As the heated feelings of the festival have cooled, Hyouka’s last pair of episodes have focused on Oreki and Chitanda almost at the expense of that arc’s starring pair. That hasn’t really been a problem; in fact, it’s more appropriate for the fall and winter season to prioritize those two, given theirs are the feelings that are actually moving close to real, honest expression. But a great deal of time has now passed in this world, and as Valentine’s Day and the end of their first high school year approach, it’s clearly time to revisit Mayaka and Satoshi’s tempestuous relationship. Mayaka has been very patient, but she can’t sit around waiting for Satoshi to grow up forever.
The stage for the coming conflict is set through a dramatic opening scene, as Mayaka’s feet stand dominating the screen, posed as if to prevent any escape. As Satoshi runs through a parade of simpering, apologetic expressions, Mayaka’s presence storms the screen itself, raising her up as the angry giant of personality that she is. And when Satoshi offers a pathetic excuse for not accepting her valentine chocolate, Mayaka tears it to pieces in a vivid sequence portraying physical energy through wild frames and dramatic smears. Given even just this small scene, it’s no surprise that this episode marks the directorial return of Hiroko Utsumi, likely Kyoto Animation’s most visually dramatic director. Utsumi brought this same style of visual energy to Hyouka’s fifteenth episode, the one focused on Satoshi’s visit to the magic show – it was appropriate for that portion of the story, but it’s equally fitting here. Not only is Mayaka the most emotionally dramatic member of the Hyouka group, but her relationship with Satoshi is essentially bound to explode.
That dramatic framing comes through loud and clear in the next scene, as Mayaka’s heavy slump is undercut by a classic scene-setting shot of the clubroom. There’s a wacky shift to a fantasy of Mayaka punishing Satoshi for his emotional negligence (once again mirroring an early choice from episode fifteen), and even a clever visual punchline in the way a shot framed to emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Mayaka and Chitanda’s conversation is again undercut by a shot emphasizing how Oreki is right friggin’ there. Even Mayaka’s base emotions are expressed in loud, almost cartoonish expression shifts. Mayaka’s feelings are real, but this episode isn’t going to pull any visual punches.
That style of heightened drama is clear again in the next scene, through the framing of the way Oreki notices Satoshi’s bike – heavy shadows, low angles, key objects invading the frame, etc. The level of heightened drama is, again, very appropriate for this point in the story. This is an episode focused on the ugliest secret of the classics club – Satoshi’s self-hatred, and the way that hatred ends up expressing itself as a callousness towards the people who care about him. While Oreki has taken significant emotional strides throughout this series, Satoshi has been treading water; and with two episodes left, it’s clearly unlikely he’ll be receiving the personal closure his character really needs. Most adolescent dramas are about the process of growing into a more mature self, but one of the things that makes Satoshi so compelling as a character is that this is not his story, and thus he will never get to grow up.
The melancholy stasis of Satoshi’s world is represented in both visual and narrative terms in the following scene. As Oreki mutters “I’m in no hurry to get home” and “I haven’t been here since middle school,” we’re introduced to an arcade shot almost exclusively through off-putting fisheye frames, and drenched in artificial neon. This place is a symbol of the adolescence Satoshi has not grown past, a dreamspace fit to reflect his arrested development. “Was Satoshi this kind of player?” Oreki wonders, before remembering that no, it wasn’t always this way. In middle school, Satoshi actually cared deeply about winning, so much so that he’d embrace any cheap strategy to eke out a victory. Satoshi used to be far more like Mayaka – exultant in victory and graceless in defeat, but committed, actually caring about the challenges he faced. But actual life skills and meaningful talents aren’t like idly played videogames, trifles to be won through a little harsh strategizing. And now Satoshi avoids trying, so he can never truly lose.
This lack of engagement is contrasted sharply in the next scene, as we see Mayaka stressing out as she applies her absolute commitment in all things even to the process of choosing a ribbon for her chocolate. A nice expression shift from Chitanda demonstrates how much she respects Mayaka’s personal commitment, but then Chitanda finds herself flustered as Mayaka asks her if there’s anyone she likes. And of course, to complete the scene-transition trio, Chitanda’s romantic thoughts are immediately undercut by a jump to her object of affection scratching himself and yawning. Oreki is a true romantic.
