I felt something familiar when I turned on Hyouka for the first time. Perhaps it was the snide narrator mixed with the Kyoto Animation production that brought to mind nostalgic memories of Haruhi. Or maybe it was the SHAFT-like manner in which information was presented that conjured up flashbacks of Bakemonogatari. That said, these comparisons could have just popped into my mind because all three of these works are based off of light novels, and after about eight episodes Hyouka has more or less come into its own. But between its great production values and flowery writing, it has a few issues that keep it from being as good as those two shows.
Both Haruhi and Bakemonogatari elevate themselves above being average high school stories by having some kind of out of left field twist. In Bakemonogatari it’s ghosts, in Haruhi it’s weird science fiction nonsense. Both of these works are good at slipping in these elements subtly enough so that they disturb the normality of things just enough to keep the atmosphere kind of off balance and interesting, without overpowering anything. What makes these shows good is when that off-balance atmosphere is thrown complete, and the show busts out what’s really happening behind the scenes.
My issue with Hyouka is that the actual content seems to fall short, despite all the work put into production, and presentation. Similarly, while the writing is very well put together, what’s actually going on just feels kind of empty.
When you boil it right now, it’s just another story of glorified high school life, written for junior high school students looking towards high school with eager eyes, or otaku who’d like to do it all over again. In both Haruhi and Bakemonogatari, the main focus is more on the weird supernatural and science fiction elements, while the school setting doesn’t figure too much into it. Hell, most of the cast of Bakemonogatari aren’t even in high school yet.
In Hyouka, these kids being high schoolers and the high school itself are the prominent focus, and for all the effort put into trying to make things interesting with cool presentation and verbose writing, it doesn’t feel as if the show’s cliched and narrow focus on high school life really measures up. To be fair, they have made the setting as interesting as possible between all the history dispensed in the show’s first arc, and in the way in which the show likes to explore around the school. The fact that the show does lavish so much love and detail onto its setting may well be an element that makes it a Good Show, but despite how detailed a lot of it is, it doesn’t particularly push any of my buttons all the way.
But more than the setting, the show’s biggest issue lies in the characters. The group of four the show centers around simply aren’t that interesting. They’re Anime Characters. The characters in Haruhi are Anime Characters, too, but their twist is that they are aggressively Anime Characters, and Haruhi is an excellent driving force that coaxes the most out of the rest of them. The Bakemonogatari characters are Anime Characters as well, but given the depth and length of the conversations in the show, we learn a lot more about their thoughts and feelings on random bullshit things than anime characters in most other shows, making the characters in Bakemonogatari feel more like real people.
At first I thought Oreki’s attitude towards life was kind of an interesting take on the typical unconcerned light novel protagonist, but now he’s more or less just turned into a typical unconcerned light novel protagonist. And while Chitanda is kind of a catalyst for things in the show, her personality doesn’t really have the same power as Haruhi’s. There is a lot of talking in the show, a lot of it is spent on the history of the school and decoding the mysteries, as opposed to making the characters out to be anything more than archetypes.
Which brings me my last issue with Hyouka… its mysteries. Let’s be honest: Most anime mysteries suck balls. This is a fact. That said, Hyouka’s mysteries don’t bother me so much. Aside from the silly “lowercase a looks like lowercase d” solution in that one episode, the way the mysteries have come together thus far has been entertaining, even if at times the answer is kind of obvious. My issue is that all the mysteries are kind of a bit too softball. I realize the show takes place in high school, but Edogawa Conan is an elementary school kid who solves gruesome murders, so I think Hyouka could stand to up the ante a bit.
In short, my big issue with Hyouka is that despite how well put together a lot of it is, the main content just falls short. It has its moments of brilliance, but if you squint your eyes a little, you realize not much is there.
At least the ending animation is pretty.