Monday, September 17, 2012

Anime Review: Hyouka

Hyouka was my late spring pick-up, partially because it was subtitled and partially because, well, I like big mysteries and this show said straight up that it was only going to focus on smaller, "everyday" mysteries and frankly Dusk Maiden of Amnesia seemed like a more interesting choice there. But, funny enough a situation that has happened to me several times with the same result, I was bored, had a lot of sewing to do and needed something to watch so I sat through the first few episodes and, after a couple of episodes of not liking the characters, something happened, the characters started to grow on me. And that is the series' strength, it's an absolutely fantastic character-driven show which did so much with a shorter than usual run time.


Summary: Houtarou Oreki is a high-schooler whose motto in life is "if I don't have to do it then I won't" which sums up his entire mindset of doing as little as possible in order to conserve energy. So he decides it's not worth the energy to defy his sister when she asks if he could please join the Classics Club at school, the same club she was in that's about to be disbanded since there are no members left. Figuring that no one else will be there and he can use it as a place to nap Oreki agrees, only to find out that his friend from middle school (Satoshi), his friend Mayaka, and their energetic classmate Eru Chitanda have also joined. It's too late for Oreki to back down however and he is soon dragged all over the place to help Chitanda satisfy her enormous curiosity with the small mysteries of life (and alarmingly for him he seems to be rather good at it as well).

The Good: The show, based on some Japanese novels (NOT light novels which does explain a few things) has three major arcs with a number of one episode stories between them and, while some of the stories are connected together, it's not a plot heavy show in the slightest, what connects everything together in the end are the characters and their development. And holy cow was there development, each of the four characters had at least some and the effects of it could clearly be seen in later episodes, something that impressed me since none of the characters completely change but rather begin to in the way that teenagers do. Normally I don't say this but there is an OVA from one of the DVDs, numbered 11.5, and while it's not a great mystery (IMO the weakest of the series) it's a good idea to watch it between episodes 11 and 12 since it cements the character development Oreki is going through and also shows how the dynamics of the group have begun to change, they really are a group of friends by that point which wasn't how they started. Once the show has hit it's groove (which is a bit before that part) it's just fun to watch the characters interact, how they think, and the show isn't afraid to poke fun at itself, the rest of the club knows exactly what they're getting into whenever Chitanda hears of a new, strange incident and Oreki even spends an entire episode coming up with the most outlandish theory he can to try and get her to stop taking all his theories so seriously. The fact that I can say that this episode was mostly about two characters talking to each other and it was fun shows just how strong the writing is, kudos to both the original writer and the script adaptor(s?) for pulling off such interesting yet ultimately realistic characters*.

The Bad: The story was smart by choosing to put it's most "serious" arc first in order to draw in viewers since this show does have a really slow start. It took about four episodes for me to get into it and a few more before I started really looking forward to it. While the characters aren't exactly unlikable in the beginning they aren't really likable either, it takes those first few episodes for the story to hint that these characters aren't static which is what ended up drawing me in. With many shows I can say "if you like such and such episode you'll like the rest of the series" since by that point the show has found it's groove and will continue along the same way. While Hyouka does settle down quite quickly the best parts of the series, the parts that made myself and many other fans fall for it, don't occur until around the middle of the show, there's a bit of a slump between the first and second major arcs which I'm afraid might make people dismiss the show and I really don't know what to say there. The show doesn't end on a big arc, rather it ends on a number of small ones which allow for Chitanda's character development to fully come into play, so you need to be able to like both the small stories and the big ones and be able to sit through rather deliberate pacing for both. Other than the slow beginning I can't even call that a weakness of the show, it's simply a work that requires commitment and if people like character-driven fiction I think it will pay off in the end (although personally I would have liked the story to end on an arc instead of a collection of side stories but that's just personal preference on my part). 

The Audio: Apparently this show used a LOT of big-name seiyuu for minor character roles but, since I recognize maybe seven Japanese voice actors on a regular basis, I didn't really care about that. I did think that the voices for the main quartet worked out pretty well (although Chitanda could be a bit shrill at times) and both sets of opening and ending themes worked well (even though for the first few episodes I was confused if the show even had an OP, I don't recall if it just wasn't played the first couple of episodes or if it just took a while to sink in since I can recall it just fine now). My favorite of the group was the second ending theme which I'll admit was more because of the visuals but it's a catchy song regardless (the second opening has equally catchy, although completely different, visuals to accompany it). Finally, one thing that impressed me on the very first episode of this show was the foley, they actually made an effort to add in this little background sounds of life (like crosswalks that beep), much like they did with the visuals, and those little details really caught my attention in a good way and I wish that other slice of life shows would go to the same effort to make their settings real.

The Visuals: Studio Kyoto Animation is known for having the large budget needed to make a good looking show and wow was this show amazing to see. While the character designs are certainly anime-ish the backgrounds weren't and they loved throwing in photo realistic props as well. A number of the shots, especially in some of the earlier episodes, reminded me of how a truly great photographer can make any old mundane thing look fascinating , finding the beauty in the ordinary I suppose, since even an empty coffee cup looked good on this show. Not that everything was in that art style, each time Oreki had to explain a mystery the art style would change (sometimes to some rather odd choices, ones that always ended up working I'll note) which was a brilliant way to keep the show from being merely a bunch of talking heads. The characters also seemed to be animated a little better than usual, I noticed more facial expressions and body language here which was great (and hilarious during the second arc which involved a student film) and also added to the show. Often I feel like that the lack of that kind of subtly is a weakness of animation, I've seen a few shows (Steins;Gate comes to mind) where the voice actors are putting out amazing, emotional performances yet the characters on-screen aren't emoting at all which takes away from it. Here that was never a problem and for a show that depends on it's characters so much it was a real blessing.

In short, it took a while but I eventually fell head over heels for this show and goddammit it's not licensed or streaming anywhere currently. I can't imagine it'll stay unlicensed forever (worst comes to worst I will import this from Australia or the UK, PAL to NTSC conversions and region locking be damned) but it does make it a little harder for me to recommend the show since I know there's no way to support the creators while watching it. So if this interests you but you have other things to watch now, just hold off a bit and see if this situation changes. If it interests you and you want to watch something in the gap between seasons/nothing from the fall season has caught your eye (I don't think there are any mysteries lined-up for the fall, although this show really isn't about the mysteries) then yes, watch it and hopefully marathoning it will make it work a bit better than watching it week by week. 

*I'll admit it, Oreki's inner monologue is about as snarky as mine usually is which did mean I started sympathizing with him pretty on in the series. Your milage may vary there, and it's not like there haven't been snarky characters in anime before, but his observations and comments felt less like what a "character" would say and more of what an, admittedly mature, high schooler would.