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.
The amount of pretentiousness in this post blinds me.
Not sure if that’s an insult or compliment lolol
I will never tell.
He’s a fault-finder so of course he’d say that. I enjoyed your post, it was an excellent read. I too, love Hyouka and hope it gets a season 2 (even though this is sadly unlikely)
I think Flawfinder is just conserving energy :)
And thank you for the nice comment.
Hyouka… such sweet memories. I hope as well that it won’t be forgotten. Your work here is astounding! Well done~
But I noticed a few things I didn’t find quite right:
I wasn’t ironic, if that’s what you mean by “she quipped rather dryly”. The onsen episode was awesome in execution. And I’m Foxy- with a ‘y’.
“Although the second ED was an affectionate homage to well-loved mysteries such as Sherlock Holmes and Lupin III” – Lupin III is a thief. The reference was to Arsene Lupin, another detective.
And GAR GAR Stegosaurus was making fun of how fans perceived Satoshi’s sexuality, if my memory serves me right. And well, I really kinda expected Satoshi to tell sth like “I’m not interested in girls” after the Valentine incident. *shrug*
Thanks! And argh, slip ups! I’ve corrected them promptly.
As for GAR GAR Stegosaurus’s posts, I did notice how she was making fun of the whole perception about Satoshi’s sexuality in other posts, but it looked like in that particular post she was taking the idea seriously or at least not dismissing it. Just giving it an exploration to see if it could be right. But I might have interpreted it wrong.
Arsene Lupin is both thief and detective, and the inspiration for his cross-fictional descendant Lupin III.
I really ought to move Hyouka up in priority in my monstrous backlog…
Thanks for making me look bad. Agreeing with Mr. Flawfinder?! What is the world coming to…
But seriously, I really like the idea behind this. It’s neat to see the varying perspectives people have and how they relate all laid out like this. I’d be curious in seeing what this looks like for Penguindrum. :)
A Penguindrum lit review would be great! But, you know, this one took a lot of energy so I think a Penguindrum one would slay me. Still, I wouldn’t mind writing more of these for different series, especially if other people find it useful!
it must have been a lot of hard work to put this all together and organize them the way you did. The format is both very enlightening and neat. I think you did a wonderful job on this post.
It’s interesting to see all the different perspectives for Hyouka. Personally I could enjoy Hyouka from any of the angles because I believe it’s a hybrid series so it’s impossible to focus on one angle anyway. (This also almost makes me want to rewatch Hyouka)
Brilliant post, but this won’t convince me to watch Hyouka. Anyway, most, if not all anime can be viewed as shows of radically differing angles. So far, most of my discoveries on this are considered regular to me, but I would like to share several which I personally considered most surprising:
1. Cross Fight B-Daman and its sequel, Cross Fight B-Daman eS. As a regular children’s toy show, it does do an average but decent job on promoting the toys by showing the different properties the toys as distinctly as possible with good battle choreography and special move visuals. When both reached halfway points, I suddenly realized that both are also anime about what “true power” really is. In both series, “true power” is presented as the power of bonds between the human and toy characters which has to be eventually earned through hard work, sincerity and willpower. Power which deviates from it is shown to be initially powerful, but eventually outclassed because it can never grow. Also, both showed that the standards of power will increase over time and we must keep up or we will lose it. The concept of “true power” is hardly original in anime, but this is a refreshing thing to me because it shows up in an anime that I do not expect such a theme happens.
2. Zettai Bouei Leviathan. As a fantasy anime, it is terrible because there are little fantastic things going on here and there and the plot intensity is very low. As an iOS game adaptation, it is even worse because it showcases almost none of the gameplay elements outside of several items and the battle scenes and these appeared in very sparse amounts. Worse yet, it appeared that the anime is a prequel to the game, albeit it makes the story makes more sense. However, as a coming of age & slice of life story, it is quite good in showing that having a disaster strikes should not put an end to an enjoyable life as long as we know what to do when it strikes again. Having fun in a beach does not stop them from being able to fend off a giant monster, for instance. Also, the three protagonists outgrow their older selves who are obsessive towards their own life into competent fighters who cares about their surroundings, be it other people or the places they are. Ultimately, it is worth a mildly healing yet thought provoking anime.
3. Danball Senki Wars: As a kids’ anime, the characters are properly portrayed, but the premise is too serious for a children to handle properly in the sense that it is a war simulation. As an anime to promote the 3DS game of the same name and the associated toys, the missions are designed to be game-like with the toys showing prominent, distinct and dynamic capabilities, making it a solid work. But what surprises me is that it does examine what is a war simulation truly is and its dangers to the participants along with the real world. Some characters take it as a simulation while some others take it as a war with others are being in between, but none of them were portrayed as wrong or incompatible to each other. Being an allegory to Russo-Japanese war also helps. Hopefully the anime explores the implication of the result of war simulation being reflected into the real life well. I remembered Rebecca Silverman of ANN saying that “if you can’t shed your adult mindset for half an hour, then you may as well not bother,” when reviewing it, but I’d say that “it has a surprising adult mentality installed to it and that adds to viewing experience”.
