Hyouka returned to the school this week, to begin the second major arc of the series. The first third of this episode is a long, slow buildup to a new character reveal, one that begins before the opening, in one of the show’s most weirdly dramatic sequences yet. Text messages and chat window conversations speak of crisis and desperation as the camera very deliberately avoids giving us a clear view of the typist. Quick shots and zooms that crop all but the text create a sense of urgency, anxiety, and entrapment. The overall effect puts the audience off-kilter and in a position where they naturally distrust the typist… and then another participant joins the chat, and it’s clear even through text that this is Chitanda. The gang’s getting roped into another mystery, and it seems likely their patron is actively withholding information.
The episode reveals that patron eventually, but first we get one more bitter scene of Oreki and Satoshi talking about their aspirations and abilities. As the two head to school, Satoshi describes himself as a “man with no talents” – and when Oreki counters that he’s at least a database, Satoshi demurs, saying “even at my best, I wouldn’t qualify for ‘Quiz King’ or anything.” Even in his chosen discipline, which he consistently frames as not particularly noteworthy (“I’m only a database,” etc), Satoshi sees himself as mediocre. This perhaps justified self-image makes clear sense of his actions; given he sees himself as mediocre, why would Satoshi ever want to commit to anything? Better to laugh and play the fool and define yourself in the way you’ve chosen than to engage with the world and actually know you’re mediocre, in a way other people can’t avoid seeing.
Satoshi’s fears are deeply relatable ones, and make him come across as far more human than the “main character” type of Oreki. Oreki has it easy, relatively speaking – he doesn’t want to commit, and professes to seek an “ordinary life,” but when he does commit to things, he shines. But Satoshi’s “database abilities” are essentially the abilities of a schoolyard wiz kid, someone who read the entire encyclopedia and has plenty of individual facts in his head, but has no confidence in his own underlying abilities beyond those rehearsed lines. Satoshi is the Nanami Kiryuu of Hyouka – his greatest fear is trying his hardest and proving he’s no better than anyone else, and so he smiles, and lets others take the spotlight.
Of course, Satoshi isn’t actually without talents, and it’s clear that one of his greatest personal issues is that he continuously attempts to compare himself to Oreki on Oreki’s terms. And one of the things he is good at, emotional intelligence, guides his own stern words to Oreki. As Oreki utters the prophetic “geniuses can’t choose to live normal lives, even if they wanted to,” Satoshi sees the actual relevance of this line. “Is a normal life what you really wish for?” he asks Oreki, and then “but do you really think you’ll be able to live that way?” His own halfhearted desires aside, Oreki is pulled like a magnet towards the field where his talents shine. He cannot escape his own nature.
But Oreki will have to wait a little while to embrace that spotlight, because in this episode, a new star is taking the stage. As Chitanda ushers the group to the AV room, where she says an acquaintance has asked for their help, we’re finally introduced to the mysterious figure from the opening. Irisu Fuyumi’s introduction is one of the most purposefully staged moments so far, with basically every shot building her up as a figure of power and significance. She’s introduced as a murky figure in a dark room, and then approaches in darkness before crossing the boundary into blinding light. Irisu commands the light throughout this scene, as we’re quickly told in narrative terms how important she is. Satoshi remembers her, but she doesn’t remember him – he’s a normal person, after all. Chitanda knows her personally, because she stands on equal footing with Chitanda’s high-class upbringing. And when Oreki tries to ask her a sharp question, she acknowledges it and then shoots him down, offering a “good luck” before starting her class’s film. After a conversation specifically dedicated to the distance between ordinary people and shining geniuses, Irisu is clearly framed as an icon of the extraordinary.
Her other classmates, not so much. The film Ibara shows our heroes is a weird masterpiece of intentionally “bad” character acting. Kyoto Animation shows are normally best-in-class when it comes to character animation, so it’s pretty great to see their skills being put to use in order to evoke teenagers who are trying to express character emotions but are terrible at it. There’s the kid who doesn’t even want to be a part of this film, the kid who feels awkward making eye contact with the camera, the kid who thinks acting means EMOTING EVERYTHING, and the kid who doesn’t understand what genre of movie he’s in. It’s all a wonderfully composed meta-joke and demonstration of Hyouka’s tightness of craft – like with stage acting, animation often has to intentionally exaggerate visual character cues in order to convey intent, and so it’s doubly impressive that this so clearly scans as “bad acting.”
