Well, it’s finally arrived. Hyouka’s first arc was in truth about Chitanda’s uncle, but its impetus was the creation of a club magazine for the cultural festival. The second movie arc took place over summer vacation, and concerned getting a different club’s project ready for the festival. And now, at the beginning of Hyouka’s second half, the stage is finally set for the show’s third and most ambitious arc, the festival itself.
Hyouka isn’t content to just let you assume this arc is important; the opening sequence here is all buildup, contrasting each of the main cast’s pre-festival rituals against each other. It opens with atmospheric shots of Chitanda walking in the dark, a device that frames a visit to the homes of each other character. We then cut to Mayaka’s room, which is extremely Mayaka; lined with posters and stuffed with books, it is an ordered, defiant expression of her almost greedily ambitious, experience-hungry personality. But in spite of the loud statement declared through her decor, her own actions in this sequence seem timid and uncertain. Having already been lying in bed, she gets up, apparently unable to sleep. Drinking a glass of water, she looks down, seeming far more nervous than excited about the event to come.
Both Satoshi’s room and mannerisms stand in clear contrast to Mayaka’s. While Mayaka’s room seems both ordered and full of deliberate personal statements, Satoshi’s room is very much “the place where he puts stuff and goes to sleep.” It’s cluttered and unconsidered, its personality defined mostly by his various bags and whatever items he happened to leave there. Even his desk chair is a simple foldout chair, implying he doesn’t spend enough time here to really care about comfort. And in contrast to Mayaka’s trepidation, Satoshi is clearly giddy about the day to come. He muses to himself about all the scattered events he’ll visit, and when he considers the day in full, he is shot in light, looking upwards at a vast open plain – as sheer a difference as you can make from Mayaka’s claustrophobic, shadowed, downward-facing feelings.
From there, we jump into the second half’s opening, which hangs on a clever and regularly beautiful visual metaphor that I hope I don’t have to explain. Oreki’s a spectator to the world, Chitanda drags him into engagement, etc. And at the beginning of the episode proper, we get a moment that moves Oreki-sis’s powers from “formidable” to “clearly supernatural,” when she responds to Oreki’s complaints about trouble at the festival by giving him a broken fountain pen. You’d think a broken fountain pen wouldn’t help Oreki much, but thoughts like that clearly don’t give Oreki’s wizard of a sister much credit – or at least, underestimate her faith in Oreki’s ability to solve problems with even the crappiest of magic dancing shoes. Oreki’s sister tends to express her love for her brother in fairly unique ways.
Oreki meets up with Satoshi at the school, who then runs away to greet Mayaka. Mayaka responds to Satoshi with uncharacteristic hesitance, and when Satoshi attempts to prod her in his usual way, she doesn’t fire back, but simply asks him to stop. And Satoshi does stop; gently asking her about her costume, he manages to somewhat cheer her up, and by the end of their conversation we see Mayaka’s first smile of the episode. Satoshi and Mayaka’s relationship is generally defined by antagonism, so it can be difficult to see what Mayaka sees in Satoshi, but rare moments like this demonstrate his long-time importance to her. Mayaka isn’t a person who’d verbally express her insecurities, but Satoshi is a person who doesn’t need to have things said out loud.
From there, we get our first glimpses of the festival itself. Hyouka has always been a beautiful and well-animated show, but the incidental sequences of students prepping and enjoying the festival go above and beyond basically anything else in television animation. Virtually no shows animate crowds like this, with full rooms and halls of individually designed characters all expressing distinct fragments of personality as they go about their own festival experiences. And all of this beautiful animation serves a clear purpose – it establishes the festival itself as a living thing, a bustling space with as clear of a personality as any of the show’s smaller settings. Hyouka’s festival comes across as so naturally lively that you might not even notice the trick, but the scale of the character design, shot framing, and animation challenge being attempted here is absolutely breathtaking. Many shows have school festivals, but Hyouka’s school festival is alive.
After arriving at the clubroom (through a sequence that demonstrates the relative remoteness of the Classics Club through contrast with the earlier bustle), we finally learn at least one of the reasons for Mayaka’s distress. Apparently, instead of ordering thirty copies of their journal, they accidentally ordered 200 – and now, in a tucked-away corner of the school with no advertising or recognition, they need to somehow sell their massive pile of magazines. The shot framing and body language is strong throughout this sequence; there are nice shots that frame their journals as an imposing monolith, and classic tension-cutting tricks like Satoshi’s arrival in his absurd costume. There’s a great shot that partially cuts Mayaka off when she sees her friends supporting her, implying her own fond emotions through what we can’t see. And there’s a smart shift to heist-planning shot framing when they begin to plot out their sales ideas, setting up their ideas as a collection of clever schemes.
Satoshi takes the lead in this sequence, and essentially plots out his own adventure-filled festival under the guise of promoting the Classics Club. The body language gets very pronounced and dramatic throughout this sequence; with great sequences like Oreki’s awkwardness around Chitanda, or Chitanda’s excitement about their plan, establishing character in louder terms than the show generally sticks to. Hyouka’s comedy often comes through in unspoken moments like these; in spite of there not being an actual joke there, Chitanda rising from beneath Oreki like some eternally curious natural predator sells personality and humor without a word.
After a brief sequence that seems largely designed to laugh at the very idea of using CG characters for crowd scenes (finishing with, of course, a ridiculous sequence of animated breakdancing), Hyouka does something it’s never done before – it moves away from Oreki. With her own individual quest established, we finally get a look into Chitanda’s head, as she heads off to secure the club a better location.
Unfortunately, Chitanda is pretty much at her most vulnerable in the context of a school festival. With a million interesting activities happening all around her, someone as naturally inquisitive and interested in engaging with the world as Chitanda is basically destined to step on some activity-landmines. The festival’s tremendous visual busyness again pulls its weight in these segments, as the distractions facing Chitanda come through as just as compelling for the audience. Every hallway comes across as memorable and full of fun surprises (and unexpected old friends!), making Chitanda’s struggles seem like the only reasonable response. And great match cuts of her contrasting excitement and self-admonishment again bring the humor home without any need for loud punchlines. In the end, Chitanda’s request to the committee president is so lackluster that he ends up basically doing all of her negotiating for her – as far as solo adventures go, Chitanda’s isn’t off to the most auspicious of starts.
But Mayaka isn’t doing great with her own problems, either. As she approaches the manga club, the framing echoes the shots of the episode’s beginning, making it clear that her concerns weren’t just about the anthologies. And when she reaches the club, it becomes obvious there’s some kind of struggle in power and priorities going on here. Mayaka is visually diminished relative to her clubmates, and there’s a sharp contrast in their costumes. As her classmates whisper about how she apparently didn’t want to cosplay in the first place (a word she seemed embarrassed about earlier as well), the specific costumes chosen paint a clear difference in priorities. While Mayaka’s costume is from an old scifi manga, implying a reverence for the manga classics, her clubmates are all decked out in vocaloids and Touhous – modern fads that are popular cosplay targets, but not even related to manga in the first place.
Meanwhile, Oreki lounges, loafs, and generally makes a contented lump of himself, before stumbling upon the vague tremors of a possible mystery. And then his sister’s crazy magic begins its work, as an unlikely meeting with an actual customer prompts the first trade-up gift exchange. In spite of all their best efforts, it seems like every member of the Classics Club is going to have some trouble surviving the culture festival.
(here, have a bonus penguin)
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