Introduction to Light Novels & The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

Light novels are short Japanese novels targeted specifically at young adult audiences. They are one formerly lesser discussed inspiration/original form of popular anime series – this changed primarily thanks to one particular series (more on that in a second), and it is surprising to find out certain popular series began life not as manga as is a typical assumption but as a light novel. Much like manga light novels end up being produced both prior to and after other adaptations of a series; while not currently reviewable (they’re out of print) both Onegai Teacher and Onegai Twins spawned light novels. Onegai Twins in particular is unusual in taking a different ultimate outcome to the story than the anime (though for the curious essentially it switches which of the two characters is Maiku’s sister).

There are numerous ones I really want to review but cannot, lacking any kind of authorized translation or availability in the West (amongst these is Ben-To hopefully still as amusingly silly as its anime incarnation. Put simply Ben-To is a fighting anime except rather than a show of strength or skill, the scraps in this story occur in supermarkets at night over who gets to buy the discounted bento boxes. To repeat: they’re scrapping over who can buy and then eat cheap meals from a supermarket. Which is either going to sound amazing or stupid (or both) depending on your viewpoint. Where it really excels is that the series clings to this ultimate incentive behind the character’s interactions – even while others attempt to turn the combat into some kind of typical fighting situation. The regulars say ‘No’, there is no prestige or show of strength here. There is simply getting discounted food. The anime might not bear its length wonderfully well, but I was thoroughly amused the whole time. Aside from some problematic story elements/tone mis-matches), but I will be looking at Strawberry Panic, the Sword Art Online series, the Boogiepop novels and Spice & Wolf amongst others.

First though, is the series that seemed inescapable for years but now rarely gets mentioned. If you watched anime in July of 2006 you knew who Haruhi Suzumiya was. In the same way it became hard to move for shouting about something like, say, Attack on Titan in recent years, Haruhi took over for a year or two. Haruhi was huge, the praise inciting backlashes and references and all manner of hints and nods (the series Lucky Star possibly going too far with Haruhi’s voice actress playing the lead role who is in turn something of a Haruhi fan). And it all went so wrong, in a way that few people could have suspected; the demand for more episodes met with some new episodes but what felt like a joke played on the audience – the “Endless Eight” infamous for the tedium it induced. There’s a bright spot in the film The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya which was overly long but otherwise well executed, but even then it became clear Haruhi could never live up to its own potential. The fatal flaw that eventually turned everyone off the series in place right from the start. So:The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Kyon (not his real name) is a perfectly normal human who has just started a new school. When he was younger he liked to believe in aliens, time-travelers, espers (people with psychokinetic powers) and sliders (think the TV series of the same name – people who can shift between parallel universes), but these days has concluded they can’t be real. He’s grown up, moved on with his life. That is until the person sat behind him in his new school introduces herself. Her name: Haruhi Suzumiya. Her announcement: she has no interest in normal humans and wants instead to meet aliens, time-travelers, espers and sliders. She is deadly serious.

Haruhi it transpires has a long and colourful history of doing weird things and one of Kyon’s new friends from her old school fills in details – extreme short lived relationships, drawing cryptic symbols on the school ground in the middle of the night and moving desks into the hallway apparently on a whim. Kyon observes her at first; she joins every club in turn before declining to join. Her hairstyle changes each day until he comments on it at which point she stops. He’s the only person to hold something resembling a normal conversation with her. Eventually he provides a catalyst, giving Haruhi the idea that since she finds all the existing clubs dull and uninteresting, she should make her own. Kyon is co-opted with many protests Haruhi establishes the SOS Brigade; a club of vague purpose and comprised initially of Haruhi, Kyon, Yuki (the sole member of the literary club which Haruhi has hijacked) and Mikuru (an older student). Transfer student Koizumi is soon recruited bringing the main cast up to five.

However, not all is as it seems. Mikuru is inexplicably nervous at Yuki’s presence and Koizumi gives the impression he knows far more than he’s saying. Things come to a head as the three recruited members each approach Kyon in turn to tell him both something about themselves and something about Haruhi Suzumiya. It transpires that Haruhi has unknowingly managed to recruit: an alien (Yuki – the organic interface to a vast data entity), a time-traveller (Mikuru – age uncertain and mentally conditioned to prevent any hint of the ultimate outcome) and an esper (Koizumi – whose powers are unusable most of the time but is able to communicate the most cleanly with Kyon). All of them are in place to watch Haruhi, all of them affected by an incident three years in the past (a burst of data, a break in the space-time continuum that prevents time-travel to prior to that point in history, and the creation of the espers). And all of them able to prove their claims despite Kyon’s disbelief. But even if he were to believe their claims, why is Kyon there? The perfectly normal human who wants no part in any of this?

