Hyouka (2012) Review: A Stylish Mystery that Breaks the Norms
Brought to viewers by the staff of Kyoto Animation—famous for providing “in-your-face” dramas (Clannad, Kanon, Air), and cute high school girls doing cute high school things (Lucky Star, K-On!)—, one would not expect something so … subtle and complex. Part of the reason for this may be the fact that the show is originally based off of Honobu Yonezawa’s series of “Classic Literature Club” novels, as opposed to following the popular trend of adapting from light novels. Since the former is a medium that places emphasis on prose, instead of illustrations as in the case of the latter, it lends the author greater capability to delve into his characters’ psyche. And in a show that is as character-driven as Hyouka, the novel’s structure of story-telling is apparent.
While Hyouka is certainly influenced by its predecessors—featuring a cute high school girl as one of its leads, and drama being embedded as an element throughout—at no point do they overshadow the show’s primary purpose: to present viewers with a slew of well-rounded, nuanced characters; to entertain through the genre of mystery/suspense, and some light comedy; and to carve its identity into the foundation stone of anime as unique to itself.
From the very beginning, the show makes it a point to say that it will not conform to the expected standards of generic high school anime. Yes, the show is primarily set around the activities of an after-school club; yes, there is a school culture festival; and yes, there is an episode where the characters go to a hot springs. However, when all of these things do happen, first of all, whole episodes are not devoted, nor do they rely on these events in order to create “interest.” And secondly, when these tropes are employed, they serve more as a familiar “hello” to the average high school anime before plunging into the “meat” of the show.
Hyouka is in the mystery genre, and as such, it uses these familiar settings in order to set up its stories. By this I mean, not only is there a new, peculiar mystery to be solved each time, but viewers are given more and more insight into the main characters, their motivations, and their relationships to one another—hidden bits and pieces of the characters’ personalities are revealed, and prior events and twists, which viewers were not aware of, arise to wreak havoc on their perception of what they thought they had previously understood. Hyouka is thus a show that actively reciprocates its audience’s feelings and thoughts, constantly keeping them guessing in a playful manner, and at times, in an unexpectedly dark way as well.
Since I could not find a trailer for the show, below is an English subbed opening theme sequence for it:
Story and the World it Takes Place in
The first character we are introduced to is Oreki Houtarou—a lazy guy who prefers an unconventional “gray” life as opposed to the stereotypical “rose-colored” one of his fellow peers. After receiving a request from his sister to join the Classics Club, lest it be shut down, Oreki travels to the clubroom and discovers a girl, Chitanda Eru, standing at the window and looking out over the schoolyard (Note: despite this set-up, the show is not a romance). She tells him that she joined the Classics Club, and Oreki, no longer feeling obligated to stay in it, prepares to leave.
However, when he tells her to lock up when she is finished, she claims she does not have a key, nor was the door locked when she had entered the room—immediately peculiar since Oreki had to unlock the door in order to enter the room in the first place. As a result, Chitanda’s insatiable curiosity awakens, she clasps Oreki’s hand in both of hers, pushes against him, and with her hypnotic-like eyes, convinces him to help her investigate how she ended up locked inside the room. And thus begins the first, albeit brief and simple, mystery. There are a total of 3 major mystery arcs, in addition to several episodic ones. While the mysteries that occur during the major arcs are very well developed, the mysteries that occur over the course of a single episode are not always difficult for the audience to figure out—in fact, at times the answers are dead obvious.
However, the purpose of such episodes seems more to introduce certain sides of the characters, that the viewers were previously unaware of, than to create a puzzling story.
For example, in an episode where Chitanda suddenly finds herself yelling at her teacher, the audience is meant to be more intrigued with what could have motivated a previously depicted sweet, kind-hearted character to act in such a way, rather than focus on the reason behind how the teacher misconstrued which lesson he had last left the class with. One can argue that the decision to diminish the complexity of the mystery of such episodes is a fault of the show, but considering that the anime only runs for 22 episodes, it is very possible that the staff was going for more than just a typical short-run mystery series. The choice to gradually shape the presentation of its characters into realistic, 3-dimensional people seems more of a plus than a minus, even at the expense of minor mysteries.
The pacing, however, may be the deal-breaker. If you’re looking for a mystery show where a crazed murderer is chopping up bodies left and right, or a show that is filled with heart-pumping action every minute, or anything else that falls in the same extravagant category, then steer clear of this one. Hyouka basks in the seemingly mundane and firmly devotes itself to the common. Combine this with the fact that the characters thoughtfully turn over every minute detail of a new mystery, and you have anything but a “thriller.”