Speaking of romance, holy crap these two. You’d think two straight episodes of shameless flirting would somewhat inoculate me to their chemistry, but nope, they are too adorable. As Oreki and Chitanda walk to school on Valentine’s Day itself, the two banter about Mayaka’s chocolate, with Oreki’s light jab at Chitanda herself being taken perfectly in stride. The two are in that state where basically every line they share brings them closer together, and only the acknowledgment of that reality occasionally pushes them apart. Chitanda reflects warmly on Mayaka’s chocolate, saying that her efforts “must be what it means to put your heart into it.” Chitanda clearly respects that kind of honest engagement, but Oreki’s focus is elsewhere – her words set him thinking not about chocolates, but about possibly moving closer to Chitanda herself.
But as always, Chitanda is the one to draw them closer together. Stopping Oreki for a moment, she mumbles that “in my family, we don’t give presents to people we’re truly close to. That’s why, even on Valentine’s Day…” A confession this direct still just barely manages to get through Oreki’s thick skull – but it does manage it in the end. There’s an intimate beat there, and then the spell is broken as the framing reminds both the audience and characters that they’re not alone. Their final shot together reflects the opening of the scene, demonstrating the slight distance they now feel the need to put between themselves. THESE KIDS.
The actual leadup to Satoshi receiving Mayaka’s chocolate is framed more like a murder mystery than a love confession. Shots consistently emphasize the forbidding atmosphere outside, as if reflecting how Satoshi only feels trapped in this situation. The chocolate is placed like some key piece of contraband, and the last conversation between Oreki and Satoshi feels loaded with secondary intention. Shifting expressions demonstrate how each of them seems to be second-guessing the other’s emotions, and both of their choices regarding the clubroom seem needlessly convoluted. Oreki’s final “good luck” reflects how he sees this moment as a key step for Satoshi; Satoshi’s corresponding “with what?” demonstrates his confidence he can still avoid it.
And avoid it he does, at least for the moment. As Chitanda rushes to Oreki and announces a new emergency, Satoshi lingers behind, unable to meet Oreki’s eye. Apparently Mayaka’s chocolate has been stolen; and after briefly contemplating escape, Oreki agrees to help “solve the mystery.” It’s not really a mystery at all, of course – it’s a mystery to Chitanda, who always hopes for and brings out the best in people, but to Oreki, it’s likely an obvious dilemma from the start. It’s an artificial charade, a task that’s all too fitting for the character who’s spent the whole show hiding and playing the clown.
The episode’s second half begins with a farce of an investigation, as a mystery with only one solution is set up like an actual crime thriller. The slow march to the crime scene, the cordon like a makeshift police tape, the description of the crime… it all evokes the feeling of this being a true, final mystery, “the mystery of the stolen heart.” Even Oreki’s trenchcoat makes him look more like a detective than usual, a fitting complement to his interrogations as he interviews suspects and surveys the clubroom. But this isn’t a mystery Oreki can truly “solve” – his talent and responsibility have little relevance here, with Satoshi looking guilty and unhappy from the first moment. Satoshi jabs Oreki for his investment, but at this point, him actually committing to a mystery isn’t unusual at all; given the last two episodes with Chitanda, he’s now used to willingly engaging with small problems, and is more concerned with the meta-question of “how can I resolve this in a way that doesn’t ruin everything?” Oreki is coming to terms with who he is, and learning the more difficult part of being is the question Irisu raised so long ago, of what we must do to honor the talents we’re given.
As the investigation continues, Satoshi’s personal selfishness draws in more and more casualties. While Oreki is working hard to arrive at a solution that will prevent the most pain and avoid permanent damage to his social group, Satoshi’s actions radiate damage. Their investigations end up making an astronomy club member angry, which is to be expected – they’re essentially accusing either her or one of her friends of stealing the chocolate. And of course, the most serious victims are Chitanda and Mayaka herself. In one awful scene, Oreki gets Chitanda to leave the room, and then essentially accuses Satoshi. His “be quiet for a bit” is met with a shot of Satoshi wearing an empty smile, stuck in the corner of the frame and muttering a small “okay.” Oreki will clean up Satoshi’s mess, but he’s not happy about it.
Mayaka’s inevitable arrival is just as depressing. Intimate shots demonstrate the girls’ vulnerability as Mayaka asks the question, and then Chitanda’s apology is framed through a sad, dramatic shot hiding both of their faces. Upon seeing Mayaka put on a brave face, Oreki once again realizes the meaning of this situation, and his own investment in it. And Chitanda, who was so happy to see Mayaka earnestly invested in this expression of her feelings, blames herself. “I can’t face her tomorrow if I don’t find it. This was supposed to be a happy day for her.” Chitanda, the most earnest and bright member of their group, feels like she’s actively stolen Mayaka’s hard-fought happiness. Oreki can’t necessarily fix this situation, but the Oreki of this episode is not the Oreki of the beginning of the series. He wants to be there for her, and so he grabs her arm, and asks her to leave it to him.
