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.