Hyouka Review — Character Development For Its Own Sake Doesn’t Work

It’s retro-review time again, and today I’m going to be talking about an anime I was afraid to go back to because I was sure it wasn’t going to hold up over time. And really, can you blame me? After sitting through so many coming-of-age/character-based anime that most people consider to be good, but I consider to be shit, Hyouka looked like a prime candidate for “don’t believe the fans. It’s nowhere near that good unless you’re under that fanboy delusion that character interactions/development is good enough to entertain on its own”. And you know what? I am not.

In fact, I’ve come to really despise character stories for the sake of character stories over time because I have enough boredom trying to examine my own miserable life and I don’t need the f*cking Oscars to complicate said examination with their own shallow input, let alone anime. So whenever I hear praise regarding how Durarara is awesome because watching Vorona chat emptily on about how intelligent and violent she is, only for that exact same person to criticize the upcoming Yuki Nagato-chan anime because it contains the same empty conversations except replaced with nostalgia and moe, I feel the urge to ring my bullshit bell after swatting their head with the barf bag I just filled up. Who cares what the subject is about if both conversations are empty go-nowhere crap at the end of the day? I certainly don’t. Just because “moe conversations” set the bar so goddamn low doesn’t mean I want to watch an entire show consisting solely of a travelling furry and his foxy love interest exchange romantic quips that is ultimately cock-teasing for a resolution we’ll never get.

Sorry, what was I supposed to be talking about again? Oh right, Hyouka. Anyways, when this anime first arrived on the scene, it got a bit of a mixed response for its dull conversations and over-directed nature, but it was the latter that got me through the show because I was a lot more shallow when it first came out and the animation tricks along with the hilarity of the two males being the Clannad protagonists with better personalities was funny to me. I ended up loving the thing, considering it to be one of the few anime from KyoAni and 2012 that were actually good, but now that three years have passed and most of my revisited favorites had to get the axe, I was worried that Hyouka would join their ranks. And you know what? It almost did.

Whilst the banter was still indeed charmingly smart – although Chitanda might grate on some people – and the direction continued to be top-notch, the first seven episodes of the show fell under Steins;Gate syndrome of starting on a really dull note because said good aesthetics weren’t being applied to anything the least bit interesting unless you’re a fan of Houtarou flexing his thinking muscles and Chitanda wanting to revive the club because “vague reason”. Whilst a bunch of people have complained about the mysteries being weak, it’s less the fact that the mysteries themselves are too simplistic and more the fact that the reasoning behind them was too simplistic. Because if murders and kidnappings were all that was needed to make a good mystery, we’d be watching Kindaichi Case Files.

No, the problem with Hyouka’s first few episodes is that the underlying story is one we’ve seen before: the lonely introvert will get cured of his loneliness through the girl (and the other two members of the Scooby gang) with a mission and they’ll fall in love. And just like mysteries, action, and character porn in general, romance for the sake of romance is really boring to me. There were few jokes and whilst there is some Japanese commentary mixed into the whole mess, it wasn’t the kind of commentary that I cared for – and even when I found it kind of intriguing (Chitanda’s family situation, the fact that you can’t smoke in schools, etc.), it was surface-level stuff at the end of the day. But most damning of all, the mystery elements were just “there”. You could have exchanged them for f*cking DDR elements and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Whilst I’m not going to deny the character porn was good, that means nothing to me without a use for it.

Eventually, I realized the rewatch wasn’t going too well and was worried that my only attachment to KyoAni from this point on would be an anime they made over a decade ago. So in desperation, I skipped ahead to the second arc, which I remembered being the point when the anime really clicked with me. And you know what? I liked it alot.

Yes, the “plothole” regarding why the students couldn’t just ask the writer was noticeable – although it does eventually get addressed in a way that was semi-convincing – but otherwise, the second arc had a strong enough plot to support the great aesthetics because it actually bothered to instill some goddamn complexity into the thing. The movie arc actually examined the mystery tropes along with how people see them today, as well as brought our main character down a peg when he realized his brains can’t outmatch beauty, which is the kind of substance that actually makes me give a shit regarding whether or not a film will be ready in time for the cultural festival, as well as the kind that will allow me to revisit your product again in the future. Also, it had a hilarious student-made film. It’s like Shirobako if Shirobako had something resembling conflict.

Relieved that the show wasn’t completely lost on me, I ended up watching the school festival arc and enjoyed it just as much as last time because it had everything I could want in a coming-of-age/slice-of-life story: good pacing, interesting narrative tricks, engaging dialogue, and really relevant/interesting themes about talent, dreams, and the roles people play in the mystery genre underneath everything to give them a sense of weight. Enough praise has been written about that arc, so I won’t go into detail regarding it other than it would be in my top 5 films of 2012 if it had actually been a standalone feature-length title. The final five episodes, on the other hand, were a bit of a mixed bag because they were supposed to function as random side stories to tie up loose ends and we all know how I feel about that sort of stuff in general. It’s nice to see couples form and everything, but whilst that’s what a lot of people like about Hyouka, that’s not what personally like about it.

