#1 Unsatisfying mysteries
The Classic Literature Club of Kamiyama High has a storied history. Each year its members publish an anthology called Hyouka, but this tradition threatens to vanish as few new people are interested in joining. When an alumni catches word of the club’s dire prospects, she forces her brother, Hotaro Oreki, to join the club. Even though he is a lazy bum and doesn’t have any interest in classic literature.
Fortunately for him, classic literature is not a focus of Hyouka at all. Oreki soon meets the club’s president Eru Chitanda, who is infamous for her curiosity. She always needs an answer to any question that pops into her mind, no matter how insignificant. Why was the door locked behind her? Who keeps checking out this one book every day? Is there a ghost in the school’s music room? Hyouka is all about answering Chitanda’s burning questions, effectively turning the classic lit club into her personal squad of detectives.
The premise of teenagers solving silly, everyday mysteries that occur as part of their school lives is certainly appealing, but also puts the stakes very low. Oftentimes a mystery has no impact at all, existing only to satisfy Chitanda’s curiosity. This is admittedly varied up with storylines that carry more personal weight to the characters, but these are a rarity.
Another frustration is that these mysteries often fall into either of 2 extremes. They are either super obvious from the start or can only be solved though obscure leaps of logic. For example, one story is about a personal belonging being stolen from a club room. When this is brought up to Oreki, one person in the room keeps making the guiltiest expressions, which the camera is sure to focus on several times.
In another case, Oreki is in trouble and needs to get a message across to his friends through indirect means. He tries several methods, but these get passed off as coincidences. His friends laugh at his clumsiness and remain unaware of the danger. So, the question: how can Oreki communicate that he is in danger, without direct contact or explicitly stating so? The answer:
He copies a trick from a movie that he watched earlier. The audience doesn’t get to see this trick happen in the movie, so they could have put anything in there and it would’ve made as much sense.
A lot of conclusions are like that. Hyouka prides itself on not using narrative tricks, but it loves to base answers on evidence that was collected off-screen or outside knowledge the characters happen to possess.
I ended up watching Totaraum’s video on how to solve every mystery in Hyouka. Credit where credit is due, it is a very well-made video by somebody who is clearly passionate about the series. Yet, even when the storylines are plainly explained to you, some answers still sound like bullshit. “Just pay attention to the body language of this character” while said character is a low-detail background extra.
Yea, I did not feel like I could participate in this mystery show at all.
#2 Annoying protagonists
I feel bad about bringing this up, because Hyouka does put a lot of effort into its characterization. The cast is certainly not generic; everybody has a strong personality that shines through in every scene where they partake. It’s just that I didn’t really appreciate these personalities at all.
Oreki, for example. He lives by the principal that if he doesn’t have to do something, he won’t. And if he does have to do something, he’ll do it as quickly as possible to be rid off it. In other words, he doesn’t want to do shit. He is perpetually bored and lethargic, which is expressed a lot through his body language and lifeless voice acting. Chitanda’s excited curiosity begins to change something in him, but he maintains his listless demeanor even when spurred into action.
Any praise I’d have for the consistency of his character is rendered void, because he’s just no fun. Oreki saps the energy from any scene he’s in and is often such a self-important jerk that I’m surprised anybody cares to hang out with him at all. Funnily enough, the one time he’s called out on this is also the only episode where I sympathized with him. His friends all show up to his demanding part-time job and dump some bullshit mystery on him to solve; then get angry with him for not being thrilled enough about it.
The other protagonists fare better, but still left a lot to be desired. Chitanda is made so aggressively moe that it breaks the otherwise grounded nature of Hyouka. She has this whisper of a voice and giant, sparkling eyes, she constantly acts overly-energetic and is presented as being near-flawless. She’s made to be so inoffensive that she ends up feeling shallow.
Mayaka and Satoshi take more of a backseat until the one story arc kicks in that develops their character a bunch. Until then, Satoshi is the comedic friend character whose only quirk is that he keeps getting philosophical about his self-important way of life. He refers to himself as a database of knowledge and keeps having to remind his friends of how that identity guides his every action. Mayaka doesn’t have much going on at all outside of her arc, but is a serviceable fourth character to fill out the club.
#3 Melodramatic tone
As is often the case with Kyoto Animation productions, the story leans heavily on emotions. The cast is very expressive and frequently gets emotionally invested in the mysteries they are solving. While this felt appropriate for the arcs that deal with their personal stories, it got very weird at times.
Even Oreki is not always immune to this. In one story he has to help some schoolmates with an ultimately minor problem. This eventually takes him to a public restaurant, where he starts screaming through the establishment while leveling accusations at a fellow student. It is so over-the-top for what is a minor annoyance at worst. Similar behavior occurs in several other arcs. Characters get unreasonably angry or upset, often in public settings where they cause (themselves) as much embarrassment as possible.
I get that this is a play at teenagers going through emotional development, so of course they’re unreasonable at times. However, the way it’s presented in Hyouka mainly served to alienate me from the characters even further.
#4 Visual slip-ups
Kyoto Animation makes good-looking anime. A statement so agreeable we may as well take it as fact at this point. Hyouka largely fits this description; it’s an often-beautiful anime with a strong aesthetic sense and fantastic character designs. This only serves to make the obvious slip-ups and shortcuts even more painful.
As pretty as the anime usually is, I often found myself distracted when details got messed up. These could be little things like when a character’s feet are animated with a lot less detail than the rest of their body. Or the wheels of a bicycle not lining up with the bike’s actual movement. At other times it’s super obvious, like the many God-awful CGI cars that drive around and clearly break the anime’s artstyle.
The nadir of the show comes in the final episode, where a much-hyped parade is turned into a series of ugly, slow-motion shots. Add in an absolutely preposterous amount of motion blur and the whole scene was actually headache-inducing to look at.
Speaking of the ending, that’s certainly a weak point for Hyouka as well. After numerous mysteries and personal storylines, the final episode of Hyouka is just a standalone short mystery that isn’t even particularly interesting. It gets away from the school setting and mostly stars characters that viewers have no connection with.
After a short mystery and the motion blur parade, the anime briefly pretends to actually wrap up in a way that would significantly advance the character arcs it spent the prior 21 episodes building up. It then swiftly dodges this responsibility, settling instead for maintaining a dull status quo. A lame and unexciting conclusion to a series that had the potential to do so much more.
More anime & manga like this
Haruhi Suzumiya: Classic, KyoAni anime set in high school.
Tatami Galaxy: Mystery story with surreal visuals.
Ghost Stories: A group of kids work together to solve local mysteries.