If you’re telling a story about boredom, how do you make it interesting?
The obvious answer is that it’s all in how you tell it. But Hyouka goes one step further, using the structure of the series as a device to further the effect of its fascinating protagonist and his development over the series.
The problem I keep finding with anime is the use of structure; we either have the ‘episodic’ feel, or an ‘arc’ or a hundred, or one and then the other, or one long storyline that could play out like a film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those since they’re just stylistic choices. What sometimes goes wrong, however, is how little attention those choices get. The currently-airing series Denpa Kyoushi, for instance, was having a merry time with its one-episode-per-harem-member (maybe two max) scheme until its most recent addition, the series’ ‘trap’, who’ll be getting at least four. The show has ground to a halt for me because the life-lessons (which were only above-average in delivery and content in the first palce) have been stalling, centred around this one character’s slow and predictable development. It’s a poor use of the show’s time in relation to everything that’s gone before it, and the original manga would have the same problem if that too had stalled for this character alone.
Hyouka, on the other hand, managed the length of its many storylines marvellously.
Often in a club-based drama we’ll have hilarious comedy ensue between the mismatched members, or serious and/or subtle drama arise from conflicts pertinent to the experience of being young. Hibike! is currently doing a masterclass in the latter. With Hyouka, though, you get a strange variation on both, all centred around the development of its protagonist, Houtarou, from living a life of boredom to the ‘rose-coloured’ opportunity that leads him into a picturesque finale.
The critical part to understanding Hyouka is realising first that the show is about boredom – it’s a club with no specific goal, and the members are simply killing time for the sake of their curiosity and friendships with one another. Consequentially, the show is about taking what’s boring and being as interested in it as Chitanda relentlessly is. The Classics Club is an intellectual hotbed, an environment of witty humour and unexaggerated, almost sterile intellectual fervour. While the genre is ‘mystery’, the show does its best to present the most down-to-earth mysteries a student could encounter, and this is where the correlation between the curiosity investigated, Houtarou’s development and use of story ‘arc’ length demonstrates Kyoani’s forte in this field.
Our first few episodes have Houtarou demonstrate his Sherlockiness (that’s a word now) through, despite his reluctance and energy-conserving motto, solving a number of trivial issues. We start to see how Chitanda will get her giant eyes attracted to anything that could have a deeper level to it, and we likewise get to see just how good Houtarou is, and will be, at satisfying every ‘Watashi kininarimasu!’ she throws at him. These are also all present-day issues which do little to delve into any character’s past, something that will change as we carry on.
We then have the first arc of the series, concerning a matter personal to Chitanda – the history of her uncle and Hyouka, the titular anthology, itself. The boredom-bashing of the Classics Club, at Chitanda’s request, occupies itself with the deep and mysterious past. This is Houtarou’s first real moment in the spotlight, as the multi-faceted problem demonstrates his awareness and thinking processes to a far greater extent than any past problems had. During this, he starts to wonder about the boring way he’s been living his life, and whether he wants something more.
The arc lasts three episodes, four if you include its prelude in episode two. We then return back to a couple of small and insignificant, but still boredom-bashing, mysteries of the present. This time, however, they help to illuminate qualities of our cast and other passing characters. As Houtarou is progressing into this more interesting way of life, there’s been a change; the first problems were trivial and only demonstrated aspects of the detectives, but these new problems – the investigation of the mistaken teacher, and the hot springs curiosity – demonstrate the Club’s ability to explore the depths of other characters.
This leads us into the film arc, which lasts four episodes. Another substantial mystery, but we’ve moved on from personal matters to an exploration of a group that we’ll hardly see again – the members of Class 2-F and their dysfunctional cooperation. What starts as a mystery about the film itself becomes a mystery regarding the people behind it, and Houtarou’s explosive reaction to the truth before Irisu demonstrates a significant change in his character (and a massive expenditure of energy). He never cared about the motives of people so much until now, as the first arc exposed him to considering how people think and feel more. His journey away from paying no mind to the lives of others (note how he only seemed to have one friend) is under way because of other people – Chitanda’s curiosity first, but the interesting aspects of people he uncovers second.
