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Requiem for a Dead Fandom: A Review of the Haruhi Suzumiya Light Novels

Requiem for a Dead Fandom: A Review of the Haruhi Suzumiya Light Novels

Kyon disapproves of this collection.

There are spoilers in this review. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

If cosplayers and TV Tropes are the pulse points of a fandom, then the Haruhi Suzumiya series can be pronounced dead in 2015. Someone marked the Haruhi Suzumiya page on TV Tropes as “Deader than Disco” and at this year’s Fanime Con—well, I saw two Kenshin Himuras, around five Disney Princesses, and a bevy of gothic lolitas. There wasn’t, however, a North High uniform in sight. It’s as if all those diehard Haruhiists changed religions, sometime between 2011 and 2013.

That’s a great pity, too. After years of procrastinating, I finally bought the last three books—The Indignation, The Dissociation, and The Surprise—and I reread the entire series in one go. That’s roughly 2,346 pages in one week.

In hindsight, I’m glad I waited because the last three installments of the series form a meaningful, seamless arc, unlike some of the middle volumes.*  For instance, some of the short stories in The Indignation and The Wavering are entertaining and character-driven, but contribute little to advancing the main plot.

Unlike those earlier installments, The Dissociation and The Surprise are best read back to back, since they follow one continuous thread even if the narrative splits into two separate timelines, the alpha and the beta.

When I first read a partial fan translation back in 2011, I thought the author was going full Cortazar on his readers. (Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch is a postmodern classic that has confounded generations of literature majors. The reader’s encouraged to skip back and forth through chapters. Thus the narrative can be read in several ways.) Thankfully, Nagaru Tanigawa wasn’t nearly that ambitious. While it’s possible to read the alpha timeline first and then the beta afterwards (I tried), The Surprise actually loses some of its charm that way.

The Dissociation and The Surprise introduces Sasaki, Kyon’s female friend from middle school, whom everyone thinks is his ex-girlfriend. (She isn’t.) Sasaki’s just like Haruhi: she has reality-warping powers and the ability to make closed space. Moreover, Sasaki’s closed spaces are calm and nonviolent, which makes her an alternative for a suspicious trio—a time traveler, an alien, and an esper—who seek to channel all of Haruhi’s wild power into a more stable human vessel.

This alliance of well-meaning extremists try to persuade Kyon to ditch Haruhi and her supporters. Confronted with an alternative to the status quo, Kyon must choose between the opposing sides. What is “best” for the world, however, may not be good for him.

As Kyon grapples with this problem, the unexpected occurs: time unravels and things fall apart, culminating a split in the narrative’s timeline. The Surprise then takes Kyon—and the reader—for a bumpy, exciting ride.

It’s unclear whether The Surprise of Haruhi Suzumiya is the last installment in the series. Some websites, including Wikipedia, state that the series is only on hiatus. While I think The Surprise works well as a closing volume since it resolves some main dilemmas, it does leaves a ton of unanswered questions. This includes:

  • Kyon’s real name (Sasaki says it’s an unusual and majestic name)
  • the John Smith trump card (Kyon never uses it, so we never see if it will actually work)
  • the real nature of Haruhi’s power
  • Kyon’s gift to Haruhi
  • Tsuraya’s secret life
  • Most of the shipper stuff with a) Kuneida blurting out that he went to North High to get closer to Tsuraya, b) Koizumi exchanging phone numbers with his ‘evil’ counterpart, and c) Taniguchi’s quest for love

 

I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that these unanswered questions don’t matter so much since Kyon finally resolves his mixed feelings for Haruhi. This comes, appropriately enough, at the climax of The Surprise. His heroics would be impossible to pull off if he didn’t acknowledge that he can’t live without her. The actual moment has a subtle call-back to the first book—“Don’t let her get away.” All of this may feel redundant after the events of The Disappearance but it is Kyon’s moment to reaffirm many of his half-hearted sentiments. 

It’s no shocker, then, that The Surprise lacks Kyon’s usual gushing over his other crushes. As a couple, Haruhi and Kyon do some everyday things together, like studying. Their classmates don’t even comment on it. The sheer normalcy of it is notable.

The Haruhi Suzumiya series isn’t perfect but The Surprise still makes a satisfying ending. Yuki returns from the brink of an alien-induced fever, Asahina preserves her time line, and Koizumi opens a can of whoop ass. Even Sasaki, whose first appearance in The Dissociation grated my brain, becomes a reluctant god who tries to foil the conspirators who use her as a pawn.