From this perspective, the show is breaking the norms of notable detective suspense thrillers like Death Note. In Hyouka, we don’t have a single character who is able to immediately unravel a highly complex and incomprehensible mystery in a matter of seconds; we have 4 main characters, each of whom contributes something meaningful to a discussion, while one of them, after the course of several episodes, manages to combine all the little bits of information into a coherent image.
So yes, we do have a brilliant investigator, but not only is the depiction more realistic, but the various supporting characters are not useless as well. Again, the pacing may be something that can deter many viewers, but if you’re a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and you’re looking for a realistic, down-to-earth mystery show, then you’ll enjoy Hyouka a great deal.
Characters and their Development
Within the first two episodes, all 4 of the main characters are introduced: Oreki Houtarou—the very intelligent, but lazy, male lead of the series; Chitanda Eru—the kind-hearted, persistently curious, distinguished female lead; Fukube Satoshi—the carefree, fake “man of the world” and close friend of Oreki’s; and Ibara Mayaka—the sensitive, irritable, manga-lover girl. Upon first impression, viewers are most likely to feel they have seized up just exactly who each of these characters are. However, as the show progresses, the characters’ idiosyncrasies become more apparent, their pasts and the things that are most meaningful to them are revealed in a natural, uncontrived manner, and even the sides of themselves that they are far less proud of rise to the surface as well.
Perhaps even this may not impress the veteran anime-watchers because learning a new side to a character is a common feature of all animes. Hyouka, on the other hand, is a show that consistently brings up new and different information about each character, making it difficult to pin them down as any particular “type” (the most notable to mention, in terms of his development, perhaps being Fukube). Even the characters themselves are often surprised, not only with some of the choices the others make, but with some of the choices they make themselves. The method of “showing” and not “telling” is also an impressive feature of the show, for, while there are brief instances when characters’ thoughts are narrated, the writers of the show don’t belabor the descriptions of characters’ emotions to the point where it becomes tedious, or employ “deep” metaphors for the sake of creating a “dramatic effect.”
Each character brings to the table their own unique emotional baggage, and while their feelings do occasionally slip out from behind their attempts at stoicism, direct conflict where characters are soap-operatically yelling and venting their thoughts to one another never occur.
The only issue which some viewers may have is the enigmatic nature of Chitanda Eru. Part of the reason for this is because we are constantly viewing her from Oreki’s perspective—a character who often thinks he has Chitanda all figured out, but who constantly finds himself surprised the more he discovers about her. On the one hand, it makes Chitanda an interesting character to observe, but on the other hand, viewers may feel that she is ironically a “characterless character,” and point to it as a fault of the show. Such an opinion is difficult to comment on objectively, so I will leave viewers to decide for themselves.
Aesthetics and Conclusion
In terms of the overall look and feel of Hyouka, it is absolutely gorgeous. The animation is perfect in subtly revealing characters’ thoughts and feelings on matters through body language, even when they seem to be completely neutral in their words. Backgrounds, while having a darker, brooding look to them at times, can turn refreshingly vibrant, warm, and colorful at unexpected moments. And the soundtrack always lends the proper tone, if not amplifies a pre-existing one several times over, generally involving orchestral music, piano, or a light band instrument to reinforce the warm “classics” feel of the Classics Club, or an eerie, creeping feel when they begin to delve into mysteries. However, the most notable feature to mention may be the director’s infusion of surrealism with the ordinary. It happens in practically every episode and is often used to suggest something about a particular character (either Chitanda or Oreki), or the atmosphere of the mystery being investigated.
For veteran anime watchers: It is definitely worth checking out; if not for the story, then at least for the style itself as it is very unique. You will discover a show that is very different from your typical run-of-the-mill high school anime, and if you’re a fan of thoughtful, realistic suspense stories, then it will be a solid viewing experience.
For non-anime watchers: This show may be a difficult one to tackle especially since it requires so much of the viewer’s attention. I would suggest watching a few animes belonging to similar genres before trying this one out. Death Note is a great place to start in terms of a detective/suspense show, despite how much of a polar opposite it is from Hyouka, and a couple short high school animes to familiarize with certain tropes would help as well.
What do you think? Leave a comment.