Hyouka 氷菓 in review.

I wanted to love Hyouka so damn much.
I tried so hard to love it.
But I couldn’t.
I didn’t.
And now I’m paying the price.

As I close the video player and open the notepad, my mind is filled with the same old “if only” thoughts and I’m left with the even more familiar bittersweet feeling – of joy because it was a pleasant watch but also of anger from what it could’ve been. I know I won’t allow myself to enjoy its afterglow unless I vent my complains and deconstruct all of its flaws in a quasi masochist experiment.
So here we are.

First things first, the pivotal reason why I picked this series up was definitely the photography. Even from the PV videos and promo artwork I was already mesmerized by it.
There’s no other way to say it other than that it’s the absolute perfect match for the contents of the script.
Hyouka is entirely colored with pastel colors, toned to resemble the brownish of aging old photographs. Think sepia but the original picture is not black and white. However, these are not washed out or dull colors but warm ones. So instead of looking like some re-colored WWII documentary, it transmits a feeling of comfiness, warmth but also easygoingness and laziness, which is exactly Houtarou’s reality and the atmosphere expected from a club dedicated to studying old literature classics. Furthermore, as the plot develops, the main cast find themselves dealing with situations that relate to Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Conan Doyle tales, from the restless 1800s when -as the seven arts paint it- light was dim and the penumbra constant.

Of course this couldn’t be done with photography alone. The design for the scenario and even the characters’ clothing also helps to transmit the overall feeling of the show.
While it is not rusted and falling apart, the Koten-bu room, or rather, the geography prep. room, has a rather old feeling to it. It’s mostly wood with old-fashioned furniture and side-scrolling windows. Most school scenes are in-doors and we rarely get a good glimpse of the main entrance or the outside of the building. The same goes for the town, most character interaction occur in front of classic Japanese-styled buildings, low-traffic roads or the countryside – it’s a rural village after all.
Since it’s a story about highschoolers doing club activities, most episodes end in the evening or during the sunset, also contributing for the lighting.
As for character design, the school uniform is simple with a neutral pattern, all characters have natural hair colors (no pink-haired tsundere this time) and since Chitanda is an ojou-sama from a wealthy family, we often see traditional Japanese clothing.

But “a high school life is supposed to be rose colored” says Houtarou, and with that, the text allows the image to make magic. There are only a few scenes where the color palette changes but when it does, it matches the script perfectly and in a synesthetic manner, illustrates the MC’s feelings and the shift of tone in the story.
Every drama has its lightheartedness, every tragedy has its comedy and every mystery its climax. Hyouka creatively balances these “pink tinted” moments with the ongoing story in a manner that “breather episodes” become significant part of the series, unlike the majority of anime that fail to smooth this transition and end up creating the awful filler beach episodes.

Mind you, matching the color design to an entire series’ mood is something extremely difficult to do. It may be simple to match a normal “talking static heads inside a room” situation but to do that throughout 22 episodes is quite the accomplishment. In Hyouka, the main cast went to a hot spring, a school festival, it rained, it snowed, it was summer, fall, spring and it still kept the same tone.
I’ve only seen this kind of attention and skill with coloring a couple of times before with P.A.Works franchises and, just like with Hyouka, it takes an experienced group of color designer*, director/storyboarder* and director of photography* to pull it through.
*the credits section for this job is always a mess when it comes to anime. Sometimes it’s not credited at all, sometimes it’s the DP or char. designer himself and sometimes it even appears as “color setting”, in this case, KyoAni credits Naomi Ishida as Hyouka’s color designer.
*the episode director is often the storyboard artist for that episode himself.
*if you are curious, the wizard behind Hyouka’s photography is Ryuuta Nakagami, who also worked on the cinematography for Air, Clannad, Haruhi (movie), K-ON, Tamako and a lot more of KyoAni stuff.

Unfortunately though, when compared to this outstanding visual composition, the story fall short.

No photography or storyboard can make up for a lackluster story. Not in this genre. If Hyouka was an action or fantasy series, where the quality of the storytelling is overlooked because what’s important is the execution of the spectacle on the screen, it would easily be a masterpiece, but it isn’t.
There are two main issues with it: the mystery is poorly managed and the story lurked too deep into the romance for the open ended conclusion it delivered.

For the former, the problem lies with structure. While Hyouka is great at telling stories about mysterious situations the main characters find themselves into, and while the citations of real authors are accurate and clever, it fails to create an actual mystery plot. What I mean is: is it cool to watch Houtarou (and others) solve the mystery that lies in front of them? Sure it is, but Doyle and Christie didn’t became famous (only) because they told fantastic stories, it’s because they also told those stories in a manner that allowed the reader to try and guess along with the MC. In Hyouka these elements (visual clues, hints in dialogue, backstory information) are often lacking so while Houtarou is able to deduce the answer, it’s impossible for the viewer to get ahead of him.
For example: at the ABC Murders arc, the viewer can guess from the beginning that the robbery was part of something bigger but cannot deduce what until Houtarou introduces a new element that wasn’t previously part of the setting: the afterword for A Corpse by the Evening. After that, anyone with different theories is back at square zero. Then, with this reveal, the viewer can guess how both things are related and reach the conclusion it’s a marketing move to promote the doujinshi release or something similar but nothing else, since, from the moment it’s revealed who some of the manga authors are until the end of the arc, no further information is shared about these people. This makes it impossible for the viewer to reach the same conclusion Houtarou did: it was a massage from one of the authors to another. And we once again lag behind.

