When I first started watching anime, Hyouka was one of the first that I had the pleasure of discovering. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in the style from its aesthetics to its content. For the longest time I have thought about why I found Hyouka so engaging. The plot is pretty mundane: a group of high school students solving minimal, everyday mysteries and not really encountering the supernatural or any sort of murder, which ranks it lower than Nancy Drew and Scooby-Doo. It shouldn’t have been so captivating, so why did it end up being my top anime? In this (rather lengthy) article, I would like to analyze what makes Hyouka noteworthy and figure out how and why this is effective. Before going too deep, it is important to note that Hyouka incorporates elements of the slice of life genre into its narrative. One trait of any slice of life story is that it is only as good as its characters’ personalities, relationships and dynamics. I have watched slice of life shows in which the characters just don’t get treated as real people and more just like a way to fill in tropes. This will unfortunately directly affect the results of a slice of life show much more than any other genre.
Hyouka has very distinct characters, yes, but it is the way in which they work together that makes them stand out. The narrative is a “greater than the sum of its parts” scenario. This treatment of the characters leads me to believe that Hyouka has something special to offer. But in what way is Hyouka special? And how does this impact how the show executes its narrative?
One very major way in which Hyouka is able to achieve such great character dynamics is its use of foils. A foil is a way in which characters may seem mundane on their own, yet are shown as decidedly very individual once compared with another character with different or sometimes, completely opposite traits. Hyouka uses this principle to play each of the four main characters off each other, even going so far as to create several episodes which are just discussion between two people.
Foils are used on varying levels in Hyouka, each of which pits everyone against Oreki to single out his character development. We start with how he is held up against each of his fellow club members individually, then how he is held up against the club, then his relatives, the student body and lastly, his beliefs themselves. Each of these stages of foils introduces new layers that are incorporated into Hyouka in order to provide enough of a foil that Oreki begins to change his outlook on life.
Club Members – Stereotyping and Its Consequences
Oreki’s foil arcs from personal to global to universal in the traditional character, story, setting progression common in most narratives. Let us start off by understanding each individual character and how they act around each other, and what their interests, dispositions and goals are. While there certainly are other recurring characters other than the main four: Oreki, Chitanda, Satoshi and Mayaka, the development is relatively limited to this immediate group. Each episode reveals something about the characters’ thought processes (internal) or how they interact with the world (external).
Chitanda is known in the show for being the catalyst for most of the plot arcs in Hyouka. If she isn’t a direct catalyst, she will always contribute by spurring Oreki on to further investigation. She even enters the show with a bit of a bang, firing questions at Oreki until he unwillingly surrenders. Her role in the plot also extends to her role in Oreki’s high school experience, where her constant curiosity and optimism gradually begin to change Oreki’s indifferent outlook on life. This can be seen romantically (another thought for another time) but for our purposes I will focus on its narrative significance. The beauty in Chitanda’s role as a foil for Oreki is how slowly the changes take place. She is the most contrasting character to Oreki and this causes them to develop a unique relationship of giving and taking.
If Chitanda is the catalyst to Oreki, Satoshi’s relationship with Oreki is the exact opposite. Oreki’s relationship with Satoshi is not only one of the first relationships we are exposed to, but one of the most fueled relationships of the entire show. He and Satoshi have known each other for a while and are thus very attuned to the other’s ways of thinking. As with most high school plots, the events of Hyouka immediately start off with putting the characters in situations that expand their personalities. It appears that Satoshi and Oreki are so attuned to each other that it makes any development on either of their ends impossible. Satoshi has it in his head that everyone must live according to their motto. His attempts to fit everyone into a box in this way make it extremely difficult for Oreki to try to develop. The strain in their relationship is a perfect example of how they act as foils for each other: Satoshi brings out Oreki’s want for change and Oreki brings out Satoshi’s fear of it. He directly addresses his need to fit others into boxes when he assigns each member of the Classics club a Tarot card which best represents them and when he creates archetypal opinions of the club members in their discussion of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Mayaka is guilty of forcing Oreki into a box as well. However, her reasons are very different. Of all the characters in the show, Mayaka is exclusively linked to all the emotional drama that occurs in Hyouka. Her personality revolves around passion and aggression, whether that be for her internal (romance with Satoshi, desire to become like Oreki) or external (beliefs about art, intolerance of failure) struggles. Mayaka’s decisions will often cause emotional tension. Her position with Oreki is very traditional, where she is the hot-tempered personality to his lethargic one. While she is probably the weakest character in terms of relevance to the plot of Hyouka, she provides a necessary emotional grounding for all the characters in the club.
