Friday, December 24, 2010

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

I'd had this book on my shelf since probably the beginning of October. At first, I said to myself I'd have to finish Boredom, and I did that, but the rigor of school discouraged me from starting this book, for a time. I knew, however, that I wanted it read fully before I watched the movie, and that I did. Even so, I couldn't help but watch snipped here and there while I finished--indeed, even as I had the book open, I was curious to see how the scenes matched up.

As a book, Disappearance is a quick read. The paperback comes in at under fifty thousand translated words. The plot is as straightforward as a Haruhi novel can be expected, but truly, once it comes together, the reasons are simple enough. As Kyon observes, it's a plot that's been used many times before, one Haruhi herself would recognize. That doesn't make the story bland or trite: far from it, we see how it's given a unique look through the eyes of Kyon, the guy who has to piece it all together from scratch, with only his barest of wits to guide him. Kyon, as the everyman, is effective at framing the situation in a way the audience can comprehend.

As a movie, on the other hand, Disappearance is two hours and forty minutes of graphic beauty, a leisurely walk through the bizarre, transformed world that Kyon finds himself in and the solution he must uncover. In that, I'm truthfully somewhat surprised. At no time does the movie feel like it plods except, possibly, at the beginning, which Kyon himself admits is a bit long of a prologue (the line is in the book, too). I do think it goes to show that the written word can describe a great deal in a few words that takes quite a bit of showing when adapted in a visual medium.

As a book and a movie, the story is all about characters. At the beginning of the story, Kyon relates how he dreads Haruhi's plans for a Christmas Eve party, which he knows must be coming even before he hears them. Being thrown into a world without Haruhi's empowered madness is a major catalyst for him to accept the life he leads, which he does so with vigor. The other major character is, of course, Nagato Yuki, and the movie is an extended look at the life she might want to lead. Where the book only delves into how Kyon has noticed changes in Nagato, the movie is far more explicit in a beautiful, yet subtle, way.

A brief glimpse of Nagato not reading doesn't alarm Kyon--at least, not then.

The image of Nagato with the party hat and snowflake doesn't appear so much as to become a recurring theme, but during Kyon's monologue, explaining how he understands why she wanted to remake the world, it symbolizes the change that's occurred in Nagato and her growing desire to reshape reality. What's delicious about this image is that it gets across something that never would've worked in words.

You couldn't have said it better, Kyon.

Even before, Nagato couldn't hide her fascination with the snowflake and party hat. In my mind, it shows that on the 17th, the day before she meant to change the world, the thought of what she was about to do dominated her mind, to the exclusion of all else, so much so that she couldn't maintain any facade of normalcy.

Nagato looks on, snowflake in hand.

While I'm not certain if the images in the monologue are meant to have happened--at least this part above, where she's watching while Haruhi takes pictures of Asahina--I think the point remains. It all represents her desires, those that she doesn't understand. It's really quite a masterful job of planting the image first and then using it to full effect later. I didn't notice Nagato holding the snowflake at the beginning of the movie until I rewatched a part of it later. That's gold.

This isn't the only embellishment Kyoto Animation inserted. To me, the mark of a good adaptation is one that expands on the source where appropriate and contracts when there is reason to. The movie cuts a few moments of adult Asahina acting, well, like an adorable goofball. I don't know if that was necessary; saying it was cut for time strikes me as unusual when it would've added at most a minute of runtime on a movie that's already quite long. Perhaps it detracts from the story, but I don't see how, in a story that is so focused on characters. This, however, is the only cut I can think of, and the added elements are generally good. A security guard during the confrontation between Kyon and alternate-world Haruhi helps realize Kyon's struggle. The final scene between Kyon and Nagato is moved to the rooftop from his hospital room, which yields a nice moment where it's unclear if Kyon's referring to the snow or referring to Nagato by her given name, Yuki. Knowing that the books continue with Nagato as the way Kyon refers to her, we know that it's likely the former, but it's a touching moment, all the same.

I now bring my comments to more technical aspects. The animation quality is very, very good, but there are moments where the characters seem slightly more fluid than they should be, reminiscent of, as has been said before, K-ON!, for instance. The score is moving yet unobtrusive, and Gymnopedie No. 1, which was so ubiquitous in the trailers, is confined to the moments when it has most impact: alternate Nagato's false memory of Kyon giving her a library card and the aforementioned scene on the rooftop. The actors give strong performances all around. Aya Hirano shines as Haruhi, especially when the altered Haruhi realizes who and what Kyon must be. Tomokazu Sugita as Kyon conveys despair and joy well, but always mediated with sarcasm and snark. Yuko Goto again has dual roles in the younger and older Asahina, and the difference is palpable thanks to her performance, but naturally, the voice role of most focus is that of Minori Chihara and her renditions of Nagato.

The alternate Nagato has the same face, of course, but her voice marks her immediately as different and unique--painfully soft-spoken, but endowed with true emotion, as opposed to the alien we're more familiar with. While it's pleasurable to hear the difference, I do wonder about the character as a whole. This alternate Nagato seems almost like a caricature, perhaps justifiably so, since she's essentially created by the Nagato we know, but a caricature nonetheless, boxed in by her shyness. Kyon does suggest that she would come out of her shell and blossom, but it's hard to know, given that we don't see it. We don't see anything from her outside her shyness and one, admittedly, heart-warming smile.

Still, Chihara's performance is to be commended because duality in the same character is necessarily something hard to pull off. Doubly so, because in the rooftop scene, with the expressionless Nagato off-screen, the characteristic flat voice gives way, and instead, we're treated to words that sound more like they came from alternate Nagato, as if to convey the emotion in them. She thanks Kyon, like the other version of her thanked him, and it sounds--I believe, intentionally--the same.

Overall, a very enjoyable film for a Haruhi fan like myself, and even for my father, who watched with me while he moved sprinklers by hand every 15 minutes, found the movie intriguing.

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