"I don't do anything I don't have to. What I have to do, I do quickly."
For most people, the short years spent in highschool are often the turning point and highlight of their lives; a time filled with introspection and change, where some dreams end and others are born to take their place. On the other hand, there are some who reject this notion and choose to spend their days as uneventfully and routinely as possible, never straying too far from their comfort zone and established lifestyle. After all, why waste the energy on trivial matters?
Oreki Houtarou is one of these individuals.
Set during the dull and grey life of Oreki's first year in highschool, the story begins with an important change to his individual status quo — the joining of the school's Classics Club, albeit out of obligation rather than choice. Receiving a letter from his older sister asking him to join the club to keep it from being disbanded from lack of membership, he solemnly accepts his duties and sends in a club registration form, which appropriately causes surprise for his close friend Satoshi. For an individual uninterested by studying, sports, and socalizing, joining a club can be an arduous and painful ordeal. And indeed, if not for a certain girl immediately joining the club, Oreki could very well have maintained his status quo of living dully and freely.
But perhaps change isn't always a bad thing.
This changing force is Chitanda Eru, serving as the contrast to Oreki's behavior. Shortly after their first exchange, Chitanda drives Oreki into a set of mysteries involving the club and its later two members, a repeated occurence often instigated by her eyes lighting in excitement and being followed by her catchphrase, "I can't stop thinking about it!". These mysteries are what form the bread and butter of the story, so it's a fortunate thing then that the mysteries themselves are varied; involving fairly interesting situations such as a room being locked or ghost sightings during a hot springs trip, and trivial events such as why a student was suddenly called to the office after school. No two mysteries are the same, and while several of the episodes are independent stories, three distinct arcs constitute the bulk of the episodes and the development of the characters.
Fortunately (and not so fortunately) the fairly lighthearted formula established in the self-contained stories is mostly reversed into something more dramatic and serious in the main story arcs once things finally get heated. It provides a refreshing contrast between the two and prevents things from feeling too repetitive or stale. Problems unfortunately come as a result with this change in tone, however. The dialogue can sometimes come across as being cheesy with overdramatized and exaggerated reactions to some of the events, such as Chitanda gasping in shock like the world has just ended when a book is missing from the clubroom, Oreki yelling and giving a death glare when his senior manipulates him a little bit, or the other three members of the Classics Club treating Oreki as some kind of savant for solving what are often very simple mysteries. Considering the trivial and often lighthearted nature of these mysteries, the overdramatization in the script is something that stands out as being very inconsistent with the overall tone of the series.
Another flaw exists with the mysteries themselves, and those watching the series primarily for that aspect are very likely to find themselves disappointed or bored, especially with the self-contained stories whose mysteries are often so trivial and juvenile that they are more equivalent to a curious question than anything else. They lack the depth necessary to truly become something well-written and engaging, and have very little in common with the mystery novels that the anime frequently references. Though these mysteries don't qualify as being bad, they're mostly mediocre and certainly don't stand well on their own. Instead, much of the appeal and enjoyment of Hyouka comes from the relationship between the characters and their interactions with one another.
Similar to the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Watson, three of the main characters in Hyouka each fill a specific role in the club: Chitanda instigates the mystery, Satoshi provides information, and Oreki deduces. While the early episodes may give an impression of this being formulaic, the characters soon break from the mold and begin to do things that don't strictly pertain to their accepted role and behavior. For example, Oreki may decide to instigate the mystery himself or in one specific case Satoshi attempts to be the one to unravel and deduce. One main character even ends up being the culprit in one episode which makes for a fairly surprising conclusion.
Luckily, there's enough substance to their interactions that they come across as normal human beings rather than simple stereotypes, though Chitanda's eccentric traits and curiosity are often exaggerated for comedic effect. The characters all show a wide spectrum of emotion and get disappointed or angry depending on the situation (despite problems with the aforementioned overdramatization) or joke around and playfully criticize one another when things are going well. What mainly shines, though, is Oreki's and Chitanda's relationship, stemming from how heavily their personalities and behavior contrast with each other. Seeing him react and deal with her curious and capricious behavior always makes for some endearing and amusing scenes, with blushing and romantic moments abound.
