The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya was all over the anime world in the mid-2000’s. The memetic misadventures of the sociopathic tsundere (who’s actually God… I think) captivated fans across the Internet. But the show’s popularity tanked in its second season, due to the infamous “Endless Eight” arc. They literally made the same episode, eight times in a row! Fans were furious, and Haruhi Suzimiya was canceled after its second season.
But crazy as it sounds, I think the “Endless Eight” is misunderstood and brilliant in its own way. For one, KyoAni re-animated and re-dubbed every episode, showing a true dedication to their craft. No scene looks exactly the same twice. And though it was kind of a slog, watching all eight episodes in a row made me appreciate how the arc deconstructs common slice of life tropes, putting viewers deep into the deteriorating psyche of its point-of-view character Kyon.
The episodes start simple, which is never a good sign for this show. It’s almost the end of summer, and Haruhi wants to spend the last two weeks making as many memories with her friends as she can. Cue a montage of the cast filling every slice-of-life anime trope imaginable. Pool scene? Check. Fireworks? Check. Goofy bug-catching contest? Haruhi wins every time. It seems like a perfect summer vacation, but Kyon can’t help getting deja vu…
The twist comes when Asahina, the red-headed time traveler, breaks down upon realizing she can’t go back to the future. (Great Scott!) The world is stuck in an infinite time loop from August 17 to 31, and everyone’s memories are reset each time. The only one aware of all 15.532 loops is Yuki Nagato, a quiet girl who is actually an advanced alien robot with encyclopedic knowledge of the universe. The gang realize Haruhi is the unwitting cause of all this, longing for a more perfect end to the summer. But before Kyon can figure out what that is, the clock goes back, sending us into another 23 minutes of existential despair.
It’s infuriating to watch, but that’s also kind of the point. High school is idealized in anime and Japanese culture, because it’s the last time most people can live without the burdens of endless work and societal expectations. There is a recurring theme of not “wasting” your youth, of doing the most you can while you’re still young. For most anime characters, though, that moment never arrives. They aren’t allowed to grow older. They must keep repeating school life over and over again, until the show gets canceled or gets a terrible live-action reboot.
Sure, being stuck in your carefree school days doesn’t sound bad. But would anyone really want to live like that forever? Stuck on this endless carnival ride, never getting the chance to grow or do anything meaningful with your life? No matter how much fun Haruhi has, no matter how many karaoke joints she trashes, she will never be satisfied. And having been stuck in the house for almost a year, feeling like the days all blend together in a haze, I could intimately relate to the characters’ desperation and boredom as they struggled in vain to escape.
The real victim in all of this is not Haruhi or even Kyon, but Actual Best Girl Nagato. She remembers every loop, almost 600 years of the same two weeks. She sees how cheerful everyone else is at the beginning, and knows it’s only because they’re blissfully ignorant of their own reality. She doesn’t tell anyone about the time loops, because she knows it won’t make a difference. She’s tired, frustrated, bored beyond her wits, and resentful of Haruhi for forcing everyone into this weird karmic horrorshow. The show doesn’t focus on her much, but every time she’s on screen, she looks dead inside. This becomes the catalyst for Nagato’s actions in the later film, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzimiya, and gives her a lot more depth and intrigue than you’d expect from a side character in a slice-of-life rom-com.
I’m drawn to anime because I love weird, off-beat stories, and Haruhi Suzimiya shows why that weirdness works. Almost every episode plays with a different genre or theme, from Mob Psycho-esque psychic battles to a beach episode that becomes a murder mystery. Having eight episodes in a row with the exact same sequence of events asks a lot of its audience, and I can understand anyone who dropped the show because of it. But art is supposed to bring out a wide range of emotions, including boredom and frustration. These uncomfortable feelings help us empathize with what the characters are going through, and make the final payoff that much more satisfying. The show is far from perfect, but I’ll always appreciate its sincere ambition. At least, I’d like to think that, as it’s the best way for me to justify watching the same episode of anime eight times in a row.