The only character I wasn’t enamored with was Yasumi Watahashi, The Surprise’s version of Scrappy-do. She’s the only applicant to survive Haruhi’s battery of tests for new SOS Brigade members, and she immediately charms everyone except Kyon. For a series that can sell the vision of rival alien factions fighting over a moody teen god, Yasumi Watahashi is somewhat lackluster. The moment she appeared, I worried that she was Kyon and Haruhi’s time-traveling offspring, like a moe Rachel Summers. (She isn’t.) Thankfully, she’s used sparingly throughout the book.

Anime-only fans might be surprised that Nagaru Tanigawa introduced a brigade member so late in the series. It surprised me, since the dynamic between the five main characters is tightly written. I think it’s good that she disappears right after she ceases to be useful to the story

It’s easy to pinpoint when the Haruhi Suzumiya fandom died—somewhere between the publication delays of The Dissociation and The Surprise and the anime’s disastrous second season, casual fans got fed up and moved on. In hindsight, perhaps Haruhi Suzumiya’s mercurial success also led to overwhelming expectations, and the intense backlash against it was inevitable. Maybe, given a decade or so out of the limelight, a revival can be effected? (Cough, Kenshin Himura, cough.) I won’t lie, I’d love to see Kyon jumping out a window to save Haruhi’s life. I don’t care how long it takes for that to happen. In the meantime I have the books.

At the end of the day, two images from the anime sum up the entire series for me: Haruhi tugging on Kyon’s tie, and the quick one-two seconds between the Male and Female bathroom signs. Despite all the time travel and the science fiction shenanigans, the Haruhi Suzumiya series has always had one foot in romance, and another foot in mystery. And just like Kyon, I may grumble, but I secretly want to believe.

 

 

 * For the English editions, there are ten books in the series; in the Japanese editions, there are eleven. The Surprise of Haruhi Suzumiya originally came out in two volumes, published simultaneously. 

Side Comments of the Month X

Side Comments of the Month X

1. I’m a firm believer in serendipity. So when I get unexpected invitations to book launchings, I go. Last week’s chance event was Kate Perry’s book launch at the Presidio Social Club.

I’m usually shy around absolute strangers—especially in a tightly knit crowd—but the atmosphere was warm and accommodating. Kate and her team made me feel at ease at once! I haven’t started reading her book, Say You Will, but it’s now in queue on my “to read” shelf.

I met some fabulous people like Regency romance author Sara Ramsey, who just kept me in stitches. I had a good time and I can’t wait for more events like this to come my way.

 

2. Adam and I just finished the latest South Park three-episode arc. It’s a fine skewering of Black Friday, HBO’s A Game of Thrones, and the never-ending video game console wars.

I always adore South Park episodes that have the kids role-playing. It’s amusing to watch Stan and Kyle in medieval attire, debating the merits of the Xbox One versus PlayStation 4. This arc doesn’t surpass the brilliance of Imaginationland, but it tries hard. The social commentary has a clean bite.

In these episodes, Eric Cartman channels his inner Littlefinger while Kenny unleashes his love for blonde braids. Kenny’s newest incarnation as magical princess Kenny is the polar opposite of his other alter ego, Mysterion. I don’t know which alter ego I like better.

 

An example of the film's beautiful symmetry. And I'm not referring to Christian Bale's cheekbones, either.

3. When the weather is temperamental, nothing compares to curling up on the sofa and watching a guilty pleasure on Netflix. So over the weekend, I found myself watching Equilibrium (2002) again.

I’ve had a thing for Christian Bale forever (trust me to have a crush on him since Empire of the Sun). Sure, I loved him as Batman, but his portrayal of John Preston brings on the giggles and the glee. The look of consternation on his face when he first holds a puppy is priceless.

Equilibrium has many hammy moments, and maybe mixing guns and martial arts is an idea that the Mythbusters should debunk. I don’t know. I think these elements are balanced out with the film’s beautiful shots and immaculate symmetry.

Among dystopian movies, Equilibrium not as bleak as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or as hip as The Hunger Games. Still, I re-watch this film when I want to see Christian Bale kill as many opponents as possible. He never disappoints.

Side Comments for the Month V

Side Comments for the Month V

There are spoilers for Iron Man 3 and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in this post. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text with your mouse.

 

Any excuse to use this photo is good enough for me. From Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009).

