Andrew Osmond on the evolution of squashed-down anime
Melancholy of Haruhi-Chan Suzumiya features super-cute (or “super-deformed”) versions of the Haruhi cast. If you’re unfamiliar with super deformity, it means the practice of turning a character into a cuter version of itself, usually by making them character more infantile. The standard way to do this is to enlarge the head, shrink the body and make the limbs into stumps flailing in a blur. The realistic detail is lost; the characters look hastily sketched, engaging in correspondingly crude antics. Bashing each other in the head is common; so are raging figures with gaping hippo mouths, or huge eyes gushing rivers of tears.
Super-deformity, shortened to “SD,” figures widely in anime and manga, but only in some anime and manga, so you’re never quite sure in advance if a title will have it. It’s commoner in anime TV shows than in movies (the sketchy style suits TV budgets). Unsurprisingly, it’s most common in anime comedies, especially the batty likes of Azumanga Daioh, but it also breaks into serious fare. Two recent cases are Eden of the East, where the SD moments probably reflect the cute influence of Honey and Clover artist Chika Umino, and both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist, where you can predict a super-deformed tantrum each time someone mentions Edward’s diminutive height. Often it’s unclear whether the SD gags take place in the same “reality” as the more serious stuff (though that is, if you think about it, like wondering if Doctor Who aliens “really” have zippers on their backs). Some shows build SD into the story, such as the recent Black Butler, where the sage steward Tanaka regularly deflates into a shrunken homunculus of himself, while the other characters ask why he does it so often.
SD is a development of all cartoons’ natural tendency to exaggerate expressions and rush from one emotional extreme to another (from tragedy to fart jokes, for example). Haruhi-Chan is hardly the first SD spinoff to develop its own life. More than twenty years ago, Scramble Wars united the casts of Gall Force, Bubblegum Crisis and Genesis Survivor Gaiarth in a Redline-style wacky race. Oddly enough, metallic characters are especially prone to being super-deformed, be they the suit-of-armour Al in Fullmetal Alchemist, the already-cute Tachikomas in Stand Alone Complex (spun off into the end-of-episode “Tachikoma Days” skits) or the very uncute robot power suits who are cut down to size in Minipato (from Patlabor) and the SD Gundam franchise.
SD has been fondly referenced outside Japan, as in the wonderful super-deformed self-parodies of Avatar: The Last Airbender (which was itself, of course, hugely indebted to anime). There are also plenty of Western parallels to super-deformed humour. Think of the children’s toy figures sending up blockbusters in Robot Chicken; the gag in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film where the cast become woolly-dolly versions of themselves; and loads of music videos, going back to the crude CG cartoons of Dire Straits in “Money for Nothing.” But perhaps the ultimate super-deformed version of Western pop-culture is a fan-made trailer for the (imaginary) Watchmen Saturday-morning cartoon, complete with squid!
The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya and Nyoron 2 is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.