The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya: The Goddess’ Belated Second Coming [part 2]

by eternal on January 3, 2011

Note: This is the second half of an article that wound up being too long for one post. You can read the first half here.

Picking up from where I left off, Kyon and Yuki’s nighttime stroll is one of my favourite scenes in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, and it succeeds at doing something that most scenes can’t—building an atmosphere.

This is a terribly subjective statement, but I have to ask: isn’t the lighting beautiful? I don’t believe headlights work like this but I’m not complaining. Of course there’s the standard blinding lens flare effects that I adore (as a matter of fact, I’m subscribed to the lens_flare tag on Danbooru), but the real beauty is in the colour of the light as it hits the characters. It highlights the purple in Nagato’s hair and the orange-brown of her jacket. The white contrasts sharply with the almost unrealistically black background. Best of all, the effects are motivated by passing cars on the street so it happens intermittently with no set frequency. Such a brilliant way to add visual interest to the uninteresting event of two people walking down the street.

That said, it’s really the atmosphere of this scene that shines through for me, not the fact that it uses a unique lighting source. Look at some of these caps: low key, high contrast is the theme. You can feel Kyon squinting at the light from the cars and the convenience store window; the puffs of vapour in their breath make your room feel cold. The subtleties of their expressions are animated beautifully, and the camera follows Nagato long enough to hint at what she might be feeling. When she asks Kyon to come to her apartment, they’re framed in two different shots. I’m not big on reading symbolism into style, but you can feel the distance between them—the girl building up her courage to take a leap of faith, and the boy left in shock. Note the lack of eye contact too.

The scene ends an instant later with the passing of two cars, repeating the visual motif of uncomfortably bright light that recurs throughout.

It’s perfect. Often times I describe shows I like simply by saying that they create an unforgettable feeling. After all, what makes me claim that Makoto Shinkai’s films are better than other romance movies, or that Honey and Clover is better than other josei manga adaptations? It’s the atmosphere of a scene—or indeed an entire series—that creates these subjective memories, and atmosphere is built through a series of seemingly irrelevant stylistic techniques. The contrast in lighting, the focus on expression changes, and the lack of closeups in this scene culminate into an effect of complete immersion in which you can feel both the physical details of the world and the emotional state of the characters. The staff at KyoAni transformed an important conversation into a vivid experience that happens to contain a bit of key characterization.

(Additionally, if I recall correctly, the upcoming scene in Nagato’s apartment marks the introduction of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies as her musical leitmotif. I don’t believe the staff had a specific reason for selecting this series of compositions to represent alt-universe Yuki but its sombre tone and slow tempo are reflective of her character, so much so that it’s possible to hear the piece without realizing that it wasn’t composed with the film in mind).

At last, this brings us to the prelude to the grand finale: Kyon’s denial of the alternate universe. It’s a key thematic point in the film and it’s brought up over the course of two important scenes: the moment he presses the button and the moment he confronts Nagato. The first scene lasts only a few seconds but it’s a profound few seconds. In essence, the scene aims to show the viewer that finding the way home is not the triumphant victory Kyon believes it to be. Among the clutter of words hears as he enters the surreal state of flux is the phrase “I won’t forgive you”, originally spoken by alt-universe Ryoko as she warns Kyon to never hurt Yuki (and what did he do by pressing the button?). The camera then cuts to the silhouette of a train rushing against a white backdrop with the words “I envy you” penetrating the noise—a clear reference to alt-universe Koizumi’s memorable line. Finally, the train passes and reveals Nagato’s chair (shown above), but it only remains on-screen for a split second. It vanishes instantly and lets its significance sink in.

In less than a minute, this scene reminds us what Kyon is leaving behind by hastily choosing to return to his world. It’s even more effective after seeing the trembling Yuki struggle to take back the symbolic club application form. Kyon avoids eye contact with her in that scene, as if winking at the viewer and reminding us that the conclusion couldn’t possibly occur with a full hour left to go.

(Another aside: note the series of awkwardly angled extreme closeups used in the revelation of real-world Nagato as the main “villain”. It comes out of nowhere since the viewer naturally expects the pattern from the previous books to continue with Haruhi as primary troublemaker).

