Hyouka’s eighth episode pulled all sorts of meta visual tricks, using the context of an in-show movie in order to play with character acting and shot framing in a variety of interesting ways. Through its awkward direction and oddly remarkable animation, it pulled off techniques anime normally doesn’t use for very good reasons, in order to make intentionally bad staging decisions. The episode’s middle act was essentially a self-aware interrogation of the nature of visual storytelling; and so it seems only appropriate that the following episode is entirely focused on narrative storytelling, and how our relationship with a theoretical author dictates everything stories could possibly mean.
The opening shots of this episode deliberately frame it not as a conversation, but an interrogation. Moody scene-setting impress the feeling of a murder mystery on the overt story as the next stage of investigations begin. The movie club’s three amateur detectives are introduced like suspects in a lineup, and their meetings are conducted not like a group info-sharing session, but as if they’re interviewing possible killers explaining how they did it.
The framing and overt ways these interviews play out demonstrate that the “suspects” here aren’t the only ones who aren’t really on the same side. Everyone leans on Oreki – he’s challenged by the interviewees and constantly turned to by his own “friends,” demonstrating the uneven nature of their arrangement. Satoshi leads with the classic detective notebook and plays the good cop, asking leading questions and sympathizing with the suspect to get what he wants. Chitanda leans forward in the frame, shots demonstrating how she consistently engages with people and meets them halfway. Mayaka asks the straightforward and deliberate questions, playing to her “Justice” part as far as it will go. And Oreki pushes the hard lines, with his pointed questions provoking strong reactions in their first suspect. The show doesn’t have to spell out how these methods work together to enhance the team’s abilities; the shot framing demonstrates that Oreki gets the information he needs purely from his subject’s oversized reactions.
But for all that visual storytelling and classic distribution of character strengths, it’s the points raised by the interview subjects that steal the show here. Though the question they’re trying to answer is framed as “how did Hongou intend this story to end,” the question most of the characters actually answer is “how should this story end.” The first interview subject, Kaitou, acknowledges that they’re dealing with a locked room mystery – but in his view, the solvable mechanics of mysteries are a minor issue. “Drama is way more important than how mysteries work,” he says – and he may be right. From an audience perspective, a story’s emotional impact generally makes far more of a difference to it being successful or failure than whether “all the plot holes check out.” Plot holes are things you look for when a story failed to engage you emotionally – if you’re already hooked, any old trick will work.
When Kaitou declares the answer is that the suspect simply used the window, Mayaka mutters that “that’s far too lame of a mystery.” It’s a rephrasing of a refrain we’ve heard continuously throughout this show – not that a solution is wrong, but that “that solution won’t satisfy Chitanda’s curiosity.” Kaitou has little faith in the base mechanics of the story he’s dealing with; when counterpoints are raised to his theory, he argues that “maybe Hongou forgot to write that in.” Mayaka responds to this with the seemingly reasonable “but if you say that, any theory will pass” – but honestly, this is often how things truly work out. Mysteries aren’t about finding a magic that exists in the world – they elevate the world, and create their own magic out of conjecture.
By framing these issues of storytelling through the device of an invented in-universe mystery, Hyouka is able to interrogate both the mechanics of storytelling in general and how Hyouka’s characters abuse mysteries in their own ways. “Trust in the author” is the key refrain; an audience has to trust a project will respect its audience in order to make reasonable conjectures about where it will go, and thus feel invested in the outcome. Kaito flat-out doesn’t trust his story’s author at all, and so thinks the story should instead rely on overwhelming the audience through visceral impact. That’s a simple and negatively-framed decision, but it’s not an unreasonable one; storytelling is always a process of managing emotional tone against grounded plot-beat variables, and seeing how each can support or make up for the other. Kaitou’s solution is weak not because it fails to solve the mystery, but because it solves the wrong mystery – Kaitou believes his story’s author made a mistake, and thus “solves the mystery” of why she’d write a story that didn’t make sense. That solves this meta problem the actual characters are dealing with, but would not make for a satisfying film.
