In all of my years of kinda-sorta-halfway keeping up with what’s happening in the world of anime, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a series that is more infamous than Kyoto Animation’s 2006 effort, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The series as a whole was pretty weird for its era, but the game has changed a lot since 2006 when Light Yagami was eating potato chips way too dramatically and adding fuel to the “anime is too over the top” fire… that was probably still raging from Yugi Moto’s hair. Anywayzzz… I digress.
Haruhi Suzumiya introduced the anime world to some new concepts that in my humble and not-at-all-biased opinion (KyoAni rulez!) helped prime other anime for groundbreaking experimentation and developed the medium further. Probably the most notable part of this bizarre telling of an already bizarre story is an arc of the show called the “Endless Eight.” MINOR SPOILER ALERT: It’s going to be difficult to talk about this arc without giving some of the plot away, but I’ll try!
After a long wait between the airing of the first season (which initially aired out of sequential order, which is kind of awesome in its own confusing way) fans were really stoked to see what Haruhi and the gang were going get themselves into now. And what they got… was a series of episodes that seemed to be all exactly the same! These eight repeating episodes straight in a row (over half of the entire season!) made up the infamous “Endless Eight.” (According to Wikipedia, in the original 2009 re-broadcast the new ‘Season 2’ episodes were intermixed with the re-airing of the first season, in chronological order this time.) Eight episodes in a row of the old “stuck in a time loop” plot device a la Groundhog Day, except with more anime boobies and less Bill Murray. So… win? I guess?
Let me be really clear about something: at face value this series of episodes is not satisfying. Well, not in the traditional way. It’s actually kind of annoying. I have friends that have just straight-up walked away from the show because of this arc. Even I skipped most of this arc when I first watched it ten years ago. It’s puzzling… Why would KyoAni put so much effort and stock into what—for any anime, including this one—is surely a death knell? That was what I aimed to find out when I returned to the series the other day.
I planned to check out the show again anyway because I’m on a personal mission to watch everything KyoAni has done. And strangely, even though I skipped it the first time, this idea of showing essentially the same episode over and over again was the thing that really stuck out in my mind about the show as I got ready to take the dive back in. Why did they do that? I wanted to know. Was it a clever gimmick that they took too far? I don’t know for sure, but here are some of my thoughts right after finishing the endless eight arc.
I don’t want to watch the next episode where things go back to normal just yet. It could just be fatigue from having sat through all eight episodes pretty much back to back, but I think it’s because I got so used to the plot of the arc that new stuff feels jarring somehow. Besides, I binged all 12 episodes of The Promised Neverland again just the other day in one sitting. And that was nothing.
It became apparent midway through the arc that you can mostly tune out all of the dialogue (since it so rarely changes) and watch for other elements of the plot that differ. I only really started focusing on the variations at episode five, and it became like a little game I was playing. How many differences could I spot? What was the same and when? It was actually pretty interesting to have an anime take the thing that’s most “foreground” in your understanding (e.g. the narration, dialogue and sequence of events) and make those loop while the “background” stuff (the camera angles, clothing, etc.) changes constantly. It really turned my perception of how I watch things on its head—as in, what I most pay attention to. If I didn’t switch this focus, I wouldn’t have been able to watch the whole thing.
But I was still determined to know why the creators would make something like this. KyoAni is easily my favorite animation studio (sorry Ghibli), and I trust their vision and sometimes avant-garde approach. Hard to watch? Yes. Unnecessary to progress the story? Big yes. But I can’t help shake the feeling that I’m glad they did this… I’ll remember this series of episodes more than any big fight scene from My Hero Academia or any shocking revelation from Death Note.
I was going to try to list all the variances I caught, but honestly I know I didn’t even scratch the surface. But one scene particularly stood out for me. The clock at the end of episode five. At no other time did a scene like that happen. It was very subtle, but it was almost like the animators were telling me, “Yes, we know what we’re doing. We know how this feels for you.”
Here are a few comparisons I made to what I’m now referring to as “the ambient plot of the Endless Eight.” So, the set up is kind of like this: we have eight episodes that all have the same exact plot. The narration and dialogue from the characters doesn’t change (except veeerrryyy slightly). What they do during the episodes doesn’t change (again, except very slightly). So that’s the overarching loop; the “drone” if you will. But then, underneath all of that, the camera angles, shots, clothing, food, staging, and little things like Yuki’s mask all constantly change each time. Several things change only once (like the scene where Haruhi offers Kyon a takoyaki or something; she has a full tray every time, but once she offers it later when she only has two left). These all remind me of something totally unrelated.