The film reaches its climax at the 2 hour mark. Parallelism strikes back: the distance between Kyon and alt-Nagato is emphasized by placing them in separate shots as well as by the pole in the foreground, just like in their previous conversation when they were going to her apartment. The fisheye traffic mirror shot makes her look disturbingly alone. As Kyon’s voiceover continues, explaining how the real Nagato developed emotions and wanted, like all good aliens, to become human, we’re treated to a series of flashbacks accompanied by heart-tugging music. Haruhi’s party hats become a symbol for the emotions that Yuki was grasping for.

I deeply apologize—either to you or to myself—for not catching the Hyperion reference as I have yet to read the series, but I imagine that the first Suzumiya Haruhi novel’s ties to Hyperion have something to do with Yuki.

At any rate, the shot with the spotlights feels like it was ripped straight from an Akiyuki Shinbou show. It’s a minimalistic but evocative way of visualizing the dichotomy between the two worlds presented in the film. Kyon talking to his reflection is a similarly clever move; what better way is there to emphasize the duality of the cast? After all, the entire purpose of the scene is to underscore the significance of Kyon’s decision and force him to make the decision again—this time, with full understanding of the consequences.

This leads us to the ending. In contrast with the scenes discussed in this post, the film’s climax takes a more abstract approach reminiscent of Studio SHAFT’s productions. Unrealistic, stylized CG snowflakes and a black background harken back to the night in her apartment while at the same time foreshadowing the true conclusion that will also take place under the snowfall. Don’t forget the wordplay in Yuki’s name, which means snow in Japanese.

The parallels and symbols shine through. Gymnopedies returns when Kyon confronts alt-Yuki, ever a reminder of her role as an innocent victim wrapped up in a messy web of time travel. More importantly, she grasps for him, just the time in her apartment—her last chance to stop him from leaving, except this time for good. The bookmark pops up as he hardens his resolve. It’s a one-way trip through the turnstile, which in itself is a symbol of final farewells.

He walks away.

The city lights are left blurry while the falling snow is perfectly in focus. Rewatch it in full 1080p. It’s beautiful.

Fast forward a bit. In the real world, snow begins to fall as alt-Yuki’s musical leitmotif enters softly in the background for the last time. The piece has always been slow and subdued, revealing its emotive qualities through repetition. It’s simple on the outside and easy to perform but its effect on the listener is complex. The song calls to mind the now-vanished alt-universe Yuki, but one is left to wonder if it can be applied to real-world Yuki as well. They are, after all, two sides of the same person. You could almost call it a thematic motif in the way it leads you to juxtapose human Yuki against the alien one.

The visuals do an equally impressive job at highlighting the change in the protagonists’ relationship and in Yuki’s character. In contrast with the alternate universe, this shot comes up—quite different from the awkward, forced distance that the pair was forced into in their previous scenes. The only scene that showed the first hints of a connection between them was the one with the car headlights, and even then there was an air of awkwardness and emotional repression on Yuki’s part. She didn’t show a single genuine smile until Kyon agreed to stay over. Compared to the present, even when they’re framed separately, the shots are closer, more intimate. This Yuki might not be smiling but there’s something genuine about her eye contact. In some small yet crucial way, she changed.

The scene fades as she says “thank you”.

– – –

I prefaced this post by saying that Disappearance doesn’t have a spectacular storyline because, frankly, it doesn’t. The Haruhi Suzumiya franchise is fantastic, but I’ve already written about that. Disappearance is the same as Tanigawa’s other novels, for better or worse. What truly makes this movie shine is the way the staff capitalize on every sentence of action, every adjective, every motif in the original work. The film is 160 minutes and the book is 192 pages; I think those numbers speak for themselves.

Perhaps the best part of all is that it’s a reminder of the amount of artistic and creative skill needed to make good anime. Long-time fans can complain about the over-commercialized industry and a lack of good source material nowadays, but this film proves that a fun, quirky, if not simplistic teen novel can become a cinematic epic with the right amount of talent and skill. We once gave KyoAni a 12/10 on the troll scale, but if I could rate this 12/10 on MAL, I would.