And of course, the intentional badness of this production also extends to the cinematography. The straight-on, interview-style shots in a sequence that’s supposed to be either found footage or at least slightly naturalistic. The weirdly flat shots from beside the group, that convey basically nothing. Having characters discuss visual things the camera is forgetting to look at, and then having the camera make a random zoom after a character has finished talking. Almost failing to actually shoot the building the mystery is taking place in. By the time one of the film’s less enthused actors actually says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” the exact quality of the material we’re working with is pretty clear.
In the film’s second half, when they’ve actually reached the “mystery mansion,” the execution of the movie’s badness reaches even more impressive heights. As I discussed in my writeup of Hyouka’s third episode, it’s very difficult to create the illusion of “movement into depth” in animation, because it requires constantly redrawing all relevant characters and objects to account for the shifting of the camera’s perspective relative to them. But of course, students working on a film within an animated universe wouldn’t be accounting for the difficulty of that choice – and in fact, a restless camera that’s too eager to act like a human being instead of framing shots with a sense of minimalism for greatest aesthetic effect is a clear sign of an amateur cinematographer. And so this sequence of the film is absolutely loaded with hyperactive tracking and panning shots, a ridiculous feat of animation that doubles as an embarrassing display of in-universe filmmaking.
There are shots that swoop down to examine objects on the floor, shots that follow characters around corners and through divergent lighting, and even shots that entirely spin around characters, echoing an always-impressive trick Kyoto Animation would also pull in the K-On!! and Chuunibyou Ren opening songs (and then do in a more CGified style for Sound! Euphonium). Nearly every frame of this student film comes across as slipshod in a way that must have been hell to animate, and the end product is as funny as it is formally impressive. The garbage student film is one of Hyouka’s great gifts.
Of course, that only brings us to this episode’s halfway point. As the student film concludes without a conclusion, Irisu poses a set of questions to her audience, first asking what they thought of the craft (a foregone conclusion Irisu frames in a way that nicely reflects Satoshi’s thoughts on his own potential), and then who the culprit must be. Apparently, the script writer fell ill after writing up through the “finding the body” scene, but because they followed the formal rules of mystery storytelling, the viewer should be able to discover the villain just from those scenes. As Satoshi jokes about Oreki assuming “the role of the detective,” Oreki aims his questions in a different direction – instead of interrogating the film, he challenges Irisu on why she brought this case to them. In spite of Oreki’s desire to avoid being pigeon-holed into a character role he doesn’t want, his reputation is growing. We cannot fully choose who we are defined as.
As Chitanda’s curiosity takes hold, we see her framed as essentially being the top of the world, and then she once again invades Oreki’s space. But Oreki denies her request, saying that he “can’t accept that much responsibility.” Oreki has reached the point where he’s willing to carry the detective identity-burden for Chitanda specifically, and even sometimes welcomes it – but he refuses to lean on his own abilities, and assume he’ll be able to be the person they want him to be, when it comes to others. It’s only through compromise with the tactically minded Irisu that he agrees to pursue the case.
This leads into one more great character-defining scene, as Satoshi recalling Irisu’s nickname “The Empress” (for her ability to command and manipulate others) prompts him to assign tarot designations to all his friends. It’s a very Satoshi thing to do, assigning people artificial roles like this, and his choices are characteristically sharp. Ibara wavers between Justice and Judgment, the earnest but perhaps too inflexible creators of order. Satoshi himself is the Magician, the one who revels in falsehoods – though he actually wants to be the Fool. Chitanda is the Fool, the one who asks ostensibly silly questions, but through her curiosity and engagement drives at the truth, and essentially assumes the classic role of protagonist. And Oreki is Strength to Satoshi, who envies his power, but the mysterious Star to Chitanda. Learning whether Oreki can once again live up to those expectations will have to wait until next time, when the Classics Club meets with Irisu’s own amateur detectives. I hope they’re better at deductions than they are at shooting a mystery movie!
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