I like the show at its best because when it can, it mixes in all those fun character aesthetics into a plot that tickles my mystery-loving bone in a way that I want it to be tickled. It’s all about context at the end of the day, and that’s what separates the good (not just in the slice-of-life genre) from that godawful Steins;Gate movie. It’s fine to like the show simply for those “fun” elements I described earlier, but let me reiterate that I don’t do “fun” shows – unless they’re Mobile Fighter G Gundam of course – because liking a show because it’s “fun” is everything I consider wrong/weird about fanboys. What can I say? I’m a huge believer in Sturgeon’s Law, and when you define something as “fun”, you’re using a reason that can be applied to 99.9% of all entertainment (with a 3.1% margin of error). Yes, even total dreck like Superman 64. Brrrrrrr.

So in the end, I still do like Hyouka – or to be more precise, the middle two arcs of Hyouka. Thankfully, they’re separate enough from the arcs I find kinda dull that I don’t have any guilt in pretending the show is a series of four films where the middle two sit among my favorite anime. Most people consider Jojo to be a favorite despite the fact that it only has one good arc that hasn’t aged well at all (as of this writing). Babe: Pig in the City is a great movie and I couldn’t care less about the first film. There are people who have no interest in seeing Urusei Yatsura that love the second film. And whilst I love Lupin, if you think I’m going to watch all of it…okay you get my point by now. It’s not really “it gets better” with the later arcs so much as “it gets different”. I won’t blame people if they don’t care about the difference, but I personally do and that’s all that matters, along with the undisputed fact that anyone who stills think Kuragehime is a good show is a raging nostalgia-blinded hypocrite.

Additional Remarks

  • Some foreknowledge of who the characters are is probably required to appreciate the good arcs, but I think you can just read that up on Wikipedia or something, Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer-style.
  • Why yes, I am dying to know if Shirobako instilled actual context into its “anime fanboy masturbation”.
  • I did not mention any names in regards to the Yuki-chan anime analogy, so if you think I’m referring to you, that says more about you than it does me.
  • Edit: After dedicating more of my patience to Hyouka’s weaker arcs, I’ve confirmed that they’re alright and thus I can consider the entire series a favorite of mine. A few of the one-off episodes are still kinda dull though.

4 responses to “Hyouka Review — Character Development For Its Own Sake Doesn’t Work

  1. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who enjoyed Superman 64. I really don’t see the issue with people liking poorly put together entertainment. At the end of the day it’s just dumb cartoons,that everyone gets entertainment out of in different ways. I mostly just stick with seinen mangas since you could do more mature stories,that you just can’t do in animated form.

    • I have no problem with people liking it poorly put together stuff (my new podcast series should prove that). A bunch of my comments strike more against the hypocritical fanboy hivemind who don’t seem to want to admit their faults.

  2. Personally, I think Hyouka is, by a pretty large measure, the best anime ever made. It’ll never be thought of that way, because it’s much too far out of the mainstream of what most anime fans seem to prefer, but to me, the combination of luscious and creative art direction, unparallelled animation and direction, fabulous dialogue and character development, and even a compelling soundtrack, make it absolutely second to none.

    So in response to your post, I want to make two points:

    1) You’re not alone in disliking the first several episodes, so this isn’t a criticism, but man, I don’t get those who complain about them. They were stunning, for one thing, and moreover, I think they were largely necessary to establish the characters and develop how the narrative was going to work. Could I have lived without Chitanda getting drunk on liquor-filled chocolates? Sure, but even that was contributing quite a bit to her characterization as someone who could really only be herself when at school.

    2) As for the last several episodes being middling, I’m going to have to strenuously disagree with you. The closing episodes were absolutely breathtaking, not just in creating the couples, but in wrapping up and culminating all of the themes that had built up throughout earlier episodes. For example, the helicopter episode where Houtarou actively pursues the mystery of why he thought his middle school teacher was a fan of helicopters was perhaps the most emotionally gripping story of the show. Not only was the underlying tale moving, but Houtarou’s transformation while doing his detective work, and his sheepish discussion with Chitanda afterwards was unbelievably rewarding – and in the tradition of the best of Kyoto Animation’s shows, remarkably subtle in its presentation. Talk about showing and not telling.

    I won’t go through the other concluding episodes except to say that anyone who wasn’t left with chills during Houtarou’s imaginary “confession” to Chitanda in the finale probably thinks that all love stories are “lame.” Frankly, there are few scenes in any medium – not just anime – as unabashedly gorgeous and romantic and melancholy as the closing scene in Hyouka.

    • I just wrote several paragraphs regarding how I prefer it when character development and plot go hand-in-hand and you write two points detailing that you love the character development by itself (which I stated was okay for other people but not for me)?