Watch the first few episodes of Hyouka, and you might decide it’s not worth watching: the protagonist is obnoxious, the heroine is annoying, and the story is inane. Don’t make the same mistake I did three years ago. Hyouka is a gem.
Hyouka doesn’t make the greatest of first impressions. Oreki Houtarou, the series’ too-cool-for-school protagonist, is set on belligerently protecting his right to do as little as possible in pursuit of a tepid, gray existence as a first-year student at a generic, rural high school. His motto is as trite as it is obnoxious: ‘If I have to do it, make it quick. If I don’t have to do it, I won’t.’
His plan to live out his high school years doing as little as possible is quickly dashed, however, when he is coerced into joining the Classics Club by his sister. There, he meets Chitanda Eru, the insatiably curious heroine of Hyouka. Chitanda, with her boundless energy and complete disregard for Oreki’s personal space, drags Oreki― and his Poirot-esque powers of deduction― into answering an endless stream of her mundane questions: If the door to this room is locked, how did I get in? Why did our math teacher mis-read his lecture notes? Why would a group of girls borrow the same book from the library and return it the same day? Why? Why? I’m curious, Oreki-san! Why?
It’s all a little too much to handle. Chitanda’s questions are so inane, so pointless to everyone other than her, that it’s easy to dismiss Hyouka. However, to do so would be to miss the point. Though Hyouka is labeled a ‘mystery’, it is not the author’s deductive riddles that grip and delight.
Instead, the show’s charm lies in its characters: Oreki; Chitanda, whom he finds frustrating and fascinating; Fukube Satoshi, his trusty sidekick and confidant; and Ibara Mayaka, Jun’s hot-headed, yet timid, love interest. Upon first glance, the characters of Hyouka are no more than stock stereotypes: the lazy cynic, the innocent love interest, the loud sidekick, the tsundere― but through their interactions with each other, they all grow into complete, compelling characters― particularly Oreki. At the beginning of Hyouka, he is dragged― literally― by Chitanda from incident to incident. Throughout each of the show’s arcs, with the encouragement of his friends, Oreki exhibits more and more initiative, transforming from an unwilling victim of circumstance to an active mastermind of events. The show centers around his journey of emotional growth, his transformation steady and deliberate. It is a thrill to witness.
Hyouka is technically excellent. The show’s vivid colors and beautiful character designs are easily recognizable by any viewer familiar with Kyoto Animation. Perhaps more surprising, and refreshing, is the dynamism and energy of Hyouka. Characters move in idiosyncratic ways― Mayaka tiptoes, Oreki slouches, Chitanda slithers and pounces, her face filling the entire frame as she charges headfirst, without reservation, straight into Oreki’s safe little bubble. Hyouka also employs kinetic typography to great effect, with letters and numbers bouncing and leaping about the frame, important characters in their own right.
Unfortunately, the show never manages to escape its own provincialism. The ‘mysteries’ in which the main characters involve themselves fail to elevate beyond the realm of everyday trifle and meaningless minutae. Hyouka refuses to admit as such, according upon them gravitas and urgency usually reserved for quadruple homicides or the theft of a Rembrandt. This treatment of the show’s subject matter grates― one of the small faults of Hyouka lies in Chitanda’s reaction to every little mishap and incident under the sun as a matter of cosmic consequence.
Yet, without Chitanda’s persistence, Oreki would have never stepped out of his comfort zone. Perhaps the show’s incidents are not important to us, the viewers. But they are intimate, personal, and deeply important to the show’s characters. Through them, Oreki builds character, develops relationships with those around him, and learns to be honest with himself― culminating in the show’s beautiful, bittersweet finale. Seven hours of Hyouka, capped by a tender two-minute conversation in which Oreki bares his soul to us, revealing the full extent of his growth. It is breathtaking. If only Hyouka could have been this masterful at the start.
Verdict: B+ (Guide to Ratings)