And there’s the romance.
There’s a reason why I hate adaptations of ongoing franchises and that’s because the adaption more than often lacks closure or a satisfying conclusion since the production committee is always considering the possibility of a second series or the source material itself is either too far ahead or with no ending in sight.
When you decide to include romance in a story facing this situation, it’s bound to become troublesome.
First of all, why is there a need for a romance anyway? Tari Tari is lovely and there’s virtually no romance in it.
Secondly, since someone decided to make things romantic, at least do it properly.
From the very first couple of episodes, the story already makes it clear for the viewer that there’s “interest” (not love, because love is a strong word) but yearning. Finally appears a girl in front of Houtarou capable of removing him from his comfort zone and pulling him into a rose-colored high-school life. His friends couldn’t do it, his sis couldn’t do it (or couldn’t she?), nobody could do it, but this mysterious girl can.
Stop right there. There’s still a chance to write this off without turning it into a romantic plot.
But then the scriptwriter dives deeper. It adds a few blushes here and there, embarrassed looks and misleading dialogue so by episode 14~15 you already can tell for sure “oh, they like each other”.
But it can’t turn into a romance right now, can it? Because if it does, in order to stay remotely realistic, Houtarou and Chitanda would need to do couple things, and if they do couple things it becomes difficult to maintain the same mood and pacing of the series.
So they drag it to the final couple of episodes.
And there it is. The overused, boring and repetitive “the will eventually get together because it’s the season finale but we won’t show you that since we might make a second season”.
Remember what we just discussed about mood, photography and keeping the same style throughout the entire series? This addition of boy meets girl romance completely shatters it. The photography and storyboard crew did a wonderful job creating the art for the final episode, but knowing it would finish without proper closure anesthetizes you from the start and the beautiful color composition goes to waste because the lines being read in front of you are artificial and lackluster in meaning.
It’s ironical how they couldn’t blend the romance with the script after succeeding at doing so with almost every other feature of the story.

Here’s how it’s messed up:
The final scene, when Houtarou comes to the realization that confessing his feelings to Chitanda would imply him getting completely pulled out of his “energy-conserving” life-style and he realizing that this break of routine was exactly what Satoshi was struggling with, is beautiful. It is perfect. In its simplicity it summarizes the entire character development Houtarou went through and is the tripping point of Chitanda’s influence in his life. If he goes with her, his life changes forever. She is the one, but is he brave enough to take that leap?
Fuck yes, he is.
He already figured this out while walking holding her umbrella in the procession. Nobody stays in awe for that long without linking the dots. Even the densest harem protagonist ever would figure that out. He already knows 100% sure that this is what he wants for his life.
That is the perfect closure for the romance that was building up, and suddenly it doesn’t matter that you dragged it for half a season because it carries a lot of meaning and closes the series in a heartwarming note.
But no.
Instead of giving it the spotlight, they write Houtarou chickening out.
The same guy who faced older classmates head on to give answers to mysteries and always did things his way suddenly can’t be honest to himself. The final mystery in the series, the final culprit left to Houtarou to catch.
He brushes it aside with a smirk. With a goddamn smirk.
Houtarou just struggled with his thoughts (Disappearance’s Kyon-style) to leave the girl hanging.
That is not how you write a romance.
“Chitanda, hanashi ga aru”
“Suki da”
“Let’s make babies, gaw”

Make him say whatever you want, it can even sound cheesy as fuck, and roll credits instantly afterwards if that’s your thing, but under no circumstance leave it open-ended because by doing so it’s implying the MC learned nothing and his behavior is the same of 22 episodes ago. With a single scene they undid all the character work the previous 15 minutes perfectly portrayed.
See why you must hate incomplete adaptations?

This concludes my report on Hyouka.
Do I care enough to read the novels? Don’t think so. While some arcs are clever and I loved the setting, it’s still the visual artwork that impressed me the most. If you enjoy slice-of-life shows, a good art directing and doesn’t mind the occasional writing fuck up I guess you enjoyed it more than I did. If you, however, are like me and prefer your romances well written, I share your frustration.
I enjoyed watching it, liked the characters, their gimmicks and personalities. Yuuichi Nakamura is always a pleasure to listen to and when he’s together with Daisuke Sakaguchi it’s always guaranteed quality dialogue.
I will definitely remember Hyouka in the future but it sits there alongside Tamako Market as KyoAni’s lovely but ultimately incomplete pieces of work.

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