As the essential skeptical audience member, Mayaka expresses the weakness of this theory as soon as Kaitou leaves, saying “you can’t even call that a trick.” “But,” says Satoshi, “it’s certainly physically possible.” Even this first solution could “solve” their mystery – but it won’t answer the real question, the one Oreki poses when he asks Chitanda “did you like that solution?”
Most mysteries do not have complicated, “dramatically satisfying” solutions in the real world. Most mysteries are just coincidences, or cases of slight missing information, or some other everyday thing like that. In order to be satisfying as stories, mysteries need to be more than what they really are – they need to shock our assumptions about the world, or tell us things we didn’t know about people, or work in some emotionally or thematically satisfying way. Through its interrogation of the in-universe movie, this episode of Hyouka argues that point brick by brick, and might as well be “apologizing” for the convenience of its own mysteries. In the real world, if we took a trip to a hot springs inn and discovered something unusual, it’s highly unlikely that unusual thing would perfectly reflect our current anxieties in a dramatically satisfying, “arc-based” way. But this is all artifice.
And so is the murder mystery. So when Oreki receives information here, he’s not really trying to “solve the case” by finding the exact right solution – he’s attempting to satisfy the audience, the actual goal of a mystery. And to Oreki, the audience is Chitanda. When he confirms she isn’t satisfied with the mystery, that’s when we says “there are problems with the theory.” But beneath these interchangeable plot variables, the real failing of each solution is that it doesn’t make the girl he cares about happy.
Oreki dismisses the first boring solution with a fairly boring answer – “there’s a pretty good chance the killer would have been seen, thus they probably didn’t use that method.” Later on, it’s made clear through new evidence that Hongou didn’t intend for that solution to work; but as each new theory is presented, it’s discarded in turn for more boring, “it was pretty unlikely” reasons. Even the second suspect himself discards theories through their “possibility of failure.” The guiding principle isn’t bulletproof logic, because in truth it’s perfectly likely the killer could have succeeded through one of the discarded methods, just by getting lucky. The guiding principle is, once again, faith in the writer – faith that they were planning to tell a story that would shock and satisfy the audience, that would “make sense” in the kind of holistic, “there’s an underlying magic to the world” sense Chitanda wants to believe in.
Chitanda is unshakeable in this faith, and Oreki does his best to live up to it, even as the various suspects all betray the writer in their own ways. The first interviewee assumed the writer had imperfect information, and thus made a simple mistake. The second is even more arrogant, assuming the writer’s inexplicable prop choices were an oversight, and thus “fixing them” himself. The admission that he didn’t even see the finished movie provokes a reaction of fierce disappointment from Oreki, and Chitanda is unsurprisingly clear that she “doesn’t think that’s what Hongou was going for.” “If the window were part of the trick, she must have checked it” declares Oreki – he’s firmly committed to trusting the author, and relying on the assumed polish of her story to guide his own deductions.
The third suspect cares the least for Hongou’s story, and decides they’d be better off making a horror movie. Oreki is initially put off by this idea, but Satoshi knows exactly what terms to put it in. “Try thinking about it from the perspective of someone with no experience with the genre,” he says, as Oreki’s eyes wander to the half-drunk Chitanda. Chitanda had just minutes before declared she had no experience with mystery… so perhaps horror was what she wanted after all? Oreki admits he’s partially seduced by this idea, but fortunately Chitanda puts her drunken foot down, and declares that this was definitely not what Hongou intended.
This episode is fascinating for the ways it weaves a formal interrogation of story craft into the emotional desires of its characters, but all the usual Hyouka tricks are on display, and there are even ridiculous gifts like the whiskey chocolate-drunk Chitanda to lighten the mood. Oreki is at his most insistently supportive even as Chitanda gets distracted, seemingly rising to the occasion of the movie by codifying and rigidly supporting the philosophy Chitanda lives by. He doesn’t believe in magic, but he wants to create magic for her sake; and even the eyecatches echo his rising fire, as the sun hits its August peak. The end of this episode sees Oreki lost in a crowd, but he can no longer even pretend to live that way – as the crowd parts, those reliable birds take flight again, and he is singled out by Irisu. Irisu is special, and her notice of Oreki means he may be special too.
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