Note: I realise there's already far too many community reviews for this one, but I had written this overly long rant for another site, so what the hell.
When I read a review praising a certain work as “flawless”, it normally makes me raise an eyebrow, it feels more like a biased ass-licking trying to force a “perfect ten” out of something the reviewer likes than an actual critical overview. However, I realise that there are indeed times when no matter how hard you try, you just can’t manage to find any defect in what you’re dealing with; it may be because it moved you, maybe you like the franchise to begin with, maybe it really is that good, but you kind of feel guilty finding any defect or giving them importance over what’s good about it. For me this is one of those times.
It’s Christmas time for the SOS brigade, and preparations for the party are in full motion. But one morning, Kyon wakes up to find that Haruhi has disappeared from the class and from everyone’s memory. Asakura has appeared in her place, neither Mikuru nor Tsuruya know him anymore, Itsuki has vanished, Shamisen can no longer talk, and Nagato behaves quite differently… but he is the only one who notices. Is he in a parallel world, or was time altered? Who caused this, why was he the only one untouched by the alteration, and how can he get back? But most importantly… will he want to?
The premise is surely simple, in the typical “How would the world without X be?” fashion of many a Christmas special. But the execution is, I’m afraid I’m going to use that word, flawless. Besides the actual plot (with its involving mystery, its interesting tangle of alternate realities and time paradox shenanigans, and its final twist) what really makes the film is the exploration and emotions of the characters we already know from the series. I’ll expand on this later, but for now I’ll simply say that the emotional impact of Kyon’s conflict, especially in a very intense Evangelion-like sequence which I consider the apex of the whole movie, of Nagato’s exploration and development, and also of a few new glimpses of Haruhi’s personality, were much more than I expected, and that each of the three times I watched this movie it left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling for the whole day. You probably already know that here Nagato smiles, blushes and stuff, but the sympathy and compassion we feel for the side of her self we get to see here go well beyond the simple moe (though she is indeed one of the most adorable things I’ve seen in my life, poor, little Yuki…). In general, when it wants to be hilarious, to be touching, to be suspenseful, to be heart-warming, it is. Straight on target.
Yes, there is a voice in the back of my head that tells me that this story may be just milking the cash cow, or that all this character interaction, like the wonderfully heart-warming finale between Kyon, Haruhi and Yuki, may be only a way to fuel shipping and thus the entire franchise, or that a couple of plot devices are definitely getting overused; but the teary-eyed feel-good vibe of warm fuzziness that fills me even as I think back on it while writing tells me that I don’t give a flying shit.
Unsurprisingly, since the entire series and debatably the entire slice-of-life genre owe their success to well-crafted characters, it’s the members of the SOS brigade that make this movie, especially Kyon and Yuki. It manages to give a new twist to such well-established characters by exploring a different side of their personality and showing an inner conflict. Kyon, being the only one who notices the change in the world and arguably the true protagonist of the whole franchise, is the one most focused on: we see his reaction (his confusion and despair as the world he knew disappears without any clue as to how to go back, the genuine joy and relief when he does find that clue, and so on, are all so masterfully conveyed that they manage to fill the first portion of the movie with surprisingly emotional moments), we get to see a different side of his self (does he even like that world with Haruhi and the SOS brigade? Is he really fond of them?), and his conflict when he understands the cause of the world’s transformation is the big turning point of the movie.
As for Nagato, seeing her show emotions is positively touching, as we get to see a lonely, longing side of her self that was only hinted at up until now; how does she feel about her role of a silent observer, occasionally fixing word-threatening situations around her? How does she feel about the rest of the Brigade? Does she feel anything, in the first place? Needless to say, all of this is not only extremely interesting, but also extremely moving if you interpret, as I personally do, the Yuki we see here not as an “alternate version” but as how she really is beneath that Rei-clone shell.
Haruhi is here little more than a secondary character, but some scenes in the “alternate world” and in the finale do show new, interesting glimpses of her. Koizumi and Asahina are little more than extras, even though there is a line of Itsuki’s that may or may not mean a lot. This goes to show how carefully each line of dialogue was crafted to provide evocative exploration, expectation and emotional involvement (like the “Yuki” line at the end of the movie’s most tenderly heart-warming scene, a clever example of how to exploit the word-play possibilities the Japanese language lends itself so well to).
Well, if you’ve seen the average quality of Kyoto Animation’s work I think you can imagine by yourself what they can do with a the budget for a feature-length. The details of the facial expressions, the backgrounds so full of life and so carefully drawn, the fluidity of the movements, the landscapes, all reach Studio Ghibli-like levels. And it’s been a while since I last saw snowflakes that look like, you know, actual fucking snowflakes instead of white dots. One little detail that may put some people off, as it did me, is that the character design retains the K-On!-like look the series had taken on since the second season, thus loosing that more original and detailed one it had in the first. This nonetheless, the impact of the facial expressions is not hindered.
The soundtrack, an awesome collection of mostly orchestral pieces with some themes returning from the series and some more bluesy or rock-ish numbers, manages with every single track to not only punctuate, but effectively create the atmosphere, especially in the most tense and suspenseful moments. Be it upbeat and happy, slow and soothing, intense and bombastic, melancholic and ethereal, or whatever adjective I can manage to pull out of my English vocabulary, each piece flows flawlessly (damn, I said it again…) into each scene setting its tone, with various scenes with Kyon being particularly memorable examples. It is really a pleasure to listen to. The ending song “Yasashii Boukyaku”, finally, sung by Chihara Minori (Yuki), is a beautifully melancholic, sweet track that I’m sure most will find as unforgettable as I did, thanks to the way it so perfectly fits to the mood created by the movie.
I’m afraid I’ll have to use again that word, “flawless”. After all, what would you expect from names like Sugita Tomokazu (Kyon), Hirano Aya (Haruhi) and Chihara Minori? Actually, even that’s not true. Hirano does her usual magic with the character she’s most strongly associated with, Chihara has the sturdy job of having to show emotions through an ice wall of inexpressiveness and pretended apathy and pulls it off magnificently, but Sugita managed to surpass my expectations: his performance here (his wide range of emotions and mixed feelings in the “alternate world”, his tougher tone in the Evangelion-like sequence I mentioned earlier and his more tender tone in the finale…) is simply out of this world. The rest of the cast, of course, doesn’t disappoint either, but being their characters reduced to little more than extras, with the exception of Asakura, whose voice actress (Kuwatani Natsuko) does her usual good job, they don’t have much room to “show off their skill” this time.
If there’s one big defect this film has, is that its impact relies on the viewer already knowing the characters and setting. This is a review from someone who didn’t even dislike the infamous “Endless Eight” arc (come on, the idea was brilliant, it was just overdone…), so yeah, I’m probably biased. You need to have watched both seasons of “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”, and given the (undeserved) ill fame the second has this may be a problem, but if you loved the first, don’t let the infamous eight-episodes arc scare you, I definitely recommend watching it, if only to then enjoy this movie, which, with its involving plot and touching character exploration, I cannot call it but a masterpiece which fans of the characters are sure to love. If you didn’t like the series in the first place, this probably won’t change your mind; if you watched and liked the rest of the series, or even just the first season, then go ahead and dive in what has become one of my favourite anime movies of all time.