An Endless Summer, An Endless Winter; The Art of Time Loops in Haruhi Suzumiya

I guess it’s no surprise that I’m a huge fan of the Time Loop trope. Overall, it has become increasingly popular in both anime and live action television, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite abuse by today’s writers, the time loop trope remains an effective device to create interesting compare/constrast situations from multiple angles, as well as extend character arcs and present them in ways that are refreshing and articulate.  But it is also a double-edged sword: very effective when done right, but convoluted, confusing and tiresome when done wrong. Not only that, but it can weigh down the series by making it confusing and tiresome to get through. To name some examples, series six of Doctor Who lost itself in over-complicated time paradoxes. Eureka Seven: AO‘s parallel timelines and short episode count made it not only a difficult series to understand, but a hard one to keep up with on a daily basis. Even Fringe, despite its fantastic beginning, was eventually bogged down by plot devices and clumsy exposition.  In other words: It’s damn hard to name a show that gets the time loop trope right – I could count the number on one hand, if I had to.

So just when I lose heart and start thinking that Time Looping is a popular device that’s overused to the point where it’s cliche and typically disappointing, Endless Summer comes to save the day. Haruhi Suzumiya puts its foot down and shows itself to be perfectly capable of creating fulfilling time paradox narratives.And not just once, but twice!

AN ENDLESS SUMMER:

Depending on who you ask, Endless Eight, easily the most controversial arc of Haruhi’s second season, is either a daring experiment or a long and extremely repetitive slog. Whereas most time loops focus around something extremely interesting or dramatic,  our SOS Brigade team is forced to go through a sort of Groundhog Day on one of the most mundane summer days ever – for eight episodes, or 75% of the whole series. Usually this sort of format would be painfully monotonous in any other circumstance, but Endless Eight makes it work. Nothing is redundant. The time loop is carefully detailed, revealing subtle nuances with every repetition. Endless Eight’s core thus lies in the execution of each scene (which is different) than in the content (which is the same.) All in all, it’s less of a straight-forward narrative and more an audience event, an accumulation of similar scenes and events that are superficially similar but are subliminally and even artistically different nevertheless.

Seven different scenes or angle/focus of the same line.

Each scene is a different capture of the same line, and in that way each adaptation is different. A Kyon who starts off lazing on the couch to a Kyon who anxiously sits on the sofa, waiting for Haruhi’s call, and a Kyon who listens to Nagato’s time loop count with dramatic music playing underneath to the same scene with an easygoing, melodious tune – the same story is told in many different ways. With this perspective, Endless Eight doesn’t just play with the viewer’s mind. It plays with cause and effect, or the very basis of storytelling. Camera angles, background music, the use of light and shadow, coloring as well as small, invariable changes; all of these play a large factor in creating a unique atmosphere. At the same time, these differences also contribute to a the gradual development of the cast. We witness the subtle ways the SOS Brigade interacts. While the dialogue may be the same, the action and expression behind  each line can be are very distinct. Nagato, bored with her role as an observer, chooses a different mask at the Bon festival every each time. Kyon visits Nagato after paying for lunch eight times, but each time is something a little different as we start to see the tiredness in Nagato’s eyes every time she says “Yes.” One could almost say that Kyon’s subconscious makes him go and see Nagato knowing that she has to witness the same loop more than fifteen thousand times, without being able to do anything about it. The same sort of development could also be said about the conclusion of Endless Eight. After all, the culmination of Kyon’s knowledge throughout those loops is what inevitably makes him break out of the loop. It’s not a lucky guess that Kyon manages to find out how to keep Haruhi’s boredom at bay – it was only through the repetition of events and deductions as well as the recurrent communication and dialogue with Haruhi that Kyon was able to think of a way out. None of this is explicitly said, but heavily implied. How? Through those differences. By understanding that every time Haruhi was let go, she would turn back time and the maze would begin again. Even after Endless Eight ends, none of these interactions and developments go to waste, like most loops; Nagato’s motivations for her actions in Disappearance are fueled by her tormented period during this arc.

