Reviewby Nick Creamer,
DVD + Blu-ray - Part 1
Hotaro Oreki has a simple and reliable philosophy: “if I don't have to do it, I won't, if I have to do it, make it quick.” His low-energy lifestyle has served him well up to high school, and he doesn't see any reason to change. But when his sister demands he rescue the school's former literature club, he ends up running into a girl who will change his world. From her violet eyes to her forceful energy and boundless curiosity, everything about Eru Chitanda pushes Oreki out of his comfort zone. Oreki doesn't want to change, but when Chitanda presents him with a strange mystery, he also can't say no. So begins a story of strange questions and secret selves, a story of the magic in the everyday and the brilliance on the other side.
Hyou-ka starts as many anime do, with a droll monologue from a know-it-all high school boy. Reflecting on the vivid colors of the new year, he seems to sneer at the idea of a “rose-colored” life or even personal investment in general. But more than outright derision, what Oreki Hotaro exudes is pure apathy. His low-energy creed seems to imply there's nothing worth investing energy into in this world, nothing to be surprised by, nothing to fight for. His world is grey and constrained, and when the call for adventure reaches him, he answers only because arguing would be even more of a bother.
Tasked by his older sister with reviving the school's literature club, he shrugs his way up to the club rooms. There, a girl by the window is introduced through a striking perspective shot. Oreki's approach is captured in a steady camera zoom that actually follows him into the room, the background drawn and redrawn purely to emphasize the profundity of this moment. Wind gently cradles the curtains, and compared to the sepia malaise of the classroom, the sky beyond is blindingly bright. The girl turns to reveal her violet eyes, and Oreki is overcome.
Hyou-ka is elevated by constant moments like that, whose pure aesthetic wonder draw the viewer into its world entirely. When Chitanda demands Oreki's investment, her allure is evoked through the magical tangle of her hair, a cradle of vines that roots Oreki to the spot. When Oreki describes how a student was once abandoned by his classmates, their conflict is illustrated through savage metaphor, a rabbit torn to shreds in evocative, painfully precise animation. When it seems like there might really be a horizon beyond Oreki's grayscale world, the sky opens and the sun beams down, as fields heavy with rainwater now shimmer with sunlit dew.
On premise alone, Hyou-ka is an adolescent character drama framed around a series of mysteries. While Oreki protests mightily against unnecessary exertion, Chitanda's rampant curiosity always drags him into some everyday puzzle. As it turns out, Oreki is quite good at puzzles—although he's a middling student and worse athlete, he has a natural talent for pulling together disparate clues or seeing evidence where others see simple scenery. Oreki doesn't believe in the magic of his world, but he can perceive the connections between things in a way that consistently validates Chitanda's passions. Together with their two friends Satoshi and Mayaka, the two of them eventually solve all manner of mysteries, from the personal to the universal, and the inconsequential to the slightly less inconsequential.
Hyou-ka's various mysteries are generally intriguing for their own sake, though their stakes are decidedly low-caliber. The mystery that occupies much of the second half of this collection concerns finding a satisfying ending to a student film, and the most intense of all this half's mysteries focuses on a conflict from decades in the past. But over the course of these mysteries, we come to fully understand this show's rich cast and appreciate the days they spend bickering and laughing and celebrating triumphs. Based on a series of full-length novels, Hyou-ka is blessed with distinctive characters, consistently sharp banter, and narrative conflicts that always reflect the emotional rigors of its lovable heroes. As a character study, romantic drama, and slice of life, Hyou-ka soars.
It doesn't hurt that Hyou-ka has a stake in the competition for most beautiful television anime of all time. Hyou-ka is blessed with expressive character designs, an evocative late-afternoon color palette, and consistently stellar background art. In contrast with the way many school dramas use their consistent settings to lean on steady mid-distance shots and repeated backgrounds, every sequence of Hyou-ka feels purposefully directed, with shots chosen for emotional effect over aesthetic convenience every time. Watching Hyou-ka would be an effective dramatic experience even without sound or subtitles, purely because the procession of compositions always tells an emotional narrative.
Having proven his general excellence as a director on the brilliantly shot Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Hyou-ka establishes Yasuhiro Takemoto as a great composer of drama. Simple sequences like Oreki and Chitanda meeting at a cafe are elevated through intimate angles, careful fragments of character acting, and evocative visual motifs. Light and its absence feel like an unsung main character; Oreki's struggle against engaging with the world is consistently framed in terms of sunlight, and key colors like the pink of a “rose-colored” existence are given strong thematic import. And yet this surfeit of visual storytelling never feels intrusive or even critical to understanding the narrative—the execution is naturalistic enough for all of this to go unacknowledged, directing the viewer through a kind of instinctive visual communication.
Of course, not all of Hyou-ka's visual games are subtle. The show's character animation is so strong that it almost feels gratuitous, but characters never overact in Hyou-ka—they're simply given the free range to fully express their truest selves. Individual characters and the relationships between them are largely portrayed through body language; Satoshi and Mayaka's consistent physical detente tells as much as their barbed banter, while Oreki and Chitanda's sometimes strained interactions are given charm and relatability through their specific movements. And in the background, all of Oreki's classmates move with the same liveliness found in K-ON! and Sound! Euphonium, an unsung ensemble accompaniment that breathes further life into their world.
The student film arc ties a bow on Hyou-ka's visual accomplishments through contrast. When Oreki and his friends view the footage, we get to see a show intentionally being directed badly, along with body language that clearly demonstrates that great acting requires more than great enthusiasm. It almost feels like Takemoto is cheekily reminding us that directing is really hard—the fact the show's usual drama requires no emotional translation is a testament to its flawless articulation. Combining excellent aesthetic sensibilities, stellar compositions, restless camera movement, and consistently fluid animation, Hyou-ka's visual language is truly something to behold.
The show's music is less of a standout, but it still reflects the excellent ear for sound design carried over from Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. Many quiet moments are given the silence necessary to breathe, and when the music does play, it's tasteful and well-chosen. A diverse mix of orchestral tracks match the show's generally thoughtful aesthetic, while a poppy opening song offers a clear introduction to the stakes and challenges of this world. The show's ending song is the show's only significant black mark—not for the song itself, but because the accompanying animation emphasizes a kind of tasteless fanservice that the rest of the show avoids.
Funimation's release also includes a new dub, which is a mixed bag. Adam Gibbs' somewhat less lethargic Oreki often feels mismatched against the character's expressions, but the overall take on the character is reasonable. The bigger issue is Chitanda—Madeleine Morris' take on the character feels consistently stilted, as the strained high pitch of her voice presents a more serious hurdle to investment. The dub script itself is very natural, and the cast's banter still feels far more naturalistic than most shows.
Outside of that dub, there aren't any major extras here. Hyou-ka comes in a standard slipcase and plastic case that house the show on both blu-ray and DVD. There are no physical extras, and digital extras are limited to clean opening and closing segments, a few trailers, and the show's “episode 11.5” OVA. That OVA episode actually fills in a pretty important narrative gap, so it's a very welcome inclusion.
Overall, this is a conservative but generally respectable release of an anime masterpiece. Hyou-ka consistently achieves a level of character writing and dramatic execution that makes it difficult to believe this was released on a weekly television schedule. Thematically rich, incisive, and consistently gorgeous, Hyou-ka is an incredibly special show.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A-
+ Explores the passions and problems of richly drawn characters with visual beauty and intelligent writing
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