The grand finale has arrived! We’re finally at the last episode of the school festival arc, the school festival arc to end all festival arcs, the arc pinpointing the anxieties of young identity and self-expectations by the studio best able to make those feelings real. The episode opens with the continuation of Chitanda’s climactic radio announcement, where she makes use of all the perhaps misguided advice Irisu has given her and all the confidence she’s gained over three days of propositioning people to ask the whole school for help in catching Juumoji, and also maybe selling a few anthologies.
In spite of Chitanda’s fairly strong performance (she even remembered the key lines!), nobody seems all that happy about this turn of events. Staring backwards at the speaker above, Oreki still seems concerned about falling behind the activities of his friends, an issue that never would have bothered him before. And sunken in total shadow, literally hesitating halfway up a set of stairs, Satoshi has never looked worse. Mayaka is clearly preoccupied with her own troubles, and even the Empress herself seems troubled by hearing Chitanda make such clear and motivated use of the advice she provided.
Chitanda is essentially monetizing both Irisu’s advice and a general love of mysteries here, the kind of cynical tactic that seems far more like something Oreki might do. One of Chitanda’s defining personal attributes has been her honesty – her curiosity is totally earnest, itself a reflection of a constant willingness to directly engage with the mysteries of the world. Even the times she’s withheld information, it’s been for the purpose of being kinder to her friends. Turning into a salesmen of mysteries, someone with the cynicism to see mysteries as a performance in the ways Oreki or Satoshi often do, feels almost like a betrayal of her identity.
For better or for worse, Chitanda’s interview works. As the moment approaches, we see the Classics Club stuffed with gawking students, essentially crowding the original members out of their own comfort zone. Anthologies sell fast, and soon the guests get restless, even wondering if the Classics Club invented the thief themselves just to get publicity – probably the cruelest possible interpretation of Chitanda’s slightly selfish act. But then the crowd is distracted by a phone, a light flashes, and the bait is destroyed. Juumoji strikes and disappears without a sound.
Well, technically he strikes with several sounds. Though this scene works very hard to frame us in the perspective of its characters, Juumoji does not succeed through unfair tricks – in fact, basically every piece of this setup is actually telegraphed through the animation, from the phone call (top right) that draws everyone’s attention away to the move to detonate (rising hand) the manuscript. Even the culprit’s lack of reaction when everyone else is staring at the manuscript gives him away. In retrospect, the culprit is clear – in fact, it’s even someone we’ve been previously introduced to, and seen in just a brief enough context to not have them catch our eye. But this room is so busy, and the general animation and shot focus works so hard to keep your attention on the same places Satoshi is focusing, that it’s nearly impossible to spot the first time.
The Classics room heist is set up in the way most people want to believe mysteries work, where the story doesn’t actually cheat at all, but simply misdirects you. By crowding the club room, ensuring the consistent overall animation keeps you from getting suspicious of the actions of the target, and continuously shifting focus onto the distractions the other characters are also focusing on, Hyouka pulls off a genuine magic trick in open view. It’s a trick that would be virtually impossible in most shows, or even most arcs of Hyouka, but the specific circumstances of the school festival arc allow for actual visual magic to happen.
And so, as Satoshi sends one last look at Oreki, the Classics Club is “defeated.” In the aftermath of their mystery defeat and commercial success, we see Chitanda looking uncharacteristically disappointed, complete with a classic long shot to create a sense of loneliness. The festival decorations begin to get taken down, and a feeling of melancholy rises that’s somewhat characteristic of how KyoAni approach their best shows. Like in K-On! and Sound! Euphonium, the focus isn’t always on the moments of peak nostalgia or excitement; these shows depict the full range of experiences associated with events like school festivals, including the buildup and comedown that actually make them feel fleeting and real.
