Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault, rape culture/victim-blaming
Spoilers for Melancholy and the larger Haruhi Suzumiya franchise.
There wasn’t anything quite like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya on American shelves in 2007. Leading up to its late Spring release on DVD, I pored over every Anime Insider and Newtype USA hype piece about the smash-hit series, which had aired in Japan the year prior. Back then, I wasn’t very active on the internet, so these print magazines were usually my sole window into current anime fandom. Naturally, then, Haruhi was an extremely big deal because the magazines at the time told me it was a big deal.
As it turned out, they weren’t blowing Haruhi’s popularity entirely out of proportion. From 2007 to 2011 or so, Kyoto Animation’s multimedia juggernaut dominated most aspects of Western anime fandom. Whether getting stormed by a “Hare Hare Yukai” flash mob at a con or debating the “correct” viewing order online, you couldn’t escape the series’ sizable cult of personality.
When watched today, it’s still easy to see why the small show left such a big impact. Yet for all of its still-endearing charms, Haruhi is plagued by foundational cracks that consistently threaten to undermine its core strengths.
By 2006, when the series aired in Japan, slice-of-life anime wasn’t exactly a new concept. But the series, which follows beleaguered high schooler Sakuraba Kyon as he entertains the titular heroine’s dreams of befriending “aliens, ESPers, and time travelers,” certainly felt like the next evolution of the sub-genre. Blending the wistful, atmospheric presentation of their Key visual novel adaptations with the zany interpersonal hijinks of Full Metal Panic FUMOFFU, Haruhi struck a perfect balance of grounded and madcap.
But maybe it’s disingenuous to call Haruhi a “grounded” show. Early on, it’s made explicitly clear that aliens, ESPers, and time travelers do actually exist. In fact, they’ve all congregated at Kyon’s school, and each one of them has a vested interest in Haruhi’s strange new club, the SOS Brigade.
From their accounts, the fifteen-year-old is something of a demigod – an intergalactic, time-spanning entity that can bend the laws of the universe to her will. However, because she exists in an otherwise “normal” world, Haruhi is oblivious to the fact that her every whim could have disastrous complications for the rest of the planet.
This is why morose Nagato Yuki (an alien), demure Asahina Mikuru (a time traveler), and smug Koizumi Itsuki (an ESPER) have all converged on Kyon’s timeline. Their role is to prevent Haruhi from discovering her powers, which is understandable given the magnitude of them.
If you told an average person their will could rewrite reality, they’d likely buckle from the pressure. But if somebody as forceful and chaotic as Haruhi knew what she could get away with, things could get extremely out of hand. After all—would you trust the fate of the universe to a teenager?
Despite this heavy premise, though, Haruhi ultimately veers far away from being too doom and gloom. Ultimately, the show is a lighthearted comedy about believing in the class weirdos and embracing the fact that we may never truly solve the world’s many mysteries. It’s an optimistic narrative, starring a cast that’s more-or-less okay with their lot in life as Haruhi’s interdimensional babysitters. In fact, a climactic scene in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya depicts Kyon having an existential crisis about his deeply abnormal world, only to end up fighting for and protecting it because it makes life less boring.
But this moment, to me, underpins a disturbing element of Haruhi that’s often glossed over when discussing the series. Kyon begins to break down about him and his friends’ roles as Haruhi’s pawns, only to resolve that he’s fine, thanks. When thinking about that resolution in context of what the audience knows about Haruhi, it’s actually chilling.
This scene can be read as Kyon finally losing his battle to Haruhi’s will, and being sublimated to her grand design. Even when he’s placed in a timeline where she theoretically has no influence, in the case of Disappearance, the teen decides that her existence is acceptable and decides to fight for it. He literally kills an alternate timeline version of Yuki, just to return things to “normal.” Eesh.
Working in tandem with this upsetting plot beat is the repeated mistreatment of Mikuru. Mikuru’s sole purpose, in Haruhi’s eyes, is to exist as a prop and sexual plaything for her personal amusement. This assessment might seem bleak, but it’s a reality that the viewer has to keep in mind.
Throughout the show, a repeated joke is Haruhi’s wildly inappropriate abuse of Mikuru, which is usually framed in a demeaning and fetishizing light. When Haruhi gropes her “friend’s” breasts before forcing her to strip and change into a bunny girl costume in either the second or third episode (depending on the order you watch), the animators place an overt focus on hands squishing into flesh and clothes being forcibly ripped off.
Worse yet, Kyon tends to derive enjoyment from watching this unfold, and his inner monologue even condones some of Haruhi’s actions. The rest of Mikuru’s “friends” aren’t much better, either, with Yuki and Itsuki not interfering because they’re afraid of incurring Haruhi’s wrath. Seems like a stable friendship to me!
Levity aside, this casts a sinister light over most of the show’s own sense of humor. Assault jokes in anime in general aren’t great, but honestly, they often don’t bother me like they do here. I think that has to do with the intentional nature of it, which usually isn’t the case from my experience.
It’s rare, even in the chintziest of two-bit harem anime, to have a lead character so willfully destructive to others’ boundaries quite like Haruhi. Other anime might have “comedic” groping scenes where the victim is, at most, petulantly annoyed at their attacker. But it hits differently when Mikuru is begging Haruhi, through tears, to stop and leave her alone—and it doesn’t even register. The only thing that matters is that Mikuru sits down, shuts up, and does as she’s told.
