And here we are, at the very last episode of Hyouka. It’s a tremendous episode, but I almost don’t want to write about it – after several months of cataloging all of this show’s beautiful twists and turns, I really don’t want it to be over. Rewatching this show has reaffirmed my opinion of it as Kyoto Animation’s crown jewel, a masterpiece of a production that’s about as good as any show can be. It’s understated and graceful and grand, a full-bodied production that marries intimate character work to some of the most consistently great framing and animation in any television anime ever. It’s a show worth holding close, an achievement I can only hope they’ll one day match again.
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.
Hyouka’s twentieth episode opens with a small light growing through a crack in the wall. As the light expands, silent shots of gardening supplies creating a sense of peace in a small space, until the silence is broken by Oreki’s breath. Clearly some time has passed since the last episode, the truth of which is confirmed by Oreki’s first words. “Hey, Chitanda. Do you think the saying, ‘what you do on New Year’s, you repeat all year’ is true?” And Chitanda gives him a thoughtful but comfortable reply as the camera hones in on their new level of intimacy, simultaneously expressing their emotional proximity and the claustrophobia of their situation. But it’ll take them a while to reach that point of closeness. First, Oreki needs a reality check.
Hyouka’s eighteenth episode made explicit the distance Oreki and Chitanda have moved towards each other, and brought them even closer together over the course of a mystery investigation that might as well have also been a date. By the end of that episode, Oreki’s classic blushes at being caught by Chitanda’s stare were matched by Chitanda’s own feelings, as she found herself struck by new emotions she couldn’t really describe. Relationships have shifted slowly across the course of this series, but at this point, Oreki and Chitanda are so close together their noses are already touching.
The school festival has ended, with half of Hyouka’s characters left at their most tense and unhappy moments so far. Satoshi has attempted to match Oreki and failed, ultimately validating his own lack of confidence. And though Mayaka is trying to reach out to Satoshi, she’s also left with feelings of inadequacy – not only can she not help the boy she cares about, but her passion for manga has been rewarded with the knowledge that even those far better than her feel like failures in their own eyes. Given all these sad, climactic character shifts, you might expect Hyouka to now start ramping up towards some final, cathartic revelations.
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.
Episode sixteen opens with Satoshi prepping himself for his great mystery adventure. Having resolved last episode to finally come out ahead of Oreki for once, he arrives at the festival bright and early, only to see that the newspaper has already put out a call for any would-be detectives. Over at the current events club, where the next Juumaji theft is theoretically scheduled, the floor is lousy with self-confident schemers and bored sleuths. Satoshi is ready to shine in a way only he can; but then his annoying rival gets a call, and Satoshi learns he has once again been defeated. Shots are framed to avoid his face and emphasize his powerlessness, as his “that was pointless” echoes his feelings on the magic show fiasco. Satoshi may have finally decided he’s going to commit to something, but that doesn’t mean the world is willing to play along. Sometimes you just can’t win.
With the over-the-top cooking competition over, you might think Hyouka would tune its energy level down to something approaching the regular level. Well, Hyouka is going to have none of that – this fifteenth episode is just as self-consciously dramatic as anything else the show has done, exploding with dynamic poses and wild angles and unexpected fantasies. With the show focus expanding far beyond Oreki, the storytelling moves outside of his monotone affectation as well, expressing the worlds of Chitanda, Mayaka, and Satoshi in their own brilliant purples and oranges and greys. It’s an affectation fitting for this arc’s new focus – with the thief Juumoji now having declared his intentions and laid out his modus operandi, Hyouka is turning towards its first self-conscious, overtly fiendish, catch-me-if-you-can mystery caper. Magic acts and phantom thieves and heated negotiations form the narrative bulwarks of an episode packed with more drama than the show’s ever seen.
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.
The festival is in full swing now, and each member of the Classics Club have their own giants to slay. With Chitanda on site procurement, Satoshi on promotion, Oreki on sales, and Mayaka dealing with her own manga club troubles, episode thirteen bounces back and forth across characters, portraying the individual dramas of each member across the course of the festival’s entire first day. But that doesn’t mean I have to bounce around. The episode’s structure is intelligent; by shifting continuously between characters, it keeps tension high, builds meta-narratives across multiple individual conflicts, and even results in cute scene transitions like Satoshi’s thoughts about Oreki leading to Oreki being up to no good. But I’m going to disregard all of that effort and take this character by character, starting right where the episode does, at Satoshi’s much-anticipated quiz competition.