Disclaimer: This post contains HYOUKA SPOILERS.
After the first time watching Hyouka, I was satisfied with it being a nice-looking, enjoyable slice of life with some mystery here and there. I’m not well-versed in mystery, so it was pretty fun to just make up theories and see how everything played out. But then, around half a year after I’d seen it for the first time, I stumbled upon this blog post by Froggy-kun. The content of the article wasn’t a revelation in itself, but it did make me interested in rewatching the show and seeing if I could understand all the different points of view. And I mostly did, but I also found that I really liked how the mysteries were executed. I already loved the show for the technical quality and the slice of life, but here it was, a completely different side of the show that I hadn’t really paid attention to the first time. Sure, I was invested in the “what?”, but the second time around, I started paying attention to the “how?” and the “why?” as well.
Preface: It’s been over a year since I rewatched Hyouka, so rewriting this essay was not possible. I simply can’t remember all the small details that made me feel the way I did.
Let me begin by saying that I just(note: Feb 15 2014) finished Episode 15 of my rewatch of the series. It’s been maybe 9 months since I finished watching it for the first time, so if I misremember some of the details after Episode 15, don’t hesitate to correct me.
I think Hyouka is a very good mixture of mystery and slice-of-life. The mysteries are a bit flawed most of the time as they’re either genuinely simple or they have twists and coincidences that make them virtually unsolvable without guessing. The first locked room mystery in Episode 1 is an example of the former, while the Festival arc is an example of the latter. And I’m guessing this is where most of the criticism towards the show comes from. The mysteries seem either lazy or half-assed, especially when rewatching. However, during my ongoing rewatch, this hasn’t really frustrated me that much, because there’s slice-of-life stuff to enjoy too. And it is in this slice-of-life stuff that the main theme of the show, romance, enters the picture. The relationships between the characters is an overarching story that is definitely present during the mysteries, but it is during the scenes when someone is not actively trying to solve a mystery that it is dominant. That said, the slice-of-life stuff has it’s drawbacks, as it does tend to make the show somewhat(read:very) boring at times.
Now, I’m guessing everyone has at least one favourite mystery in Hyouka, so this writeup wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about mine. My favourite mystery is the Unfinished Film(as it will henceforth be called). When I first saw it, I didn’t love it. The twist near the end was interesting, but other than that, I couldn’t really find anything exceptional about it. The Festival mystery was much more interesting, because it had a lot of action and twists. But now, during my rewatch, I’ve come to realise that the Unfinished Film is a much more exciting mystery when it comes to looking for clues(on my part, that is) and inventing theories, and this realisation happened when I watched it knowing what was going to happen.
The reason was that I noticed a ton of clues near the very beginning of the arc that point at the true solution of the mystery(examples can be found at the bottom of this post). And not only that, but I noticed that the show uses different methods for conveying different messages. Clues to the mysteries are usually provided through dialogue(which is understandable, because images are too easy to identify as clues), while facial expressions and images are used to tell the viewer what the characters are thinking about(which can be seen as early as Episode 3, though that has nothing to do with this arc in particular). And it is by doing both of these things that the Unfinished Film mystery showed to me just how carefully this show is made. The mysteries themselves may not be written by top-tier mystery writers, but they are executed very, very well. The Unfinished Film arc feels like everything about it is deliberate. The clues start at the very beginning of the first episode of the arc, and the revelations don’t stop until the very end of the last episode of the arc. In addition to being a very well-executed arc(though we never learn the whole story), the fact that there’s so much subtlety gives the Unfinished Film arc a great amount of rewatch value.
So, what about the romance then? It’s the main theme, but it rarely enters the foreground(except during the penultimate episode). Everyone talks about the relationship between Satoshi and Mayaka, but I think that relationship isn’t very interesting. It’s just there. We don’t actually see Satoshi and Mayaka talking to each other about each other that often. However, what we do get is Satoshi talking to Oreki, Mayaka talking to Oreki and Mayaka talking to Chitanda. Satoshi’s relationship with Oreki is not romantic, but it is important to Satoshi’s self-esteem, which makes it important to his relationship with Mayaka. At the same time, Mayaka hints that she’s jealous of Chitanda’s and Oreki’s relationship, which makes this connection important to her relationship with Satoshi. In essence, Satoshi’s and Mayaka’s relationship is defined indirectly throughout the series, up until the penultimate episode. And that makes it kind of interesting, even though I don’t find it interesting as just a relationship between two people.