Worse yet, an older and more experienced version of Mikuru pops up throughout the series and indicates that she remembers her time with the SOS Brigade fondly. This has two very different implications, depending on how one reads it, and both of them are pretty bleak.
If you believe that Haruhi is some kind of god, then she has successfully broken Mikuru’s will and convinced her that everything done to her was in good fun. If Haruhi’s powers aren’t as far-reaching as we’re led to believe, then the writers have created a female character that’s ultimately okay with having been assaulted. And make no mistake: despite the series playing it for laughs, tearing your friend’s clothes off and humiliating them isn’t a fun bit.
To the series’ credit, though, the penultimate episode does represent a bit of a breaking point for Kyon (and, by extension, the narrative itself). During the production of the SOS Brigade’s amateur film, Haruhi spikes Mikuru’s drink with the express intent of loosening her up for a suggestive scene. When he catches onto this, Kyon (quite rightfully) hauls off and almost punches Haruhi, only to be restrained by Itsuki at the last second.
Haruhi and Kyon fall out for a bit after this, and for just a moment, late writer Yasuhiro Takemoto shows us that there are still lines the protagonist won’t let his friend cross. It’s a rough episode, but one that gives Haruhi’s behavior the much-needed criticism it deserves, and cements Kyon’s role as the show’s conscience. This isn’t necessarily a full reckoning with his complacency, of course—there’s simply too much other behavior he overlooks to argue that in good faith—but it’s a bare minimum push in a more reflective direction.
But because this episode happens at the end, we don’t get to see its full consequences beyond Disappearance. We don’t know if Kyon simply continues to be complicit, or if his Hail Mary embrace of Haruhi’s version of reality is based in some goodwill belief that she’ll change. I think the series wants us to believe the latter, and invites us to be charmed and entranced by its heroine at every turn.
Even with the collective strength of every writer that worked on Haruhi (both the original light novel and the anime adaptation), I doubt the unified vision was to portray their new de facto mascot as a sinister and malevolent abuser. The more likely reality here is that Haruhi’s behavior is an accidental window into what some animators and writers are okay with, or find to be so far removed from reality that they don’t grapple with its ethical ramifications.
That’s what I tell myself about Haruhi in general, actually, in order to keep enjoying it into my late 20s. The show, undoubtedly, has moments of profundity and depth that elevate it beyond just being a show for the younger otaku set. That said, it still very much is one of those, and as such, it naturally has moments where it feels as if the animators are giving into their own weird fantasies about animated high schoolers.
What happens to Mikuru is, ultimately, meant to be viewed in a sexy and titillating light by the animators. It’s not supposed to be thought of as assault, because its primary function is to exist as fanservice for the audience. That leaves us with an uncomfortable, but decidedly less grimdark explanation: Haruhi is yet another great show held back by irresponsible, consent-dismissing depictions of minors in sexual situations, drawn by adults that should truly know better.
But that descriptor can be applied, really, to a lot of great anime. Even a beloved industry stalwart like Evangelion has lapses into leering at fourteen-year-olds between its mech fights and moments of existential terror.
If one were to sit here and fervently tell people to avoid all shows with any harmful content, the pool from which to draw would suddenly become very limited. I think a more useful way to approach shows like Haruhi isn’t to say, “they’d be good, but this thing makes it bad,” but instead to look at the show’s core messaging and the function that said thing serves.
In Haruhi’s case, the titillation of the audience leads to an uncomfortable confrontation, and forces the heroine to grapple with her own actions. I would make the case that the content didn’t need to be here in the first place, as there are ways to show these repeated violations without using them to push fanservice. All of the badness that happens to Mikuru isn’t acceptable by any realistic margin, and the way it’s framed for cheesecake is ultimately reprehensible by normal standards.
That said, for those willing to bear with the show through those weaker moments, they lead to an effective examination of why that behavior is wrong and how it can tear apart friendships. While using a trope to critique a trope is still ultimately relying on that trope, the eventual throughline reframes those moments as what they are: violations that need to be addressed and rectified.
That gets at the heart of why The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is still such an endearing show, in spite of these problems. One of its climactic moments is somebody standing up to an abusive friend and telling them to knock it off, and that friend having to confront their own behavior in a critical way. This speaks to a larger trend throughout the show, which is mostly preoccupied with a group of outcasts coming together and discovering new things about themselves through each other.
Haruhi, not having friends for most of her life, doesn’t understand that her treatment of the people around her is wildly unacceptable. It takes being in a group setting for her to be confronted about it, and while her comeuppance certainly could have come sooner, it’s a pretty effective and humanistic arc for her to undergo… even if it does come at the expense of cheapening Mikuru’s character.
I think the core message of Haruhi is still vital, and it’s one that gave me solace as a weird, socially misanthropic teenager. “No matter how weird you are,” it seems to say, “there’s always a group of people out there that will accept and cherish you. The group may not always be perfect, and there are absolutely going to be uncomfortable conversations the longer you know each other, but ultimately, your makeshift family may even feel more like home than your real one.”
Stripping away the show’s supernatural elements, that sentiment is one that resonates beyond Haruhi’s own reality and into our own.
Or maybe… we’re all a part of her plan anyway. Just a thought.