The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya needs no introduction. You’ve probably seen it, and if you haven’t seen it you’re aware of it. It changed the landscape of anime when it aired in 2006 and its ripples have held up for over a decade since.
I’m going to assume you have a working knowledge of Haruhi to spare us both the time it’d take me to pontificate its virtues. This has been done hundreds of times over by others and gets away from the main topic I want to discuss here: the second season.
Yes, the infamous second season where the same slice-of-lifest of slice-of-life episode is animated eight times over. The Endless Eight is controversial for taking up more than half of the season’s 14-episode length with what was deemed to be mindless filler. And in a way I think it can be taken as a parody of that type of filler– this is an incredibly meta series we’re talking about after all– but I think the writers were attempting to evoke a sense of immersion as you follow Kyon through the cycles of Haruhi’s closed time loop.
Yet in achieving this the show proves why having the audience sit through the same episode eight times fails as entertainment. The biggest pitfall you can stumble into as a storyteller is forgetting your audience has given you their leisure time. They’re looking for a worthwhile engagement of their emotions so when you take a risk like The Endless Eight you need to double down on fulfilling that contract. Lo and behold, most people didn’t enjoy watching the same episode eight times with very minor changes after the second cycle.
What the arc should have entailed was Kyon slowly coming to realize that time is looping. In each episode he would pick up new information with the help of Yuki in order to figure out the key to snapping Haruhi out of her Summer blues. Think a more subdued version of what Re:Zero did to such fan fervor last year. Instead we gets a deus ex machina moment in the final episode that’s wholly unrewarding for what you just sat through.
I haven’t read the light novel version of this arc but I’m willing to wager it doesn’t print the same chapter eight times over (if it does then disregard the point I’m about to make). If Kyoto Animation wanted to adapt it the way they did they should have made the requisite changes to make it compelling along its entire run. Otherwise it feels like wasted space that could have been used to further the plot, a feeling I’m sure was exacerbated for anyone watching it live. And considering we’ve yet to get a third season it doesn’t look great in retrospect either.
Ultimately you can skip episodes 3-7 of the Endless Eight and still get the idea, albeit not the existential dread. Heck, you could really just watch the end of episode 8 on top of that. Yet while it’s disappointing that this is what the arc amounts to I still justify its existence as worthwhile as a failed narrative experiment by the director. As critical of it as I am I applaud the show for taking a chance on what I see to be an artistic statement. It could have been so much more if it didn’t take its ambitions only halfway but people often mistake it for laziness.
So while The Endless Eight might be the biggest bugbear people have I actually think the bigger issue with the second season is the student film arc.
Nothing feels like it’s filling time more than an over-explained backstory to something we never needed to know more about. Haruhi and co.’s shooting of the student film that opens up the original series fits that bill: nothing happens here that changes our perspective of prior events. In fact it deflates what was a memorable activity the cast participated in to keep Haruhi in high spirits until all of its mystique is gone.
A phrase I like to use in these situations is “not knowing is half the battle.” Prequels come with a lot of baggage because they retroactively add context to what you had already loved. Often times what was used as a throwaway line to clue the audience into the past is expanded into a full story that never needed to be told. The student film arc does just this. Did we ever need to see the SOS Brigade bartering for filming equipment? Was an explanation for why Kyon’s cat could talk only in the movie really necessary? Does it really change anything to know the Mikuru Beam was, in fact, real?
To make things worse, this arc is the one time where the common misinterpretation of Haruhi as a mean-spirited character really pans out. I can understand why some find her insufferable but at her core she’s someone who (aggressively) follows her childhood wonder and wants to eschew the boredom she feels of the world around her. But this takes a turn for the sour when she’s straight-up abusive to Mikuru over the course of filming her movie, spiking her drink to force her to act more promiscuous. She then justifies it to Kyon as Mikuru being her toy, nearly causing a physical altercation between the two.
The series up until this point had made it clear that everything the characters did was in the name of fun and this steps over that line. It’s not some moment of being real either, the characters just aren’t acting themselves. I can’t rightly believe that Haruhi would move into the territory of abuse and that Kyon would resort to violence. It’s the same idea as never pulling a gun unless your character plans to use it: these characters never act this brashly again.
But ultimately it’s the sheer inconsequential nature of this five-episode arc that makes its inclusion the second season’s true sin. As a concept I actually like The Endless Eight and think it’s unfairly maligned by people who understandably had to live through its airing. And maybe I’d feel differently if that were me but its existence has merit but there’s no context in which watching the writers laboriously explain the making of a film I don’t think anyone ever asked to see (and if they did it was a case of the audience not understanding what they really wanted).
I’ve avoided any real spoilers for the broader Haruhi series in this post so I’ll leave you with this viewing guide if you’re planning to watch it for the first time– and you should, it’s required viewing.
Make sure to watch the first season in its airing order. The lack of chronology is a big part of what makes the series great, throwing you off-balance with each episode as you piece everything together leading up to a finale that hits hard but would otherwise only be the sixth episode chronologically followed by a bunch of slice-of-life shenanigans. I’ve never seen any other story be told in quite this way and definitely not to this effect. The way information is doled out could use another post dedicated to it in the future.
Then watch the first episode of the second season (a critical episode for the series) and at least understand the gist of the Endless Eight arc before stepping into the utterly fantastic film The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. But skip the student film arc. Your time is more valuable.
Edit: I want to address a point I make at the end of the post about skipping parts of the series. In retrospect that’s not a statement I stand by. I think different people will find different value in things and suggesting people skip parts of a series that you personally didn’t enjoy isn’t fair. As such I actually think you should give the full Endless Eight and student film arc a shot if/when you watch Haruhi. I’d love to hear what you think after!