Length warning: 2447 words
Let me begin by saying that I originally thought of Hyouka as a possible anime-of-the-season candidate, due in large part to its all-star cast, the fact that it’s a Kyoto Animation series, and that the first screens and promo trailer showed what could possibly be another milestone in the school-based anime segment. The first episode was released today, so be0wulf and I sat down at our respective computers and watched it together, in a manner of speaking. I’ll be offering my thoughts below, and be0wulf will be contributing in a separate post. This post won’t contain much plot synopsis, if at all. Rather, select plot elements will be used primarily as the basis for a framework upon which I can analyse and critique elements of this series. You might notice that my tone isn’t particularly positive so far, and you’re definitely right. Suffice to say that this first episode disappointed me greatly, and if you’re a KyoAni fanboy, you might as well stop reading right here. More after the Jump.
A Little History
First, I’d like to redirect you to Kleesta’s post on Upotte!!, of which I shall quote verbatim:
“On April 9th of 2007, the anime industry would be changed forever. During that eventful day, Kyoto Animation debuted an anime called Lucky Star which focused on CUTE GIRLS DOING CUTE THINGS and a whole bunch of nothing. The reprobates of Japan gobbled it all up like a flock of sheep and as a result, the series spawned it’s own genre. Successors to Lucky Star, such as A-Channel and Hyakko! are categorized as “Slice of Life” when it actually means “FOUR BITCHES“.”
This post won’t be focusing on the “four bitches” type of anime, but it’ll provide a nice segue into Hyouka discussion. Personally, I enjoyed Lucky Star at the time; I viewed it as one of those series where you could just kick back and watch a motley crew of four girls go about their daily lives in their own idiosyncratic fashions. However, that series and its successors did spawn what we call the “cute-girls-doing-cute-things” (abbreviated as CGDCT), a trope that has extended its influence just about everywhere. You might note that Lucky Star was a product of Kyoto Animation. Well, it just so happens that Hyouka is also produced by Kyoto Animation. What am I driving at, you might ask? What, you might wonder, is my point in listing all these different shows and noting their relative influence in the anime sphere? Well, KyoAni has been responsible for quite a few shows, and the majority turn out to be massive hits with the general populace. However, this does not mean that they are faultless, even if the K-On! series has had amazing sales numbers. On the contrary, their position in the anime market means that they have the ability to propagate particular themes and animation styles that have a definite effect on successive shows from both their own and other studios. The spiel about CGDCT is but one of the tropes that has endured, spurred on by a market that loves the characters portrayed in these types of shows. Indeed, other examples include SHAFT, with their superflat (I’m using the term loosely here, since Murakami’s style is quite different), 2-dimensional portrayals, quick screen transitions, and an obsessive amount of text crowding each frame.
What many naive (I’ll be nice, but they’re often more ignorant than anything else) fanboys don’t realize is that KyoAni’s portrayal of these characters is, for the lack of a better word, a “deconstruction” (credit to be0wulf) of common tropes interspersed throughout the 90′s and early 2000′s. You’re supposed to look at their characters and be properly amused that none of the characters are as they seem, and indeed, exhibit attributes that fall outside their trope. Case in point: Haruhi, where the popular conventions of a high school anime gets turned on its head with the addition of an eccentric main character, an unreliable narrator with an aptitude for adaptation, a robotic meganekko, voluptuous time-travelling meido, and a psychic bisexual esper. The story thus reaches beyond its original trappings, and in most people’s eyes, has become a staple of its genre. I watched the first season back when it was released on a week-by-week, and personally, I thought it was decent. Not god-tier (I have that space reserved for shows like GiTS:SAC and Mushishi), oh-no, but it had a certain quality behind it that cemented KyoAni’s reputation in the eyes of the weeaboo masses. While their subsequent shows have received a high level of publicity, it is my personal opinion (and one that is shared by many), that their subsequent banal focus on frivolity has had the result of tempering expectations and isolating a segment of their viewers. For example, K-On!, which has only the barest semblance of a plot, or Lucky Star, which is purely episodic in nature (due in large part to its 4koma origins). With the news of Hyouka a few months ago however, the elements for the resurgence of a Haruhi-esque show began to arise. High school anime? Check. Hime-style character with distinguishing facial features? Check. All-star voice-acting crew? Check.
