized shows. It’s almost refreshing to watch a show where everything pretty much goes the way you expect, especially when there’s no life or death drama to contend with. The simple plot, however, means the majority of the airtime is filler.

There has been this sentiment around the internet, recently – or at least in my circles of the internet – that “Filler Episodes” of television are among the worst evils to plague humanity. People complain about it in the Arrowverse shows on the CW, they complain about it in The Walking Dead, I’ve even seen some people complain about filler moments in Game of Thrones. First, let’s answer the question, “What even is filler?”

The simple definition is a segment of a story that doesn’t contribute to the overall story aka advance the plot. The most common place you’ll see this is in a TV series where somewhere between one and a handful of episodes will not particularly advance the overall plot of the story. It is rarer but it can show up in video games or movies, too. One example of it happening in a movie is the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where the Gryffindor boys sit on their beds eating sweets that cause them to make animal noises. The best example in a video game off the top of my head comes from Persona 5. After the heroes complete the first dungeon there is a 30-minute series of cutscenes during that shows the kids celebrating their victory by eating themselves sick at a fancy hotel buffet but otherwise does very little to advance the plot. So that’s what filler is and you know a lot of people are complaining about it but is it inevitably bad? Absolutely not.

Think of it like donuts, for example. Some donuts have no filling, and those are fine. You can probably eat several simple glazed or powdered cake donuts in a sitting. Some donuts have a jelly filling and you bite into those and wonder, “Why would you ruin this perfectly fine donut with overly sweet fruit preserves?” But still other donuts have the Bavarian cream filling. And those donuts can be the best donuts you’ve ever eaten but they’re very rich. So if you got a dozen donuts you’d probably want to avoid the jelly-filled donuts, to take only a few of the ones with the Bavarian cream, and then you’d stock up primarily on the regular ones.

There is such a thing as good filler and bad filler. But since you’re not doing anything to the story you pretty much have to do something to the characters. Good filler is a great opportunity to make the characters in your story seem more real and maybe even expand the universe of your story by giving them simple moments free of life-or-death tension for a bit to just be. But in the being the audience should learn something new about them. That’s why the example of filler from Harry Potter is an example of bad filler. It doesn’t tell you anything about the characters – we learn nothing new about the boys from this scene, and candy that causes the person eating it to make an animal noise doesn’t even contribute much to our understanding of the universe. The Persona 5 example, on the other hand, is good filler. In a calm moment, you can see the characters introduced to that point interact with and tease each other. You learn more about their motivations, their relationships, and how they think. It would have been easier for the writers, developers, and designers to just show the kids pigging out for a few seconds and then move on but doing it that way actually benefited the story by helping the audience understand the characters who would be making important plot decisions later.

Let’s talk about a TV series. How about Star Trek? Which episode is the most iconic of all the episodes in the original series? If you said “The Trouble with Tribbles” you win a cookie. From a website. Congrats. That episode is pure filler. The stakes are low, it’s silly to a nearly unreasonable degree, and it absolutely makes every single top 10 ranking out there – usually in the top 5. It’s a great episode. But the other thing about filler is knowing when and how to use it. If every episode were like that, Star Trek would have been a very different show. So the two keys to good filler, as you may have guessed from the donut analogy, is quantity and type.

The modern television experience, however, is built around two ideas. Binge watching for internet-focused series and viewer-retainment for the more traditional offerings. In both cases, the serialized format (which I explained in more detail in my post about The Orvillemakes the most sense. Bingers will prefer a serialized style that naturally leads them from episode to episode. Weekly shows benefit from curious viewers who will be far more likely to come back next week for a continuing plot of a mediocre or even poorly written show if the story still has loose ends. There is also the fact that many series are shortening their seasons from the once traditional 23-26 episodes into something more like 10-15. This all means that adding filler into a season will almost certainly force writers to trim the main story.

Also, without the narrative room for filler that existed previously the filler that does get produced is now poorly squeezed in and often unjustified. For example, an episode like “The Trouble with Tribbles” would make no sense in Star Trek: Discovery right now because the writers have used the serialized format to ratchet the tension up to a permanent 11. There’s no time to take a break and be silly because people are dying for every moment the USS Discovery isn’t out shooting down bad guys. Something similar has happened in The Walking Dead. Couple this with the fact that viewers are also now trained to be upset when their narrative curiosity goes unrewarded in the next episode and the complaints out there can seem justified. Especially if that filler is more like the Harry Potter example than Star Trek or Persona 5.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie, however, uses its filler to expand and reveal its terrific cast of characters in a way that makes watching the show enjoyable even without overly impressive visuals or a particularly dramatic story.  It allows the audience to relax and enjoy learning more about the characters’ motivations and watch their relationships grow in a show-don’t-tell way that can usually only be seen in filler episodes. The dedication to focusing on characters instead of plot tension makes the show an almost meditative experience. It’s very easy to just veg out and feel like you’re hanging out with some friends. You probably won’t want to watch this kind of show constantly any more than every episode of Star Trek should have been “The Trouble with Tribbles”. But in a world filled with regular donuts interspersed with a few of the gross jelly-filled variety, it can be good to have some rich bavarian cream donuts to break things up, from time to time.