Hyouka takes these four characters and bounces their relationships around, making their foils collide and develop into stories that may not be interesting from an action standpoint, but instead from a development standpoint (the process leading to the action, suspended forever as the characters just continue to grow). Through this development, the characters are able to come to life. This is what makes them so engaging, and why I didn’t mind watching episodes which were literally just dialogue between two characters. There was enough contrast between the essences of each character that made the plot unfurl on its own, with the exception of other secondary characters that provided case after case for the club members and Oreki.
Family – Tomoe Oreki and Using the Camera
Oreki’s sister is the recurring member of his family, and furthermore, the only one that speaks. Oreki defines her by saying, “you could call her an oddball or you could call her a genius. I doubt that I could be better than her at anything. Though I never really cared to be.” He also refers to her mastery of martial arts at the very beginning of the series. Her eccentric way of dressing directly opposes Oreki’s plainness. Tomoe stretches Oreki to do things he wouldn’t regularly take part in and has a significant behind-the-scenes impact on his life. Due to her background role, Tomoe’s foil is unlike the other contrasting foils of Oreki’s friends. While the consequences Oreki’s decisions while with his friends are instant in order to get them off his back, the consequences of his decisions while with his sister gradually build over time.
It is important to bring up the significance of Tomoe’s framing in this segment. Throughout the show, the audience is never shown her face. This could be a statement on how Oreki can never see eye to eye with Tomoe (excuse the pun), since he doesn’t see himself on her level yet. It can also be used to contrast the extreme close-ups we often get of Oreki’s eyes in order to convey his thought process, which can insinuate that the audience is more familiar with Oreki’s thought processes than his almost mythical sister’s.
Foils affect even the filming of Hyouka, feeding us contrasting images to make a statement. Notice how this differs from the only other uniquely framed character: Chitanda. She will constantly get up in Oreki’s face. This framing shows that Oreki’s thought process has been conditioned to be framed in extreme close up even without Chitanda present, putting us exactly where the camera will tend to go without her even being in the scene!
Student Body – Impact of Story Arcs and Filler Episodes
For each major story arc and every filler episode, Oreki encounters a character who admires his abilities. These characters are never focused on for more than four episodes, but they each help push Oreki towards a change in his character. He is constantly told that he has a gift, that he is special. The three major arcs in Hyouka involve Oreki using his deductive reasoning to:
- Learn of the Classic Club’s past (The niece of time)
- Finish a murder mystery script (Why didn’t she ask Eba?)
- Catch a cultural festival vandal/Juumoji Incident (Welcome to Kanya Festa!)
(4. Standalone closing episodes – Little birds can remember)
Hyouka’s secondary characters per each arc are also foils for Oreki in relation to the Classics Club. The first arc, being introductory, focuses on the four main characters. In this instance, the arc’s goal is to identify each character’s motives and thought processes, which works very well. In Episode 2, Oreki becomes aware that he is much more different from any of his club members. This isolates him and allows him to consider the reasons for his differences: his first reactions to the foils his friends provide for his personality. Throughout the first arc, where the characters unravel Hyouka, Oreki learns more about their natures and more is revealed about Oreki’s nature through their connection as members of the Classics Club.
The most notable secondary character in this regard is Fuyumi Irisu, the Empress, who appears in the second arc of the show. Unlike any other character, Irisu causes Oreki to question his abilities in a very existentialist way. In Irisu’s arc, she runs a class film project whose mystery script lacked an ending. She tricks Oreki into using his gifts for her benefit, making Oreki aware of his talents for the first time and scarring him in the process. After her arc, Irisu appears in the story whenever Oreki’s abilities are tested in a way that prompts self-reflexivity. This addition to Oreki’s personality makes him engage more using his new-found awareness of his own abilities. When Oreki becomes too confident in his skills, he is shut down by his friends who immediately notice the flaws in his proposed ending for the mystery film. While this does not stunt his abilities in the long term, Oreki goes through a roadblock in this arc due to the devestating effect of Irisu’s foil.
