It doesn't happen all that often for anime fans in the UK, but every now and then an event arrives that simply can't be missed - the kind of thing that you'd travel hundreds of miles to see, just so that you can say "I was there". This is exactly the case with the European premiere of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, which found its home headlining the final day of the Scotland Loves Anime festival in Edinburgh. Was it worth travelling all the way from the south coast of England to the midst of Scotland for this film?
As many a fan of the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise will already be aware, Kyoto Animation's foray into feature-length movie making is based solely upon the fourth in Nagaru Tanigawa's hugely popular series of light novels, meaning that it effectively follows on from the first two television anime series, only the first of which has been released in the UK on DVD at the time of writing. Although experience of that second season isn't an absolute necessity to take in this film, it does help to clear up a couple of points where knowledge of the show is assumed here; thankfully that knowledge can also be acquired via Yen Press' excellent English translations of the first three light novels.
As the film starts, things are looking as normal (or rather, as abnormal) as ever for our protagonist Kyon, as he finds himself caught up in the usual exuberant antics of the oddball SOS Brigade's chief, Haruhi Suzumiya. Kyon's acerbic wit and internal dialogue is displayed in all its glory through these early scenes, as he helplessly watches Haruhi planning a brigade Christmas party with nary a say in matters, while none of the group's other members are ever likely to disobey their "leader" given her unpredictable nature and terrifying subconscious influence over the entire universe.
However, Haruhi's bullying and selfish, whimsical demands soon seem like luxury compared to the world that Kyon is thrust into one morning just days later - first Haruhi is absent from school, then former classmate and nemesis Ryouko Asakura turns up as though she'd never been away; in fact, she swears that she has never been away. Things only get worse from here, as Kyon realises that nobody even remembers who Haruhi is, and in the case of Yuki Nagato and Mikuru Asahina they don't even know who he is any more. The entire world has clearly been turned upside down without Kyon's knowing about it, and this time it appears that he doesn't even have his usual allies to turn to any more. Just as it appears that all hope is lost and that there's nothing for it but for Kyon to settle for this new life, the slightest glimmer of hope appears, and so our protagonist's adventure really begins...
For starters, if there's one accusation you can't level against Kyoto Animation here, it's skimping on coverage of the source material - with a running time just shy of three hours, care has clearly been taken to squeeze every last ounce from the original light novel, and perhaps understandably so given the franchise's passionate fan base. Thankfully, despite working so closely to the book and more importantly despite that terrifying running time, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya is timed impeccably so that the entire film flies by as though it were a far shorter film. Even though the movie eventually finds itself playing with multiple jumps through time, it still manages to remain both crystal clear what is going on to the viewer while also proving to be incredibly entertaining.
Perhaps the film's real strength is that it plays to the show's most interesting characters, and thus as a result showcases everything that is best about the series as a whole. Giving Kyon the spotlight and plenty of screen time is never a problem thanks to his aforementioned wit and his ability to serve as a strong lead character (no weak and wishy-washy male anime protagonist here), while Haruhi is as intense and amusing to watch as ever and Nagato's character is given a whole new lease of life by the film from beginning to end. Even the occasionally irritating and whiny Mikuru Asahina is far more interesting here as we get to spend more time with her in her fully-grown adult form.
Indeed, "everything that's good about the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise" pretty much sums up this film perfectly - the characters, the story which blends fun and frivolity with twists and turns that could happily sit within a more serious science fiction novel and some top-notch voice acting turns, all topped off by Kyoto Animation's fantastic animation which supports their burgeoning reputation as amongst the best in the business. If you were burned by Haruhi's second season and the Endless Eight debacle, this movie will revitalise you completely and return you to the days where you watched and wished for more of this franchise in anime form. Will we ever see a further series given the effective retirement from the industry of Aya Hirano (the voice of Haruhi herself)? Who knows - the door has certainly been left open for more, but for now this is three hours of time that is very well spent indeed.
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya's European premiere was screened as part of the Scotland Loves Anime event in Edinburgh. You can find out more at the Scotland Loves Animation web site.