I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t like Hyouka when the primary complaint about it is exactly what makes it special. The first few episodes make it clear that it’s an unconventional mystery series–a light mystery, you might say, aimed towards the light novel audience. But what struck me about the show right away, and what a lot of people seem to hate about it, is that it deliberately ignores mystery’s partner: suspense.
Mystery Without Murder
The mystery genre is, for lack of a better word, grimdark. Murder and mystery go hand in hand; the most mysterious of all mysteries are the ones that involve crime, fear, a genuine threat to the cast and to society as a whole. Of course, this is only one of many possible settings, as Umineko demonstrated. I won’t spoil it here, but for those who aren’t familiar with the story, Umineko no Naku Koro ni begins as an Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery and ends with mystery acting as a metaphor to illustrate the game’s broader themes.
Mysteries in Hyouka are logic puzzles. They’re abstract in the sense that they’re meaningless–solving the mystery does not result in the capture of a criminal. Chitanda’s catchphrase summarizes it succinctly: these mysteries are about curiosity! Hyouka rephrases the oddities we observe in day-to-day life as mysteries to be solved with the same kind of deductive logic we’ve come to expect from mystery fiction. It’s like observing the neighbours from the living room window and inventing motives for their actions–the reasoning might not be correct, but as long as it flows logically, it serves its purpose (which, usually, is to kill time). Remember how Umineko‘s battles are fought, by searching for possible (not plausible) explanations for crimes? It’s the same idea.
My point is that, rather than inventing new logic traps or adding layers of meta, Hyouka diverges from baseline mysteries by focusing on the heart of what a mystery is. Mysteries are logic puzzles at their core; suspense and drama are only common traits that tend to accompany them. The identity of a culture festival prankster can be a more elaborate mystery than the identity of a murderer.
Truth is Irrelevant
Yet people always say: why should I care about mysteries if nothing is at stake? My answer is that the beauty of mysteries is in the puzzle forming and solving, the use of logic to reason through a sea of possibilities and find one that, in true Schrödinger’s Cat fashion, might or might not be true. Truth is less important than the process of writing and reading, building the labyrinth and having someone else navigate it. That’s part of why–Chitanda’s neck aside–episode 20 was so beautiful: it had Oreki play the role of the writer rather than the reader. He constructed a simple mystery for Satoshi and Mayaka to solve, and he counted on them deducing the solution the same way he would.
That said, a more compelling example lies in Chitanda’s refusal to accept solutions that turn a “character” into a criminal or villain. Truth, again, is unimportant–this curiosity and the mysteries it creates is about the desire to stop and smell the roses, to learn what strangers think and feel, even when you’re not forced to. There is no room for negativity in her worldview. So long as it’s possible–unlikely, perhaps, but possible–for a mystery to be explained without there being a criminal, Chitanda’s curiosity will choose that explanation as the only one. I could cite Umineko again if you’re wondering where you’ve heard this before.
Chitanda’s catchphrase is self-explanatory but I want to talk a bit about it because it ties nicely into the rest of the show. If Hyouka views mysteries as puzzles rather a suspense tool, it makes sense that curiosity lies at its heart. Oreki, of course, is the opposite of curious–his character is defined by his refusal to stop and smell the roses and his belief that extraneous things like everyday mysteries aren’t worth thinking about. If you take a few steps back from Hyouka‘s setting in the context of mystery and look at its themes and characters, you essentially have a story about an incurious person who learns to appreciate the little things in life through his knack for solving puzzles.
Chitanda wonders why a stranger who always takes one path to school suddenly takes another, but she can’t explain it; Oreki doesn’t care, but if he thinks about it, he can probably figure it out. Gradually, Oreki starts to care about details like this that his brain normally would have filtered out, resulting in a less “gray” life, to use the show’s terminology. Hyouka stresses curiosity and the desire to solve mysteries rather than the ability to do so. Having a brain like Holmes is a wonderful thing, but as the show’s second OP video eloquently reminds us, Oreki’s life is bland until it is given life by the colour of Chitanda’s worldview that slowly but surely rubs off on him.
So no, Hyouka‘s defiance of suspense-based mystery is not a gimmick. It serves a thematic purpose and it provides context for one of this year’s most endearing almost-romances. It’s a good show.