But Endless Eight doesn’t stop there.It not only functions within the context of Haruhi and storytelling, but also outside that context of it. Endless Eight fully knows that we, the spectators , are watching the same story ceaselessly, but it doesn’t hesitate to make dramatic changes in the script. In fact, it doesn’t change the script at all. In this way, Endless Eight also works as an experiment in fan culture response. By the third episode of Endless Eight, we already know what’s going to happen. So why do we keep watching? It’s not about the content; it’s about us, as an audience, focusing desperately on these individual changes rather than the content itself. While this may be a regular habit for any aniblogger of fan of meta, I find the fact that such a popular franchise would make its viewers watch eight episodes of repeated script with subtle changes is nothing short of astounding. Here, Endless Eight controls the audience fully, not the other way around. People may have remembered Endless Eight as a disappointment or an achievement by the end of the two months, but frankly? It doesn’t matter. They came away from the end of those two months remembering Endless Eight. That’s how you tell a story, whether it be likable or not.

Endless Eight is a purely adrenaline-driven story format. It is frustrating. It is tear-out-your-hair style annoying. But it is equally as brilliant. It breathes new life into the time loop trope and hands you something much more intensive than your usual story, forcing you to sit down and watch 23 minutes of a cleverly re-adapted story eight times in a row. But more than anything, it’s a testament to how we function as an audience; how we look at storytelling and subscribe to its demands, as well as how our expectations are molded by a set accumulation of regular, ordinary storytelling that maintains the status quo.

AN ENDLESS WINTER:

If Endless Eight is all about minor changes even in a time of continuity and similarity to bring about subtle development of the cast, then Disappearance is about expatiating those changes in a more emotional, heartfelt manner while building on the already-established plot. For the first time this change isn’t caused by Haruhi’s whims or her subconscious desires, but rather by Nagato’s pent up frustration at being the one to save the team every time something out of the ordinary happens. As such, she decides to finally give up her own position as observer and recreate the universe in her own image. It is a world that is the very antithesis of  the one we have come to grow so fond of in the two seasons. In this world, Haruhi Suzumiya is a girl who has never met Kyon, Nagato or Asahina. She is, relatively speaking, a normal teenager who lives out her life happily with her best friend Koizumi. Asahina has no knowledge about the future and is nothing more than the moe girl we all assumed her to be. Nagato herself has been reverted to an porcelain doll who likes to read, though more expressive and emotional. In essence, it is a universe Kyon and Nagato have always imagined; the world where Kyon isn’t bothered by the rantings and speeches of Haruhi, and a world where Nagato doesn’t have to play babysitter. However, the same ‘error’ that initiates Nagato’s creation of new timeline is the same error that creates a catch-22: Kyon. Kyon is the only one who has the memory of the actual universe from before. Because Nagato cannot trust herself or the errors she has built up, she leaves the final answer in the hands of the only one she can depend on: Kyon himself.*

The idea is beautiful in that it encapsulates Nagato’s arc into one simple explanation: the growth of emotions. Nagato’s creation of a time loop  is the result of her feelings that are created and built up throughout the TV series. Now actualized, these feelings create a very heartbreaking and sentimental background for the movie, and also become the reason for the plot of the movie itself. In a 7 minute scene, Kyon examines and realizes this development.

The progression of Nagato’s character development throughout the two seasons of the TV series: from an emotionless robot, to a girl who is able to speak about her preferences for video gaming and reading books.

Kyon’s perception of how Nagato has changed over the course of three years, leading up to her wish and development of emotions.

..Which all leads up to this moment; a wish Nagato desires to be fulfilled – the wish that she can be coherent and outspoken about her feelings.

