By Michael W. Harris
One of the items I acquired over Christmas 2016 was the recent Funimation box set of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a 2006/2009 anime based on a series of popular Japanese light novels. I had heard many recommendations for this series, and the basic idea of it sounded both weird and fascinating: a high school girl who is an unknowing all-powerful being who might accidentally wipe out existence if she gets bored. The trailer for Funimation’s release of the series gives a decent overview:
This clip also gives a hint at a fascinating scene that occurs in episode six (of the chronological ordering…yes there are various viewing orders and it is somewhat confusing so just read this) when Haruhi has created a “closed space” dimension and sucked our poor, snarky protagonist Kyon into it with her. During a climactic moment when Kyon realizes what he needs to do to escape with Haruhi the closing minutes of the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony #8 kicks in. The sequence lasts for almost 4 ½ minutes and features a seemingly unbroken stretch of the movement.
This clip has only the backing Mahler track and none of the dialogue or f/x, and if it is accurate it would indeed to be an uncut excerpt. It does seem to start where track 4 of the famous Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony recording begins.
So let’s take about “Veni, Creator Spiritus” or in English “Come, Creator Sprit.” The original chant was written around the 9th century and is still used in both the Catholic and Anglican churches today (it is also used during the coronation of new monarchs in the UK). Mahler does not use the original music, but instead sets the text to new music.
The text itself in an invocation of the Holy Spirit (and not being Catholic I am not going to try and explain or pretend to understand the Trinity), and is calling for that spirit to come from heaven and reap the souls of the faithful and take them to Heaven. The additional stanzas are basically variations on that idea, invoking the Holy Spirit to guide them to grace.
So what does that have to do with Haruhi Suzumiya? Well, once you strip away all of the religious meaning (which is not unreasonable for a Japanese show since religion in general and Christianity in particular hold no central place in their day-to-day life, at least not in a way that most Americans would consider analogous to religion’s place in our society), we are left with that basic idea, invoking a creator spirit to come to save us mere mortals. It is easy to see how this piece might appeal to the writers of a show about person who is basically an unknowing god. A creator spirit.
There is a another use of classical music in the episode “Day of Sagittarius” (episode 11 of broadcast order, episode 27 of chronological order), in which the SOS Brigade (the club Haruhi started to keep herself entertained) squares off against the computer club in the titular game that they created. The background music for the game is the march from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #7. This is the march that loops over and over for about ten minutes and slowly gets louder and louder. What is really clever is that when the episode switches from the Brigade practicing to the actual battle the “in-game” scenes use the full orchestral version of the symphony while the scenes taking place in real life use the 8-bit synth version. However, when the SOS Brigade finally turns the tables on the computer club the music switches to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #4. They have not only taken over the battle but also its music! You can see this demonstrated in the clip (and you also hear a little of the very beginning of the movement as the battle starts):
Such musical quotations are not unfamiliar to fans of film and television, but they are more prevalent in Japanese media, especially older ones as lax copyright enforcement prior to World War II led to wholesale use of foreign music and recordings in Japanese film (a topic I dived into in my doctoral dissertation). But when used today, with all of the ensuing copyright protections that recordings have, such quotations must take on added meaning and force us to pause and consider what the show’s writers and creators want us to think about how the show and the music might interact.
In the case of the Mahler quotation, the meaning is seemingly clear: Haruhi is a creator spirit and in the context of the show, this scene is the affirmation of this fact. The Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky quotation are a bit more nebulous. I believe that the Shostakovich march was selected because of its endless looping, which is not unlike so much video game music (simple to program and loop and meant to be background noise for the game), while the switch to Tchaikovsky changes style to one which is much more celebratory while staying in roughly the same musical vein (though any musicologist will tell you that “Shosty” and “Tchaik” are quite far apart stylistically).
Regardless, I always enjoy the musical treasure hunt of intertextual meanings when such references happen in my viewings. My ears always perk up as I say, “What a second. Isn’t that…?” The Haruhi spin-off series The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan uses Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and Debussy’s “Clair de lune” rather extensively, but that will have to wait for a follow-up post.
And if any of you are aliens, time-travelers, or espers, please let me know.