All these ‘interesting’ discoveries are, however, happening under the sheen of typical school life. On the surface, the mysteries are as boring as the acting for 2-F’s film. But as the anime-original episode further shows, the intrigue is always going to lie in what goes on beneath – how these mysteries matter for the people investigated, and, as in episode 11.5, how they matter for the people investigating. Houtarou’s job is more important here, however, marking a further sign of change in his life in how his increased consideration for people in the mysteries he solves manifests itself as working as a lifeguard; not his choice, but he still accepts the job. The placement of this OVA is critical in my wider understanding of Hyouka’s structure; they put it between two arcs to show, as other episodic sections had shown, the fruits of the past arc’s labour. I couldn’t think of the series as complete without it.
Next, we have the school’s own attempt at combating its school-wide boredom; the festival arc. But even this is considered boring by the character – again someone we don’t see after the arc – who plays the mysterious ‘Juumonji’ to liven things up. Again we have a deep mystery that all the important characters take as something worth seriously investigating, but which its intended target disregards as a joke. Such disregard is the life Houtarou is getting away from more and more; though he holds the most energy-conserving job, perhaps shot down by his prior failure during the film arc, this six-episode arc has him engage directly with the culprit, dig up a large proportion of his character purely from the events that he has been involved in, and actually aid the ‘crime’ itself for the sake of everyone involved. He notes in this arc how he can’t smile, but he’s becoming more and more involved with people, playing ‘straw millionaire’ with every person he meets, resulting in a series of actually meaningful transactions which, like most of Hyouka’s story, seems merely boring or boredom-busting at first.
I was expecting Hyouka to end with a final, critic arc that would take the characters to the pinnacle of their dramatic potential. Instead, we went back to the episodic format, and this was where the series shone with a powerful circular structure. In the past, Houtarou had all the mysteries handed to him, and he was reluctant to accept them. Now Houtarou sparks his own curiosities, and the mysteries surrounding the teacher, proving something to Chitanda, getting out of the shed and the valentine’s chocolates return to being far more about the him and his fellow Club members. These parallels and differences with the first few episodes show that Houtarou’s development was to become far more sensitive – he wants to have the right feelings towards his teacher, he wants Chitanda to not be embarrassed by their entrapment in the shed, and he wants to get to the bottom of Satoshi and Mayaka’s difficulties.
In the final episode, he ventures into Chitanda’s world and there comes to know her far better as well. His cry of curiosity at wanting to see her face is microcosmic for his growing desire to know more and more and more about her, to the point that he has a longing to become fully part of her rose-coloured world – but not enough to make him actually make that step. While some people criticise him for ‘trolling’ the audience in that final scene, I cherish the fact that he’s come so far and now has such life-changing thoughts, which will undoubtably see him venture further and further from ‘the life of a hermit crab’.
Hyouka is a show about boredom, centred around a fantastically passive protagonist who develops into the kind of active detective we’d expect to see at the start of a genuine piece of detective fiction. It’s about the positive effect an incessantly curious individual can have on someone who cannot yet see the rose-coloured world that lies underneath the boring surface (and how another individual, Houtarou’s sister, can work similarly in the background). The use of both an episodic style and episode-spanning arcs is powerful stuff in the hands of Kyoani; the longer arcs operate as forces of change, as the story should rightly slow down for a more critical point of development, while the episodic sections demonstrate and celebrate the results of that change, including further development in the small and memorable cast and enabling the series to move faster.
I felt that my experience of the show was mainly occupied with Houtarou and Chitanda’s effect on him, but Satoshi and Mayaka were both enthralling characters as well, particularly during the festival arc, and much can be said for the curiousness surrounding Chitanda’s variation between public and private life.
The series succeeds overall where others failed in terms of episode structure because the show works it in tandem with the development of its characters. The smaller storylines of the final few episodes demonstrate how far Houtarou has come; he can now go deep into the most important parts of his Club’s members’ lives while also keeping his policy of energy conservation, considering the speed at which he uncovers and explores feelings and relationships, in contrast to how long it took him to explore such depths back when he was still accustomed to the boring surface-level monotony of things that the show slowly eroded away.
So the next time someone complains about Hyouka being ‘boring’, I’ll tell them they’re correct, and why that’s the main reason I loved the series so much. Boredom has never been so interesting.