If Nagato’s development is intertwined with the story of Haruhi in such a way that neither is sacrificed at the gain of the other, then we can deduce that her feelings spur the entire time continuum of Haruhi Suzumiya; they fundamentally are a part of it, but are also culminated because of it. In this stroke of brilliance, Disappearance not only progresses Kyon and Nagato’s arcs within the movie, but also elaborates a major event in the series: Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody. In the TV series, we find out that Kyon’s travel to three years in the past may have spurred Haruhi’s desire to find aliens, espers, time travelers and all these oddities in the first place. Disappearance expands on this revelation and takes it a bit further, by explaining that Nagato’s time loop also caused Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody. We’re transported back to the scene of three years ago, when Nagato sends the TV series versions of Yuki and Kyon back to their respective timeline. In this movie, that event is sidelined as Nagato meets the movie version of Kyon and future!Asahina and explains to them the actual problem of the alternate timeline and what has gone wrong. Asahina and Kyon must first ensure the stability of the time loop by once again, interacting with Haruhi Suzumiya from three years ago as well as ‘correcting’ current!Nagato’s mistake.

What’s fantastic about this new development is that it doesn’t interfere with any of the interactions or scenes originally held in Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody, and thus doesn’t create any plot holes. In fact, the time loop is stable and leaves no space for doubt or misunderstandings; a first for me, as time loops easily tend to become convoluted and bulky.  The time paradox goes as far as to answers some of the questions we had in the show, such as why future!Asahina arrived in the first place and why Haruhi enrolled into North High. To top it off with some icing, Disappearance sets up explanations and roles to be fulfilled in future installments. Thus, this time loop functions more as a continuation than just a random movie device that we often see in many movie sequel plots. It’s a bridge to the next season; a bridge that needs to be watched in order to understand what will happen next in Haruhi Suzumiya.

One of those bridging moments is also a key moment for our male protagonist, Kyon. Whereas the TV series broke ground by making Kyon the only member of the SOS Brigade to be normal and have no special powers whatsoever, Disappearance breaks that ground by giving Kyon an ability. But it’s not the power to hack video games, or to travel to the future, or to fight in closed space; no, Kyon’s ability is as different as it is powerful. It all comes back to the overlying theme of Disappearance and the main plot of Haruhi Suzumiya itself: choice. Kyon has to return and save his previous self from Asakura’s attack, but he has the option of actually rescuing himself or not. If he doesn’t, the universe with Haruhi and the SOS Brigade will not be restored, and the alternate universe that Nagato created would be the ‘real’ one. Kyon not only has the ability to thus change the universe again, but also has the ability to recreate it to an extent. As he tells Nagato, all he has to do is reveal the truth about himself as John Smith to Haruhi, and it will cause “hell to break loose.” Kyon thus not only progresses forward in an emotional sense – he is granted power to change the course of both the future and the past. The Kyon that was introduced in the first episode and the Kyon in Disppearance are two very different people now; a Kyon who never wanted to be a part of the SOS Brigade, and a man who acknowledges his taste for the fun and bizarre.

With these two time loops, Haruhi Suzumiya has shown me that there’s still hope for the trope. The series sets itself as an example for future shows by combining the device with seamless narrative as well as character and plot development. But more than that, it uses it cleverly and within limits, making sure it doesn’t eclipse other parts of the story that need to be told. In a genre of media where time loops are more or less used as an inconvenient excuse to boost up the story and turn it into something ‘exciting’, Haruhi uses its time loops to actually tell the story itself. Not as an addition, or simple continuation of events, but as a style of storytelling. As such, it tears away all of your already-held expectations and gives you higher ones. And that’s how it sets itself apart from the rest. In short, it’s a show that gives you as much as you’re willing to take away from it, and even at that, it’ll still give you more than what you asked for; a quality that isn’t found all too often in shows these days. Who doesn’t like a show that knows its limits and pushes itself further with a commonly used trope without damaging itself in the process? Haruhi delivers, and anime is all the more fun, exciting and intelligent for it.

*I understand my shipping preferences may be, er, showing here.

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4 responses to “An Endless Summer, An Endless Winter; The Art of Time Loops in Haruhi Suzumiya

  1. Pingback: Day Five: Me, Undertale, and Tatami Galaxy. | Isn't It Electrifying?·

  2. Pingback: Day Five: Me, Undertale, and Tatami Galaxy. | Isn't It Electrifying?·

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