Then again, none of this would be very interesting in the first place if these characters didn't stand out by themselves or possess any distinguishing qualities. It's thanks to the writers' aptitude that the main characters undergo a considerable amount of development over the course of the series, resulting in something that is fundamentally more complex and dynamic. The majority of this development is focused on the protagonist, Oreki, as his dull life slowly changes into something more colorful and vibrant. At the start he's very reluctant to expend energy on anything that isn't absolutely necessary which is what causes him to repeatedly rebuke Chitanda for roping him into these situations. Mainly a result of the enjoyable time he has with Chitanda and the Classics Club, Oreki begins to realize that being involved and competent with something might not be such a bad thing after all. He starts to willingly pursue these mysteries through his own effort and curiosity, without the need of Chitanda urging him to investigate. For a person so bent on doing nothing with his days and conserving all time and energy possible, it's only natural for the rest of the club members to point out his change in behavior.
Change isn't only evident in Oreki, though, as Chitanda, Satoshi, and Mayaka also experience it to varying extents. In particular, Satoshi — often serving as the comic relief — becomes unsatisfied with his role and lack of recognition in comparison to Oreki. For several episodes he trails off into the mystery by himself in a mostly unsuccesful effort to duplicate or better Oreki's deductive skills. The jealousy being portrayed in some scenes is a somewhat unneeded and perhaps cliche, but this arc in the story provides a pleasant change to Satoshi's character and is successful in fleshing him out much more than in the early episodes. The second-to-last episode takes this further as well with even Satoshi understanding his change and becoming happy with his new lifestyle. Mayaka also gets some much needed screentime during the third arc which involves her status in the Manga Society club and her relationship with its members, with the outcome of this sidestory being something fairly satisfying and conclusive. Chitanda on the other hand changes surprisingly little over the course of the series though perhaps it's for the best. After all, she fills a necessary and important role in the story as the foil of Oreki and catalyst for his change and development. If Chitanda wasn't her usual self, where would Oreki be?
Now, there's one thing that can be agreed upon in regards to Hyouka, and that is that Kyoto Animation has made this show absolutely stunning visually.
The presentation of Hyouka is one of the most outstanding aspects about the series. Mood and atmosphere is set by the prominent lighting and by the events and monologues which are heavily stylistic and surprisingly abstract at times, occasionally taking the viewer away from the normality of the situation and into a place much more surreal. There's a distinct visual element present in Oreki's thought process with the layer of each mystery being carefully mapped out to the viewer, which serves not only to make the mystery more clear but to provide a much more immersive experience than the characters simply speaking to each other. Some scenes also possess a very dreamlike quality, with a couple particular examples including Chitanda's first inquisitive moment which succeeds in captivating Oreki or the dozens of little curious Chitandas crawling and tugging on him in the sixth episode. This type of dichotomy between the normal and the abstract is what makes Hyouka a very unique experience.
The underlying animation and designs are also phenomenal. KyoAni has long been lauded for the standard of detail and animation set in their works and this is taken even further with Hyouka, with the entirety of the anime feeling very much movie-quality throughout of all its episodes. The realistic and lifelike movements of the characters is praiseworthy but what stands out most is the focus on eyes and facial expressions. The characters of Hyouka are easily some of the most visually expressive seen in an anime for quite some time. Even the side or background characters receive much of the same detail to animation and character design, making nobody seem bland or the derivative of another. It's surprising then that KyoAni managed to keep to this level of quality for all 22 episodes, with no noticeable decrease visual nor artistic quality. The seemingly limitless attention to detail here is really something commendable.
But it's not all about visuals technically, either. Hyouka boasts a very fitting and eloquent soundtrack that accentuates the atmosphere set by the visual design. Composed mostly of classical tunes and eerie or quizzical melodies, the music is what creates the inherent sense of intrigue within Hyouka. It perfectly manages to capture the principal feeling of mystery in both the relaxed and dramatic moments of the series, never feeling overbearing nor out of place.
In the end, Hyouka does fall short of some of its potential due to issues with the script, but what the anime lacks in mysteries it more than makes up for with its characterization and presentation. It's just a bit of a shame that many people will choose to write the anime off and treat it as something weak and disappointing because the mystery aspect didn't hold up to their expectations. A misconception exists where people treat Hyouka as a strictly mystery title, and while it does hold true to some extent, these mysteries are instead used to develop the characters and have them interact in a remarkable manner, distinctive manner. This is an anime that essentially amounts to mundane events presented in a stylized and intriguing way. For those looking for something fresh in an age of uninspired rom-coms and homogeneity, Hyouka is a title that is easily worth your attention.
There's this sweeping notion that deep and action-oriented storytelling is necessary for a quality experience, but titles like Hyouka can safely disprove that line of thought.