How Not to Groundhog Day: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Hi. Back to anime stuff.

I’m using “Groundhog Day” as a verb here. That kind of grammatical process is called “verbing,” for pretty obvious reasons. I mean, if you think about it, “verbing” is an example of verbing, too.

Groundhog Daying is when the characters are stuck in a loop that resets itself under certain conditions, and then repeats. As a narrative mechanism the characters become aware that they are Groundhog Daying and have to change their behavior in order to break out the loop.

As a narrative structure it can be engaging to the viewer because the viewer is in the same position as the characters: they have to figure out what the characters have to do as well. Ideally, you want the audience to figure it out just before, maybe one or two cycles before the character do, so they can get to the key decision and groan when the character guesses wrong. It’s a way of creating narrative tension without necessarily creating conflict between the characters…I mean, after all, conflict is good, but too much conflict can lead to the question, “Why doesn’t Spike just push Faye out the air lock?”

Now that I think of it, why didn’t Spike and Jet turn her in for the bounty? Never mind.

You see a lot of Groundhog Daying in the “trapped in a game” genre, because it’s a common trope in games: If you die, you get sent back to your save point. Of course, game players are aware of this, so they know to try something else…more power, a different route, a different strategy…the second time.

Which brings us to the worst Groundhog Day in the history of anime: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

The premise of Melancholy is that Haruhi is a young (high-school-aged) woman who has the ability to warp the universe to meet her whims. She always gets what she wants. For instance, she wants to meet someone with ESP, a time traveler, and an alien, and among her close circle of friends are Koizumi, who has ESP, Asahina, who is a time traveler, and Nagato, who is…well, you can guess what she is. Then there’s also her old friend Kyon, whose function in the show is to be the narrator, but whose function in her life is ambiguous.

Okay, I admit it. We’re supposed to think Kyon is going to be the boyfriend. That’s important. It will come into play later.

Here’s the trick: Haruhi doesn’t know she is changing the universe.

I like Melancholy. I like the Haruhi character. She is cheerful (usually) and determined (always), and she is somewhat sympathetic because she doesn’t know she has that power. (If she knew, she’d be insufferable.) Her drive makes a lot of the show work, because while she’s bossy, she also makes the group have fun and do interesting things.

I like Kyon, who groans and moans a lot but seems to be a pretty good sport. I like Nagato, who has the same sort of blank personality as Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis. Asahina is too squeal-y for me (she’s fan service) and Koizumi seems underdeveloped.

But the writers did a terrible thing when they introduced a Groundhog Day plot. If someday you write an anime, please do not do this.

The Groundhog Day happens in episodes 12-19, each of which is titled Endless Eight, and they are. It’s summer break, and Haruhi has a list of summer activities they’re all going to do: get a part-time job, hunt cicadas, go to the festival, play in the pool, and so on. In each episode Kyon wakes to the sound of a ball game on TV, Haruhi calls him and they’re off. At the end of the first seven Haruhi reaches the end of her list. There’s two days left, and the list is finished…she wonders aloud whether there’s anything she’s forgotten, no one says anything, she walks off, and…

POP

They’re back to the start of the day. Eventually Koizumi figures out it’s because there’s something missing in her life that isn’t on the list, and until she finds it and does it, summer can’t end for her. And if summer can’t end for Haruhi, it can’t end for anyone.

Nagato, as the alien, knows it, and she counts the number of times they go around (it’s thousands, according to her). Being the ESPer Koizumi can read Nagato’s mind and so he finds out, too. He tells Kyon.

No one mentions it to Asahina, which probably says something about what they think of her. She figures it out, though, when she loses the power to time travel.

The trick is this…No, wait. Let me explain how jokes work first.

A lot of good jokes are based on the simple structure of 1) Set up an expectation 2) Violate the expectation in a logical but unexpected way and 3) cue humorous context. The classic joke is the old Rodney Dangerfield gag. “Lemme tell ya,” he said, eyes bugging and pulling at his tie, “Marriage is rough. Take my wife…please.”

See it? The schtick he does with the eyes and the tie, that’s the cue to expect humor. Then he says “Take my wife…” a phrase that the audience completes in its mind by saying “…as an example.” That’s the expectation: Take her as an example. Then he hits the punchline: “…Please.” That violates the expectation. He doesn’t mean take her figuratively as an example; he means take her literally, as in removing her.

Okay, the Groundhog Day gag from Melancholy:

It’s summer, and Haruhi has a list of summertime activities that is missing one thing. What could it be?

You know what’s not on the list? Fall in love. Sure, summertime romance. I had them when I was in high school, too.

That’s the expectation we’re supposed to have, that the thing missing from Haruhi’s list is Fall in Love, and that it will be with Kyon, since that seems to be his function in the series. Right? He has no other function so he must be the boyfriend. Koizumi figures it out by about the third episode, and he urges Kyon to just go up and give her a big hug. Kyon (who is much more interested in Asahina’s fan-service-grade breasts) refuses. Haruhi walks off, and POP! Back to the top.

At the end of the eighth episode of this, as she is walking off, Kyon shouts “Stop!”

This is it. He’s going to ask her out…

“I haven’t finished my homework!” he says. “Will you help me?”

Expectation violated.

Okay, it is…it’s really funny. Yes, you groan, but you’re groaning with a big smile plastered across your face.

Not only that but this is also a key moment in the narrative construction of the series as well: this is the point where it is established once and for all that Kyon is NOT the boyfriend. I think that’s one of the things that makes the series attractive…They are just friends, that’s all. I mean, Lyon lusts after Asahina – he’s a high school kid and she’s got those huge boobies – but he’s not really romantically interested. There’s almost no sexual tension, no romantic conflict between them. They just like each other, and that makes them likable.

But this is why this is how NOT to Groundhog Day:

I binged watched Melancholy the first time I saw it. Now I have it on DVD…I put the DVDs in and play them all night long. (Oftentimes I’ll have them on while I’m writing posts for this blog). The eight-episode arc lasts less than four hours in real time.

But now imagine you’re watching this at home during the first run of the series.

Oh, dear God.

Now, there are minor differences from episode to episode. They do slightly different activities, slight changes in posture. Nagato buys a mask at the Festival and in every episode she picks a different mask and wears it differently. I’m sure hard core otaku have posted lists of all the changes between episode and can tell which of the eight they are on within five minutes.

Yuki's Mask

Yuki Nagato and one of her masks…one of the ways to know which episode you’re watching.

But it’s the same basic story told over and over for TWO MONTHS. To set up ONE count it ONE I keep counting and I keep getting ONE gag. Can you imagine tuning in faithfully for two months and watching essentially the same episode over and over? And at the end you get ONE STINKING JOKE?

No. Just no. Please don’t do that to your audience.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “How Not to Groundhog Day: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

  1. I’m one of the few who enjoys the Endless Eight, but I only ever saw them on DVD and just binged it. I never saw this seasonally and to be honest I wouldn’t have committed two months to it. I’d have been out after the third repeat. That said, it could have worked if they’d done a ReLife style release with the whole season at once. I think this isn’t so much about poor storytelling as the format of the original release just didn’t convey it very well (okay, I’d probably describe one episode a week of the Endless Eight as pure torture).
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this arc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think we’re thinking the same thing. The only show I’ve watched on a weekly basis so far was FLCL: Progressive, and the wait for the next episode seemed interminable. I like this series, and binge-watching I can tolerate the Endless Eight because it just runs straight through (and I like the characters and their activities). But if I had to wait two months(!) and find out at the end they were setting up one joke…I’d want to punch someone
      .

      Liked by 1 person

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