In this episode, the gang take one of those inevitable trips to a hot spring inn. And though Hyouka does find time for just a smidgen of fanservice (which is very appropriate, given this episode was directed by the future director of Free!, and even this piece of animation was handled by one of Free!’s shirt-flinging maestros), the majority of this episode’s running time is dedicated to another hot springs staple – the classic ghost story. We’re here for mysteries, after all, and what’s more mysterious than whatever compels a lost spirit to haunt its final resting place?
Of course, in Oreki’s mind, mysteries generally aren’t reflective of a hidden magic in the world – they’re work. From the episode’s very clever opening shots, the deceptive nature of first appearances is emphasized, and the bus trip up to the inn offers a concise demonstration of all the characters’ philosophies on what the idea of mystery implies. Oreki denies the magic of mysteries, Ibara frames his lack of enthusiasm as a character flaw, Chitanda embraces the magic of mysteries for her own sake, and Satoshi confesses he’s indifferent but willing to be optimistic. And the scene ends on the cynically realist “all ghosts are just withered flowers,” as the ladybug that physically represented the illusion of mystery flies away again.
There are many cute bits of visual storytelling in this episode, from the direct metaphors to the more structural tricks used to convey tone, theme, or character headspace. The most obvious pieces are those that directly correlate one-to-one with either character beats or the story being told. Oreki’s description of his sister as “likely better than him at anything he tried” is accompanied by a very presumptuous bird shoving a much more complacent one off a phone wire – an easy reflection of his sister’s active role in his life that echoes the bird taking flight in the fifth episode. The show’s usual use of shadow as a reflection of negativity or uncertainty also makes for a nice callback here, as the younger of the two inn sisters demonstrates. Even characters that normally aren’t cast in shadow can embrace it when the situation calls for it.
The visual storytelling goes beyond the direct metaphors, though. This episode of Hyouka is dominated by symmetry – characters are constantly framed as either central or as contrasting poles in the frame, creating naturally beautiful compositions that also imply a certain stability, or normalcy. The now fairly even relationship between Chitanda and Oreki is used for visual jokes, and to imply a world they share equally. These shots aren’t just nice for their own sake – they also establish a certain assumption of perspective that is frequently broken in the episode, as the characters disrupt symmetry to invade each other’s space.
The most crucial scene of this disruption occurs at breakfast after the first night, as Ibara explains how she saw a hanging figure in the window during the night. Oreki heard this story himself, but was unimpressed – but now, as Ibara rambles and Chitanda looks on, his attitude changes. There’s a wonderful shot of Oreki looking outside the frame, towards information the viewer can’t parse – and then we see he was turning to Chitanda, who he was technically “safe” from visually in the previous shot. Generally, when Oreki and Chitanda are framed together, it’s composed so he can’t escape her in spite of his efforts – here, he actually invites her appearance, and leans over to let her air her concerns in a shot where even the lines on the door emphasize how he’s exiting his own space. When Ibara and Chitanda’s inevitable request for him to investigate the mystery comes, his grimace and retreat could not feel less sincere – he broke the neutral situation to invite Chitanda’s curiosity, he’s the one who instigated this situation.
Smart framing is also used to emphasize how much Chitanda and Oreki have grown together, by placing them as closely connected in a much larger frame. And when the big hot springs scene occurs, it’s framed from tightly inside Oreki’s head, as every single theoretical movement by Chitanda prompts a counter-move by Oreki, until he’s finally overwhelmed and sinks into a rose-colored stupor. When Chitanda comes to check on him, the shots retain this almost uncomfortable intimacy – like in Monogatari, the appearance or absence of nudity is much less important to the creation of sensuality than the feeling of intimacy, a hyper-awareness of the other’s body that isn’t even necessarily a comfortable feeling.
Of course, that framing of intimacy is really just an extension of Kyoto Animation’s usual tricks, where moments parse as real or profound because they’re so closely observed. Hiroko Utsumi also seems to add a favorite trick of his own to this episode’s visual storytelling – the use of extremely quick cuts to establish either tone or tell jokes. Early on, this trick works nicely to evoke Oreki’s underlying laziness, which is kind of important. We pretty much always see Oreki at his most active, because that’s the story of this show, but moments like this are handy to make his default attitude feel more like an existing lifestyle than a “I was just an ordinary boy, until…” fake narrative affectation. And then later, we get a variety of jokes where the punchline is literally a quarter-second reaction shot, wasting none of the time most anime do on overselling tiny jokes.
But wait, here I am nearing the end of another writeup and I’ve once again forgotten to talk about the mystery. And this episode had a pretty good one! It made solid use of all the episode’s incidental details (something that once again is elevated through the usual emphasis on small moments, which naturally lends itself to the kind of detail-oriented storytelling mysteries thrive on), and reflected nicely on Oreki and Chitanda’s contrasting views about both familial relationships and the mysteries of the world. Oreki is inherently negative, but that means he isn’t let down when a conclusion is an unhappy one; Chitanda wants to see magic in the world, and so even when momentary sadness leaves her stranded in shadow, she’s able to recover and pull both of them forward. Oreki’s family situation is mundane, but also warm; Chitanda’s is exceptional, but isolating. The fact that this mystery is about a shadow is even made into a cute visual bookend, as both Oreki’s agreement to go on the trip and his eventual solution are depicted through the matching shadows of himself and Chitanda.
As a final note, though this episode once again benefited from some diligent location scouting, it turns out the exact mystery scenario here demanded a differently shaped building from the one they found – so they faked it. Apparently sometimes you just have to make your own mysteries – and of course, even when you yourself don’t believe in mysteries, sometimes the world will reach out and surprise you. Optimism may not inherently be its own reward, but approaching the world with earnest interest is the only way to see its magic at all.
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.