However, it seems like that will not be the case. First, the positive things. The animation quality is up there with other KyoAni productions, with obsessive details in backgrounds and “activity” scenes are always animated to the fullest extent. Unlike lower-tier studios, there are no bizarre facial contortions that destroy immersion. Character’s faces rotate from head-on to 3/4 to profile with nary a hiccup, and in particular, girl’s hair flows naturally and seems to have a certain weight to it. Bodily proportions are acceptably realistic, though some characters suffer a bit from big-head syndrome (e.g. Chitanda). In other words, the same underlying framework exists for Hyouka: quality production and attention to detail rue the day.
Before I go into the characters and plot, which form some of my sorest points, I’d like to say that these impressions have mainly been gathered from episode 1 and various translated chapters of the light novel. While characters and plot do, and are indeed supposed to change from the first to last episodes, I am of the belief that shows should be gripping/enthralling from the get-go. Excuses that “oh, the first episode wasn’t bad, and it really picks up in the third to fourth episode” really don’t fly with me, especially in today’s 12 episode structure. You really don’t have the liberty of dilly-dallying with the plot in the first episode. While some series are able to fill a large segment of the overall length with dull material (i.e. Steins;Gate, Haibane Renmei, and Trigun, to list some examples) and still come out in the end with an excellent story and a memorable cast, it still isn’t an excuse or means of justification for poor pacing.
Unfortunately, Hyouka seems to have fallen victim to the other end of the spectrum, as the pacing was all over the place in the first episode. Forgive me. All over the place might be the wrong phrase. From the opening scenes with Hotarou walking down the street, through the milling hubbub of activity outside the school gates, to his locker, and subsequent scenes at the classroom and clubroom, Hotarou et al end up doing absolutely nothing. You may object to me at this point, and say, “well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! This is, after all, an introductory episode at heart,” and I’d have to agree. But seriously, nothing is introduced at all. All we get are three “mysteries”: Chitanda’s locked-room incident, the Silk Spider Association mystery, and the Beethoven girl ghost. The first was solved rather uneventfully, the second was a prank hatched by Hotarou and Satoshi on the pretense that the latter rumor would require too much effort to undertake. In addition, the latter case was solved after the fact in a convincing fashion. None of these cases were particularly interesting, and were all dismissed rather quickly by Hotarou, and since these mysteries all get solved, nothing gets carried over. We’ll probably never hear of these mysteries ever again, except in passing. How is that interesting at all? I guess you can say that the quick resolutions set the stage for plot progressions like:
- Chitanda/Satoshi/Ibara discovering some mystery
- Puzzlement/intrigue develops
- They implore Hotarou to help with their investigations
- Hotarou mulls it over and solves it immediately
However, we only get the slightest glimpses of his problem-solving thought process, and honestly, the prank was a fairly weak attempt. Chitanda could have very easily called the number on the “poster”, and would have quickly seen through the ruse. In addition, a large portion of the episode was essentially one-on-one dialogue between Hotarou and Satoshi: the subject matter ranging from “Hi I’m Hotarou and I’m lazy” with jovial “oh you’s” from Satoshi (of course, I took the liberty of abbreviating and paraphrasing their interactions, but you get the point).
