14 Dec 2012

Hyouka (Anime) Review

Hyouka (2012)
Format: TV Series, 22 episodes
Studio: Kyoto Animation
Summary: A serious KyoAni means a slow and plodding plot, but beautifully drawn backgrounds and animation.
Overall Score: 8/10

Synopsis (from MAL):
Oreki Houtarou is a minimalistic high school boy. One day, he joins the Classic Literature Club at his elder sister's request. There he meets Chitanda Eru, Fukube Satoshi, and Ibara Mayaka. Chitanda is a calm beautiful girl but she turns into an embodiment of curiosity once she says, "I'm interested in it (Watashi, Kininarimasu)". Fukube is a smiling boy with a fantastic memory who calls himself a database. Ibara is a short girl and is strict with others and herself. She loves Fukube, but he always dodges her approaches. They begin to investigate a case that occurred 45 years ago. Hints of the mystery are buried in an old collection of works of the former members of Classics Club. The collection is titled "Hyouka."
If there is one thing that KyoAni does right, its the consistently awesome animation. With Hyouka, they levelled up the visuals with detailed backgrounds. The slice-of-life genre can sometimes be an excuse to cut down on animation frames and focus on character design and writing, but this show takes no shortcuts; small body movements and subtle expressions are animated skillfully in a way that has since characterized this animation studio. Early on in the series, there were lots of creative shots that served to emphasize Chitanda Eru's strange attraction to Oreki Houtarou as well as to explain the various mysteries that they encounter. As the series went on however, the general tone seems to change, the mysteries became more grounded, so (sadly) that visual style went away. In exchange, we see more of Oreki's reactions as he starts to lose his low-energy lifestyle and start caring about his friends.

The background music invokes the feel of more sinister mystery shows even though most of the show deals with human relations. It is beautifully composed but just feels too "big" and epic for something simpler like this. Would have preferred something more subtle or whimsical.

This isn't your typical mystery series. There are no outlandish victims, no convoluted solution. It always boils down to people's inability to communicate directly when the issues become more complicated. Calling the pacing "slow" is an understatement. The school festival arc alone took up 6 episodes, the majority of which was just build up (small pranks happening throughout the whole festival). All this adds up to a pretty boring mystery thriller. But where it lacks in thrill, it makes up with lots of brains and heart. The solutions are well thought out, none of that not-shown-evidence bullshit that riddles countless others of its type. The conclusions are also often emotional retrospectives for the perpetrators.

KyoAni are no strangers to the school setting and past works such as Haruhi and K-ON! show that they fill up the school with lots of named characters, even for the random classmates. They have unique voices, personalities, and go about doing their thing while we focus on the main characters. When you have side characters with this level of detail, the main characters need to really stand out. They accomplish this not with outlandish designs but with lots of personality. Character development is the key to this series, as our main foursome build inter-personal relations and also develop themselves in the process. In particular, Oreki's character arc as a lazy character to someone who would go out of his way to help others (and hide some secrets), was interesting to watch.

But I'll have to say Kayano Ai's Ibara Mayaka is my favourite character. The lovelorn girl, trying hard to get a good friend to like her, is just so earnest that you can't help but root for her. The uncertainty and honesty in her voice was performed so well and really what made me pay attention to Kayano Ai. Second only to Mayaka is Nakamura Yuuichi's Oreki Houtarou. Not much exaggeration in his voice, and pretty much a less snarky Kyon (from Haruhi); exactly what a low-energy teenager should sound like. This was also what I would consider Satou Satomi's real breakout role, a character and voice that seiyuu fans can take seriously.

I'm not terribly familiar with KyoAni's past works, but this is the first serious slice-of-life from them that I've really enjoyed. While the mysteries were mostly pretty lacklustre, they were worth going through to see the characters develop. The detailed backgrounds and animation will probably not be matched for quite a while, but I'm secretly hoping the inevitable final season of Haruhi will boast similar production values...


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