Bibio’s Hand Cranked album is a meandering lofi acoustic instrumental album that is very strange. It has lots of trebley guitar loops that just drone on forever, but the songs still “move” and feel fresh and changing because of the background instruments. I read once that whenever presented with a myriad of sounds all at once (like in a song), humans like to focus on the thing that most closely relates to a human voice, whether that is an actual human voice or a lead instrument like a guitar solo or something similar. (Try listening to the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and focus on everything but the guitar). This makes an offering like Hand Cranked hard for some to listen to, because the ever-present guitar melodies are super-monotonous and repetitive. However, I realized that it’s like the “drone” of the songs. Drum parts and chord progressions in most songs are repetitive too, but why don’t we have difficulty listening to those tracks? An album like Hand Cranked simply flips the script of what songs are “supposed to do,” and the outcome is actually really satisfying.
Now for the other musical connection I felt. There’s a bit in the Endless Eight where Haruhi eats a popsicle. It’s a background thing because what she’s saying would usually be the important part, and if there was only one episode, you might not even notice it, or at least not be able to remember its shape or color. The popsicle, like many other small things, changes every time except once! Two episodes in the middle of the arc feature a thin blue popsicle in place of the regular one. I wouldn’t have noticed this if the episodes weren’t back-to-back.
This reminded me of something I learned in college. The famous music producer and composer Brian Eno created ambient music back in the 70’s with an album called Music For Airports. (According to Wikipedia, this was not technically the first ambient music album ever made, but it was the first to ever introduce the term). He made the album from a studio experiment where he looped different tracks over each other endlessly, including some vocals, a piano loop, and some various other instruments. The catch is, the tracks had different lengths, so the loop actually happened at different times for each, causing them to constantly harmonize in different ways and keep the progression of the music moving forward. I’m not certain how relevant this is in discussing the show, but the popsicle thing felt like a visual representation of this musical experiment.
In a similar way to Eno’s experiment, The Endless Eight layers different looping and shifting elements over each other in different ways—or more correctly, in different patterns. The popsicle pattern could be something red, yellow, green, blue, blue, orange, or no popsicle at all, juxtaposed in the sequence against the color and style of Haruhi’s bikini, which has its own changing pattern. She wasn’t wearing the same outfit when the popsicle repeated. However, there were moments when a character wore the same outfit again that first showed up in an earlier episode.
If I were a more patient and organized person, which I’m definitely not, I could find and write out every varying pattern of every insignificant thing in the arc and compare them to each other. However, that’s exactly my point—The Endless Eight arc makes the insignificant… well… significant, because what’s normally significant isn’t. I think it tries to force us to see that.
At the time of writing this, I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the movie The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya yet. I’ve heard that the plot of the Endless Eight helps progress elements in the movie, most importantly Yuki’s reason for her actions. For those seeking some straight forward justification, this might satisfy. However, at this moment I don’t feel like it’s necessary. Life isn’t always means to a logical end and art (good art, I should say) is a reflection of life. That’s what I believe this ultimately is: good art. We humans enjoy stories that go somewhere. That have purpose… or at least, imply purpose. And mostly have a satisfying conclusion. One that wraps up everything in a pretty bow. Loose ends tied, questions answered and characters set free… to live out the rest of their now-boring lives, we assume. But life isn’t like that. And stories don’t have to be either. I guess that’s why I feel such a strong connection to music regarding this arc. We watch movies and shows and stuff for the ending, right? But we never listen to music that way. It is all about the journey with music.
The Endless Eight’s conclusion is just as frustrating as the whole arc is. Just one thing had to happen to break the cycle. One tiny, insignificant thing that wasn’t happening. And when it did…. ope! Well, back to normal, I guess.
…That was it. So simple, and yet so jarring and unrewarding. We’re left with what we experienced, and our feelings. Left with a bizarre perspective on reality. How different would my perception of life be from a different angle? What would this moment be to me, from a different camera view? If I’d worn a different shirt? I’m reminded now of Robin Williams’ character from Dead Poets Society as he stood on his desk for the first time. “The world looks very different from up here.”