The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya: The Goddess’ Belated Second Coming [part 1]

by eternal on January 2, 2011

Nagaru Tanigawa’s Suzumiya Haruhi franchise needs no introduction and it won’t get one. The same goes for KyoAni’s movie adaptation of the fourth book, Disappearance; it hasn’t received nearly universal acclaim for nothing. Instead of informing you that the film is good, as you’ve no doubt already discovered for yourself, I’d rather dig into it and attempt to figure out why it’s good. Fasten your seatbelts—we’re heading into closed space and it might be a rough ride.

Note: This post is longer than it should be so I split it into two—the second half can be found here.

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The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya does not possess a groundbreaking plot. Much like the novels before it, the film presents a bizarre sci-fi upset that turns Kyon’s world upside down and gives the characters plenty of opportunities to live out their quirks in as entertaining a fashion as possible. There’s a bit of mystery—followed by a vague, pseudo-logical explanation like all time travel fiction—and the conclusion is a heartwarming reminder of what makes the mismatched SOS Brigade special to begin with. Altogether, it’s a perfect page-turner, exactly what you’d expect from a lighthearted fantasy/sci-fi/school-life/comedy/everything-under-the-sun light novel.

The fact that the source material is interesting but ultimately less remarkable than, say, the Evangelion TV series that the recent movies are based off of makes it even more impressive that Disappearance is such a spectacular film.

Now, I admit that my power level is low—I still cannot decipher the moon runes that comprise the Japanese animator wikis, and I have yet to figure out specifically what the cinematographer position in anime entails, but I know enough to realize that this movie’s brilliance lies in its visuals. Skimming through the staff list on ANN, it seems to be entirely a Kyoto Animation project: Yasuhiro Takemoto took the role of director (the guy who replaced Yamakan early in Lucky Star’s run) with the well-known Tatsuya Ishihara acting as chief director, and Ryuuta Nakagami joined as cinematographer, who had previously worked on most of the studio’s popular shows. It’s no surprise that this wound up being a recipe for success. If their 2006 Kanon adaptation looks better than half of the shows airing today, I can see how they could work wonders with a film’s budget.

Anyway, the point of this preface is to explain that Disappearance does not necessarily owe its success to the book. I’m as much of a Haruhi fan as the next blogger in my generation, but movies like this can appeal to non-fans who only have a passing interest in the plot. A good adaptation would have been like the Gurren Lagann films: they make a solid impression and people move on. Lucky for us, this is a superb adaptation, and it looks like KyoAni came back from Endless Eight with a vengeance.

Crazy old Ryoko.

Let’s get into the specifics. The direction draws attention to itself right from the opening shot, which is about twice as long as you’d expect from your average “just-woke-up” mask shot. The camera follow’s Kyon’s amusing attempt at shutting off his alarm, complete with some nice focus effects that simulate the fogginess of his mind. This is to be expected of a movie compared to a TV series, of course, but it sends the right message.

Moving on, you might remember the dutch angle spam from the scene in which Kyon realizes that Haruhi vanished from his present world. Yes, we know that canted angles are supposed to be jarring and put the viewer on edge, but I’ve never quite seen it work this effectively. It stands out here because it’s more than one shot: it’s a lot of shots, and a lot of consecutive shots. It’s hard to not share Kyon’s psychological dizziness when you view the scene. It’s such a textbook example that it feels useless to point it out but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s impressive.

Perhaps a more memorable scene is Kyon’s confrontation with the alternate universe Nagato. Rewatch it if you’d like: it starts at around 38:00 in the video file. Aside from the subtle yet ohsotempting bits of classic KyoAni fanservice, the scene does a spectacular job of shaking the viewer awake (figuratively, since I doubt it’s possible to fall asleep during a movie like this).

I can attempt to describe the scene with my underwhelming first-year film vocabulary, but frankly, it speaks for itself. The shaky handheld camera provides the perfect lack of stability needed to make it feel as though Kyon is shouting rather than simply speaking loudly. The focus effects are beautiful too; the camera shifts out of focus several times, distorting the image to emphasize Nagato’s fear. There are some shots that cleverly hide the action (the monitor reflection is particularly creative), forcing the viewer’s imagination to use Kyon’s enraged voice to fill in the blanks. It’s like showing the spatter of blood on the wall rather than the actual decapitation. Generally speaking, the most jarring and disturbing image a viewer can be faced with is one that doesn’t make sense, and the scene accomplishes this by deliberately limiting our view. It’s the kind of scene where you find yourself unconsciously craning your neck and flinching at every sudden movement.

(On an unrelated note, I thought the scene with Kyon walking home was pretty cool—the camera begins like this and zooms out to this, which surprised me when I first saw it. Nice to see that the director bothered to make even dull scenes like this interesting).

