a deep, smart, hilarious, beautiful show.
SHnY is excellent in more ways than any anime I know: humor, animation, story, characters, relationships, voice acting, songs, humane philosophy, romance, and even tasteful but stimulating fanservice.
From the first couple of minutes of the first episode, the wonderfully absurd humor, equalled only by Ichigo Mashimaro, really hooked me. Only the island episodes left me less than wowed. In any case, the show did not drop off, but rose to a peak in the "final" episode.
One thing grew and grew on me as the show progressed: Hirano Aya as Haruhi. The way she managed the tonalities in her voice to create subtle feelings was just amazing. I really want to see her in more of these comparatively serious roles. And the new interview on Youtube just sealed the deal. Let's see: three top ten songs in the past three months, raves for her performance as Haruhi, and a student at a prestigious university at the same time. Not bad for an 18-year-old. Of course, she started in show business at 9 and had her first voice role at 14....
Sugita Tomokazu as Kyon was the glue that held the show together, creating a consistent, amusing, and somehow serious tone. Hearing him now as Mayama in Honey & Clover gives an eerie thrill. Gotou Yuuko captured everyone's attention in episode one, and then with her amazing super-moe shtick, especially in the first few episodes. The hic-gulp when Haruhi first dragged her into the club room was a classic. Chihara Minori as Yuki was just right, but the character was built more on the animation, so it's hard to tell what her contribution really was. Itsuki made me very uneasy whenever he appeared (as he did Kyon), so I guess Ono Daisuke did a good job, too.
Much as I admire this show, I still don't quite understand why it became so overwhelmingly popular with so many people. I think it starts with the animation, which is clearly unexcelled in any TV anime. No matter what genres we prefer, all anime fans like animation, so outstanding animation can pull in fans of all genres.
In addition, the show has elements of a number of genres. There are SF, humor, school life, fanservice, romance, monsters, games, great fights, character development, a tsundere, a murderous beauty, lots of moe, and terrific musical numbers (although I was not overwhelmed by the background music). So there are reasons for fans of many genres to like the show.
And it went straight for the encyclopedic jugular of the otaku legions with amusing references to many other anime. And with the beauty, charm and violence of several of its female characters.
But I think one thing that attracted people was the mysteriousness of this show, including the episode order. There was so much you had to figure out that it drew you in, made you participate. Or made you leave, as some people clearly did.
There is no way to explain humor, but I do want to say a couple of things. I can understand why some people were offended by Haruhi's "molestation" of Mikuru. But I think they're taking it too seriously. Maybe it's because these are not exactly "real" characters, but I was confident from the start that Mikuru would suffer no real harm. It was exaggeration for effect, like Mikuru's classic: "If I'm ruined for marriage, will you have me?" And the helplessness of Mikuru made her like Everyman, helplessly suffering the whims of god.
The humor of Haruhi's selfish intensity was wonderful. How she tests the food in the missing student's frig by forcing it on Mikuru. The way she finessed the free heater. But the humor became even more wonderful as it morphed into the serious sympathy I felt for her desperation in the face of boredom. The humane moment of the grass blowing back into her face. My joy at seeing her smile at the very end. We're not talking stupid jokes that make you laugh out loud (e.g., Muteki Kanban Musume), but a deep, quiet humor that cleanses your feelings about life.
why some people didn't like it
I know that the first ep put some people off, but I don't really understand why. I myself thought the animation there was great, not junk, and that the "bad" video was exquisitely choreographed. And I know that some people admitted that they "just didn't get" the show's appeal. The show is so unique that anyone who expected what is "normal" -- in look or in episode order -- was probably unable to see the true greatness of what was happening, at least at first.
One thing about the discussions of SHnY really bothered me: people complaining about the episode order. It was as if they were demanding that this show become more ordinary. Can you see now that there was a reason for everything, and that it worked? This show is art, not Saturday morning cartoons. The episode-shuffling helped create the emotional arc, and also forced us to feel the instability of time. I'm still not sure if the show ended in the same universe as it began.
I've seen people say Ouran or School Rumble are funnier or better shows. I guess there's no arguing over sense of humor: you either find something funny or you don't. And for me, this and Ichigo Mashimaro are the funniest anime ever made. But, humor aside, even though Ouran is a good show, to say it is better than SHnY seems ridiculous to me. The subtlety of the characterization in SHnY, and the intelligence of just about everything, to say nothing of the amazing animation, make this show stand out. It's a serious comedy.
Of course, I think many people were alienated by the incredible hype. It's hard to like a show that people are baying at you to admire. But it's good to remember that the hype was not there when the show started. It started with people's honest reactions to what they saw. If peer pressure built after that, at least it was not studio hype that created it.
how good is it?
I admit that the characters were not the full, rounded creations of a Honey & Clover, Nana, or Simoun. I was not desperate each week to find out how my "friends" were doing. But they continually gave me important feelings about life. And Haruhi's development, in particular, was quite moving. The characters were almost like figures from myth.
Since I said after episode 2 that this might be the best anime ever, I've realized that there's no such thing. But SHnY is definitely in my personal top few favorites, along with shows like Honey & Clover, KareKano, Uta-Kata, Beck, Planetes, Marimite, Simoun (so far), Ichigo Mashimaro, Haibane Renmei, Oniisama-e, YKK, and others. And if I was forced to pick one top anime, for quality as well as my own enjoyment, I would be choosing between Honey & Clover and this, for their different strengths.
When I was looking for scenes to include as caps in this piece, I discovered that there were many candidates in every episode. I have such strong visual memories from this show. One of the greatest anime of all time.