Hyouka’s fourteenth episode opens with a set of slow, silent establishing shots, evoking all the hushed solemnity of a funeral. The first line tells us the reason for this framing, as Mayaka’s “I couldn’t find it” is contrasted against the disappointed faces of her underclassmen. Blinding morning light from outside casts the manga society in unnaturally gloomy shadows, and Mayaka’s face is deliberately hidden for two shots before she becomes visible only when she prostrates herself before her classmate. Close, shakey-cam, bokeh-heavy shots of the victorious party are followed by a transition to Kouchi’s feet, sticking us directly in Mayaka’s position. But surprisingly, Kouchi doesn’t rub her victory in Mayaka’s face. Instead, she simply drops the issue, telling Mayaka to get started on the posters with an “is that all?” tone. And then Mayaka realizes her supposed enemy remembered the manga title.
After that important character beat, the episode moves quickly towards its next character jump, as a new day of trials prompts Chitanda to ask a very special acquaintance for help selling the anthology. Passing a screening of “What No One Noticed” in progress, Chitanda runs into Irisu at their film stand, and asks if she can leave some of her anthologies at their display. For the first time, someone actually says yes to Chitanda – and as the camera frames the two of them as equal and alone in the hallway, a climactic moment for Chitanda begins. Between the prior scene and this sequence, it’s no surprise that this is a Naoko Yamada episode – she’s essentially the best in the medium when it comes to capturing all the important and personally momentous subtleties of human engagement, the ideal pick for an episode with such crucial tiny conversations.
The first two episodes of this arc have done pretty clear and obvious work establishing that Chitanda has a somewhat limited skill set. Chitanda is earnest and passionate, but never forceful – the personality that keeps her from ever pushing Oreki out of his comfort zone also means she’s very unlikely to convince anyone to sell anthologies they’re not interested in selling. But in the context of a conversation with Irisu, this personality can actually work. Irisu is very good at manipulating people who lack confidence in themselves, or who try to compete on her social-machinations level. While Oreki is basically putty in her hands, Chitanda is far too straightforward for her tricks. And so conversations between Chitanda and Irisu end up looking a whole lot like conversations between Chitanda and Oreki, with Chitanda’s head-on approach cutting straight through Irisu’s powers.
The visual framing of this conversation sets it apart as a unique and important one. The vastness of Chitanda’s problem, and her own feelings about it, are conveyed through wide open space and small details of uncomfortable body language (a style of shot Yamada uses in all of her works – “personality through legs” might as well be one of her signature tricks). Irisu’s understanding of and sympathy for Chitanda’s position isn’t conveyed verbally, but through small movements of the eyes. And the scene works so hard to create a sense of private space here that it actually comes across as loud and disruptive when other characters remind us we’re still in the middle of the festival. Irisu’s small gestures of emotional support are coded as momentous due to the camera’s focus – but by the time Irisu offers her first nugget of psychological advice, she’s already fallen into Chitanda’s trap.
Reminded of Irisu’s powers in the previous arc, Chitanda propositions Irisu for negotiating lessons, using a set of personal tricks that Irisu is far from prepared for. Her request to have Irisu teach her how to be authoritative plays out exactly like a classic Chitanda-Oreki scene, from the initial hesitance to Chitanda’s earnest laser vision to the second thoughts, recalculation, and rueful acceptance of her doom. Every heroic adventure requires a wise old teacher, and Chitanda couldn’t have picked a better mentor than the Empress herself.
Irisu’s advice to Chitanda might as well double as an analysis of her existing relationship with Oreki. Chitanda’s presence makes Oreki believe in his own powers, and can occasionally unlock his malnourished spark of passion. And her “make them feel like you have expectations of them” line plays directly into what Oreki has articulated repeatedly in the past regarding his unwillingness to “carry that burden,” and have people who believe in and rely on him. Even “act as if it’s a small problem for you” reflects the way Chitanda was able to draw Oreki into his own talents, starting with tiny mysteries around the school and eventually leading into mysteries that affected the lives of many people. After over a season of using her own powers naturally, it’s nice to see someone like Irisu outright articulate Chitanda’s natural emotional intelligence.
But that’s enough understated emotional stuff, because this episode’s entire second half is devoted to WILDFIIIIRE, the long-awaited cooking competition. In the lead-up to that climactic event, Oreki switches his water pistol over to a bag of flour, and Satoshi visits Mayaka only to see she’s hard at work, and leave her alone. This moment here, along with the small asides from the last couple of episodes, again demonstrate the strong bond between Satoshi and Mayaka. They may not outright say how much they value each other’s friendship, but Satoshi knows exactly what kind of person Mayaka is, and trusts her absolutely just as she relies on him.
Wait, I said I was done with the emotional stuff. WILDFIIIIRE. The cooking competition gets off to a great start with Yamada demonstrating one of her most important signature tricks, leading into a dramatic battle that easily trumps the in-the-moment spectacle of anything from the show up until now. And Hyouka certainly makes the most of it – this sequence is full of great gags and dramatic reversals from first competitor to last. Satoshi’s very straightforward cooking is brought to life through Chitanda’s ridiculous back-seat driving, lending a sense of constant urgency and humor to what’s in truth a fairly simple dish. Dramatic shots of the ticking clock and energetic match cuts turn what should be a simple cooking exercise into a heroic battle shared by every member of the Classics Club, full of silly jokes and wonderfully emotive character animation. As a judge in a silly fake mustache makes over-the-top pronouncements and rival dishes literally catch fire beside them, Hyouka demonstrates a more pure sense of energy and fun than ever before.
Everything comes to a head when Mayaka’s turn arrives, with no ingredients left and Mayaka still held up in her own work. The classroom clock looms overhead as Mayaka struggles to finish her drawing, and then the cultural festival’s tremendous feats of background character work again show their value, as Mayaka’s struggle to reach the competition grounds come across as a visceral battle through a mass of startlingly well-rendered students. Mayaka’s dash down the school stairs is a brilliant mix of vivid character animation and smart storyboarding, with her physical energy and momentum being conserved through twists and leaps as she bounds from one corner to the next, like a perfectly choreographed manga fight layout. It’s not easy to choreograph action across distinct shots to make sure the energy is preserved, but this sequence nails it.
The tension rises as Mayaka realizes her final dilemma, staring at a meager onion and set of crayfish heads. We see even Oreki is invested in this fight in spite of himself, trying to distract himself with reading as he taps his foot in impatience. And then, thanks to Chitanda’s ever-mighty awareness, Oreki is able to make the rescue, demonstrating far more energy consumption than usual as he shouts and waves to Satoshi. Mayaka’s immediate problem is solved, but the clock is still ticking down – shots from almost directly below ratchet up the tension of the situation, embracing a sense of over-the-top camp catharsis as the dish reaches its end. The contest is saved. The Classics Club wins. Hurray forever.
After that whirlwind tour of cooking and dashing and torching and cheering, the episode ends on one final slow moment, as Chitanda realizes her own group have been visited by the festival’s phantom thief. After hearing about this strange apparition at a distance, things have finally gotten personal; both Chitanda and Satoshi now understand this is a mystery worth solving. It seems unlikely that anything could be more exciting than Mayaka running down some stairs and cooking some crayfish on rice, but Hyouka is nothing if not ambitious. TUNE IN NEXT TIME!
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