The third and final arc of Hyouka focuses on the Student Council President, Jiro Tanabe. Unlike the other arcs, Tanabe does not become important up until the very last minute. In this way, Oreki’s confrontation with Tanabe becomes a test for his new mindset, though again, this is not apparent until the end of the arc. Actively staging a way for Tanabe to get away with his Juumoji riddle solidifies Oreki’s willingness to do things. This willingness is shown up until the very end of the show, as I mentioned before.
Oreki isn’t the only one to undergo development during the cultural festival arc. Chitanda, Satoshi and Mayaka are also confronted with characters that represent, in a way, the worst aspects of themselves and are forced to acknowledge their natures. Chitanda realizes her individuality when consulting Irisu for advice on how to persuade others, only to find that her nature is incompatible with Irisu’s tips. This causes her to become more of a foil, a self-aware foil who understands herself as she is. Reaffirmed in her persuasive abilities, Chitanda continues to deliver her enthusiasm to the Classics Club and further pesters Oreki, softening him in the process.
Satoshi, meanwhile, is shown a former version of himself in his friend Koreyuki Tani. The two of them are avid mystery lovers and amateur sleuths. Tani challenges Satoshi to see who will find the culprit of the Juumoji Incident first. From the beginning, Satoshi is aware that his skill set isn’t specified enough (“a database can’t draw any conclusions”) but he obliges. Satoshi is uneasy about how similar he and Tani could be and thus another foil takes place in order to highlight Satoshi’s development. His feelings about his hovering, broader nature are later explored in the Valentine’s Day episode when he confronts Mayaka’s feelings for him. In turn, Satoshi’s development allows him to ease up on Oreki and allow him to develop further.
Mayaka’s devotion to the Manga Society is put to the test as a result of the Juumoji arc. She comes to terms with her opinions of the creative process through the reactions of her classmates to her intense personality. The contrast between her and the rest of the club is made painfully apparent through Mayaka’s unadulterated opinions about manga and her unconventional way of expressing those opinions. Upon understanding her upperclassman’s relationship to A Corpse By Evening, her favourite manga, Mayaka is instantly hit with her own desires to be a good manga artist and breaks down. The Juumoji arc hints at Mayaka possibly being bullied by the upperclassmen in the club for her unwavering enthusiasm. Mayaka is not present for much of the Classics Club’s actions in the cultural festival, but in this way, the plot itself is a foil for her situation whereby she works out her problems in a totally different environment. The cooking contest help to highlight Mayaka’s struggle to please while being herself, yet another personality contradiction that is resolved through a synthesis in the end.
Tomoe is also indirectly active in this arc, lending Oreki a copy of A Corpse By Evening, which turns out to be a crucial piece of evidence in catching Juumoji, or Tanabe as well as fulfilling Mayaka’s arc. The characters’ development create an excellent opportunity for Oreki’s development to finalize as the show comes to a close. With his friends’ opinions altered, Oreki becomes more proactive.
Oreki’s Beliefs – Overall Impact on Hyouka’s Narrative
The last thing to be affected by the various foils in Hyouka are Oreki’s beliefs about himself and his character. Ultimately, Hyouka is a journey of self discovery for its characters. This process occurs with use of foils to help nudge Oreki into a different state of mind.
The last four episodes of the series all focus on Oreki’s new mindset and how this translates into his deductive reasoning and his relationships with others. While Hyouka admittedly does not give us nearly enough closure to satisfy the relationships of the show, it does show Oreki’s concluded development. He voluntarily offers to see why his teacher liked helicopters, helped his friends through their emotions on Valentine’s Day, teaches Chitanda how to use deductive reasoning, and the biggest one, offers to hold Chitanda’s umbrella in the Live Doll Festival. Episode 22 concludes Oreki’s journey through different foils and shapes him into someone who is actively seeking out and solving the curious things life has to offer.
And thus, I would like to bring attention to the contrast of the very first and last scenes of the show:
Oreki’s journey has gone full circle and taken him to a conclusion he never thought he would want to reach. While some might boil Oreki’s character change down to Chitanda, that’s only part of the story. Oreki’s personality shift was already beginning, but Chitanda got the ball rolling. Everyone in Oreki’s life played a part in shaping him into the character he is at the end of Hyouka. It may have taken bumping, pushing and pulling him along through the plot but in the end, Oreki responds to the foils presented to him through change. Oreki’s new mindset becomes a foil unto himself, which provides a meta foil, a meta narrative for the audience to marvel at.