As students pack away their decorations, Chitanda makes a heartfelt thanks to Irisu for her help, one of the first genuine moments she’s experienced in several episodes. And Irisu says what’s been on her mind since the radio announcement – that Chitanda should stop using her techniques, and that “when you ask for help using expectations, you sound utterly dependent.” She softens this critique immediately after, but continues with “sometimes pretending can turn into your actual reality,” a line that reflects on both Chitanda’s performance this arc and the performances Satoshi and Oreki have been sticking to their whole lives. But Chitanda is not like those two; as Irisu puts it, “your weakness is that you only know how to get straight to the point, but that is also a peerless weapon for you.” Chitanda’s honesty, her earnest engagement with the reality of things, is her power. This festival has pushed her beyond herself, but even when it comes to expressing her feelings about herself, Chitanda naturally leans towards honesty. She agrees with Irisu, and steps away from this false self.
This embrace of self is sharply contrasted in the next scene, as Satoshi waves off his would-be rival for the last time. Chitanda has confidence in herself, and honestly engages with the things she cares about – a person like that has no need for “expectations,” as Satoshi bitterly explains. Baring his heart to Mayaka for the first time, Satoshi states that “expectations are for people who’ve given up” – for those who’ve decided they themselves can’t be who they want to be, and so instead hang their hopes on others. And as his thoughts trail off, we cut back to Satoshi once more lurking in shadows, as he witnesses Oreki corner the real Juumoji.
The camera works hard to impress the theatrical nature of this confrontation, and even the location seems very specifically chosen to enhance the feeling of a final interrogation. The bars and spokes of the bike shed serve a multitude of purposes, from creating a sense of entrapment, to hiding characters’ emotions or presenting the sensation of a “mystery man,” to simply creating dramatic framing devices for crucial lines. We get shots that cut off all but Tanabe’s feet, letting Oreki’s words paint his identity, and shots framed to establish both Oreki and Tanabe as defensive or evasive, attempting to poke holes in each other’s arguments. Characters square off through shots framing them like spies meeting on a runway, with Satoshi’s lingering figure only completing the picture. And the actual substance of this conversation is perhaps Oreki’s most impressive moment yet, a series of deductions that essentially accomplish the impossible.
Well before Juumoji made his final performance at the Classics clubroom, Oreki had already figured out his entire game. As Satoshi watches in shadowed frustration, Oreki demonstrates he was perfectly capable of doing what Satoshi thought was impossible, solving a mystery he thought well outside of Oreki’s talents. Satoshi thought the scale of this mystery meant only catching Juumoji in the act would work – but Oreki attacked the mystery from his own angle anyway, successfully reducing thousands of suspects to twenty, and then a handful, and then one. His seemingly irrelevant focus on A Corpse by Evening slots everything neatly into place, and by the end, Tanabe is outright clapping at Oreki’s talents, and agreeing to let Oreki himself in on the magic trick. Asking for his jailer’s name, we get a horribly cruel match cut of Oreki straightening up and declaring his identity, before the shot switches to Satoshi leaning downwards, a man with no identity at all.
And so we return to Satoshi at Mayaka’s side, reflecting wistfully and with more than a hint of bitterness on his failures. Satoshi can’t see his own value, and this doesn’t just hurt him – it also impacts his relationship with Mayaka, in a way that comes off as deeply insensitive. As Mayaka asks if he was thinking about his relationship with Oreki, Satoshi responds with a lightly condescending “how did you know?” Satoshi is too stuck in his own head to see how his actions impact those around him; when Mayaka actively downplays her own understanding of his feeling, he takes her words at face value, instead of using his usual emotional acuity to see how considerate she’s being. Satoshi doubles down on his uncharitable feelings by saying that it’d “be hard for you to understand” his feelings of inferiority. This in truth is only meant to reflect how much Satoshi respects the strength he sees in Mayaka, but for Mayaka, who’s been stuck feeling inferior all throughout the series, it’s a harshly insensitive thing to say. Mayaka wants to help Satoshi and be there for him emotionally, but Satoshi is too much of a self-focused child to make that easy for her.
