The art of repetition and uniqueness within sameness – Overthinking Endless Eight

In one of the chapters in his book Seven seals of silence, danish author and poet Niels Frank writes about musical duration, and how it can be achieved through repetition. He brings up Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who’s compositions he writes are structured in a way that every single note is in direct relation with one another; they all follow a fixed harmony in which everything moves towards a singular point. “Bach thus moves towards unity […] – in contrast to Mozart, who moves towards diversity.” This structure creates a form of endless, uninterrupted sound perspective, where every note has equal value since they’re all part of a collective harmony.

Frank further on writes about minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, whose compositions consist of another form of repetition where “each new element adds to the side of the previous” and the music never really reaches any natural progression, but rather transforms into an ever-growing sea of sound. Frank poetically describes it as follows: “With Bach, the endless pattern of repetition moves upwards – towards the divine – while it in minimal music runs along the horizon.”

Listening to music of this repetitional nature under an extensive amount of time can create a sort of meditative trance where one’s sense of time is removed; there no longer exists any beginning or end but only an endless now. To quote Niels Frank again: “soon we can no longer remember where we came from; all memory binds to the now when it’s recalled, but the now itself is connected to the infinite.”

Perhaps one can get an easier understanding of this concept by looking at a more contemporary composer; ambient musician William Basinski. Basinski’s music, which is undeniably influenced by minimalism, has its basis in so-called tape loops – pieces of cassette tape which he cuts out and puts together the ends of, thus creating a loop – which he then alters in different ways with the goal of creating a form of eternal “bubble”. To quote the man himself:

But sometimes something will happen where a kind of eternal perfection happens and you can’t tell the beginning or the end, and it just seems to create a timeless […] ambiotic bubble that you can float in. When that happens then I’m, “OK, this is a good one, I’m onto something here.” So this is sort of what I look for.

Basinski’s most famous work is a collection of four albums entitled The Disintegration Loops. This collection consists of six different tape loops which he created in the 80s out of various recordings from an easy listening radio station. Several years later in 2001 he picked up the loops again during a go-through of his archive, and decided to transfer them to digital format. When the first tape had rotated for a while, he noticed how the magnetic surface had begun to crumble, which it continued to do until there was nothing left but a pile of magnetic dust. He went through the rest of the twenty year old recordings and got the same result each time. When he was done he finally had six different pieces of recorded loops which all went through a gradual process of disintegration, becoming more and more crumbled until they finally died out. The Disintegration Loops is a perfect example of what Basinski’s music so often portrays: a seemingly eternal soundscape which slowly but steadily is falling down into the abyss of melancholia. If Bach moves upwards a mountain and the minimalists along the horizon, then one could say that Basinski moves downwards, towards death and decay.

And that brings us to the infamous and highly controversial Endless Eight. Consisting of eight episodes, it is a story arc taking up the majority of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya‘s second season, in which the series’ cast of characters are stuck in an endless time loop having to relive the last two weeks of their summer vacation – all in typical Groundhog Day fashion. Although whereas Groundhog Day may take place in a time loop setting but with a continuous story being told within that setting, Endless Eight is literally the same story being repeated eight times.

Personally, I find Endless Eight to be very interesting, because it is the only work I’ve encountered where the idea of endlessness through repetition is applied to the medium of film. Watching Endless Eight brings, for me at least, the same kind of experience as listening to a longer work by Reich or Basinski; at first, you feel kind of intrigued (“this looks fun”), which is then followed by a slight sense of tediousness (“alright, I’ve seen this before”). But then a little further into it, you become so engulfed in the loop that you’re starting to loose your sense of time and place; you forget where or when you are or came from and simply fall into this zero-point of infinity (buddhism’s nirvana is something that comes to mind). This feeling is only matched by the one you get when it all suddenly ends; the music fades out, the last note is played, or – as in Endless Eight’s case – Kyon figures out how to break the loop, and you’re abruptly released from your meditative state of mind.

One downside with this though is that it requires the viewer to marathon the whole thing in order to come even close to the feeling of an endless now. For those who watched it during its initial broadcast, it probably didn’t leave any other impact than the frustration of having to watch the same episode eight weeks in a row. So if this is what Kyoto Animation wanted to achieve with the arc, it would have been much more fitting to release it as an OVA-series instead of in broadcast format. Also, I kind of wish that it was longer. Given the subject matter, eight episodes (i.e. eight repetitions) isn’t that very long; you barely fall into the loop enough before it’s all over. Extreme lengths is, after all, an essential part of this type of artistry; most works by both Reich, Glass and Basinski single-handedly fit into a full album, spanning from around forty minutes to one hour in length. The Disintegration Loops is in its entirety around five hours in length, as is Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach. So I think it would be very interesting if this concept was applied to a twelve episode full season, or maybe even longer.