The other romantic relationship, i.e the one between Chitanda and Oreki, is much more direct and isolated from outside influence, but it’s also not a relationship that can be taken for granted. When does it become obvious that Oreki has fallen for Chitanda? Does she have special eyes that put a magic spell on whoever looks into them, or is Oreki just infatuated with her from the start? This is never made explicitly clear, and I like that. Romance as a theme doesn’t always have to revolve around the idea of what it really is like to be in love, it can just as well be about the doubt that comes with not knowing whether you’re in love with someone or not. And we really don’t know what Oreki thinks about all of it, at least not until the last few episodes. All he talks about is the difference between a “gray” and a “rose-colored” life, but it’s very obvious that towards the end of the series, this becomes nothing but a metaphor for his feelings.
This is where I would usually say that the romance carries the show into the realm of excellence, but no, that is not the case. During my rewatch of the series, I’ve realised just how much I dislike Chitanda as a character sometimes. She’s great as a plot element and as a source of dilemmas for Oreki, but as a character I don’t think she brings much to the show. She rarely says anything of relevance, and when she does, it’s usually something that gives Oreki an epiphany which leads him to solve the mystery at hand(which, I’m guessing, is one of the other reasons that the mysteries of Hyouka are widely criticised). She’s a moeblob, she serves as comic relief, she’s one of the tells that it was in fact KyoAni who made this show. Her struggles never seem relevant. And this is why I think Hyouka isn’t a perfect romance show. However, in the last episode, Chitanda redeems herself. Her speech at the very end doesn’t seem relevant in any way, yet it feels important, because it’s an important revelation to Oreki. And that’s the reason for Chitanda’s existence in terms of the characters of the show. With some modifications to Oreki’s personality, there would be no need for her to exist, and yet she does exist. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with love, but she’s a very important part of Oreki’s life. She’s pointess to the story, but she’s invaluable to the main character as a person. She’s like Sam in Lord of the Rings.
On a more metaphorical level, I guess you could say that Chitanda represents the viewer. She never really interacts with the story, but she’s constantly curious about what’s going to happen next. She’s the personification of the episodicity of the series. It’s like she’s telling the viewer “Hey, drop that cynical mask of yours and come explore this world with me”. At the very least, that seems like the intended reaction, but you could just as well make the argument that Oreki is the metaphorical viewer and that his cynicism is self-critique on the part of the author. Or maybe it’s both. Maybe the author intended to make it clear that some people would like the story and characters and that some people would hate it all. In the end, though, I think it’s up to the viewer to decide how they view this series, both when it comes to the story and characters and when it comes to the enjoyment or non-enjoyment. I think everyone should ask themselves “Am I a Chitanda or am I an Oreki?” before deciding whether they think the show is good or not.
Appendix: Clues to the Unfinished Film mystery
Concerning Irisu. Two inconsistencies: In the first episode of the arc, she mentions that she doesn’t particularly care for mystery, yet she knows about the “laws” of mystery writing. She also mentions that Hongou has studied mystery extensively, but later on we find out that Hongou has only studied a little bit of Sherlock Holmes. Is the first inconsistency explained by her just reading up on the subject for the sake of the project and is the second inconsistency an honest mistake? Or are these two inconsistencies slip-ups that reveal that her story is a well-crafted lie? In addition, we learn that Hongou is allegedly hospitalised and that Irisu’s family owns a large hospital. This is not suspicious in itself, but it does imply a connection between Hongou and Irisu.
Concerning Eba. Every time we see Eba, she’s wearing a perfect poker face(which in itself is suspicious). The only exception is when she mentions that Hongou is her best friend. Her back is turned, so her face cannot be seen, but from the movement of her hair(by the way, nice work, KyoAni), it’s clearly implied that she’s smiling. Smiling while talking about your best friend is not suspicious, but keeping your back turned while smiling is. It implies a smile not of happiness but of pride. Based on this, I think it’s fair to assume that Eba knows about Irisu’s plan to cover for Hongou. However, I’m also fairly sure that Eba doesn’t know about Irisu’s true motive. This is hinted at through the little message that appears at the end of each episode of the arc, “Why didn’t she ask Eba?”. Yes, why didn’t Irisu just ask Eba to handle the whole situation? Eba can obviously keep a poker face, and she did do most of the work when it came to the Classics Club interviewing the amateur detectives. So why did Irisu go through the trouble of handling it all on her own? The answer is that Irisu was never in charge of the project. This honor goes to the mystery participant. On another note, “Why didn’t she ask Eba?” can also be used as an early clue to figure out the real story in the sense that asking the question casts some doubt on the story of Hongou’s condition.
Concerning the mystery participant. The mystery participant is not actually relevant to this arc in particular, but this participant does show up in all of the major arcs(Hyouka, the Unfinished Film and the Festival), and it was during this arc that I understood who this mystery participant is. In short, the mystery participant is the person who suggested that Irisu employ the help of the Classics Club and the person who told Irisu about Hyouka(another point of interest during the first episode of the arc). The mystery participant is the real overarching story in Hyouka. The identity is not difficult to figure out, but the motive behind the aforementioned involvements is a very interesting mystery.