1. So I watched Iron Man 3 like the rest of the world. I liked it a lot and I found it superior to Iron Man 2. Then again, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my favorite movies, so anything that teamed up Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. again was bound to hit my sweet spot.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 actually have many things in common: the seemingly pointless voiceover narration at the beginning, the red herrings, the lead character being a fish out of water, the holiday decorations, the bait-and-switch bad guys.

I read a few reviews online, and I can see how the film probably upsets some of the hardcore comic book fans. (I grew up reading more Uncanny X-men myself, and you cannot imagine my nerd rage with X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. So I can sympathize.)

I digress, though. As someone who likes Robert Downey Jr. and the film that revived his career, I am willing to cut Iron Man 3 some slack. It’s not The Godfather of superhero movies but it’s an above average popcorn film.

Incidentally, this may be the second time RDJ’s been handcuffed to a bed frame. He’s beginning to make a habit out of it.

 

"Did you ever try to do embroidery with a gun in your hand?" Mrs. Hudson is a woman to emulate.

2. For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). I picked up the soundtrack, purely out of curiosity, from the classical music section of the Berkeley Public Library. I was actually looking for more Hans Zimmer when I found it. (Zimmer’s work on Guy Ritchie’s Holmes films—especially the main theme in “Discombobulate”—has been great music for writing.)

Since I liked the idea of song titles like “221B Baker Street”, “The Diogenes Club”, and “Watson’s Rage,” I gave The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes a good listen and it exceeded my expectations. I cannot claim to be any sort of expert in musical matters, but this particular musical score pleases me. I’m terrible at identifying musical motifs and themes, but I have no problem picking out the Sherlock moments as it recurred throughout the entire CD.

 

3. Due to my enjoyment of the soundtrack, I did not hesitate to borrow the film when I found a copy at the Mechanics Institute.

I’m not sure if I liked Robert Stephens’s conventional interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. (I confess that the idea that he was Maggie Smith’s ex-husband fascinated me more.) Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson was uninspired but I attribute this to the writing. When he started ranting at Holmes—for having started a rumor that they were gay lovers just to be rid of a client—was hilarious. Too bad Watson wasn’t given more scenes like that.

The Holmes brothers having a "friendly" conversation.

The idea of a young-ish Christopher Lee as Mycroft Holmes just floored me. My mental image of Mycroft Holmes remains that of a rotund man with rosy cheeks, like Richard Griffiths or even G.K. Chesterton. Christopher Lee seems better suited to play Sherlock himself, which he has done so several times.

A lovely French actress named Geneviève Page played the main female client. She’s definitely a throwback to all the dainty damsels in distress who seek Holmes’s advice throughout the canon. It especially pleases me, for obvious reasons, that Billy Wilder did not name her character Irene Adler.

It’s just too bad that the central mystery was child’s play—some of the clues were just too obvious—and better editing would have fixed the pacing. Despite these complaints, I still finished watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes because the dialogue was incredibly witty. Bon mots were distributed equally among characters—even Mrs. Hudson got a couple of quips.

As it’s usually the case with non-canonical adaptations, I enjoyed this for its fannish interpretation. Billy Wilder’s take on Holmes’s sexuality and his gentlemanly reticence is totally in line with more contemporary revisions of Holmes. Laurie R. King’s version of Holmes, for instance, is that of a consummate Victorian gentleman—a man who would never take advantage of a woman, even a naked amnesiac spy.

Maybe in the future, I will tackle the Basil Rathbone DVDs and content myself with Holmes vs. Nazis. When I think about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s penchant for secret societies and the footprints of gigantic hounds, I can’t really fault Billy Wilder for writing Holmes vs. the Loch Ness Monster. It actually makes sense… at least, more sense than Nazis.

My overall verdict: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is flawed but interesting. The music makes all the difference. Check it out if you can find it.

My, my. This has been a very Sherlockian entry, hasn’t it?

My Fandom is Older than Yours: Sherlock Holmes

My Fandom is Older than Yours: Sherlock Holmes

I.

I'm a non-smoker who owns a pipe. It's a long story.

I am absolutely delighted with the explosion of all things Sherlock Holmes. I’ve previously mentioned my love for Holmes before, but it’s only the rumblings of the intense BBC Sherlock fandom that has made it all chic again.

Inspired by some obscure side comments on Ghost Bees & Consulting Detectives—my favorite Sherlock Holmes tumblr—I picked up the incredibly influential William S. Baring-Gould biography from the Berkeley Public Library.

