I promised I would start talking about Haruhi Suzumiya this week, and so I am.
I’m never really sure what to call these series that I do. I’m not an expert enough to call them a deep dive, and Dewbond already has the market cornered on the term shallow dive. So maybe, I will stick to calling them series.
That said, I normally start these talking about what a certain show means to me. I spoke about my love of RahXephon, my mixed feelings about Evangelion, and some of my history with The Big O.
To explain the importance of Haruhi Suzumiya in my life, I have to start with a history lesson.
This may sound a bit like hyperbole considering where Haruhi has ended up in the general anime fandom zeitgeist, but The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya really came out in Japan at the perfect time and was produced by the perfect animation studio.
I’m going draw some info from an r/anime post about what was going on in Japan (and in the most in that larger anime fandom at the time). This show has its roots in what was already the rising popularity of light novels before KyoAni decided to take a crack at it.
I’m not sure who on the staff to credit for the several brilliant things this show then did. It took what was already a largely self-aware postmodern love story, and made it even more postmodern by airing the episodes out of order. This generated even more buzz about it.
Then you combine that with the Hare Hare Yukai dance at the end, and you had a show that not only captured imaginations but captured this growing flashmob movement. YouTube was littered with dozens of people performing at anime conventions, at malls and at schools. Anywhere where there were people and dancing could happen. Generally, the performances were really bad, but people didn’t care.
Here is the first example I could find. It’s from 2011, but it still captures what I mean.
The Reddit post largely sums it up like this:
“The animation quality, the moe era, the legitimately good music, and the airing order adding to interest and keeping the natural catharsis off till the end of the run. Add to that a very catchy and fully choreographed ending theme that was a viral sensation, and the show was firing on all cylinders.”
Not only that, the show told a clever story that never dipped into tropes that the other series of famous moe shows of the time (the Key shows) did. This was a show that hardcore otaku and not hardcore otaku could love.
It’s hard to understate its popularity among the in-crowd. They devoured this show on the torrents and were still in love with it years after it aired.
I explain all of this because Haruhi Suzumiya was going to single-handedly save the American anime industry.
Well, until she didn’t.
The Anime Cycle
So Sam over at The Anime Herald started a series chronicling the crash of the anime industry in America in the late 2000s. I know there are a few out there in the Otakusphere that are older than I am, but for the people that came into anime during the age of streaming, I will give you my version of anime’s history in America.
Anime fandom usually came in waves. A group of people started getting interested in anime when Space Battleship Yamato crossed the Pacific and was localized as Star Blazers. Another group came into anime fandom when Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and a couple other shows were turned into Robotech.
But all of it was still super niche. People formed fan groups. They reached out through mailing lists, printed out fanzines, watched raw copies of shows that they somehow got prints of. (I’ve only ever heard about this second hand, so I hope I’m not making any errors here.)
While these batches of fans were still fairly small, things started to change when VCRs went from something that your rich friend had to something that everyone had. Now people could get copies of anime videotapes from Japan, they might be able to add subtitles (or not) and then they would share those with all of their friends.
Anime at this point was still fairly niche, but this kind of primed the pumps for the first VCR releases. I still remember going to my local comic book shop to pick up rentals in 1996. Granted, some of them were really bad, but a lot of them were pretty cool.
What I have to point out is that anime was not widely accepted even in the nerdy community in the mid-90s. It was a niche within a niche that generally attracted science fiction and fantasy fans. Sometimes it would get onto television, but generally, it was localized to the point where it unrecognizable. For instance, I had a cousin with a Mazinger Z action figure, but we totally didn’t know what it was because it came out as Tranzor Z in the US.
Then something happened that changed the face of anime in America forever — Toonami.
Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z and Gundam Wing all brought in hundreds of new fans. It’s hard to overstate the importance of having anime as anime on American television. Suddenly it moved out of back corners of comic shops and into living rooms.
The point is that this became the model for how anime shows got into the mainstream and brought in new fans. Something accessible would get on television, it would become THE THING, and suddenly a new generation of people would be watching anime.
