Back in 2006 an anime called The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi debuted, seemingly generating a following worldwide soon afterward. The anime followed a high school club called the “SOS Brigade” and their wacky adventures. The main conflict of the series was that the leader of aforementioned club, Haruhi Suzumiya, possessed special abilities to manipulate the world around her that she ironically was not aware of. And so, while claiming that she wished to hang out with aliens, time travelers, and espers, she subconsciously allowed for such beings to join her club with her while being unaware of it herself.
The main plot of the show thus follows the SOS Brigade club members’ attempts to keep Haruhi entertained (if she gets too bored, she may possibly destroy the world to recreate a new one) while keeping her abilities a secret to her. The weight of most of this task falls to the club’s only ordinary member: a totally normal high school student who is only referred to by his nickname “Kyon.” While the series is focused around Haruhi, Kyon is undoubtedly the main character.
I watched the anime many years ago, and while I found the series charming, I found it to be pretty standard anime fare. The female members of the SOS Brigade were played up in a fanservicey way, which kind of bored me. There were some interesting science fiction elements here and there, especially when the weirder aspects of Haruhi’s abilities came into play, but otherwise the series just seemed to be a slice of life high school anime with some occasional weirdness to break up the monotony.
I was willing to write off the series entirely until I heard about the light novels. As I understand things, in Japan light novels lie somewhere between a short story and a full on novel. They tend to be released in parts, or volumes, over a long period of time. So while overall they may amount to a pretty long story, they’re released in relatively small chunks. This release format reminds me of manga, and I have a feeling that the similarities aren’t coincidental. Another feature of light novels is illustrations interspersed with the text. I suppose that further differentiates these kinds of novels from the longer, more text-heavy stuff.
The Haruhi Suzumiya series is one of the few light novel series I know of that have actually been translated and released here. It’s a shame, really, since a lot of anime are actually based off of these novels. Baccano and Durarara!! are two other light novel series that have yet to be released in English (and may never be). I’m guessing that the reason the Haruhi Suzumiya series was even picked up by a US publisher was due to the anime’s break out popularity.
There are 11 volumes overall, each one featuring a title in the format of The ____ of Haruhi Suzumiya. In my personal experience, the first three were really dull. The first season of the anime mostly followed these three volumes. The 4th volume, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is where the series starts getting good. I won’t say why to avoid spoilers, but I will say that this volume features some really impressive character development. After that the series continues to have its ups and downs until the last 3 novels, which feature a fair amount of action.
Though when I say action, I mean that in a relative sense. The Haruhi Suzumiya series struck me as kind of odd in its pacing. I felt as though the author Nagaru Tanigawa was afraid of progressing the plot too quickly. The end result is that the story can feel like it drags at some points, and some aspects of character relationships are hinted at while taking forever to actually develop. I’m not sure if this is just a cultural thing or what. But the glacial pace at which some aspects of certain characters’ relationships develop is frustrating, to say the least.
So why do I like this series so much? The basic answer is that it’s different. I’ve jokingly referred to these books as “Doctor Who with Japanese high school students” and while not a completely accurate description, I think it kind of fits. The Haruhi Suzumiya series juxtaposes high school slice of life (a pretty common genre in Japan from what I can tell) with bizarre science fiction elements. The tone of a given story can shift pretty quickly, leading to unexpected twists that I never really saw coming as I read. That aspect of the books, at least, keeps things interesting.
Just one example is how the books feature one of the most intriguing explanations of time travel in anything I’ve read. While Tanigawa remains foggy on the details, he reveals just enough to make the reader wonder. And in terms of the world that he has crafted, the bizarre time travel mechanics featured in the books mostly make sense. That’s more than I can say for a lot of stories that utilize time travel as a plot device.
My other favorite aspect of this book series is the main character, Kyon. As the narrator of the story, the reader experiences the story primarily through him. This is where Tanigawa’s writing style really shines. While narrators are usually expected to be reliable guides, Kyon is actually written as an unreliable narrator. His biases and view point in presenting events becomes increasingly apparent as the story goes on. In most cases, this brings humor to the story as the reader is treated with his inner thoughts, not all of which are necessarily sensible. I found him to be a pretty believable 16-year-old high school student, though his constant references to incredibly obscure historical events (Western European and Japanese history, mostly) did make me question the “normal” part a bit. As the story goes on, Kyon undergoes major development that is gradually shown through his change in perspective. I found it to be a really well-written transition over a long period of time. Kyon is undoubtedly my favorite character for this reason.
If you’re a fan of the anime and find yourself craving more story from this particular series, I’d definitely recommend the novels. While not as visual as a manga or an anime, I feel that the novels present the best version of the story since the focus is on Kyon and his inner thoughts. Looking back, I think the anime suffers for not being able to do this quite as well (the format didn’t really allow for it, though it certainly tried its best). And as I said earlier, the novels don’t have nearly as much fanservice and pandering as the anime featured (how many figures did they make of Haruhi in that bunny girl costume?).
If you haven’t watched the anime, but are interested in the story, I’d also recommend these books. I’m well aware that a lot of people are turned off by anime these days due to a lot of what is viewed as catering to a particular geeky crowd. Light novels, on the other hand, seem to target a different, more general audience. I only wish more novels would be translated into English! I really enjoy the format since it allows for quick, easy reading.
In any case, the novels can be found online in pretty much any bookstore, as far as I know. Personally, I’m a fan of the simple, yet striking cover art for each book in the series.