Spring 2012 to summer 2012 (22 episodes + 1 OVA)
Lazy Oreki (he calls himself energy-saving) has just started high school and at his elder sister’s behest he reluctantly becomes what he assumes will be a relaxed, solitary member of the Classics Club. But no sooner does he contemplate an easy high school life than he finds a pretty, long-haired girl named Chitanda has entered the club room ahead of him and says she also wants to join.
These two are opposites in nearly every way imaginable. One is a contemplative, genius boy from an average household with no motivation whatsoever and the other is a spacey, energetic girl from a rich family with an intense curiosity about everything. But just like two magnets, put their opposite poles together and you’ve made something greater than the sum of their parts.
The pair is joined by Oreki’s friend Satoshi and the girl trying to win Satoshi’s heart Mayaka. They begin a journey to unravel the mysteries of the memberless Classics Club they’ve inherited, lend their specialized assistance to people along the way and learn a few things about themselves as they grow into young men and women.
Mystery is something that anime seems to have a hard time doing correctly. Generally speaking, most mystery or puzzle anime focus far too much on the genius of the hero to make some boringly grandiose epiphany in the climax of each episode—usually to the tone of, “It was all so obvious,” when it was actually so thick you could use it to fill potholes. We the viewers don’t get to feel smart ourselves because there are never any clues for us to attempt to draw our own conclusions before the solution to the puzzle gets revealed.
This makes Hyouka by far the best mystery anime I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Hints get dropped left and right and Oreki has the right personality not to be condescending to his friends or the audience when he points out the clues we’ve missed as the mystery gets solved. I don’t think there was ever a conundrum I figured out completely on my own, but I could usually get pretty close and that was always really cool and satisfying.
The topics of the mysteries are also intellectually engrossing. Dealing with such frivolous ideas as deriving the proper ending to an unfinished script to the more serious issue of bringing resolution to an unrequited love, Hyouka’s content spans a wide spectrum. And then combined with Chitanda’s infectious energy, it’s hard not to feel invested in the outcome.
The heroes also mesh well together with the four of them coming in nice pairs. Oreki is brilliant, but lacks the drive to self-motivate. Chitanda is a bundle of curious intent, but leans towards hasty and scatterbrained. Friendly Satoshi is analytical and smart, but often has trouble getting things together—in more ways than one. Then, Mayaka’s cold and contrary personality helps put the brakes on when things start getting out of hand (she also has access to resources being an assistant librarian).
So it basically goes like this—Chitanda needs her curiosity itch scratched, so she turns to Oreki who needs some pep talk to get him moving. Satoshi is all too eager to lend a hand and when the three start to snowball, Mayaka injects some rational thought by pointing out something they overlooked. That’s not to say that each episode is formulaic—far from it. Every mystery is a unique problem to tackle and the cast’s rich characters help keep every new development fresh and interesting.
But Hyouka wouldn’t be so great if it was nothing but mysteries. There’s a wonderful story of young people developing their friendships built around this framework of enigmas. And while I hesitate to call Hyouka a romance, the intended pairings of boy and girl are made quite clear right from the start. In some ways I like this approach to dealing with romance a lot more than your typical romance series deals with the topic.
Quite often, love isn’t something that happens at first sight. It’s a gradual process of discovery that starts with simply spending time together as good friends and colleagues—eventually culminating in a realization that the bonds between you have blossomed into love. This more natural growth of friendship really seals the deal for the rest of the series’ grander designs. On the surface it’s a tale of very exciting lives of curiosity and intrigue, but the people are just ordinary Joes and Janes who happen to be in the right place. That’s something which is hard to capture and Hyouka does it like it’s second nature.
As much praise as I’ve lavished on Hyouka, there are a few episodes that felt a bit flat. That’s something of a letdown in a series that’s only 22 episodes long (plus a mild fanservice OVA). But unlike other mystery anime like Baccano, Gosick, UN-GO or Kamisama no Memochou, the puzzles are actually solvable before the end of the episode. If you’re interested in that sort of “challenge while you watch,” it’s a style that really sucks you in and holds your attention.
I’ll say it again, this is the only mystery anime I can recall that’s ever gotten it right, which gives it a very novel distinction. And while the series doesn’t have a shred of moe in sight, leading heroine Chitanda has an adorably enrapturing personality that I simply couldn’t get enough of. The pace can be slow at times, but I think Hyouka has a little of everything a serious drama needs to please anyone who enjoys the extraordinary ordinary.