Friday, October 12, 2012

Hyouka is Hyoukay. . .is the title I wanted to use, but it was already taken

     Hyouka is a series by Kyoto Animation that finished airing a few weeks ago. Of course, everyone else, being competent anime bloggers, has already written three reviews, at least one retrospective, and an in-depth character study each. Thus, it is only natural that I'm writing a not-a-review now, after it's no longer relevant.

     When it first started airing, the main criticism leveled at Hyouka was that the mysteries didn't really have consequence to them, nor any particular reason or point to them. On the other hand, the (or at least one of the) aspects of the show its proponents lauded most was its characters. What surprises me about this is that no one seemed to see the correlation between these two statements.

Gratuitous background screen capture for lack of a more relevant image.

     Simply put, Hyouka is a story about its characters. "Now hold on Sato," you might be saying. "This is a new low even for you. Saying any random, obvious garbage so you can publish a post to make up for your horrible negligence? Of course the story is about its characters! You know, like, every story in existence?" And you're right - but only half right. A story always involves its characters, yes. But not everything is about its characters. Take the Indiana Jones series, for instance. Those movies aren't so much about Indy's character, the arcs or changes he goes through (or rather, doesn't), or any kind of epiphanies he has. They're more about the adventure, the spectacle. On the opposite (or rather, a different) side of the spectrum, we have series like Hyouka, which are character stories.

     Now, I suppose I should support that claim, but it seems kind of obvious to me. The only constants (i.e. always there) in the series are the characters. The types of mysteries and settings both change all the time, and there isn't really any overarching plot or narrative that holds the episodes together. But the series does have a story to tell, and there's clearly some kind of glue that holds the episodes together. After all, there is a sense of progression, and events happen in a chronological order (which is important, because references to earlier events are fairly common). Since the plot sure isn't doing it, then the only remaining possibility is that the characters do. Indeed, it's seeing how characters (particularly the protagonist Oreki Hotarou) react to and approach things that seems to be the main point of most episodes.

Also, seeing where the bottoms of their giant anime eyes disappear to.
     So now that we've established that, what do I mean when I say it's "about" it's characters? Well, first and foremost, Hyouka is about its main character changing as a person. At the beginning, he has a very lazy, jaded mindset, then he meets a girl and falls in love with her. Over the course of the series, that serves as the catalyst for the subtle but significant (but subtle!) changes Hotarou goes through. I won't get into the exact changes themselves because I'm lazy I don't want to spoil anything for you, but there's an apparent change in the way he approaches things that you'll notice, consciously or otherwise. The other (and, I feel, more interesting) aspect of the characters that Hyouka explores, however, is not how they change, but how they act. In a lot of ways, Hyouka is a character study of its main cast, and even of side characters. Your interest is not exclusively held by the mystery or even the character change, but also by seeing what individual characters do, how they act and react. Hotarou's character, for instance, is all about being lazy and putting as little work in as possible. Seeing how that applies as an entire world view and not just a way to solve mysteries basically becomes seeing how someone sees the world. The series as a whole does that a lot; its basically psychological analysis mixed with human interest stories, which are both universally entertaining, especially when put together.

     But the reason that Hyouka is good, or even Hyoukay, isn't that it has these elements. It's that it has these elements, and it executes them gracefully. This isn't a show that hits you over the head with what it's doing. It's almost impossible to get through the entire first episode without realizing that Hotarou has a crush on Chitanda, but it's very easy to overlook all the little hints that make it apparent. That kind of thing is present throughout the show. You'll have a distinct feeling about something at the end of each episode, but you may not be able to point out exactly why. Typically, whatever hints the show is dropping, your brain is picking up even if you yourself aren't. Because of all this subtlety, the show manages to feel very "real" and underplayed, which makes for a nice change of pace.


     Now, for all that, Hyouka isn't perfect. The biggest problem is that sometimes it gets a little too caught up in things other than the characters, namely the mysteries. I kinda like to view this series as a romantic mystery show, like a romcom but instead of comedy it has mystery. The reason I bring this up is that I think it explains the problem nicely; like a romcom that has too much comedy (or too much romance), Hyouka has too much mystery. Now, the series tends to rather cleverly use its mysteries as a catalyst for the character stories, but unfortunately there are times when the mysteries just get in the way.

     Still, the good outweighs the bad, and even when bogged down in seemingly-inane mystery solving, Hyouka manages to remain at least somewhat entertaining with it's strong visuals and clear presentation. My point is, though, that you shouldn't think mysteries are all Hyouka has to offer. Certainly, it fits the genre, but it shines far brighter as a character story than anything else, and it shouldn't be mistaken as having no purpose because of that.

Further Reading:

     Draggle's First Impression of the series from when it first aired covers some of the specifics of that subtlety I'm talking without spoiling too much.

     Snippettee wrote a fine piece (also a while back) that briefly touches on the realism of the show that I mentioned, but mostly focuses on the mysteries themselves.

4 comments:

  1. "Hyouka is a series by Kyoto Animation that finished airing a few weeks ago. Of course, everyone else, being competent anime bloggers, have already written three reviews, at least one retrospective, and an in-depth character study each."

    Am I one of them? xD

    Hyouka is indeed a show with a supreme character cast. All of them has a great depth worth exploring. Indeed likewise, I find how the characters act accordingly to their personalities is interesting. Houtarou for example, it can certainly be seen that he is "subtly" changing his mindset bit by bit just by solving the mysteries.

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    1. Accounting for my Hyperbole, yes you are!

      That was one of my favorite things about Hotarou's development; it wasn't all one big change, but something more gradual. Glad to know I'm not the only one who felt that way!

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  2. Personally, I loved the mysterious a lot and hail Hyouka as the best mystery anime out there (I've seen). They are clever, have foreshadowing and you can solve them yourself. Also, they're down to earth.

    But I do slightly agree that less mysteries would've been fun. The longer the series went on, the more I became attached to the characters. So much, in fact, I wouldn't mind almost skipping the mysteries entirely.

    To me, Hyouka itself is a mystery. At first it was okay, but nothing special. I liked the characters, but not that much. But wham, then I loved them. I wonder if it was because of the subtle character development. I really wonder.

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    1. Well, there you go! I'll admit, I also enjoyed the mysteries, though I think I always kind of viewed them as "filler" entertainment.

      I do agree that after a certain point, I would have been okay if it was just 100% character interactions, though by that point I think the show cemented its image as a mystery series, and people would have complained if they changed that.

      That's a great way of putting it! Truth be told, I felt the same way, maybe even a little less positive about it, but before I knew it, I was really enjoying it! Not really sure what it was either.

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