A little bit on the Baring-Gould and Holmes connection first, though. There existed a real person by the name of Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. He was an amateur antiquarian, novelist, and folklorist. In Laurie R. King’s The Moor (1998), he is portrayed as a crusty old invalid who sends his godson, Sherlock Holmes, to investigate the death of a Dartmoor man.

Aside from this fictional appearance, Sabine Baring-Gould’s real and interesting childhood—as detailed in the first volume of his autobiography—is freely used by his grandson, the aforementioned William S. Baring-Gould, as the basis for Sherlock Holmes’s childhood.

So: fiction intruded upon a life, then life intruded upon fiction. Then the dance continued.

For a reader like myself, it’s almost impossible not to think of the Baring-Gould name without Holmes, and vise versa. While the old reverend was accomplished in his lifetime and still marginally remembered for his own contributions, I wonder if his ghost is bothered that younger generations think of him as “Sherlock’s godfather.”

But I digress.

What I think about his grandson’s biography is a different matter altogether!

 

II.

Fun with copyright-free clip art.

I can only describe William S. Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of The World’s First Consulting Detective (1960) as a seminal piece of fanfiction. It’s an unintentionally hilarious piece of work, with most of the giggles and teeth-gnashing coming from the serious tone coupled with the author’s unbelievable flights of fancy.

This is not the work of a fool uploading half-finished first drafts on fanfiction.net, folks. In 1967, William Baring-Gould published the two-volume Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is still a definitive piece of Holmes scholarship. He is one of the first to fix the internal chronology of the stories (which is something Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seriously screwed up.) Baring-Gould’s many scholarly contributions are mentioned in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2005), and he’s supposed to be someone to take seriously.

Knowing these things only made Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street an even more infuriating experience for me!

First off, Baring-Gould names Holmes’ parents and endows him without another older brother, Sherrinfold. With Sherrinfold as the heir of the family estate and with Mycroft as the spare, this makes third son Sherlock rather superfluous (in terms of succession or the entail.)

Holmes’s position as a third son enables him to rebel against his father’s choice of profession for him (engineering!) which in turn gets him disinherited. It makes sense in terms of characterization, given that Holmes only reluctantly mentions his family to Watson.

What doesn’t make sense, however, is all the other stuff Baring-Gould insisted on.

It amuses me that Baring-Gould went through extreme lengths to explain how Holmes attended both Oxford and Cambridge. (I understand that both universities claim him.) Among his other youthful exploits, Holmes meets Karl Marx and some anarchists, he hangs out with Lewis Carroll, and he embarks on an acting career (?!) in the United States. Seriously.

As a hilarious clincher to these goings-on, Baring-Gould has Holmes dressing up as a blonde streetwalker trying to entrap Jack the Ripper. Of course a struggle ensues when he is found out to be a man, and of course Watson comes along to save the day. Seriously.

It was at this point in the book where I felt the chapter could so easily devolve into a BBC Sherlock yaoi fanfic.

Dr. Watson would like to have a word with you now. Promotional still of Jude Law from Warner Bros.

Instead of that scenario (perhaps he found himself unable to write that scene?) Baring-Gould falls back on that old heterosexual standby, “The Woman.” Unable to collapse gently into Watson’s arms, during his great hiatus Holmes instead has a passionate affair with a recently divorced Irene Adler. Ms. Adler abandons Holmes once she realizes she’s pregnant. She flees Europe and later gives birth to Nero Wolfe.

Seriously.  

I won’t bother with commenting on the rest of it, aside from mentioning that the ending is pure schmaltz. I just refuse to believe that Holmes spends his last day alive surveying his life’s work while sitting by the sea, whispering “Irene, Irene” to himself like a lovesick fool.

If this was supposed to be the secret life of the great detective, I’d rather he had died at Reichenbach. At least Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted him to go out with a heroic bang. Too bad the reading public wouldn’t let him.

Holmes surely deserves more than this piteous whimper.

 

III.

I’m not sure why I’m getting all riled up over a fifty-two year old piece of fanfiction (back in the day, it would have been called a pastiche), but seriously! It gets my goat. I don’t mind bad fanfiction on the internet. That’s easy enough to dismiss out of hand. What I do mind, however, is bad fanfiction somehow made legitimate with its hardbound cover and staid dust jacket, sitting decorously on the shelves of the Berkeley Public Library, merely waiting to pounce on unsuspecting readers like myself. The nerve!

Tonight, I think I will retreat back into the welcoming arms of the canon, sniffling for this great blow to Holmes’s dignity.