This is one of those moments that I have been looking forward to but also in some trepidation, because Hyouka is an important anime television series to me. It was the first of its kind that I ever watched. I had previously been a fan of Studio Ghibli films for many years, and had also explored a few similar but non-Ghibli films, some of which I have written about over the last couple of months, but until last year I never watched any anime television series. There is actually a significant difference, although I have to generalise here, but anime films and television can often seem like two entirely different genres. Film is dominated by Ghibli and Ghibli-esque works, which are reasonably palatable to a Western audience without a massive culture shock, but anime television is peopled by huge-eyed cute girls. Up until last year I had always shied away from it, thinking that the art style wasn’t for me, but I was entirely wrong. Within a couple of episodes of a good anime television series you get used to the big eyes. If you let that stop you, then you are missing out on a world of incredible storytelling.
What drew me to Hyouka, of all things, is the same as what drew me to Ghibli films in the first place: the art and the story. Not all anime is drawn with such attention to detail and beauty, and Hyouka has the added bonus of being stylistically inventive and very clever with the artwork, during flashback sequences in particular. As for the subject matter, if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, or any detective stories, you will probably enjoy this. The mysteries are not life-and-death, but instead the premise is to take Holmesian deduction and transplant that to smaller scale mysteries in a school setting. It’s a much better idea than it sounds, and bubbling away throughout the series are a couple of will-they-won’t-they gentle romances. In fact, “gentle” sums up Hyouka very well. It’s a beautiful, feel-good, happy series, that engages the brain. If some of the excesses of fanservice anime put you off watching, you will find little to trouble you here beyond the slightly icky ending credits of the first half of the series.
Hyouka was based on a novel series, which is ongoing but published frustratingly sporadically, and was one series of 22 episodes, first aired in 2012. The studio that made it is Kyoto Animation, which has impressed me with their work more than any other studio that makes anime television series. We’ll be looking at some more of their work over the coming months.
The main focus of the series is on a teenage boy named Hotaro Oreki. He is an early example of a kind of character that has become incredibly popular in anime: quiet, slightly grumpy teenage boys. Oreki lives by a self-imposed rule: if he doesn’t have to do something, then he doesn’t do it. He conserves energy. This kind of anime character doesn’t throw himself into friendships and has to be dragged into the story, so you then need a character to do the dragging. There are two of those, one largely unseen. Firstly Oreki’s sister persuades him to join the Classic Literature Club to stop it from being closed down. After school clubs are hugely important in Japan, and there are endless animes based around a school club. They always seem to need a minimum number of members, hence his sister’s request. Although it’s called the Classic Lit Club, the name is a little misleading, because their focus is solely on classic detective fiction such as Sherlock Holmes. This is what really brings the members of the club together, because it is an interest they share. Oreki has a brilliant mind for deduction, like a teenage Holmes, although he tends to downplay his abilities as luck.
I mentioned there were two characters who drag Oreki into the story. The other is Eru Chitanda, who seems to always stumble into a mystery but needs Oreki to help her solve it. Once she finds a mystery she gets so curious that she obsesses about it. Her cries of “I have to know” you might find endearing or slightly annoying, depending on your perspective. Making up the group of four are Oreki’s friend Satoshi Fukube, and Mayaka Ibara, the latter of which is also a member of the school’s manga club. There is some history between them, and they each bring their own talents to the group.
The mysteries are small-scale, as I mentioned, but they draw you in. Chitanda’s uncle went missing years ago, and some old Lit Club anthologies might hold the key to why; the club members take a trip to a hot spring that seems to be haunted; a writer of a school murder mystery play is taken ill before she can finish writing it, and her intended ending seems impossible to deduce; various small items are being stolen during the school’s festival, but what is the connection between the items, and who is taking them? … and various others. Some of the mysteries play out over several episodes.
So there is plenty going on throughout the 22 episodes (plus one bonus episode) to keep the brain occupied, while the will-they-won’t-they romances meander along nicely. You can’t help but end up loving those four characters and rooting for them to form their relationships and be happy. One problem that is commonplace with anime is that they tend to get made while the manga or novel series is still ongoing, which means they tend to end inconclusively. There are far more frustrating examples than this, because Hyouka finishes with a reasonably clear indication of where life is heading for the main characters, but the whole thing does end inconclusively, leaving you wanting more.
Hyouka was my gateway into anime television, but that’s not to say it would be the right choice for everyone. If you have a friend who you think would enjoy anime, and you’re not sure what to suggest, go with something that appeals to an interest of theirs. That’s probably why Hyouka grabbed me. Three elements were just my cup of tea: the mysteries, the romantic subplot, and the beautiful and inventive artwork. Hyouka made me a fan of anime, and opened my eyes to a whole new world of incredible storytelling. It will always be a very special series to me. RP