Right from the get go, and under the glittering façade of Kyoto Animation’s visuals, we’re introduced to jaded highschooler Hotaro Oreki, who sees himself in shades of grey. Imagine that instead of being simply listless, Tanaka-kun was nihilistic, and you’ve got a fair approximation of Oreki, who shuns school clubs, romances and almost everything else to save the effort. As he’s so fond of reminding us, he’s an “energy conservationist” putting in the bare minimum, and getting things done quickly should he have to exert the effort.
His sister, off backpacking, persuades him via letter to join the Classic Lit Club being, as it is, on the brink of collapse due to a lack of members. With no small amount of reluctance, Oreki joins and finds the constantly curious Eru Chitanda already in the clubroom, despite the door being locked with no other means of entry. And so the first mystery that typifies Hyouka is put into motion.
Though one might expect the Classic Lit Club to, well, read and discuss literature, this motley crew instead bides their time stumbling into minor mysteries and then solving them, usually with conclusions so ordinary they border on anti-climactic. Perhaps this is why the series is lumped in with slice-of-lifers despite its more overtly dramatic and literary origins and execution. The series is based on Honobu Yonezawa’s Classic Literature Club novels, the first of which was published in 2001.
This genesis gives the narrative a credibility its rivals would kill for, with carefully plotted arcs of various sizes. While some mysteries, like the aforementioned locked-room puzzle, are quickly resolved, others have multiple episodes to unfold. The best in this first half concerns the Classic Lit Club itself, or rather its history. When he was a member, Chitanda’s uncle was involved in some clandestine event and, since he’s been missing for years, it’s up to them to discover the truth.
Though some of the mysteries fail to engage the viewer – the first half concludes with trying to find an earring at a swimming pool – they provide the catalyst for character development in Oreki, glacial though it is. As the series progresses, he grows tired of being grey, and it becomes apparent that his outlook is less aesthetic and more depression.
This being a KyoAni series, aesthetic is important and, this season’s Violet Evergarden notwithstanding, this might just be the studio’s most visually adventurous effort to date. Directed by Kyoto veteran Yasuhiro Takemoto, it’s awash in stylistic flourishes and trippy visuals enough to rival Monogatari, and packed with inventive transitions and visual metaphors. Devotees to the studio’s particulars won’t be disappointed either, with the smallest details rendered with exquisite clarity. The animation is paired with classical music, including Beethoven and Bach, in amongst a piano and strings score that evokes a quiet sense of dread, making the end credits sequence look entirely out of place.
If there’s one through-line across its mysteries, it’s that they all concern viewpoint, subverting expectation and ensuring, like all good whodunits, that Hyouka is always one step ahead of the viewer. As soon as you think you’ve gotten it figured out, it pulls the rug out from under you.
English dub; clean opening & closing animation; trailers
Blu-ray: collector’s packaging