This was repeated in the early 2000s when Cowboy Beebop aired on Adult Swim. We saw it again with Samurai Champloo and Fullmetal Alchemist (the first series.)
Then two things happened — Adult Swim backed away from anime and, for years, anime didn’t have a crossover hit.
It’s hard to remember now because shows like Attack on Titan, One Punch Man and My Hero Academia take up such a share of communal geeky groupthink, but there was a time when anime was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. I mean now old fogies like me gripe because 20-somethings use anime as an adjective, but really at the height of the “anime boom” it was still a relatively small group of fans.
I remember hearing stories of people being happy when a disk sold a few thousand copies. This is of course why an anime series were sold across seven or eight disks at $30 a pop generally over the span of a year or a year and a half.
Not only did anime have a small demographic, but it also had a really young and transitory demographic. So the people who joined when Fullmetal Alchemist was “the thing” in 2005 were already aging out of anime fandom by 2007.
The transitory nature of anime fandom hadn’t mattered for a solid seven years. Because anime studios were producing crossover hit after crossover hit, and they were all getting play on Adult Swim.
This started to change in 2006 and 2007 when anime started having a harder time getting traction on Adult Swim. Some shows, like Paranoia Agent, Eureka 7 and Trinity Blood, still had spots, but they weren’t the same kind of cultural phenomena that Cowboy Beebop, Dragonball Z or Sailor Moon were less than a decade earlier.
Adult Swim started shuffling them to the back of the lineup in favor of what were arguably more popular comedy shows.
Anime had been the “it” thing in 2001 and 2002, but now the fad had crested, according to Cartoon Network.
The anime industry in America was facing another problem — high-speed Internet. No longer were people stuck waiting two years to get a release in America. Now speed subbers would compete to get out their copy of X hit show onto the torrents as fast as possible.
People could write entire papers on how the Japanese anime industry didn’t understand America and got greedy. There are tales of American companies explaining the need to start streaming, but the Japanese hemmed and hawed until Geneon collapsed, ADV went dark and Bandai Entertainment teetered on the edge of oblivion,
But all of this is just background for what was happening when Bandai Entertainment decided to release The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya in the U.S.
The Savior that wasn’t
Looking back at it now, it seems a bit ridiculous how much hope we pinned onto Haruhi to save anime, but it was real at the time.
Answerman columns were littered with people asking about Haruhi. For years leading up to its release, it was all people could talk about. Now I remember, but I can’t seem to find, people asking if he thought it could save the anime industry.
The answer was that it probably couldn’t. While it was popular, similar shows largely had the steam sucked out of them by piracy long before there was ever a release. Internet fandom rarely turned into sales.
But we all wanted it to work so bad, and honestly, so did Bandai Entertainment. Referring back to Sam at the Anime Herald, who wrote an article pointing to a 2010 interview where Bang Zoom! head Eric Sherman said that “Bandai Entertainment “had all of its hopes set on the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise, as well as a “secret title” (presumably K-ON!).”
I remember they put out advertisements asking people to buy the Haruhi releases. On the disks, they even had a special thank you (that I commented on at the time.)
It’s easy to forget 12 years on how much we all believed in Haruhi and how much she let us all down. It wasn’t the show to replace Fullmetal Alchemist. It never even made it onto cable TV.
The Japanese anime industry, at the time, bears the lion’s share of the blame in my eyes. The two-year wait for a U.S. release sucked the energy out of it. Added to that, Bandai had to fight to release a version of the show in the broadcast order.
But at least part of its failure has to do with all of the reasons that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was such a big hit in the anime community. This was a show that was made for otaku. It capitalized on moe character designs, anime references and light novels that weren’t out in the U.S.
It’s dance and mascot characters weren’t for Joe Q. Public, they were for anime fans. It was not a show designed for an American audience.
But for that brief burning moment between 2007 and 2008, we were convinced that Haruhi would save us all.
As always, thanks for reading.