It had been a long time since I read the first novel, and returning to it provoked a mixed reaction. Some taint is unavoidable given the latter messiness of the anime and the alluded to structural glitches that formed the series’ ultimate undoing. Other issues were always there, certain dubious choices and problematic plotting.

The good parts are still good. The translation is effective, Kyon’s narrative characterful and easy to read. There are touches of repetition where some words get repeated too often over the course of a few pages – likely a result of the translation. The author draws you into the story well – Kyon is curious in a cynical way meaning that he often fails to press for answers in quite the way you want him to so events are sketched out and given mystique by lack of detail. At this stage in the story, this works nicely to set certain things up to allow later expansion. The characters are all memorable; Kyon the most defined as we spend so much time in his head. The others all have a touch of mystery to them. Haruhi is by her nature not strictly knowable and the supernaturals are intentionally working to methods and priorities they will not divulge. But each remains unique in their presence, character and behaviour.

On this re-read it became clear there is a narrative issue with the supernaturals and their theory of just what Haruhi is. While both Yuki and Mikuru declare her mysterious and the cause of something three years ago, Koizumi offers a more all encompassing explanation; one that explains all three of them (while the other two fixate on their own situation) – Haruhi is god and may have created the universe three years prior. While the author is careful to setup the three claims of identity and for each have a pay-off later with incontrovertible proof for Kyon, Koizumi feels he is given the longest time to make his case. His words are also given the most weight by the narrative as much as Kyon protests. This could be deemed a result of Koizumi’s situation contrasted with the others – he too was once mundane and the least hampered in what he can and can’t reveal. There is a sense that unlike Yuki and Mikuru, Koizumi is far more important within his organisation.

Where the novel starts failing is Kyon’s characterization. He is far too dismissive; his initial reactions to the supernaturals are understandable – three people you know only vaguely come to you in turn to claim to be something impossible. An understandable reaction – they come to tell you something exciting, a break from the mundane (interestingly part of what we infer was the process for Haruhi’s alteration of reality when she talks about realizing her insignificance in the world), it’d be kinda cool but can’t be true. But; Yuki warps space around him to stop an attack by another alien agent, Mikuru’s older self appears to talk to Kyon, and Koizumi takes Kyon into a strange region called ‘Closed Space’ to demonstrate his powers. Kyon sees all this with his own eyes but is almost unfazed. And this never truly changes; he always remains somewhat skeptical even after the next impossibility, even after something that cannot otherwise be explained. Kyon; most cynical of characters. What made him an amusing narrator (particularly for the later story The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00 – the basis for the SOS Brigade’s film and first episode of the anime) becomes grating. As to will the knowledge that the series can never break out of this pattern of plotting exhibited here; disbelief, proof, grudging acceptance, repeat.

The most uncomfortable parts of the novel relate to Kyon’s mindset and treatment of Mikuru. While this might be an accurate rendition of a teenager’s mind, Kyon’s commentary is wearing. There’s a lot of cod proprietary as he sees Mikuru in various states of undress/provocative clothing/Haruhi molesting her. And a lot of comments on how he finds Yuki and Haruhi attractive, a reinforcement of their attractiveness with a hurried insistence that this not going anywhere – another place the series remains stalled. Haruhi’s abuse of Mikuru is particularly worrying as it’s played for amusement, the above mindset of Kyon meaning he is slow to disrupt some things (Haruhi groping Mikuru, forcing her to dress as a bunny girl or a maid, photographing her (something Kyon continues – going so far as to pretend to delete the images and hide them on the computer Haruhi extorts from the nearby computer society – using Mikuru’s body to produce blackmail material)). Mikuru is repeatedly shown to be uncomfortable, yet docile and compliant presumed at the orders of those she cannot speak of – not wanting to disrupt the status quo.

And that ultimately underlines the key problem with the novel in the end and indeed the remaining books (though I’ll still look at them all); things do not move on. The characters do not really grow. There are hints of darkness at how far the factions represented by the supernaturals will go, but every-time the situation returns to the base state. The implied relationship between Haruhi and Kyon never develops, Kyon never divests his attraction to Mikuru despite the far larger problems that it has and could cause (reality is at risk if they are together), Yuki remains at a rest state reacting only as needed. Koizumi dabbles in experiments but nothing truly comes of it. The series stalls right out of the gate.

The novel has its problems but is still worth reading. A lot of my objections and niggles relate to its position in the larger work and only vestiges of the issue can be found here. It’s a fast, simple read, compelling and funny. There’s a lot of fun to be had in amongst the problematic elements, and if you ever were curious as to the original form of Haruhi this is well worth investigating.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog Stats

  • 94,388 awesome people have visited this blog
%d bloggers like this: