The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Nagaru Tanigawa, 2003

the sixth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Patrick Augustine

Every time I start a new book in the visitor recommendation series I wonder why the person who suggested it did so. In theory, that's a dumb question, as I discouraged people from trying to guess what I might like; for the most part these are supposed to be books they would have recommended to anyone. Still, I keep finding myself thinking, "Ah, this must be the element I was supposed to connect with" or "I bet this is the part he was hoping I'd talk about in my writeup." This is especially the case when I reach one of the more eccentric choices, such as this Japanese "light novel." Was it because I'd once written a rundown of William Sleator's young-adult science-fiction novels, to which this bears more than a passing similarity? Was it that it's set at a high school where some of the students may secretly have various types of superpowers, which is more or less the premise of my web comic? Was it that the title character briefly mentions having synesthesia, or that her interactions with her classmates initially resemble Echo Mockery's? As it turned out, Patrick Augustine ended up volunteering the answer without my having to ask, but before I get to that, let me talk about the book itself.

The best aspect of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is the premise. Presumably you're familiar with stories in which the seemingly normal world turns out to have been infiltrated by aliens, or is being visited by time travelers who need to avoid creating temporal paradoxes, or is actually all just a shared illusion. The gimmick behind TMoHS is that all of these things are happening at once. That is pretty cool. It certainly flouts the "maximum of one buy-in" rule that governs Hollywood. That said, it's not hugely different from comic-book multiverses in which Norse gods coexist with gamma-irradiated physicists and telepathic mutants. (I feel like "it isn't doing anything that isn't already de rigueur in comics" is something I say a lot.)

However promising a premise might be, though, eventually it needs to be fleshed out with characters and a plot and so forth, and here TMoHS runs into problems. We can start with the title character, Haruhi Suzumiya. She starts off haughty and hostile ("Don't talk to me! You're wasting my time!"), becomes a domineering martinet ("Don't be late! Absentees will be executed!"), and remains oblivious to the plot points unfolding around her — not a winning combination. Meanwhile, the narrator is basically a Japanese version of Stephen Bond's Rameses, spending the story thinking exasperated remarks to himself ("Why am I surrounded by a bunch of idiots?") but never voicing them and instead meekly going along with Haruhi. Of the three secondary characters, one is bullied by Haruhi into weeping submission, one is autistically unresponsive to even the most extreme behavior, and the third comes from the "grin your way through everything" school. The result is that this is basically the story of a profoundly socially maladjusted person, surrounded by people acting like this is somehow okay. It was bad enough running into cliques like this back in school without having to read about them.

Tanigawa really crosses the line when it comes to the relationship between Haruhi and Mikuru Asahina, the bullied girl I mentioned above. Over the course of a few chapters, Haruhi:

  • grabs Mikuru's breasts, groping her at length and commenting on how large they are, while Mikuru screams

  • grabs the hand of the president of the computer club and forces him to grope one of Mikuru's breasts, while Mikuru screams; meanwhile, the narrator takes pictures, so that Haruhi can blackmail the club president into giving her a computer

  • rips the clothes off a sobbing Mikuru and forces her into various fetish costumes (while shouting, "How long are you going to cry like that?" at her)

  • has the narrator (who, again, meekly goes along, saying he has no choice when he very obviously does) take salacious pictures of the tear-stained Mikuru

  • molests a screaming Mikuru yet again, encouraging the narrator to take part

…and this is all treated as comedy. See, she's screaming and crying, so you know it's funny! Goddammit, Japan.

Anyway, it turns out that Patrick suggested this because it dovetails with a take on Back to the Future that I've mentioned once or twice: that it's the story of someone sent to the 1950s to make sure that nothing changes, i.e., a profoundly conservative fable deeply emblematic of the Reagan years. In TMoHS it turns out that Haruhi Suzumiya is cosmically powerful, and various groups of galactic overseers, chrononauts, and interdimensional travelers have come together to make sure she doesn't destroy the world and replace it with one more to her liking. This is not only the same "keep everything the same" ethos we see in BttF but is also, Patrick points out, a story about the need to keep female power under control, and is thus suggestive of dysfunction in Japanese gender relations. Maybe so, but I would submit that the positioning of repeated sexual assault as hilarious entertainment for middle schoolers is somewhat more suggestive of such.

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