Shelf Life Hyouka Part 1
by Paul Jensen,
I went to a screening of Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro last week. It was my first time seeing the movie, and I have to say it was a blast. If you're a Lupin fan or are interested in Hayao Miyazaki's early work as a director, it's definitely worth seeing. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
Hyouka part 1
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Shelf Life Reviews
Kyoto Animation's slice of life mystery series Hyouka spent a long time in licensing limbo after it originally aired in 2012, but it's finally available here in the US. I took a look at the show's first half for this week's review.
The protagonist and narrator of this somewhat unusual story is Hotaro Oreki, a high school student who makes a point of using as little of his own energy as possible. As Hotaro himself proudly declares, if he doesn't have to do something, he doesn't do it. Hotaro's older sister is a graduate of his school, and at her insistence he joins the classic literature club to keep it from being shut down. That's where he meets Eru Chitanda, a girl who seems intent on pursuing any mystery that catches her attention. Eru quickly notices that Hotaro has a natural talent for solving those mysteries, and the two of them end up investigating a wide variety of cases.
Hyouka may go through the same storytelling process as a mystery series, but the scope of each plot arc is more in line with its slice of life atmosphere. There are no big crimes or grisly murders; the show's first major arc has the characters investigate the history of the classic lit club, and the closest they get to solving a murder is helping to finish the script for a student film. This seems like it should be a recipe for boredom, but the lack of danger doesn't make the cases any less intriguing. Hyouka is remarkably good at drawing the viewer into the story, and both of this set's longer plot arcs piqued my curiosity. When a mystery series has a good grasp of the genre fundamentals, even a low-stakes premise can hold the audience's attention.
This show also benefits from a solid group of characters. Hotaro and Eru's personalities align nicely when it comes to moving the story along; Hotaro can play the part of the lazy detective while Eru's enthusiasm propels the investigation forward. The two of them also work well on a thematic level, as spending time with Eru causes Hotaro to question his somewhat cynical view of school life. They're backed up by the supporting duo of Satoshi and Mayaka, who add some depth to the club without disrupting the chemistry. Satoshi is the upbeat foil to Hotaro's gloomy disposition, and his ability to retain information allows him to act as an unofficial detective's assistant. Mayaka adds some fire to the group, providing a strong-willed push forward when necessary. Put them all together and you've got a compelling central cast.
Judging by this set alone, there doesn't seem to be any major narrative connection between the different cases. If anything, they're connected by recurring themes, especially the idea of a writer placing hidden messages in their work. Hotaro also evolves as a character from one story to the next, slowly opening up as he embraces his ability to draw conclusions from seemingly unrelated evidence. Hyouka eventually finds an interesting way of turning this around by having those same skills work against Hotaro. That twist makes for interesting viewing, as it's somewhat unusual for a mystery series to openly question the methods of its star detective.
Another point in Hyouka's favor is the way it looks. This is a very pretty show, and not just in terms of raw animation quality. It's well directed, especially when it comes to adding some dynamic motion to what could have easily been long static conversations. The visuals that accompany the characters' theories and deductions are often quite creative in their presentations of each idea. The English dub fares well when it comes to casting and performances, but I did notice a fair amount of revised dialogue in a handful of scenes. Most of the rewrites made characters' intentions a little clearer at the occasional cost of some subtlety, like having Hotaro directly reference an event instead of talking his way around it. It's not a huge deal, but I can see it being irksome if you're big on keeping translations as literal as possible. This set's big on-disc extra is the episode 11.5 OVA, which is a side story about Hotaro working part-time at a local pool.
Hyouka is a quietly compelling series in its first half, the kind of show that can tempt you into watching multiple episodes at a time despite its relaxed pacing. It has a good sense of how to present a mystery, and the characters are intriguing enough to give the story some added substance. If you enjoy the process of puzzling your way through different pieces of evidence or are just looking for a well-written slice of life story, Hyouka should fit the bill.
That wraps things up for this week. Thanks for reading!
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