Before moving on, a note on parallelism: it may be hard to believe, but these two screencaps are completely different. The former is from when Kyon first enters the club room in the real world while the latter is from when he enters it in the alternate universe. The thematic implications are interesting: at first he was probably dreading facing another day of Haruhi’s antics, but he was running around school in search of those very antics the second time. Same event, completely different meanings.

The first-person perspective here makes me realize how short Yuki is. They probably just did it to score points with the fanboys, but it’s a pleasant shot either way. The soft lighting at the top of the frame is a nice touch and it adds contrast to what would otherwise be a boring background.

The next bit of the film is dedicated to plot development so I’ll jump ahead to Haruhi’s appearance. A bit of context: minutes prior to this, Kyon hears from Taniguchi that Haruhi is attending a private school nearby and he rushes outside with an energetic piece of orchestrated music as his backdrop. The music vanishes when he arrives and the atmosphere grows tense—was Taniguchi right? Will this Haruhi be the same as the original one?

The scene begins as she accidentally walks in front of the camera. Her flowing hair blocks the shot just long enough for her identity to sink in. Then, the ribbon. The BGM returns on cue at this closeup; the moment we realize for certain that Haruhi is back from her Vanishment. The soft, sustained tone in the song is the perfect parallel to Kyon’s moment of realization—it sounds as if it’s floating, like a literal “suspension” of disbelief. It’s the moment that you second-guess yourself and wonder if the sight before your eyes is too good to be true.

As soon as the scene changes from a moment of disbelief to a moment of relief, the music ends. Note that the shots continue to flicker in and out of focus—I suppose it adds more interest to an otherwise simple scene, making it stand out as it should. The scene builds up to the final, proud reveal of the new Haruhi, sullen as her expression may be (although I still think they stuck this in to distract us).

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Well, would you look at the time! We’re only just beginning and I’m already ~1500 words in. Take a breather, drink some water, and click here if you’d like to read the second half.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Chag January 2, 2011 at 7:02 pm

This has been a very interesting read! Undoubtedly the efforts of the Kyoani stuff on the subtle points of film-making is felt all of their audience, but I doubt most people can break them down for a finer examination. Your post reminded me of Plinkett’s review of Star Wars Episode III, in which he compared the cinematography of the prequels to the original trilogy and absolutely ripped apart the former. I’ve never focused on things such as focus and camera angle in movies and television, but after reading your post, I now appreciate Disappearance with even greater enthusiasm. I look forward to part 2! =)

On a side note, the two links in “Before moving on, a note on parallelism: it may be hard to believe, but these two screencaps are completely different” are busted.


ETERNAL January 3, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Thanks! I think I’m going to go through that review, it sounds like it’d be good reference. It takes a bit of training to get used to paying attention to cinematography (or just visuals in general), but it’s a useful skill to develop because it sheds light on the more subtle aspects of production that affect you without your realizing it. It’s also helpful for finding blog post material because there isn’t always anything to comment on in terms of plot, as I’m sure we all know.

Oh yeah, thanks for pointing out the image problem. They’re fixed now.


Yumeka January 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Loved reading your review here. Even though I’ve already read a million reviews of the movie, yours is one of the more memorable ones because it describes the cinematography elements so well. Looking forward to part 2!


ETERNAL January 3, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed it. I know I’m still an amateur when it comes to film (hence the tl;dr when a more experienced writer could have summarized things more concisely), but it’s a fun topic to write about and I think it helps people look at the film in a different way. Besides, the elements of the plot that I like are the same elements present in the previous novels, so I wouldn’t have had much to say anyway. Part 2 is published now and I hope you find it equally memorable!


ultimatemegax January 2, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I’m glad to see someone else take a deep discussion into the cinematography aspect of the film rather than mentioning the plot aspects.

The scene where Asakura is revealed again is absolutely wonderful. Not only do you have those changing angles, the first time we actually see her, the frame zooms in and shifts colors as if we can’t believe what’s before our eyes. There’s also nice subtle touches such as moving the desks around when asking everyone about her/Haruhi. The blurriness of Kyon’s vision is another wonderful effect to highlight his disorientation.

The lighting is also something that’s great to highlight the differences between worlds. In the beginning, everything’s brightly lit due the overhead lights around the school hallways and in the clubroom compared to a dull “authentic” sunlight after the change. It’s also the feature in a wonderful scene where cars are going around Nagato and Kyon on their way back from school and their figures are highlighted due to headlights.

I am eager to see your opinion on the latter half of the film, which contains quite a few interesting perspectives and scenes.


ETERNAL January 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Interesting that you should mention the change in colour between the two worlds: I didn’t notice it myself, but I recently read Wah’s review and he mentioned the same thing. It’s a subtle but clever (and quite effective) technique on KyoAni’s part to make the viewer unconsciously anxious about the new world, despite its apparent normalness.

And yes, I loved the scene with the headlights, so much so that I dedicated a few paragraphs to it in the second post :P


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