The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, 01: Immersion Tactics

April 18, 2006 at 3:02 am (Analysis, Anime, Theory)

Immersion. It’s not just for saving the damned. Every fucking book lover in the world, and one blind starship engineer harp on about how books will take you to new and fantastic worlds. If a text doesn’t somehow steal my focus from the world around me, then I tend to become rapidly bored with it. Immersion isn’t the only way to engage a reader, but it is an important one. In multi-player (PnP, mmo, or larp) role-playing games, the issue of immersion is often significant, because it is so easy to shatter. I remember one pick-up group I joined playing Dungeons and Dragons online, where the team-leader refused to respond to modern English slang (“What does ‘yo’ mean?”), and tried to insist people precede every sentence with “ye” or “lo!” or “Behold!” or some shit like that. Alright, he was retarded, and he had a very silly concept of appropriate in-character language, but I at least understood his consternation. It’s sort of challenging to pretend you’re Gandalf the Grey if Frodo keeps saying things like “WTF. I PWND THIS RING QUEST n00b! Balr0g’d!”. While creating a truly immersive experience is a challenge, there is some basic requisite consistency necessary to bring the viewer / reader / player into the world of the text at all. This, I think, is why breaking the 4th wall is such dodgy business: it usually wrecks immersion.

John The Baptist
Boo! I’m John the Baptist!*

A multi-player RPG is sort of an extreme when talking about immersion, because of the level of interaction it allows. While it may be highly immersive due to the control one exerts and the level of simulation provided, it’s very easy for another player to break that immersion. Books might have both the hardest time enhancing immersion and the hardest time breaking it. Stage is another interesting example. If an actor flubs a line on stage, and the audience figures it out, it breaks immersion, drawing their attention to the actor rather than his or her character. The same thing happens if some prop or costume fails. In a film, there is much more editing opportunity, and production errors can be covered up, but if an actor is just doing a poor job of portraying their character, or if a costume is clearly fake, or if a production error goes uncaught, immersion can degrade. All of the pieces: the set, the effects, and the effects come together to attempt to immerse the viewer in the story. When immersion is broken, the audience is no longer watching a play, but are instead watching a performance of that play. And I should probably make some kind of Wizard of Oz man-behind-the-curtain reference here, but seriously.

So that brings me to The Melancholy of Suzumira Haruhi, 01. For clarity, I’ll refer to the film Haruhi’s SOS Brigade made as the “inner film”, and the anime itself as the “outer film.” In the inner film, there is no immersion. The acting is terrible, it’s riddled with production mistakes, actors frequently break character, the narrator mocks the piece itself, and we can feel the presence of the camera. We are not watching the inner film. We’re watching Mikuru and the other outer film characters perform the inner film. The outer film, on the other hand, is extremely immersive. Despite being animated, we get the feeling of looking through a camera for most of the show. The animators emulate poor lighting, physical vibration on the camera consistent with the environment it’s filming, bad angles, bad sound editing, all kinds of stuff (JP has a good summary of these things). We — and in general by we, I mean me, but “we” is more pretentious — even get the feeling that the actors and crew have basically been forced into this and have no idea what is going on. Mikuru clearly wants to play her part well (Ganbatte Mikuru!), but is totally lost as to what is going on. She’s forcing out all of these stock sf-anime phrases, but seems unfamiliar with the genre and thus unaware of what is expected.

Virtual camera shaking as people walk over the bridge Kyon is stationed on with the camera

Okay, so now we are immersed in Haruhi, watching the characters through the film they made. The content for most of the episodes can be qualified as light comedy. We have Mikuru struggling with her lines, the unintentional (on the characters’ part) genre parody of contrived SF anime, and Kyon’s derisive commentary. We also have something else. Three times during the movie something odd occurs. In two cases, the special effects for the inner film’s characters seem to suddenly become far more impressive than would be consistent with the rest of the inner film. In another case, a cat begins talking in a manner that suggests not a special effect in the inner film, but an actual talking cat in the outer film. These effects and the cat talking are fairly standard elements in some anime genres, including that of the inner film. Except for Itsuki’s final attack against Yuki, the outer film characters break inner film character to respond to them. Off-screen, Kyon yells at the cat to stop, and Yuki attacks Mikuru after she does some kind of eye-beam thing. I found these, particularly the cat talking, to be extremely surprising.

Normally, when a supernatural element is introduced to a story, it is somehow used to advance a dramatic agenda. Goku in DBZ uses his new shinier version of Hadoken to blast some guy or save the day, or an evil character reveals a power they have by forwarding some dastardly scheme with it. However in Haruhi, they’re either using the supernatural elements as special effects in the inner film, or they are revealed as slip-ups that are basically more production errors in the show. Oops, the cat talked! Crap, Mikuru almost blasted Yuki, and now she’s pissed off! Of course the characters already know what’s going on, so they just continue filming their movie, and we might even miss these reveals (I only noticed the cat first watch through). Basically the immersion we have at this point doesn’t give us any expectation of people having super powers, since they are out-of-genre for kids making a shitty movie, even though they’re in-genre for the movie the kids are making. Thus, when we realize the truth, the reveal has more shock value.

I’m going to wrap up with some speculation. The shock value for the reveals in episode one is basically the realization of fantastic elements in a banal world. Episode two is all about how Kyon doesn’t believe in the fantastic, but Haruhi does. It looks like the rediscovery of the fantastic in a world gone banal is going to be a major theme. This is a major theme in a variety of Western works (Peter Pan comes to mind; Polar Express and Chronicles of Narnia are sort of the reverse), but not one I see often in anime. Even if they’ve been addressed elsewhere, I think new thematic material can breathe a lot of life into a medium, so that and the ridiculously awesome production values give me high hopes for this show.

* I don’t remember where I got this image, but this was the original caption.

NOTE: I have also written about this in a more reaction-type style at: Ziggurat of Doom

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