Modern Classics: Kyoto Animation’s “Hyouka”

What makes something a “classic”?

Whether it be film, book, video game, or TV show, every form of media has what is referred to as a classic. Filmophiles will look to Metropolis (1927), for example, as a classic of the science fiction genre.  Book lovers might consider The Lord of the Rings (1954) a masterpiece of literature, while video game and television classics may be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991) and Twin Peaks (1990) respectively.

What is it that all of these so-called “classics” have in common? Is it their decades-old age? Or is it their lasting appeal–they’re ability to perfect, to innovate, and to influence? Classics are seen, read, and played by many, and are known of by even more.

But does a particular movie, book, game or TV show become a classic as it ages, or is it born one? Some may claim that yes, its enduring popularity after many years is what determines whether or not something is a “classic.” But there are some that say that because it is a classic, it remains popular despite the passage of time. In other words, is its lasting appeal the cause or the effect?

It’s an unresolved debate, even now, but it’s a debate that makes classics classic, after all. For so long as we’re still talking about them, the high pedestals on which we put them remain deserved.

The “Classic”

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In 2001, the Japanese mystery novel Hyouka was published. Written by Yonezawa Honobu, Hyouka was not an instant success. It wasn’t until 11 years and a few volumes later that a manga adaptation was made, drawn by manga-artist-conglomerate Taskohna. Its moderate success as a serialized mystery manga allowed for its transition into anime, where it fell into the hands of acclaimed anime developer KyotoAnimation.

The Uji-based studio began its work on the anime in 2010 and released the premiere episode of Hyouka almost two years later, launching two other anime (K-On!! and Nichijou) during the same production period as Hyouka.

The Setting

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Hyouka follows a year in the life of four high-school students in Japan, as they kinda-sorta-but-not-really come of age. These four students, who join the fading “Classics Club,” quickly become an adoptive family and go about solving the school’s mysteries.

The Characters

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“I’m not stupid. I’m just too lazy to show how smart I am.”

Oreki Houtarou (Nakamura Yuuichi) is a self-labeled “energy-saver,” an asocial second-year with a sharp, analytical mind. He is the anime’s central protagonist, the kid-sleuth, the functional sloth.

“A database can’t draw conclusions.”

Fukube Satoshi (Sakaguchi Daisuke) is Houtarou’s oldest friend, and perhaps the only character (besides Houtarou’s sister) that truly understands him. Satoshi plays the role of Watson to Houtarou’s Sherlock, and with his excellent memory, is the club’s appointed “human encyclopedia.”

“I’m curious!”

The plot’s primary instigator, Chitanda Eru (Sato Satomi) is the only daughter of a much-respected farming family, and as such, has lived most of her life learning its ways and traditions. In doing so, Chitanda has a genuine air of naivete surrounding her, but possesses an intuitive mind and, ABOVE ALL ELSE, is a culinary wizard.

“You’re wrong! A masterpiece is born a masterpiece. You’ve just never been hit by something that made you realize, ‘This is it!'”

Rounding out the group is Ibara Mayaka (Kayano Ai), a “tells-it-like-it-is” friend of Chitanda, who has a love-hate (but mostly love) relationship with Satoshi. As a manga artist, Mayaka is the most outwardly artistic of the group, and is arguably the most passionate about literature out of the four.

AND MUCH MORE. Hyouka‘s supporting cast of characters is one of anime’s most memorable, including a dead-eyed pyrotechnic, a face-is-never-shown sister, and a certain constipated game-show host.

The Premise

Without giving much away, Hyouka is a slice-of-life mystery anime with its characters at its core. Throughout the anime’s 26-episode run, the Classics Club solve mysteries that are usually resolved by episode’s end, although some span a few more episodes. The formula is this: Chitanda regales her fellow club members with a tale of unexplained phenomenon, and, locking gazes with Houtarou (who has feelings of the romantic sort for her–but is too lazy to do anything about it) convinces him to solve her mystery.

The Animation

Despite its non-fantastical setting, KyoAni pulls out all the stops for Hyouka. Their rich attention to detail truly makes Hyouka a wonder to look at, imbuing the series with an almost alternate-worldly feel. Driven by precise yellow and pink hues, Hyouka‘s slightly mystical aesthetic clashes with its high-school backdrop, giving it a Ghibli + realism ambiance.

Camera angles are lively and unorthodox, and the movement is far from lazy, despite its protagonist’s philosophy. There are no jaw-dropping action sequences, nor are there sweeping landscape portraiture, but nor is there a maddening over-use of CGI.

The Music

Going right along with its motif of “classics,” Hyouka employs its own rendition of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude in G-major” as its main theme. Its anachronistic use of music 300 years from the past lends to the series a sense of the forlorn, and of hope.

The Genre

Slice-of-life (whatever the hell that is), mystery, drama, romance–shit, call it magical realism, as it sure fits the bill–Hyouka is genre mash that is sure to please anyone in search of a thought-provoking anime about the search for meaning. The fact that it primarily concerns itself with the lives of high-schoolers may turn some viewers off, but keep in mind that the Classics Club are a mature bunch, often speaking in what I like to call a Slug Sorkin pace.

Check out its trope page here, but do your best to avoid spoilers if you do so.

The Controversy

I want to address the ending. People seemed to be miffed that Houtarou and Chitanda didn’t “get together” at the end of the show. I’m going to come right out and say that I’m glad they didn’t. A cliche, Hollywood happy ending where two people that are “meant to be” together would have done Hyouka a disservice. Instead we got ambiguity, chilling music, and beautiful animation. Darn. How dare they end the show on such a low note? Still, if that somehow isn’t enough, just keep in mind that most people’s understanding of “endings” are, in my opinion, flawed. Stories don’t end. Nor do they stop. They stop being told. And although the story of Hyouka has stopped being told (in anime form, anyway), make no mistake: it doesn’t end there.

Lasting Appeal

This is what I do every Wednesday. (And every other day).

Like any great fictional character, Houtarou, Satoshi, Mayaka, and Chitanda stop being fictional. They’re more than made-up people you’ve watched for a few hours and forgot existed. You feel like you’re part of their lives (even though you aren’t); you feel like you’ve lived in their world with them (even though you couldn’t have). Because of this, you want to relive certain parts of your time with the Classics Club: that moment when Chitanda got drunk off of alcoholic pralines, when Satoshi walked into the room with a paper-mache Saturn on his head, when Houtarou saved the day with a bag of wheat flour, and when Mayaka turned it into a competition-winning kakiage-over-rice.

And although its adventures may not be on as grand a scale as, say, Samurai Champloo or Gurren Lagann, Hyouka‘s deeply-realized characters, vivid animation, and fusion of genre makes Hyouka deserving of the title “modern classic.”

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