Hyouka and Mystery

by eternal on September 8, 2012

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.

Watashi, Kininarimasu!

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.


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

BeldenOtaku September 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Pardon me as I find someone to describe the levels of agreement I have with you. :3

It’s perhaps the light-hearted nature of the mysteries that draws those us that enjoy Hyouka into a series without consequences or threats. Inspiring the curiosity of the viewer to continue watching as the Classics Club stumbles into another tricky conundrum. Attracting those truly in it for the mystery, not the grim crimes or the delayed reveals, Hyouka pushes the bounds of what we’d normally call “suspense”.

And Eru’s magic eyes inspire my curiosity as well.


ahelo September 8, 2012 at 10:54 pm

I really like this insight to Hyouka’s light-heartedness in its mysteries. For me though, the light mysteries of Hyouka does a lot more since at the same time, it manages to develop its characters. The Kanya Festival arc is a perfect example of this.


Smithy September 9, 2012 at 11:08 am

I’m loving “Hyouka” so far and by removing most of the suspense and serious mysteries (as in criminal or threatening mysteries) it can focus on the relationship between Oreki and Chitanda and how both of them grow as individuals. (Though Oreki has the most visible character evolution.)

Perhaps one of the reasons I like “Hyouka” so much is that it shares a common trait with typical slice-of-life genre shows like “Aria”, “Sketchbook ~full color’S~” and “Tamayura ~hitotose~”, they all show you what a wonderful place the world you live in can be if you take care to look at it and enjoy life.

While a series like “Aria” does this by placing you in an idyllic future utopia full with lovely, near perfect people, “Hyouka” does it by showing how an endearing and curious girl can make an uninterested boy bring color into his life by wondering about everyday mysteries.


Martin September 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Yes on all counts.

Hyouka is a best-of-both-worlds kind of situation for me, in that I appreciate ‘everyday’ drama as light relief form everything else, but I also love to watch mysteries unfold. Hyouka gives both: the unfolding ‘mechanics’ of working stuff out, but the harmlessness of watching people interact with one another, safe in the knowledge that nothing truly unpleasant can come along and ruin my good mood.

The term “light mystery” is the encapsulation of this that I was scrabbling around for, and you just nailed it. Bravo. :)


Aelms October 4, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I liked how you addressed the positive aspects of Hyouka as a series without even referring to the Jumonji arc. It really highlights the more subtle parts of the show that many may not even give consideration to, just like the mysteries in Hyouka.

I’d like to bring up the idea that Hyouka and Umineko, at heart, may not be that different in the messages that the writer attempts to express. Ryuukishi advocates throughout Umineko that there is something more to what is happening, something that requires the reader to care about the story in order to see. It isn’t hard to see the message that the heart of the mystery (for the lack of a less-spoilerish term) is something that he wants us to care more about rather than the mystery itself. In this regard, Hyouka might actually have succeed at a greater degree than Umineko did at drawing our attention to the motivation of each mystery (the theme of expectations; the movie’s scenario writer’s attempt to avoid murder).

But then again, Ryuukishi did put a lot of effort in having the reader try to figure out the answers on our own.


eternal November 1, 2012 at 1:00 am

Yes, that’s basically what I was getting at. The goal is to use mystery as a tool to point towards underlying themes or to highlight character development, but Umineko does it in a meta way that poses as a mystery while Hyouka is a more standard, down-to-earth romcom with only broad mystery elements. But they’re very similar at heart.


Cobra34 April 12, 2013 at 3:55 pm

>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.

Simple. Because what makes it special also makes it boring.


Someone you know from U of T January 23, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Very nice analysis of Hyouka. I have a friend who doesn’t believe anime is a good medium because of its unconventional styles of storytelling and characters, but I think Hyouka captures nicely what anime can do that Western media doesn’t appreciate.

Hyouka has a special place in my heart because it portrayed the life of a student that I had always yearned for. You can see that as the series progressed, the characters developed this relationship that has more to do with how they influence each other’s thoughts and behavior rather than their friendship or love. You don’t normally see this sort of relationship among students; these days, people are more interested in fitting into a group rather than truly understanding other people. Although I had my share of friends in high school, none of them influenced me as much as Classic Club’s members influenced Oreki. That last scene of the last episode captures nicely what I am talking about. What was important in that scene was not that Oreki had romantic feelings for Chitanda, but the fact that he had this urge built up in him to start something completely new in his life. What was even more important was that Oreki didn’t go the distance with his confession, which some people might consider to be a downer, but I feel that it is a nice depiction of how one’s change in life starts with his thoughts rather than his action. It will take a long time before Oreki can finally decide to hit that Chitanda pussy, but it is certain that there is a subtle, but significant change in Oreki’s character since the beginning of the series.


eternal January 26, 2014 at 7:38 pm

I think you hit the nail on the head by pointing out the characterization. It’s tempting to mentally categorize the characters in the usual anime roles (particularly Oreki as the Kyon-esque main character and Chitanda as the bubbly and bland main girl), but that turns out to be incorrect. The characters develop in subtle ways over the course of the show, which is something you often don’t see in anime. Specific examples escape me at the moment, but I like your point about the ending. Oreki implicitly confessed, but not explicitly as the viewer would expect. There’s depth to his decisions beyond the confines of the plot.

I also really like the show’s use of visual metaphor, which I think came up a lot in the puzzle-solving scenes. Although, the one I remember most clearly was the scene when Oreki first meets Chitanda and, in a daydream, he’s seized by plants that grow out of the classroom. It’s a much more poetic (and less obvious) way of expressing his interest in her, romantic or otherwise, without having him directly address it.


Someone you know from U of T January 26, 2014 at 9:03 pm

My own personal take is that Hyouka incorporates what defines OUR LIVES with the characters’ emotion and thoughts to truly make them stand out as real people rather than characters defined by anime tropes. Up until the end, when we thought Chitanda was just a generic Yamato Nadeshiko, she makes us sympathize her by telling us her family circumstance, and then she melancholically explained her noble decision to sacrifice her potential future in the outside world in order to uphold the family legacy. She is cheerful on the outside, but internally she has this huge burden placed on her that she doesn’t reveal to anyone else. That was an extremely realistic depiction of what most children goes through in at least China and Japan. Up until that point, I loved her moe personality and character design, but that ending made me respect her as a fellow human being.


Marylada August 14, 2014 at 10:19 am

Wow I must confess you make some very trhnaecnt points.


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