Any thoughts, everyone? :-)
Here are my thoughts on #2: Zettai Bouei Leviathan is a big fuckball of boring. Heehee.
@Flawfinder: Oh, you~
@Murazrai: While I haven’t seen the three shows you mentioned in your comment, I do totally get your point that it’s the interpretation that decides what level you enjoy the show on. Also, I’m curious: is there any specific reason why you’re unwilling to watch Hyouka? Not that I would call it required viewing or anything, but you seem like a pretty open-minded fan.
The biggest reason is I don’t have the time to look at past shows or pick up shows that I had them on hold. I have my writing projects, my current anime watching schedule which you can view on my MAL anime list [ http://myanimelist.net/animelist/murazrai ] and the fantastic fall 2013 lineup. If I am to watch Hyouka, it will be possibly around winter 2014, but even that is uncertain. Then again, my taste in anime only started to built during fall 2012. I was only watching Accel World & Cardfight! Vanguard: Asia Circuit-hen back when Hyouka was airing.
At the same time, I generally avoid shows that gets hyped or favourably previewed/reviewed by anibloggers unless I am interested in them. Among them are: Shin Sekai Yori, Shingeki no Kiyojin, Silver Spoon, Genei Wo Kakeru Taiyou, Free! etc. To me, I do not watch anime as if I am chasing some sort of trend (getting meta, isn’t it?). Then again, sometimes anibloggers are right in their opinions despite I would not say the same thing on the same show.
As a conclusion, I am an open minded fan, but I have principles (which is not necessarily standards) in anime watching and real life constraints that will prevent me from watching otherwise brilliant shows. I think Hyouka would be an anime of its own when I watch it.
Ah, can’t edit my comment. >_<" I was also watching Cross Fight B-Daman during that period too.
I just want to thank you for this post. For me, Hyouka is simply one of the most beautiful works of art – in any form or format – I have ever seen.
You’re welcome. I feel the same way about this series. I’m so glad this post could be useful to you.
This post was a brilliant idea and a great combination of all the ways I’d seen people discussing the show. If I could like this a billion more times, I would. Absolutely fantastic work.
I’m curious though – what bars mixing all these interpretations together? My final impression of Hyouka (before looking at this post) was something that blurred the lines between “genre” and should be viewed as a slice-of-life, coming-of-age romance story that used mysteries as a major story/character element while simultaneously paying homage to its roots (which, ironically, turns out to be pretty much a mixture of all the different lenses used here). I think that combining most of the views you’ve expressed together solves most of their issues while reaffirming their strengths.
You’re CURIOUS, huh? ;)
I think that the crossover can happen on any level and that it’s reasonable to have an interpretation that mixes them all together very seamlessly. But I think it’s generally the case that you generally lean a bit more strongly towards one “genre” than the others. This is especially so on the first time viewing – because otherwise, how do you make sense of all these different elements working together at once? Taking a step back, though, it is definitely possible to reconcile these different interpretations, just like you said. Like most literary works, it just doesn’t do justice to Hyouka to slap a genre label on it, you know? As more time passes and we spend more time thinking and writing about Hyouka, perhaps we’ll get a bit closer to the truth.
[…] The internal/external struggle tends to be the easiest to visualize, since it mirrors our pattern-seeking nature. We initially look for a framework to help something make “sense” to us, and then once we have we go and apply that framework to helping to understand other things! And when that framework breaks down, we modify and refine it, and then go forth again to the same procedure. This is how science works, as well as how we tend to work (yay psychology!). Rinse and repeat a bunch, and you have a nice cycle in there. And the cool thing here is that you can actually see this in action, such as in Froggykun’s Hyouka meta-review! […]
[…] because it looks pretty good and deserves to be treated better than such. Man, even Hyouka had to put up with this nonsense, and I feel it’s time we stop applying this type of mindset to everything the […]
[…] be useful to keep this in mind to prevent the same thing that happened to Hyouka (essentially being pigeonholed) happening here. There is some value in seeing the connections between Kill La Kill and […]
I can show my literary critic friend this blog and convince him to watch Hyouka. Excellent piece of work sir, you have my appreciation and respect.
Why, thank you! I’m glad this could be useful to you. Hope your friend likes Hyouka.
[…] could easily recommend it to most people. I’ve read a lot of analytical posts on this series, as aggregated by Frog-kun in an excellent post which I’ll be linking in the description, and I get why other people like […]
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This is so interesting. I enjoyed reading it.
[…] the time it first came out (c. 2012-2013) there was some discussion about how to interpret it. As a slice of life story? A coming of age story? A mystery story? An examination of the mystery […]
[…] the starting point for this blog, as one of my first forays into Ani-blogging was Frog-kun’s post about the series and the different lenses that it could be viewed from. To this day, Hyouka is still one of the most […]
I can’t believe I just came across this! It was a great read, and it sparked an interest in rewatching Hyouka in the next few months :)