Since I’ve mentioned it before in other posts already, it’s probably no big surprise that I’m a big fan of Hyouka (Kyoto Animation, 2012), the anime adaptation of some of Honobu Yonezawa’s Classic Literature Club light novels and short stories. Visually beautiful, with charming characters and a style that incorporated mystery, slice of life, and romantic elements, it re-introduced me to anime as an enjoyable medium. I found much to love in following around Houtarou Oreki and his friends through “the activities of the esteeemed Classic Literature Club,” as I’m sure many others did, too.
Around the time it first came out (c. 2012-2013) there was some discussion about how to interpret it. As a slice of life story? A coming of age story? A mystery story? An examination of the mystery story’s conventions? These, among others, were other people’s interpretations of it.
Leaving aside the question of whether the author is dead— they might be, though sometimes they’re decidedly not— and whether or not all interpretations (with textual support) are valid, in this post, I want to find out what makes Hyouka a mystery story— a mystery story with unusual, though not unconventional elements, perhaps, but a mystery story nonetheless; and then locate its possible place within the mystery genre. Finally, I wanted to find out what it might teach us about mystery stories.
What is a mystery story?
“Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.” (The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Dame Agatha Christie)
A mystery story might have fantasy or horror elements (e.g. the Trese komiks, written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo); it might have a realistic setting or not (most of Qui-Gon Jinn’s chapters is Jedi Apprentice: The Uncertain Path by Jude Watson), but they all follow much the same pattern or idea: at the heart of the plot is a mystery to be solved— usually a crime, and usually murder. The detective— either an amateur sleuth or a police detective— has to solve it using reasoning and the tools he has at his disposal.
There are very few real crimes in Hyouka— the ones that do show up are bloodless crimes, such as counterfeit currency or the “missing” objects during the Kanya Festival; when a murder does occur, it’s a fictional one in a student film (episodes 8-11, the “End Credits of the Fool”/”Why didn’t she ask EBA?” story arc). But there are mysteries. Mundane, everyday ones, perhaps— I hesitate to say “trivial” or “inconsequential”— but mysteries that demand solving and answers nonetheless. Yes, demands. Chitanda Eru wants answers.
Houtarou Oreki is the series’ detective, a high school student forced to join the Classic Literature Club by his eccentric, world-traveling older sister Tomoe. Despite his talent for deduction (or “making up theories”) he is initially inert, though not incurious, preferring to conserve energy: “I don’t do anything I don’t have to. What I have to do, I do quickly.”
As far as mysteries and a detective go, those elements are present here. But what might romantic and slice of life elements play in a mystery story?
Though the mystery to be solved is a mystery story’s conflict which propels it, first it has to be a good story. One of the things that makes a story good is good characterization. Who are the characters? What makes them tick? How do the characters (especially the protagonist) change and develop throughout the story, as they try to resolve the conflict? How does the conflict affect them?
People affect and are affected by the things and events around them, and so are fictional characters. Harry Potter grows up and learns the implications of all the events that happened before he was born and during his time at Hogwarts; friendship and respect develop between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, at one point prompting Holmes to say that he is “lost without his Boswell” (“A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
In Hyouka the influence of Chitanda, Ibara, and Satoshi on Houtarou makes a great impression on him, beautifully represented in the contrast of colors from when we first meet him . . .
. . . to the last few scenes of the anime.
What kind of mystery story is Hyouka?
Earlier, I said that Hyouka functions as a mystery story with unusual, though not unconventional, elements. To elaborate, it is unusual within the mystery genre because most of its mysteries aren’t crimes, and it has slice of life elements, but it isn’t unconventional because some of those elements might place it roughly though inexactly within the category of cozy mysteries.
Cozy mysteries, or “cozies,” probably feature some of the stereotypical characteristics associated with a mystery story, such as the amateur sleuth, the small (English) village setting, the cast of quirky characters, and the “sporting,” fair-play puzzle approach of the Golden Age or “British” style of Detective Fiction. Some of the works of Dame Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime and quintessential Golden Age mystery author, might be considered cozies, but the best examples of them in English right now are probably the ones published under the Berkley Prime Crime imprint.
