A Database of Curiosities: A Hyouka Literature Review
Hyouka is my favourite anime of 2012. It’s also the anime that introduced me to the blogsphere at large. For various reasons, I hold it close to my heart.
So, as a tribute both to this series and to the excellent bloggers who have poured their time and energy into writing about it in detail, I’ve decided to write a post that analyses, well, other people’s analysis.
This won’t be the most accessible post ever. First of all, you need to have seen Hyouka to understand it. And if you’re not into reading a bunch of anime blogs, this post is basically going to come across as a link spam of epic proportions. But even considering that, I hold no pretensions about this being a comprehensive literature review. It’s a testament to just how broad and diverse the intellectual scope of the anime blogsphere is that I would call a post like this a mere scraping of the surface. But I also think it is a useful post to have written, for two main reasons:
- From what I know, this is the first “database” post that attempts to compile all the main interpretative analyses of Hyouka – or any specific anime series in general – into one place for easy reference.
- Almost a year has passed since Hyouka finished airing, allowing me to evaluate others’ arguments with a holistic and also a more retrospective understanding of the source material. Many of these blog posts were written as the series was airing or shortly after it ended, often making them highly impressionistic in tone and nature. Because Hyouka is still a relatively young series, it has not yet been approached like the classics have been, although it does, at least from my view, deserve to be regarded as such.
I do not assume you’ve read all the posts I’ve linked to, but I wholeheartedly recommend you check them out if you have time. I’ve concentrated more on discussing expository writing than on critical reviews, since the focus with the former is a bit narrower and easier to manage for a post like this. Hopefully, I can introduce you to some very good blogs. And as long as I can do my part in keeping Hyouka fresh in our collective memories, I’ll consider this post a job well done.
(Note: I have made some assumptions about the gender of bloggers and, to play it safe on the Internet, I refer to most of them as male. If I’m wrong about identifying anyone, please don’t hesitate to correct me!)
From Apathetic to Curious: Early Impressions of Hyouka and the Problem of Genre Classification
Hyouka is a typical slow burner of an anime series. Its early content is not very indicative of the ambition of the series – at least on first glance. Early critical impressions about its quality were generally lukewarm: most were impressed with the visual artistry but apathetic about the slice of life content. “Hyou-ka feels very safe,” Guardian Enzo wrote in his first impression post. “There’s no evidence that the story is going to have the creative flair that marks so many shows this season, or that the writing is going to take any chances.”
For critics, what seemed to be the main priority in discussing Hyouka was not its actual content but its pedigree: its animation studio was the critically acclaimed but also very polarising Kyoto Animation. Cytrus pointed out that, for a sample of first impression posts that he checked, 80% of them mentioned KyoAni, and of these 87.5% discussed it in the very first line. “The irony here is that while many of the blogs included in the statistics above might take a critical stance towards KyoAni, their comments not only confirm, but also contribute to KyoAni’s brand awareness hegemony,” Cytrus commented.
It’s important to keep this idea of hegemony in mind, because when it coloured the discussion as much as it did, it limited the range of meaningful criticism and analysis. Right from the beginning, Hyouka was a series that defied easy interpretation. The excessive comparisons to previous KyoAni shows (Chronolynx on THAT Anime Blog summed it up as “trying very hard to be Haruhi 2.0”) makes it difficult for someone reading blog impressions to define what kind of story or even what genre the anime was attempting to be. As we shall see, the issue of demarcation has dogged most of the discussion of Hyouka since.
Criticisms and Rebuttals of Hyouka as a Mystery Series
Perhaps to its fault, Hyouka never clearly established through its content whether it was primarily a mystery series or a slice of life series. Evidently, the issue is one of importance because identifying the story’s aim is the first step to constructing a meaningful critique on those terms.
Negative reviews of Hyouka tended to pick on its lightweight, inconsequential mysteries. The series failed to entertain because it did not hold up to the basic genre standards of mystery: the story had no conflict or stakes, and the problems themselves were too simple to be effective as an intellectual exercise for the armchair detective. In what was probably the most reasoned analysis taking this point of view to its logical extreme, Don Don Kun on Moe Alternative argued that “while it certainly does come together in the end, it is ultimately lacking in substance.” He identified staples of detective fiction and pointed out where Hyouka failed to give them due credit. When critiqued as a straight example of the mystery genre, Hyouka’s trivialities were its largest fault, making it difficult to get invested in its plot.
