2009 in anime: #8 The Day the Anime World Stood Still

by Grungi

(Fifth post in the “12 days in anime” 2009 project led by Mega Megane Moé. Other participating blogs include Shameful Otaku Secret!, Continuing World, Fighting for Nippon!, We love maids., Bokutachi no BLOG, Anime Profiling, Desu ex Machina, Blogging about Anime, I Will Show You Terror in a Handful of Flans, Pontifus, Open Your Mind, ∑Xce7ion, Ganbatte Forever!, Mikotoism, wat u say, Memories of Eternity, Simplicity, Gabrielino Anime Club, UNMEI KAIHEN, Nigorimasen!, Mainichi Anime Yume and We Remember Love)

Some events tend to set the anime blogosphere aflame. Take a loved and insanely anticipated series, a crazy stunt, combine the two, and you can get bloggers and anime fans talking endlessly over it. And this year had probably the most spectacular meta-show I’ve ever witnessed. Due to technical constraints, I could not follow the episodes, and ended up marathoning the whole season in two days. So here is, the 8th best moment of the list : The Melancholy of Harui Suzumiya’s Endless Eight !

(Note : in the following I’ll use KyoAni where I guess it would be better to use Kadokawa/KyoAni. A bit like how Linux should be called GNU/Linux… Ah well…)

First thing first, let me spill the bean early on : I rather liked the Endless Eight arc. There, I said it. But before you start to throw bricks my way, give me a chance to elaborate a little on why I didn’t think it was merely a “troll” by KyoAni. I won’t, however, try to unequivocally prove that it was the best way to handle it, or even a good way at all. I’ll merely try to expose my personal way of seeing it.

Now, for those of you living under a rock for the past years, or at least not following the happenings of the anime world, a brief summary. The Melancholy of Harui Suzumiya was a very successful anime by Kyoto Animation that aired in 2006, and which was based on a series of light novels about a girl unknowingly capable of altering reality. After a long three years during which KyoAni teased all the fans about the possibility of a sequel to their massive hit, it came true. This year, a “second season” was aired. In fact, it was combined with a re-run of the first season, shown in chronological order (which wasn’t the case for the original run), intertwining old episodes with new one. And, between June 19 and August 7, Endless Eight happened. This story arc depicts the protagonists trapped in a time loop that forces them to live through their two last weeks of summer vacations over and over again. For 8 episodes, they looped, going through essentially the same events, with the same conclusion.

The thing is, the way Kyoto Animation chose to translate the somewhat unimportant arc from the novels into an anime was a bold move to say the least, and was very polarizing. For some, it was regarded as genius, while others thought it was a big slap in the face of all the fans of the franchise. And think what you want about it, but at least it got pretty much everyone talking about the show. And as they say, any publicity, good or bad, is still publicity, right ?

Now, let’s get down to it: why did I find this seemingly boring-to-death arc enjoyable ?

First, while the arc was still airing, I followed the internet drama it generated. That was a first way to generate it. Each week, people would speculate about the possible end of the ever longer loop, only to get their hopes and theories dashed. At the time, the response was more negative than positive. People were expressing their frustration, as the second season was being “wasted” retelling the same thing over and over. On the other hand, people who weren’t bothered by that weren’t very vocal, probably waiting to know how it was all going to end before stating that “it was great”. I suspect that if the whole season had been devoted to Endless Eight, more or less everyone would have been angry at KyoAni.

As I said before, I wasn’t watching the show at the time, which gave me a more “detached” look at the situation, but I can honestly say that I was a little sad to learn I would be watching “the same episode over and over”. Sure, I read that the clothes were different, but that was it. When I got to watch these episodes, I was pleasantly surprised, discovering how different they were. Well, of course, the dialogues were almost the same, the events too, but each iteration of the loop had enough uniqueness to keep things fresh : one focused on hands, with excessive hand movements from the characters, one was definitely spookier than the rest, one had scenes looping two times… Of course, those differences were clear to me thanks to me watching them back-to-back. Maybe my appreciation would have been different, had I seen them with one week between each one.