In general, some of the distinguishing characteristics of a cozy mystery are:
- A small setting, like the sleepy English village
- A cast of quirky, interesting characters
- An amateur sleuth, who might have some well-placed connections in law enforcement
- A victim who is generally considered unpleasant and “deserves it,” and who is usually killed in a relatively bloodless manner such as poisoning
- A puzzle-like approach to the mystery, similar to the Golden Age approach
- A lack of emphasis on violence or sex, and
- A light tone throughout the work
More plainly perhaps, cozy mysteries aren’t the hard-boiled, “American” style type of mystery stories 🙂
Hyouka‘s events mostly take place at Kamiyama High School or other places in the area, such as the City Library or the Chitanda residence. A relatively big place, yes, but the characters’ world contracts emotionally to the handful of people involved at any given time. For one episode, all the action takes place as Houtarou and Chitanda sit in the Classic Literature Club’s room, discussing an announcement made over the school’s PA system.
Just by themselves, the Classic Literature Club’s members count as interesting, quirky characters— quirky enough that they were interpreted as archetypes from detective fiction 🙂 Their schoolmates certainly count, too. Houtarou proves to be a competent amateur sleuth, and occasionally does have well-placed connections, such as Satoshi during the Kanya Festival arc, or Chitanda, who comes from a well-known family in Kamiyama.
Most of the mysteries in the anime aren’t crimes, but they are treated as puzzles to be solved, more or less following the Golden Age approach, with Houtarou’s thoughts explained through imaginative visual sequences. There’s also a lack of emphasis on violence in the student film they watch or on anything sexual— the closest perhaps being very brief, awkward moments for Houtarou in the OVA (episode 11.5), at the Seizansou inn (episode 7), and a humorous excuse for Houtarou to talk to Satoshi without Chitanda around. And overall, with its light tone and slice of life elements, it’s very clear that Hyouka isn’t a social realist or “hard-boiled” mystery series.
From a certain perspective, then, it might be argued that Hyouka fits, imperfectly, into the cozy mystery category— it might even be the coziest cozy mystery there is, without much real crime and only a fictional murder in the series.
On a final note, the term “cozy mystery” might be a little deceptive, as though it were merely something light and fluffy to pass one’s time with at the coffee shop or on the commute home. It could be that, but I believe one can still learn much from cozies, as one can learn much from most other things. Wisdom, after all, can be found in the most unexpected places, and cozy mysteries, and Hyouka, may have much to teach us about life and fiction.
What everyone needs
We’ve already discussed elsewhere what one might learn about life from Hyouka, but what might one learn about mystery stories from it? I’d say that perhaps its most important insight is that a mystery story is a story like any other.
At the heart of a mystery story is the mystery that needs to be solved: this emphasis is what distinguishes it from romantic suspense, or any other form that emphasizes some other element of the story on an equal footing. Why did Lula Landry die? Who is murdering young boys in Payatas? Where are the Classic Literature Club’s past anthologies? This is what the protagonist, the detective, has to contend with.
One could build an elaborate puzzle-mystery with many twists and turns, but it might still fail as a story; one could write a realistic mystery story with commentary on pertinent socio-political issues, but it might still fail as a story. All the best stories produce an emotional effect on the reader or viewer— an emotional effect that isn’t hatred for the story and its author, but which makes them think about the story and its themes 🙂 All the elements of a story work together to achieve that.
Characters in a mystery story are also important. As in other stories, they mustn’t merely be puppets whose role is transparently to advance the plot or draw out the themes. They must have some essence of humanity borrowed from reality. The great detective Hercule Poirot wrestles with the question of justice; Satoshi and Ibara Mayaka develop in their relationship with each other; Houtarou’s experiences with Chitanda and the Classic Literature Club pushes him to reconsider the implications of a “rose-colored life.” In some sense, characters have to be real, much as the Velveteen Rabbit was real— to be people whom readers or viewers can care about.
Finally, a mystery story, like any other good story, has to be entertaining and compelling— has to have heart. One could write the most technically sound mystery, or the most daring, experimental mystery with a message, but if it’s not entertaining and compelling, would it be worth it for everyone? Would anyone bother listening in the first place?
Stories have been a major part of human activity since time out of mind, passing on lessons, learning, and wisdom through the ages, ensuring that the ancestors and forefathers no longer physically with us might still have a voice, in a sort of democracy of the dead (thank you, G.K. Chesterton). Analyses can be forgotten, critical papers come and go, but a good story is probably forever.
Aletheia Observer signing off. Be careful out there 🙂
P.S. Was it really going to be any other song? The title pretty much asks for it! 😀