Perhaps in direct response to such dismissal, an alternate interpretation began to pick up popularity in the blogsphere: that the lack of suspense elements in Hyouka was deliberate. Eternal’s post deconstructing the elements of mystery is a prime example defending the series on its literary merit. To him, Hyouka was not so much a straight mystery as it was an exercise in curiosity, which is essentially what a mystery is when it is not being dressed up in arbitrary storytelling conventions. This then of course justifies Chitanda’s role as the catalyst for solving the mysteries: she is curiosity personified but otherwise a static character. “Hyouka‘s defiance of suspense-based mystery is not a gimmick,” Eternal concluded.
But if Hyouka wasn’t really trying to be an example of a typical mystery story, what was it then? As Pontifus pointed out in his defense of the Death of the Author argument, any and all interpretations are valid. We need not be bogged down trying to figure out what the writer was trying to say.
This is important because one’s interpretation of the anime’s purpose seems to affect one’s enjoyment of it.
I will proceed to outline the main speculative theories. There is crossover between all of them, but I’ve chosen to highlight the standout trends:
Hyouka as a Meta Analysis
In what was arguably the definitive and most widely read post defending this point of view, ajthefourth on The Untold Story of Altair and Vega identified the four main characters in Hyouka as stand-ins for detective fiction archetypes: Oreki represents deductive reasoning, Satoshi represents the database, and so on. While it does play its mysteries without irony, Hyouka isn’t so much representing its genre so much as exploring it. This analysis was mostly supported by the movie arc in the series, which really was a pure exercise in having the characters sit at a table and discuss murder mystery conventions.
The rest of the series isn’t quite as straightforward as a meta analysis. Although the second ED was an affectionate homage to well-loved mysteries such as Sherlock Holmes and Lupin, the narrative itself does not always make specific mention of mystery novels. It’s not consistent about exploring detective fiction as a genre.
Since the main characters are all members of the Classic Literature club, it might do well to take a broader focus on the meta analysis. Foxy Lady Ayame and Pontifus chose to scrutinise the first arc of Hyouka as an exploration of historiography – that is, the process of writing history – and concluded that the deductive reasoning process used by detectives and the interpretative process used by historians are one and the same thing.
The implications? That Hyouka isn’t just trying to portray mystery as it appears in detective novels. It is a deeply nuanced meta-aware take on the heart of the genre itself. It’s analysing how mysteries manifest at all and where they appear in day-to-day life.
Hyouka as a Slice of Life Anime
Slice of life is a buzzword (or more like buzzterm) in anime lexicon. It’s often used as a derogatory label for anime where no ongoing plot exists, despite the fact that stories focusing on everyday life can be and often are plot-driven.
In Hyouka’s case, ‘slice of life’ was used to mean that the focus of the story was decidedly mundane but that this was actually the point. It was, as Click put it in the title of his post, about searching for wonder amidst the everyday. He argued that Hyouka is such a difficult anime to interpret because life itself is also difficult to interpret. To find satisfaction in the mysteries in Hyouka is akin to witnessing “a glimpse at what we miss out on when we fail to reach out and solve the mysteries which present themselves to us.” The mystery is the slice of life.
Illogicalzen argued a similar case, stressing the blur between fantasy and reality. Hyouka is a slice of life anime – but theoretically in the sense that life itself is what you make of it: “Mysteries are an element of the fantastical in the everyday life.” Things do not generally happen in Hyouka, but it is not boring because of this.
Another version of the slice of life argument focuses not on plot but on characters. Slice of life is about bonding with the characters, in understanding their strengths and fallacies in the everyday context. This was the approach used to analyse Mayaka’s character on GAR GAR Stegosaurus and also, though later proven incorrect, the author’s speculations on Satoshi’s sexuality.
A character-focused analysis tends to take the focus away from the atmospheric elements of the anime and more towards the relationships. Thus, when this angle of interpretation is taken to its conclusion:
Hyouka as a Love Story
Lacking the features of a standard romance plot as much as it lacks the features of a standard mystery plot, Hyouka’s portrayal of the relationship between Oreki and Chitanda was still otherwise central to its narrative. This is the view that Flawfinder takes on the series, and it is on these terms that he praises it. Oreki falling in love with Chitanda was his main impetus for growing up, and so the love story and the coming-of-age story are so intertwined as to be inseparable. Therefore, Hyouka is primarily a love story.
These elements, as Draggle pointed out all the way back in his First Impressions post, were present in Hyouka right from its inception. “The portrayal of the first crush here is superb,” he wrote. “None of the usual beating around the bush or denial.” He then went on to analyse all the visual cues that indicated Oreki’s feelings of infatuation.
My personal criticism of this interpretation is that it fits if one were to analyse how the story structures its beginning and ending – the romance is certainly vitally important there – but in everywhere in-between the theme is downplayed. The relationship between Oreki and Chitanda is used to highlight the conflict between curiosity and apathy, introversion and extroversion. Vanikawa on Desu Ex Machina took both sides and argued that these themes, including the romance, were equally important. “The keyword here is blossoming,” he explained, which certainly fits the visual imagery.