{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Numbers and space January 4, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I can’t help but feel that a lot of these qualities should be attributed to the, gasp, existence of money. Money buys you time, time to sit back and say: “we’re going to take our time to draw this scene from this and that perspective with such and so lighting.” It helps in making this a great movie, but what really completes it is the daringness in which Kyoani adds in elements like the train station metaphor. A daringness that a lot of other productions seem to lack.

Or, not the reflections in the window make this a great movie, but Kyoani’s choice of animating reflective windows because this movie is about self-reflection.


eternal January 11, 2011 at 3:38 am

I see what you’re getting at. There’s certainly some symbolism in their work, and I appreciate the motifs added to the movie that probably weren’t in the book, but I suppose I wasn’t in the mood to spell the plot out when it seemed fairly straightforward to me. The movie certainly would not be the same without their integration of the visuals into the narrative as symbols, motifs, etc., but to some extend I feel like there’s nothing that needs to be added to that, so I only mentioned a few of them off-hand. Of course there are bound to be hidden gems like that leg metaphor you found :3


sensei January 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for this great and interesting review!
BTW did you watch the BD extras? (I found them in nyaa)
Most of them are too short, but great nonetheless. Specially the BGM one, which part of it was recorded in Sydney, and the making of the movie with Ishihara and Takemoto. Watching them you can see in October 2009 they were busy with storyboards with almost no drawing made yet. What makes it more incredible, it seems this movie animation and soundtrack were finished in little more than 3 months!


eternal January 11, 2011 at 3:40 am

Hmm, interesting. I’ll have to look those up. I’m thinking of getting the BD too so I might just watch it from that, assuming that there’s not much dialogue.


AspieSincerity January 6, 2011 at 11:44 am

What a beautiful review! I’m honestly touched by your words, it really makes me come to appreciate the movie even that little bit more. =)


animekritik January 17, 2011 at 1:16 am

Very interesting stuff. I just finished the movie and loved it. It’s a beautiful thing.


Yumeka January 20, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Wow, I can’t believe I totally forgot to read part 2 of your posts about the movie until now XP Sorry…but better late than never!

Like part 1, you did an excellent job describing how brilliant the movie conveys setting and tone, as well as emotion through visual keys rather than dialogue. Anyone who thinks the movie isn’t a masterpiece (visual-wise at least) needs to read your posts. Since I’m a big Haruhi fan, I’ve read all the blog pots about the movie that I’ve come across, but yours have been two of the best =)


eternal January 21, 2011 at 6:51 am

Thanks again~ That almost makes the 3000 words worthwhile, haha.


Killua January 26, 2011 at 1:00 am

Hellou there,
I took the time to read both parts and was amazed at what you had to say about the composition of the movie. The attention to detail is impressive (something you wouldn’t get out of like.. a rottentomatoes review, or something like that). I’m definitely gonna watch this again, and definitely in 1080p as you suggest :D.
I’m quite surprised at how much I liked this movie, seeing that I was deeply disappointed by the second season of Haruhi, and an inconsistent 1st season. I’m not greatly into anime, but I do enjoy some here and there. Which is why I was heeeaavviily amazed at the complexity of the atmosphere built in this film, and the overall sense mystery/adventure that the plot had. It kinda makes me wonder what sort of rating you would give it.. and maybe what other films like, better or similar that you know about. Thanks and Good Job :)


eternal January 31, 2011 at 6:35 am

Thanks for the comment. It’s pretty cool to hear from someone who isn’t a serious anime fan since most of the people who’d discuss and write about Haruhi are people who are completely familiar with the franchise and its impact on fandom. I’m glad (though not surprised) that it can appeal to people from other fandoms as well. I suppose that’s why a lot of people who were once apathetic to the franchise wound up admitting that this is still a solid film.

For the rating, I gave it a 10/10, but my ratings are subjective and based mostly on my own level of enjoyment. If you want some good anime movies you can check out the recent Kara no Kyoukai series–it’s very different in tone (psychological/fantasy/horror) but it’s comparable in terms of budget and attention to detail. The Blu-Ray box is coming out soon and I plan to rewatch it when that happens.


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