Ok, so I’ve kind of given away my thesis in the title, but stick around, that comparison isn’t a dismissal, and there’s plenty more to it.
Before we get into all that, some quick background. First of all, as I imagine anyone up to date with the current season is aware, Hyouka is Kyoto Animation’s most recent offering. I have a somewhat mixed history with Kyoto Animation, and wasn’t entirely sure how to feel coming into this show. On the one hand, Kyoto Animation brought us their superb adaptations of The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, and Clannad. I loved those shows, and while the source material was great to begin with, Kyo Ani did a fantastic job adapting both, staying faithful, while still putting in plenty of their own creative flair.
On the other hand, their more recent offerings haven’t left me impressed. I thought Nichijou was ok, but at its heart a fairly uninspired Azumanga Daioh clone, taking an unnervingly calculating approach to zaniness. If you want to know my opinion on K-On!, this blog entry expresses it better than I could.
So, coming into Hyouka, I was part cynical, part hoping for a return to form. The premise left me similarly ambivalent. The similarity to Haruhi struck me as both hopeful and unoriginal.
The show itself is leaving me more lukewarm than ambivalent. So this time it’s the Classics Club whose misadventures we are following. We have our disinterested, ordinary high school student protagonist, his joker pal, a rich, naïve girl, and a spunky girl who works in the library. We’re hardly reeling from innovation at this point, but there’s plenty of scope for character development, and subversions, and inversions etc.
To expand on the title, from Suzumiya Haruhi it takes a small, esoteric high school club solving mysteries and having adventures, and a determined-not-to-care protagonist being dragged into unsavoury events by the female lead. From K-On! Hyouka takes a bunch of high schoolers not really doing much. You see, while Haruhi’s stories were about time travel, aliens, and the world-altering affects of the characters’ interactions with Haruhi herself, Hyouka is about the Classics solving a bunch of fairly uninteresting, high school mysteries. I had to laugh when they solved the mystery of how Chitanda (our primary female lead) was locked in the club room in the first episode. Obviously it was the cleaner. The cleaner had been made pretty conspicuously present just earlier. I was expecting that to be a red herring, and the true answer to be something more surprising.
Solving the mystery in the second episode was more impressive, but it still wasn’t very interesting. It was more like idle deduction on some utterly insignificant mystery. I assume this is all just the set-up for a more serious case, as the show’s summary would suggest, but I can’t help but wonder why you’d take so long to get started. The job of the first few episodes is to suck in the audience. There’s no hook, no reason to really care about the events or where things might be going. The only things that discerns our protagonist from any harem lead at the moment is his talent for deduction, and just how actively he tries to avoid activity, if that makes any sense.
On that note, it’s not just the conflicts that have been scaled down from Haruhi, the characters have been too. Instead of the fiery, slightly sociopathic Haruhi, we have Chitanda, the naïve rich girl, whose only real role so far has been prodding our protagonist into action and the aforementioned super sense of smell. Haruhi was as much the protagonist as Kyon, and she was a real force of nature (pun intended). Chitanda seems kind of meek and lame by comparison, without having any of the comedic value of Mikuru.
Instead of Kyon, we have Houtarou. Aggressively lazy, but brilliant in terms of deduction. He’s all about being energy efficient, but our female lead is so demanding, that sometimes just solving the case is the easiest way out of the situation. Now Kyon wasn’t so much a subversion of the ordinary high school student as a deconstruction of it. He was an I just want to be special, parading as an I just want to be normal. What was his narration and what was his speech was often left intentionally unclear, and he was the king of unreliable narrators. It was a clever parody on the audience-protagonist duality as well as the male audience duality invoked in most harem series. What’s more, he was genuinely witty with his sarcasm, and basically likeable, knowing when to stand up to Haruhi’s abuse, and with his own arc of sorts. Houtarou’s character so far is neither as clever or as funny. I’m not saying he won’t be developed as well, or better, I’m just saying that he leaves less of an impact in the first two episodes as Kyon did. I also had to cringe, when, in the second episode, he has a day dream where he is given a choice between two menus, the dull course, and the colorful course, and Chitanda forces his hand towards the colorful one. It wasn’t bad, it just gave an incredible sense of deja vu. As if the Haruhi comparisons weren’t easy enough.
As for the other two characters, they are similarly fine, if bland. Koizumi played the philosopher throughout Haruhi, and often gave alternate perspectives, while remaining a bit of a mystery, and Nagato managed to be the most useful member of the group, while being the most passive. There’s really nothing to distinguish our protagonist’s best friend from any other protagonist’s best friend type character, except from being more academically inclined that most. Library girl has had very little screen time so far, so I won’t make any judgements on her character yet.
Each character is given a strength that helps in solving the mysteries, but it’s all a little push-button. Our protagonist is great at deduction, and putting it all together. Our female lead has a super-human sense of smell, and is the one who pushes to investigate the mysteries in the first place. The protagonist’s best friend is referred to as the “data base”, as he has a wide knowledge of events and facts that can help in the cases. We’re not sure what the library girl’s thing is yet, but I’m sure she’ll have something. It’s kind of cool I guess, but it’s a little ridiculous how segmented their strengths are.
The production values are great, of course, but Kyoto Animation don’t really get credit for that anymore. Dogs bark, crickets chiprs, and Kyoto Animations makes really nice looking anime. Still, it certainly makes a show more watchable.
Also, the ED is creepily sexual. I’m pretty sure these girls are 15 years old. I mean, really?
All in all, it’s mostly just a little bland. I plan to stick with the show unless it just gets too boring, but with a bit of luck it will pick up soon.