Hyouka as Visual Poetry
If there is one thing that anyone can agree on about Hyouka, even the detractors, it’s that it’s an overwhelmingly pretty series. It has high production values. Evident care and thought has gone into its art direction and cinematography.
Guardian Enzo compared Hyouka to a Makoto Shinkai film when he praised it as “showing a ‘more real than real’ world that doesn’t impress you with it’s photographic detail – though that’s impressive – but with the way it captures the essential beauty of people and objects, even ‘mundane’ ones.”
It’s an apt comparison, far more so than the initial pinpointing towards Haruhi Suzumiya in my eyes, at least. The visual presentation is important in Hyouka, more so than with most anime, since it tells a dual narrative alongside the verbal one. SnippetTee went into detail with this in her post about topology and art in the anime. The use of diagrams and abstract art styles helps contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the deductive process. “As a visual and logic fan,” she wrote, “I truly take pleasure in how Hyouka artistically landscapes our imagination and reasoning.”
Following an artistic rather than a mathematical approach to this same topic, Foxy Lady Ayame wrote about the visual symbolism employed by the series and its oblique references to classical art. “I dare say that KyoAni gave us here the classiest fanservice in anime history ever,” she quipped.
This all goes back to the argument of the primary way to analyse Hyouka, and in this case it would be as a poem or as art over its narrative. It is what it is through the sensory imagery and what it makes you feel, not because of a literary message that can be gleaned from it.
Which interpretation is the right interpretation? There is none. But depending on the interpretation you take, your perception of the details in the series will change subtly. If read as a love story, for instance, it is the character interactions that warrant the most attention. If you read Hyouka to be a meta analysis, it is the solution and the deduction of the mysteries that are most important.
One thing I noticed that is that while each different analysis acknowledged or even incorporated ideas from other interpretations, all these details tend to be slotted into a different broader picture. I do think that Hyouka as a meta analysis encompasses the most details and is the most reasoned attempt to conceptualise the whole “mundane mystery” thing, while the other interpretations simply shrug the mysteries off as boring and argue against them being the point. In other words, they’re reactionary to criticism.
In fact, the final analysis of Hyouka seems to be coloured in two different broad strokes: “The mysteries are boring for a reason” and “It’s not like other KyoAni shows”. It assumes that a) the mysteries are boring and that b) all KyoAni anime are generally the same, and this is a bad thing. Hyouka suffered struggles in gaining critical reception in the blogsphere in its first half, and many bloggers who did not like it at first only really came to accept it during or after the School Festival arc. And so analysis mostly centered on rationalising just how a turnaround could be made: was it inherent to Hyouka‘s nature or was it just a matter of how they perceived what it was trying to do?
Read in that light, these theories make a lot of sense and it’s easy to see why a fan would attach particular importance on what Hyouka’s primary genre is. But it’s equally important to understand, at least in retrospection, that these analyses are symptomatic of a greater issue and one that makes Hyouka such a deceptively difficult series to interpret: base enjoyment quality is important. An analysis should not be attempted for enjoyment but rather to deepen one’s existing appreciation. If there was no appreciation to begin with, then all attempts to analyse it would be hollow. All Hyouka literature written as the series aired are, necessarily, arguments of quality in one way or another.
Thus, there is room for more areas for analysis. Taking the assumption that “Hyouka is good” instead of indirectly arguing against the contrary, the potential for interpretation is shifted in another direction. I would certainly love to see more posts on Hyouka written, although what we have seen already is rich and expansive in its own right.
There are many more blog posts that I’ve read that I’ve found to be thoughtful, illuminating and eloquent – space constraints was what led me to not include them all in this post. The fact that Hyouka can inspire such breathtaking prose only affirms to me what a unique and artistically powerful anime it was. I fully encourage you to read around in the blogsphere if you want to find some well-written analysis. It is there if you look for it.
I’ll finish this post with some lines that I thought really captured how I feel about Hyouka as a whole. It’s from Bateszi’s blog:
This isn’t a light-hearted series. It has a consistent sense of humour, but it’s balanced with the kind of elegance and meditation that’s unique to Japanese story-telling. Slow and a little bit sad, but as much sun as there is rain and snow. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In an age where most anime titles are now disposable, I hope Hyouka is never forgotten.
Posted on August 11, 2013, in Anime Analysis, Uncategorized and tagged hopefully helpful, hyouka, i am a pretentious lit nerd, I am a sap, talking about other blogs, watashi ki ni narimasu. Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.