It’s interesting returning to a show like Hyouka after all this time away from it. Particularly given the unique circumstances of this return, and how different I am as a consumer now than I was then. Back when I first watched Hyouka, it was the second anime I’d ever watched as it was airing, with the first being Toradora several years before. I was just getting back into anime then, over the spring and summer of 2012 – playing through Katawa Shoujo that winter had prompted a renewed interest in anime-style media, and so I’d been catching up on shows like Madoka and Mawaru Penguindrum. Hyouka was less aggressive than those shows – in fact, its incredibly low-key execution first led to me dropping it only halfway through the first episode, before being convinced to continue by a friend with much better taste. And I watched through it, and I enjoyed it, and it became one of my favorite shows; but even then, I likely didn’t get out of the show what I’m guessing I’ll get now. Hyouka embodies KyoAni’s mastery of tiny moments – it is the studio, and anime itself by extension, at their best.
The show is directed by Yasuhiro Takemoto, one of KyoAni’s most senior and talented directors. He’d most recently directed the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya film, a film widely considered one of the studio’s best works, and which had essentially elevated a series that had already spent time as a legitimate cultural phenomenon. KyoAni overall were also riding the K-On! craze, which had ended in a movie which saw their talents (and director Naoka Yamada specifically) moving from the heights of TV animation to directorial and camera tricks more evocative of live-action film. These new tricks would come to roost in KyoAni’s upcoming shows, but it wasn’t just KyoAni’s visual talents that made Hyouka special.
Hyouka was also based on a series of actual novels, instead of light novels, meaning it avoided many of the genre and character hurdles that tend to drag down most anime adaptations. Its series composition was also handled by someone who doesn’t usually work in anime – Shoji Gatoh. Gatoh was the original creator of Full Metal Panic, and it was likely his experience collaborating on KyoAni’s Second Raid that made him a personal friend of Takemoto. If you check Gatoh’s anime writing credits, you’ll see he’s virtually only written for anime on projects and even specific episodes that Takemoto was director for – and Takemoto would later go on to direct another of his properties, Amagi Brilliant Park. The two are clearly comfortable working together, and the end result of this collaboration is a production that feels like its narrative and scripts are as carefully built and crucial to the overall effect as the usual gorgeous direction and animation.
So what is Hyouka, after all this preamble? Well, it’s a coming-of-age story about a self-conscious loner. And yes, I know that’s the most played-out trick in the anime book. But see… look, Hyouka just does it right.
The show opens by introducing two of its main characters – Houtarou Oreki and Houtarou Oreki’s school. Oreki himself is, if not cynical, certainly reserved – opening shots of cherry blossoms and kids merrily walking to school are undercut by his deadpan “when you think ‘high school life,’ the term ‘rose-colored’ comes to mind.” Oreki’s life is not rose-colored, and we know this not just because he firmly declares it, but because while the characters around him are depicted in fuzzy, saturated light, Oreki himself exists in shadow. He sits quietly in that classic back corner seat, staring out the window as if he can’t put faith in his own monologue. Light crowds the room from the afternoon sun, but Oreki is separated by glass, resigned to the darkness.
As I said, Oreki isn’t the only character we first meet. His school is equally important; building off of the way K-On!! took care to give a design and visual personality to every one of Yui’s classmates, Hyouka consistently works hard to create a sense of living space around its heroes. Every background character is carefully animated, and shots consistently frame the leads from high angles or down lengthy halls. It’s not enough that Oreki state he wants to conserve his energy relative to his classmates; the show must present a continuous contrast between that choice and the alternative, making his isolation in open space and the opportunities all around him visually felt.
Of course, Hyouka wouldn’t be much a show if Oreki just got his wish, and continued to live a low-energy life. Instead, he’s pushed by a letter from his sister to join and preserve the classics club; and when he walks into that club room, his life begins to change.
The camera knows how important this moment is for Oreki. In contrast to the distant shots and body language-focused closeups of the episode so far, Oreki’s walk into the classroom is shot from his own perspective, as he slowly takes in the strange girl at the window. Staring out into the sunlight he shunned, she seems somewhat like him, and yet also very different. And then as she turns to him, the camera cuts back to frame them both against the window, and the contrast is clear. This girl, Chitanda Eru, is the light itself. Bathed in afternoon glow, she represents a world (or at least idea of a world) Oreki has avoided, but one he can’t shrug away from any longer.
Oreki’s conversations with Chitanda are a carefully observed negotiation of body language and personal space. Chitanda constantly invades his perimeter, questioning what he’s doing in the clubroom, and responding to his questions with more questions. Whereas Oreki attempts to distance himself from engagement, Chitanda consumes everything; she’s observant and thoughtful and infinitely, infinitely curious. When Oreki tries to leave, she physically drags him back, asking him why the door was locked when Oreki approached. And when Oreki pushes this question aside, she stares straight into his eyes, her blinding, captivating presence articulated through a fantastical evocation of her grip on his mind.
Oreki solves the question of how Chitanda was locked in the room, and later “solves” another self-made mystery about an inscrutable school club. As you might guess by my relative focus here, the mysteries in Hyouka aren’t really the point of the show – they can sometimes be interesting or endearing, but they really work more as vehicles for the consistent navigation of space and comfort being expressed by these characters, or reflections of their relative engagement with the world outside. Like in K-On!, the plot is secondary to the everyday navigation of humanity, something that builds across interactions and creates universal truths through tiny gestures. Chitanda herself is the mystery for Oreki, and Oreki is the mystery for Chitanda.
Of course, this episode introduces one more character, and he’s actually the one I found myself most sympathizing with this time. Oreki’s friend Satoshi Fukube introduces himself as a “database,” someone who, as Oreki puts it, is full of “far too much useless knowledge.” Satoshi claims he can’t process information, he can only receive it – and his actions on the surface of this episode bear that out. Satoshi quips about his and Oreki’s character types, and jabs at his friend whenever it seems like Oreki isn’t playing into his own persona. Satoshi is the joker, and Satoshi is the instigator. Satoshi seems by far the unhappiest of the three.
Oreki claims he’s committed to a “low-energy life,” but even within this first episode, he’s enraptured by Chitanda and agrees to solve a series of mysteries. Oreki is an open book – he likes this girl, he’s only tentatively attached to his own self-image, and he clearly has talents that will help him bloom into a more confident and fully realized person. Satoshi sees this, and laughs at him for it, but Satoshi does not have a similar route in front him. Satoshi’s consistent references to both school gossip and what “character types” he and his friend embody reflect a lack of certainty in who he truly is – he clings to gossip and artifice because gossip and artifice are all he has. While Oreki is already feeling embarrassed with himself for his own deception (his constant ashamed asides while fooling Chitanda are a pretty clear giveaway), Satoshi tells him that “if you want to be convincing, you should say your motto with pride.” Satoshi has the greatest emotional intelligence of these three characters, but he can’t see anything good in himself, and so he plays the fool.
Hyouka’s first episode is dense with character inference and visual theming, though it comes off as anything but. If K-On! was the KyoAni approach to comedy, slice of life, and mood pieces, Hyouka is their style striking directly at character drama and thematic contrast. It’s a rich and rewarding show, and this first episode only begins to demonstrate its myriad strengths. I’m looking forward to taking another walk through these familiar, sepia-colored halls.
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