Anime For People Who Don’t Like Anime: Hyouka

Pros:

  • Agatha Christie-style locked room mysteries
  • Low stakes, very relaxing
  • Art is gorgeous, big magic hour vibes
  • Main character’s laziness is deeply relatable

Cons:

  • When you get down to it, not much actually happens

If you enjoyed Rian Johnson’s Knives Out you’ll probably be into Hyouka, at least on an aesthetic level. But while Knives Out elevated the form of the locked-room mystery through clever plotting, social commentary, and the subversion of expectations, Hyouka lowers the stakes and makes the implausible schemes of an Agatha Christie novel palatable by making them all the products of high schoolers trying too hard to be clever. 

The series follows Oreki Houtarou, a chronically lazy yet improbably brilliant high school student, who is browbeaten into solving the various mysteries that plague his school by Eru Chitanda, a mythical force of curiosity jammed into the wide-eyed body of a schoolgirl. You can more or less anticipate how the series works from there. It’s a classic Holmes and Watson dynamic, but the lowered stakes mean that Oreki’s laziness is far more justified than Holmes’, and the series doesn’t have to endlessly invent smarter and smarter international criminals for him to have an antagonist on his level. 

In 1944 Raymond Chandler, one of the godfather’s of hard-boiled noir fiction, wrote an essay called the Simple Art of Murder in which he excoriates the writers of the Christie-style locked room mystery. The thesis of his argument is that because their stories exist as logic puzzles first, and then add on the idea of murder to raise the stakes and to provide a lurid sense of the macabre, they end up cheapening both the mystery and the atmosphere. Hyouka is the opposite of this. The contrived logic puzzles remain and as do the overly heightened stakes, but because in the end the problems are all so trivial and the characters are all overly-emotional high-schoolers, what you’re left with is the emotional reality of these characters and their actions. The mystery doesn’t need to be solved because there’s a killer on the loose, it needs to be solved because if Orkei doesn’t, then the cute girl he’s friends with might think less of him. And most of the time that means finding lost items, or trying to work out the intentions behind strange but minor occurrences. 

The show is also gorgeous, as people have come to expect from Kyoto Animation. The palate is full of magic hour golds and deep, rich browns, punctuated by the occasional burst of colour in someone’s eyes, or the diagrams that accompany a scene of exposition. It’s hardly dynamic, but the direction and the editing both work with economy to give the viewer the key facts of a scene without being too obvious. 

It sounds silly to recommend a show that presents itself to have basically no stakes, but as the series continues and you start to learn more about each character and their relationships to others, it becomes easier to see how the minor cases all start to tell stories about the people investigating them, not the suspects or victims themselves. Hyouka remains one of my absolute favourite comfort watch shows, and I’d recommend it for that alone, but underneath the after-school sunset vibe is a legitimately interesting set of character studies. 

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