But let us look at what did Endless Eight did in terms of character development and viewer involvement. In all the series, we’re usually most familiar with Kyon’s take on the events unfolding, as he’s the narrator. But, this time, though he stays the main “protagonist”, we get to see things through the eyes of Yuki Nagato. She’s clearly in the same boat as the viewer, as she’s the only one that remembers what happened in every iteration of the loop (more than 15000 of them in the story !) while unable to do anything to change it. Of course, one may argue that Nagato could do something, except she’s bound by rules she has to obey. The end result is still there, by seeing the same events happening 8 times, we get a glimpse of what she’s enduring. At no other point of the show are we closer to any other character (except for Kyon). And if usually we feel sympathy for the poor Kyon that gets dragged along, this time one wants to yell at him to DO SOMETHING in that cafe, before Harui leaves and their fate gets sealed. That was an interesting change. Combined with the way Kyon acts in the following arc, “The Sighs of Harui Suzumiya”, it paints a better picture of the grumpy narrator.

That said, it wasn’t the only way Endless Eight engaged (or tried to, at the very least) the viewer. Once again, I must remind you that I watched all the episodes in one go, and that I knew the arc was going to last 8 episodes, so I’ll be speculating a bit, but bear with me, will you ?

Starting from the second loop iteration, the episodes are structured like an tension rollercoaster, with “incidents” marking key points : the phone call at the beginning, the first meeting in the restaurant, the pool, the beginning of the festival, Kyon calling out to Nagato (or not), and of course the meeting on August 30. Each one of these events is a possible turning point, with either Kyon or Koizumi experiencing déjà-vus, and though I did know the loop wasn’t going to end before the 8th time, at each time I couldn’t help but to anticipate those events, thinking that maybe, maybe this time it would play out differently. And it never did, of course, yet the next moment was coming up, and my hope were getting up again.

Now call me silly, but I’m sure that had I followed the episodes as they aired, the effect would have been magnified. And I suspect it was part of the reasion why many people resented the arc so strongly. KyoAni was destroying the hopes of people in a vicious way: each week, people would start hoping that, yes, this time it would be the last one, then they entered the episode with high expectations, and were put through the aforementioned cycle of hope and disappointment. And the following week, the same thing happened. Sure, some people (many people ?) dropped the show, vowing only to return after all that time looping madness, but those who remained had even higher hopes : “Come on, THIS TIME it’ll end.”

“But why do that to Harui ?” you ask ? On one hand, KyoAni could have gone the easy way and make “more of the same”, sticking to the plot of the novel, however risking to lose the little something that made the original run such a huge success. But on the other hand, wasn’t the first season something more ? Something crazier ? What’s more, do you think this could have been attempted with a less-known series ? I’m pretty sure a very devoted fanbase was necessary for it to work in the first place. If, say, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (it also deals with a looping time scenario) had tried to do the same thing, it would have failed and people would have quickly dismissed it as pretentious and lame. But it was Harui, it was bound to be good, or at least redeem itself at some point.

And many fans that despised the Endless Eight arc dropped the show “until something new happens”, not completely. That’s a key difference. Now, I’m not sure how KyoAni will be able to sell DVDs, as most people will probably feel robbed having to buy discs with 4 times the “same stuff” on them, but that’s another story. And note that a movie based on The Disappearance of Harui Suzumiya is planned. And that is not innocent, KyoAni must have known that The Disappearance was the arc the fans were the most eager to see animated, yet they didn’t include it in the second season. Also, they didn’t announce a third season, but a movie ! A way to avoid people thinking they would get a bad surprise in the form of another bizarre stunt.

All in all, my guess is that Kyoto Animation not only dared to do something unusual, they also handled it pretty well, and Harui will probably maintain its popularity. The strong reactions of most viewers goes a long way to show how attached they are to this story and characters. I suspect that the movie will be awesome, but “normal”, as if to atone for the second season.

Well, I guess I have more or less said all I wanted to say on this moment. I’m probably far into tl;dr territory for now, especially seeing how much literature is already everywhere on the web regarding this, but then again, making people react was probably what this crazy loop did best. Endless Eight is maybe placed a little to low in my ranking of this year’s moments, considering its scope and overall impact, but well, I just had to make it the 8th. But fear not, I’m not going to post slightly amended versions of this post for the next 8 days. Or will I ?