Another interesting aspect of Endless Eight lies in the fact that it’s not technically a loop. I mean that in the sense that every segment is very much alike, but never entirely identical. Each new episode of Endless Eight is presented with a slight variation; the cinematography is different, the timing of the actions and dialogue is different, and even some of the costumes are different. What this essentially results in is that every episode has remarkably more uniqueness to them than you’d recall at a first glance. Just look at how chaotic it becomes when they’re all played simultaneously:

This is something that can be drawn to what Marcel Duchamp demonstrated in some of his art, about uniqueness within sameness. His work “The Green Box” from 1934 is a box containing a collection of notes and documents which he wrote in preparation for his other work “The Large Glass”, and is meant to accompany the latter to together form “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”. What’s so special about “The Green Box” though is that it was reproduced by Duchamp and released as a facsimile edition of his notes for people to buy, published in 500 copies for 100 francs each as well as a luxury edition of 20 copies for 50 000 dollars each. Not only did he challenge the valuation of art by reproducing one of his works, but by selling it to the general public he also made it into a product, thus blurring the line between “high” and “low” consumption. This can be seen as a kind of predecessor to what the pop art movement established a few years later, when they also blurred the line between “art” and “product” by reproducing and selling some of their works (this is touched upon more in-depth in my previous post), but while the pop artists meant to embrace and romanticize mass production and consumption, Duchamp was aiming for something completely different.

Due to the fact that Duchamp made all these reproductions by himself and that he had very limited access to any mechanical tools such as copying machines, these copies were extremely hard to make, and he had to go through some extreme measures in order to make them all look alike. Not only that, but because of this manual reproduction, each edition inevitably turned out somewhat different; some got more refined lines and some got brighter or darker colors, etcetera. Each and every copy of “The Green Box” thus became in one way or another unique, and it’s this that Duchamp wanted to highlight. In one of his later notes we can read the following: “2 forms cast in/the same mold (?) differ from each other by and infra thin separative amount.” What he means by this is that even the most meticulously crafted pare of copies are divided by an infra thin variation. In a society where everything – not just objects but our everyday lives as well – seems to blend together into a lump of sameness, it may be important to recognize the differences rather than the similarities in things in order to cope with it all. By recognizing that even the most identical things have a difference between them – even if that difference is infra thin – one might find a solution to the ever-growing mass production and mundanity within the modern world. To quote John Cage on the matter:

If we start looking for relationships we experientially stumble over all the things that are obvious, such as repetition. […] But […] if we change attitude and turn completely around and reject all that has to do with relationships, to use Duchamp in our experience, then we will be able to see that these things which we thought were the same in fact aren’t the same. And this is very useful in our lives, which increasingly will be characterized by what seems to be repetition.

Now, to say that Endless Eight is somewhat of a commentary on the mundanity of modern day society is perhaps a little too far fetched, but maybe on these grounds we can at least recognize that the arc is saying something about the show’s own setting. Being the light-hearted, high school slice-of-life-show that it is, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya‘s narrative (as well as most shows’ within its genre) contains a significant lack of progression. The show establishes a typical high school setting with a highly unique and interesting twist to it, but then never really expands upon that and instead settles at a more episodic day-to-day format where nothing significant seems to happen (with the exception of the show’s climax). So maybe Endless Eight can be seen as a commentary on not just this show but on others within its kind as well, not so much as a criticism but a way of showing that these shows does have an amount of variation to them that is worth being recognized.

So to summarize, I don’t think Endless Eight was just KyoAni wanting to screw with the show’s fanbase, as some people seem to assume. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone out of their way to re-make – not re-air, as we’ve previously established, but actually re-make – the same episode eight times, something that costs both effort, time and money. I think they actually wanted to accomplish something artistically with this. But whether or not that artistic aspiration has to do with anything that I’ve brought up in this post, I have no idea of, because this is all just mere speculation. Maybe KyoAni wanted to create something similar to the likes of Bach, Reich and Basinski’s voyages into infinity, or maybe they wanted to make a Duchamp-like commentary on modern society and/or the nature of the slice-of-life-genre. Or maybe it was just meant as a parody on the fact that the show was airing in non-chronological order.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking it all.

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