And yet, even after all that, this episode still isn’t done being cruel to Mayaka. With the festival over, she runs into her own “rival” Kouchi on the bridge, and tries to hand her A Corpse by Evening. Kouchi admits she knew the author of the manga, and Mayaka tries to be respectful of her feelings, but can’t help being her passionate self. “According to that point of view, everything would be completely pointless!” she says. Even if you can’t succeed, just assuming everything is in the eye of the beholder robs all your actions of value. Even if denying talent or accepting your own inferiority is easier, it’s not right. “There are works out there with that kind of power!” she shouts, demanding the truth of her own worldview, and the value of her own efforts. And Kouchi responds with a bitter, unexpected “only to those who understand the difference.”
As the camera moves to those classic Hyouka shots of hiding the eyes to obscure a clear emotion, Kouchi offers a new explanation of her clubroom statements. “I’m joking. I wouldn’t seriously say something like that. I guess you didn’t get it.” It’s the classic endpoint of these arguments – “I was just trolling.” But trolling doesn’t actually remove your stake in an argument – it’s simply a way of hiding. Hiding from your emotions, from the truth of who you are and what you believe, from the idea of sincerity altogether. Sincerity is frightening, and so people instead hide away from it, acting like Satoshi or Oreki or Kouchi. Sincerity will burn you again and again. But as Mayaka and Chitanda already know, and Oreki is beginning to realize, in spite of its difficulty, sincerity is the only way forward.
Robbed of anything but sincerity, Kouchi reveals the whole truth. That she sees herself as someone left behind by talent, who lashes out at the very idea of excellence and masterpieces because she doesn’t want to admit her own failures. “If you had a friend who didn’t read manga, and she decided to write one, and then she comes up with that…” she says, perfectly echoing Irisu’s old speech on the pain of those who sit on the sidelines. How are the people who sincerely try their hardest supposed to feel, when someone takes a casual swing at their pride and joy and somehow outdoes everything they’ve accomplished? What joy can they possibly take in their efforts, when they’re so easily outdone by the unfair whims of talent? Kouchi has no desire to be a follower, someone who accepts Satoshi’s idea of “expectations” and simply waits eagerly for the next masterpiece by the truly talented. And so she hides the masterpiece away, and puts it in a box in the closet with her own feelings.
And as Kouchi walks away, Mayaka sees the even more horrible truth – that Kouchi herself was responsible for creating Body Talk, a manga that itself was far better than anything Mayaka could create. Even the girl who lost faith in her own manga ability because of the distance between her and the talented is, to Mayaka, an unreachable mountain. And Mayaka cries at this revelation, though in truth, it’s actually something of a comfort. We all have someone we look up to, some mountain that seems unreachable from where we stand. But just as Kouchi looks up to her old rival and Mayaka is intimidated by Kouchi, so too do people like Satoshi and Oreki see something great in Mayaka herself. We may never be the perfect talents we want to be, but we can still find friends who believe in the people we are. Talent may be ephemeral and cruel, but sincerity offers far more than the illusion of reaching the summit. Mayaka cries because of the distance she has to go, but that pain is a good pain; it’s only through that suffering that we grow, through failing in the light instead of letting yourself be someone else’s shadow.
In the end, even the Juumoji incident itself was an expression of the expectations we put on those who inspire us. Tanabe wanted to convince his classmate to return to drawing manga, seeing it as a criminal waste for him to give it up – but just like most of Hyouka’s characters, he was unable to express his feelings directly, and so his message never got through. But the episode ends on a necessary note of warmth, as the club celebrates selling out their anthologies, and Satoshi lets out a little necessary frustration at Oreki’s expense. After an exhausting school festival that pushed every member of the Classics Club in their own ways, it’s a relief to have this home to return to, this place where they can be funny and silly and tired and themselves. We can’t be chasing that mountain all the time.
Hyouka’s festival arc is a tour de force of character writing and visual storytelling and genre-hopping and thematic acuity and pretty much everything that can make a show great. It’s an anime A Corpse by Evening, something that would almost feel frustratingly good if it didn’t end on such a resoundingly positive message. Anyone who aspires to create likely has their own A Corpse by Evening, the work that simultaneously demonstrates how great art can be and how small it can make us feel. But I doubt Kouchi’s friend would be happy to hear her work left Kouchi in despair; these works are meant to inspire, and as this arc emphatically states, no matter our own doubts, we have the power to inspire others in turn.
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