As much as I like the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise, it’s tough to make a case for investing a writing post on a minor character who DOES a lot but exposes little to no personality – right, no “character” in the character, got it in one – but I realized there’s more in Yuki Nagato than meets the eye.
Yuki doing what Yuki does
When we talk about the “Ghost in the Shell” trope, what we’re really talking about is the border between meat (a.k.a. human) life and machine life. That’s territory explored by Motoko Kusanagi, and by Alita, and by Rei Ayanami.
What I realized is that you can break that down into a classic Zwicky box that forms all combinations of Meat and Machine on the dimensions of Ghost and Shell. So:
Ghost Shell Meat Meat Rei Ayanami*, any human Meat Machine Motoko, Alita Machine Meat Yuki Nagato Machine Machine Any robot
* Rei Ayanami, of course, thinks of herself as being a machine ghost – it’s how she was raised – but she’s really Meat/Meat.
See, THAT’s why we care about Yuki Nagato: She’s something not quite like anything else we’ve seen. There’s Melfina from Outlaw Star, who is a bio-android, but she was specifically given a human-like personality (Meat/Meat). There’s Yuki Sexaroid from Galaxy Railways, who comes to understand herself as human, but she’s a robot (from Machine/Machine to Meat/Machine). I’m sure there are others I haven’t remembered.
But Nagato’s not really a person; she’s a humanoid android constructed by the Data Overmind. This gives her certain superhuman powers physically; I mean, as a data entity she can, for instance, download the instructions to be a killer guitar player and then shred, right? She feels little pain and heals visibly when attacked by Asahina’s laser eye beam, can move much more quickly than a mortal, and so on.
But at the same time she’s in the body of a human girl, or close enough that no one else can tell. Unless you think they don’t have school physicals at North High! Plus all the usual contact passes unnoticed: no one bumps into her in the hall and says, “Wow, you’re really cold,” or “Yuki, why is your elbow made of titanium steel?” Her body is human enough to pass for human. Outwardly she’s a girl. Inwardly she’s a computer, the machine ghost in the meat shell.
What makes her interesting as a character are the times when the machine yearns to be human.
This is the opposite of Motoko Kusanagi, of course. Cynical and alienated, Motoko’s human ghost merges with the machine intelligence Puppet Master, and she becomes less human. That’s scary, and cold.
But there are times when, like a female Pinocchio, Nagato seems to be on the verge of wanting to be human. This is explicit in the spin-off series The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan; there she deliberately chooses to be a human girl. There her desire to be human is not sub-text, it’s text. Heck, it’s headline! It is also one of the stressors underlying the film The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya; in the alternate world Kyon visits Yuki is a real girl and not an android at all.
But even in the main sequence there are sometimes hints. At one point, Kyon suggests she would be more attractive without her glasses, and she stops wearing them. “Whoa,” you say, “Not so fast there. Being more attractive might benefit her.”
Yeah, but here’s the thing: she’s not there to attract persons of her preferred gender and sexual orientation. She’s there to keep an eye on Haruhi, to keep her from destroying the world.
So if her function is unrelated to being attractive, what is the point of making herself more attractive by taking off her glasses? Answer: She is developing a human desire to be wanted.
In the Endless Eight unlike the others Nagato is aware that they have time looped 15,000 times. Each time they go to the Festival she selects a mask. But she always chooses a different mask, always wears it differently, always insists on paying for it herself. Is she trying to find a crumb of individuality to express? What machine would do that?
You have to get deep into the stuff, but there are other indicators as well. For instance, if you get out the light novel The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya…
Okay, stop. Wavering is not really a novel, it’s an anthology of five stories, two of which you know if you’ve seen the anime: Live Alive, where Kyon goes to the school festival and listens to Yuki and Haruhi shredding in place of the pop music club, and Adventures of Mikuru Asahina, Kyon’s “review” of the school film the SOS Brigade makes.
After that, though, you get into the gold.
The third story is Love at First Sight, and no, it’s not what you think. Kyon’s junior high chum Nakagawa once set eyes upon a paragon of feminine virtue…Yuki Nagato! And he is smitten! Smitten is he! To him she is surrounded by an aura, a bright light that tells him, “She’s the one!”
Nakagawa wants Kyon to communicate his love to the fair damsel, being too overcome by her beauty and charisma to do so himself. Nakagawa vows to spend the next ten years of his life building himself into a man who will be worthy of Nagato’s love.
Ten freakin’ years!
As it happens, it’s not Yuki he’s seen, it’s the Data Overmind. Since his human brain would not be able to handle that, Yuki deletes his ability to see it. Poof. Poor Nakagawa, fated to not love Yuki Nagato.
But after all that, Kyon has to know. “When you found out his confession was a mistake,” he says, “Were you a little disappointed?”
A machine would not be, of course. A machine does not have feelings. But Kyon has his suspicions about Yuki…
“…Just a bit,” she says.
…and he was right. Somewhere inside that computer there is a girl trying to find her way out.
Later on, in The Intrigues of Haruhi Suzumiya, her clear direction toward become fully human is so noticeable that both Koizumi and Kyon remark on it. She deliberately cuts herself off from the Data Overmind to live independently. She starts to go full-on girl. She makes independent, human choices. They aren’t big choices. She doesn’t grab Kyon and jump his bones. But she’s becoming human, finding a tiny bit of meat ghost inside her meat shell.
By the next book, The Indignation of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kyon can actually read the mood of her silences. One of her “…” means frustration. Another means rage. A third is acceptance.
Question: What kind of robot has mood states? Answer: A robot becoming human.
And it all started with her taking off her glasses.
In a certain way I think Yuki Nagato is most like Rei Ayanami, the human girl raised to be a tool, and who has to find the humanity in herself. But genetically, at least, Rei is human and has a human brain. Rei was grown; Yuki was built. She has a computer brain.
I guess this “human” thing is contagious. She got it from…I dunno, Kyon? It’s not a serious case, won’t stop her from keeping track of Haruhi on the part of the Data Overmind, but she’s been bit by the human bug, she shows flashes of the symptoms, and we like it.
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.