“I don’t feel things as strongly as you,” he admits. “But leave this to me. I have something in mind, but I can’t do it with you around.” Though Oreki’s actual explanation of the theft is a lie, all of this is true. He is different from Chitanda, and sometimes that makes it hard for him to be himself, but he wants to be there for her. Just like he couldn’t say last episode, he wants to be someone she can rely on. By framing a false villain, Oreki hopes to solve two mysteries at once – “who stole the chocolate” and, more importantly, “how do I resolve this without ruining all the friendships I care about.” This is Oreki acknowledging the responsibility of his power – using it not just to solve random mysteries, but to protect the people who are important to him. This is also Oreki acknowledging both his passion and the limits of that passion – as much as Chitanda draws him towards the light, he will never be like her, and he knows that. And Chitanda replies with the words she’s been saying in every possible way – “I’ll trust you on this.”
Snow falls gently as Satoshi and Oreki leave the school. Between their artificial waiting in the clubroom and the slow march here, it feels like a walk to the gallows, with Satoshi glumly accepting his fate. Oreki stops him on the bridge, and describes what Satoshi truly did, ending with an awful match cut of the chocolate breaking. “Did you hesitate at all before you decided to break it?” he asks, truly disgusted with his friend. And Satoshi can only play the joker as Oreki threatens him, responding to the threat of being hit with “I don’t think I’d like that.”
Then Satoshi spills it all. “I won’t ever be the best at anything,” he says, dwarfed by snowflakes falling like bright stars. “Or rather, I’ve stopped trying to be.” Reflecting back on his middle school self, he reflects that “winning was boring. So I got tired of it. I became obsessed with not being obsessed with anything. Since then, every day’s been a happy day! But there was one problem – Mayaka.” These words ring completely hollow to our understanding of Satoshi – like Oreki’s first theory on the culprit, they are a smokescreen hiding the real cause. The festival arc made it clear that Satoshi isn’t “bored” with the idea of winning – in fact, every loss for Satoshi is still a bitter sting.
Satoshi wants to be a person who can truly engage with the world, but his fear is much stronger than his hope, and so this is how he rationalizes his refusal to engage. He says that winning is “boring,” and tells himself he’s not actually in engaged in anything – but all this really means is that he’s still committed to the adolescent mindset of either being a winner or a loser. Satoshi can’t see value just in the attempt – like Kouchi from the manga club, he doesn’t even want to try if he knows someone will be better than him. And he can only marvel at someone like Mayaka, who tries and fails and tries again. He can’t frame her in a truthful light, in the way she sees herself, and so he sees her as a “winner” as well.
He wants to date Mayaka, he admits, but he wonders “can I really let myself become obsessed over her?” It’s the same line that Kouchi used – given the fact that he can’t shine like that, he has no desire to simply become some other light’s follower. It’s the same bitterness he applies to his relationship with Oreki – if you can’t win, all you can have are expectations of those who are better than you. All you can be is one more fly in the swarm.
Satoshi acknowledges his own selfishness, as if acknowledging his cruelty is an excuse for committing it – the precise opposite of Oreki accepting his “responsibility of talent.” And he acknowledges that he’s afraid even of himself, and of the idea of returning to a world where he has to commit and fail and try again. When Oreki points out that his way of “solving” this situation hurt Chitanda as well, Satoshi responds with a bitter “I guess my plans don’t go as smoothly as yours.” And when Oreki asks him if he finally has his answer, all he can say is “I think I’ll have one soon.”
Oreki doesn’t understand Satoshi, but he can’t say that. He chastises him for his callous methods (a possibly familiar refrain), but in the end, he simply thinks to himself that he couldn’t tell Satoshi that his feelings didn’t make sense to him. But that itself is a sign of Oreki’s growing emotional intelligence – that he’s learning what to say, and what not to say. In contrast, Mayaka and Chitanda are already far past the insecure boys; Mayaka admits that she knew the truth from the start, because why wouldn’t she? As she’s repeatedly demonstrated, she understands Satoshi’s psychology perfectly well – he’s not a failure or a demon, he’s just an insecure boy she really likes, and who she’s getting pretty impatient about having figure out his own nonsense. And so she and Chitanda do the sensible thing, and head off to stuff themselves with cake. Satoshi is trapped in a cage of his own making, and as I said at the start, this story is a tragedy for him because it is not his story. But in the episode’s last moments, as the snow falls and city sleeps in the distance, Satoshi finds himself beneath a small light in the darkness. He lifts his phone and hesitates, then presses the button. He makes the call.
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