Speaking of characters, they (in a word) suck. I was already worried about the characters when I decided to read the translated LN chapters for kicks, but they are the most insipidly boring characters I have seen in a very long time. In particular, the weight of my wrath falls on the main character (MC), Hotarou, who is basically in be0wulf’s words, “a lazy-modo Kyon”, with which I have to somewhat agree. But it’s not even just that. On one hand, he professes to shun activity out of preference, but he somehow decides to go through all that effort to deceive Chitanda at the end of the first episode? What the hell? A bit of a dichotomy, wouldn’t you agree? Was that intentional? Not only that, but I have a huge problem with the way KyoAni has presented him. I honestly believe that the mark of good characterization is when the audience is able to derive their own conclusions about specific characters due to their actions and choices throughout the story. In Hyouka, we don’t get that. At all. From the get-go, the entire episode is littered with Satoshi’s running commentary on Hotarou, saying things like “oh, Hotarou is always like that”, or expressing surprise at “the normally stone-hearted Hotarou speaking to a girl”. The MC himself qualifies these statements, with internal monologues saying how “people misunderstand me” and repeatedly saying his catchphrase of “If I don’t have to do it I won’t; if I have to do it, make it quick”. We don’t learn anything from his actions. In fact, the little that we do learn runs counter to such dialogue (the faux mystery). Satoshi isn’t quite as bad (and as guilty of brutally insipid exposition), but his character is also prone to self-proclamations of his prankster nature (e.g., the list with the four rising powers). If a character is a prankster, we should be able to assume that from their pranks. You really don’t need to be telling us outright. What do you think we are, five? Chitanda just seems shallow at this point. The flashing eyes, face up against Hotarou, blooming flowers and hair everywhere, and ojou-sama exclamations of “I’M CURIOUS!” just seems like a stupid string of gags to me. Girl #2 hasn’t show up yet, so I won’t comment on her.
You might be saying to yourself at this point, “well, you’re just being critical! How else would they characterize characters if not through description?”. Well, in that case, I’d like to point you towards Sakamichi No Apollon. After you watch those two episodes, or even just the first episode, I’d like to see what you think, then. There are very few internal monologues, and if there are, they’re isolated to Kaoru’s musings. There is no explicit “Hi, I’m ____ and I live by these rules”. You know Kaoru’s a loner and unsociable because of his childhood experiences with his propensity for nervous nausea. In fact, we still don’t know very much about Sentarou and Ritsuko (though trust me, details will be revealed very quickly in the coming weeks), but get the feeling that deep down, they have issues too. To me, the explicit exposition in Hyouka is just lazy storytelling, and I can’t see how anyone could defend that. You could say that it’s not KyoAni’s fault, since Hyouka is based on a light novel, and I’d have to agree. However, there’s something else that bothers me.
The casting at first seemed to be perfect. Satomi Satou voices Chitanda Eru, Daisuke Sakaguchi voices Satoshi, Ai Kayano voices Mayaka Ibara (girl #2), and Yuuichi Nakamura voices Hotarou Oreki. However, I can’t stand Satomi Satou’s voice in this series. She just seems to be trying far too hard to sound like a stereotypically rich girl, and has lost all of the character and charm that made her interesting in K-On!. Yuuichi Nakamura, on the other hand, sounds way too confident and manly for Hotarou. Sure, the lazy tones are there, but it just seems too …assertive for someone who’s suppose to be “low-powered”. Satoshi’s VA, on the other hand, is actually pretty decent, and fits his role well. Again, Ibara hasn’t appeared yet, so I can’t really comment, but we’ll see. So far, I’m not all that impressed.
All in all, I found Hyouka 01 to be a disappointing entry into the Summer 2012 anime season. I’ll keep blogging this show, and I’ll keep offering my thoughts as KyoAni reveals more about the supposed eponymous overarching plot, but my expectations have been lowered quite substantially. I’d truly have to pin the problems with Hyouka on the source material, which isn’t really in KyoAni’s control. As this is only the first episode, all my opinions thus far could go one of two ways. One possibility is that it won’t get any better than this, which would be tragic. The second is that Hyouka’s main plotline will be profoundly interesting and will subsequently redeem itself for a subpar first episode. Me? I’m going to take a “we’ll see” approach, with well-tempered expectations.
Stay tuned for be0wulf’s take on Hyouka.
P.S. If you read till the end, I can’t thank you enough. It’s not often that people are willing to sit down and read walls of text anymore.