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Endless Eight: How to Depict a Time Loop


Cambridge Dictionary defines time loops as a fictional situation in which a period is repeated, sometimes several times, so the characters must live through a series of events again. I define it as one of the greatest plot devices of all time, creating stories that repeatedly exceed my expectations.


For me, time loops are more than a plot device, a means to an end; they reshape the structure of a story, forcing the spectators to pay close attention to the narrative and the choices made. They are introspective in the most impersonal sense since we are trapped in a moment, reliving it again and again to assess what lesson it brings.


Time and plot structure (two of the elements I most enjoy toying with in storytelling) are brought together by one single device: a loop.

It took me long enough to make a post about time loops. I needed inspiration to write about it in a way that would not be boring or a mere repetition of my other posts about time (I’ve written a lot about this subject, haven’t I?). Recently, I watched an anime that tackled a time loop in such a unique way that I immediately started to plan this post. 


Let’s dissect the different ways time loops are shown in visual narratives.



The three types of time loop


There are three basic types of loops: the “soft loop,” the “non-loop,” and the “hard loop.”

 

THE SOFT LOOP is the one people usually associate with the time-loop narrative: a character is stuck in a time loop, trying to figure out how to break it. These are stories like Groundhog Day, The Edge of Tomorrow, and 12:01.


The undeniable appeal of these soft loops is that the loop is the story conflict, and solving these is what moves the plot forward. If a conflict is not solved, the loop acts by pushing the story back to its beginning with a cheeky “Try again, looser.”


Exploring this setup with other sets of rules for time travel, different characters, settings, contexts, and backgrounds tests the limits of human creativity. It is a way to create new tales with the same scenarios, and that’s why I love it!


THE NON-LOOP is not a loop in that the end connects with the beginning. These are stories where we watch the same period playing repeatedly, but they are more like alternate timelines. What we experience are different ways in which the same period could play.


Notable examples of these types of stories are Run, Lola, Run and The Butterfly Effect.


Exploring a scenario time and again conjures that little daemon we all have in our head that constantly asks, “What if I had done that instead of this?” It is a relatable tale because it makes us wonder how our lives could be drastically different if we had made other choices.

 

THE LAST ONE I CALL THE HARD LOOP: a moment in time echoed several times, unchanged. This type of loop is annoying and monotonous. Everyone who has ever been stuck on a repetitive task knows the feeling. That’s why it’s said to be one of the ways people get tortured in Hell.


Usually, these loops are represented by repeating a scene three or four times, enough to deliver the message. For example, think of Dr. Strange’s “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” scene. Strange wants to be annoying, stubbornly using monotony against the great villain. And the short loop shown to us delivers this message just fine.


Out of the three, the hard loop is the hardest (pun intended) to use creatively for obvious reasons. How can anyone get anything besides frustration out of repeating the same information over and over again?


Well, I have the answer to that.



The Endless Eight


SPOILER ALERT for the anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.


Anime drawing of five characters form The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya


Paradoxically, the most inventive and boring depiction of a time loop I’ve ever seen, the Endless Eight Arc of the anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is truly a masterpiece!

 

The creators had the audacity of scripting the same episode in a loop, not three, not four, not five, but EIGHT times! And I’m here to explain why this was such a genius move.


Haruhi Suzumiya is a brat—an annoying, self-centered high school student who happens to have the power to change reality to her liking despite being oblivious to this skill. And she is bored with the current world without espers, time-travelers, or aliens. She mobilizes her classmate Kyon to create a club, the SOS Brigade, dedicated to searching for the mysteries of the universe. Three other students join the club: a secret esper, a classified time traveler, and an undercover alien. Together with Kyon, they are there to observe and control Haruhi’s powers without ever disclosing them to her.


The controversial arc starts during their two weeks of summer vacation when Haruhi gathers the group to do a list of fun activities. Clearly unhappy that they couldn’t do more, she unknowingly starts a loop in which the group relives these two weeks over and over again. The alien, Yuki, is the only one who remembers every iteration of the loop.


I really admire the creators’ boldness. They aired this arc one episode per week, which means two months of releasing basically the same episode. Naturally, this drove many fans away. And it became infamously known as “ the worst arc ever created.” 


I completely disagree with this last assessment. And here’s why:



1. It highlights the other artistry involved in making an animation


The boredom of the familiar episode allowed me to focus on other things that are usually overlooked and appreciate the art involved more.


Remember when I said it is “basically” the same episode? Despite the same general structure, dialogue lines, and scenes, each episode was animated individually with new voice-over recordings. The animators and voice actors made this same episode unique in each interaction. And what a great job they did! Their subtle changes added a layer of nuance to the characters, settings, and plot in general.



2. It serves a purpose


The Endless Eight arc is not, as many assumed, a way to troll the audience. It has a reason to exist, even if many cannot (I mean, physically) appreciate it. This arc forces us to consider the perspective of THREE different characters. 


First and most obvious, we experience the loop as the alien Yuki does (although not as often as her, but enough to empathize with her situation). She is a passive observer, and so are we.


The second (and also obvious) is going through the loop with Kyon. His constant deja vú and disquiet about the familiar moments are similar to what we experience. We could almost remember the lines and what would come next—but not quite, and thus, we share with Kyon the deja-vú feeling.


Last but not least, we can better understand the one and only Haruhi Suzumiya, a person who is constantly bored and in desperate need of excitement—something we all can agree that we felt watching this arc.



3. We learn a lot about the characters


By the second time we watched the episode, it was clear what Kyon needed to do to break the cycle. Yet, he needed over 15,000 repetitions to finally do it. This is very on par with his indecisive nature, but here we see the extent of his whisky-washy personality. For example, he reaches out several times to talk to Yuki (the alien) and always hesitates when he gets a hold of her.


Also, I was convinced of Yuki’s assignment as a passive observer only after watching this arc despite her mentioning it before. She had interfered before when she saved Kyon from her alien friend and Asahina’s eye laser shooting, but not here. So, Yuki did not intervene. Kyon was not in danger during the loop, after all. In fact, he was safe forever.


The other characters also have their previously-hinted traits flashed out (like the esper Koizumi’s hots for Haruhi). Nevertheless, Kyon and Youki were more explored, in my opinion.



4. It is important for future events


The Endless Eight arc is an excellent study of effectively utilizing a plot structure without advancing it. To maximize its effect, it should also impact the story’s progress.


We see the aftermath of the Endless Eigth in full display in the excellent movie The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. We get to know the consequence of being stuck in a loop, understand the motivation for the character’s actions (especially Yuki’s and Kyon’s), and see the growth we didn’t get during the Endless Eight episodes; all of these add maximum emotional investment because we got through the loop together.



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That’s it for today, folks.


Notice I never said the Endless Eight arc was not boring. It is—extremely boring. And in this age of rush, I get why people might get frustrated with boredom. Still, I say give boredom a fair try. It could be therapeutic. 


What is your favorite time-loop story? Have you watched The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya? Let me know in the comments.



See you next post,

Ra.


 

Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.




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