First Impressions – Hyou-ka

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What’s last shall be first – when it comes to Spring premières and animation quality, anyway.

OP: “Yasashisa no Riyuu (優しさの理由)” by Chouchou

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We finally come to the last of the Spring series debuts -the ones I’m concerned with anyway – a field that has offered both quality and quantity at impressive levels.  While this show wasn’t in the elite group of series at the very top of my list going in, it was certainly high in the second tier.  But to be honest there was a little part of me that was really hoping to hate Hyou-ka, because my calendar is hopelessly packed already – and Sundays and Thursdays are probably the worst (best) of the bunch.  Maybe Saturdays.  Well, in any case, let’s just say I was conflicted going in, and not quite sure how I was going to feel about this effort.

There was never a doubt that at least once during this ep I’d gaze at the screen and gasp “Oooh – pretty!”  This is KyoAni after all, and they do what they do better than anybody.  I expected great animation here, but I really wonder if they’ve even topped themselves in terms of their TV work. Hyou-ka is, in a word, gorgeous, right from the stylish and stunning OP sequence.  What’s really striking is that there’s no aspect of the visuals that’s even average – character detail, background detail, background quality (this is art), fluidity of motion – it’s as if KyoAni decided to see how much awesome they could crank into 22 minutes worth of animation, then doubled it. 

But there are very few anime I could enjoy for an entire cour – never mind two in this case  (well, 1.75 more like) – based strictly on visuals.  Guilty Crown was incredibly visually, but the flaws of the writing became nearly fatal.  And to be honest, my track record with KyoAni isn’t a great one.  I loved Kanon, I liked Clannad, and since then it’s a complete miss.  I’m in the minority that thinks Haruhi is somewhat overrated, and as for their fascination with the “four girls” formula – K-ON, Lucky Star, etc. – all of it was a complete whiff for me.  It really felt as if they weren’t even trying, but they knew they had a printing press that could spit out money all day and they were damn well sticking with it.

Taking the easy path is a problem for KyoAni, and there are symptoms of it with Hyou-ka.  Sometimes I wonder if KyoAni is like a royal family that’s had a little too much inbreeding, and would do well to have an infusion of robust, commoner DNA into their gene pool.  Take the casting – there’s been no effort whatsoever made to match the characters to the seiyuu.  No casting director would have looked at Oreki Houtarou and Fukube Satoshi and thought “Nakamura Yuichi and Sakaguchi Daisuke”.  No, it’s simple – it’s Tomoya and Sunohara, it’s what we know, it’s easy.  KyoAni and character designer Nishiya Futoshi have gone for their usual hyper-cute character designs here, and the voices simply don’t work.  Nakamura is a pretty good actor when he’s in his sweet spot, but his deep rumble sounds ludicrous coming from this character – and Sakaguchi is forever the goofball best friend, the strain of trying to sound fifteen getting worse with each performance.  The female lead is Chitanda Eru (Satou Satomi) and she’s an ultra-safe KyoAni choice, too, and takes no chances with her performance – though at least in her case the dissonance isn’t distracting.

Of course, in spite of that it must be denied that the characters here are really beautiful in that forever young KyoAni style, with unforgettable penetrating eyes – girls and boys alike – and Chitanda is especially stunning with her soft purple irises.  What of the story?  It’s based on a novel (not LN) series by Yonezawa Honobu, to which the overall reaction seems somewhat mixed.  It’s a school mystery setup, with a full-on slacker in Houtarou (his motto is “If I don’t have to do it, I won’t.  If I have to do it, make it quick.”) forced into joining the Classics Club by his older sister.  When he arrives at what he expects to be an empty clubroom, Chitanda is already there – and the ever-inquisitive Satoshi shows up a moment later.  There’s a small mystery surrounding how the door was locked when Chitanda was inside without a key, and it becomes clear quickly that the Classics Club is going to be a mystery club – and that Houtarou has feelings for Chitanda that may rouse him from his torpor.

Honestly, that’s a pretty thin premise to build around, but this is KyoAni and kids doing nothing of importance has become their trademark – and at least it’s a mixed-gender cast.  And we have the Full Metal Panic team of director Takemoto Yasuhiro and writer Gatoh Shoji on-board to offer at least the hope that the material might be handled with a little spark (though Takemoto also did L*S*, of course).  And in truth, the first ep isn’t bad in a lazy, ambling sort of way – the sense being that this is going to be more about adolescent time-wasting than real mysteries.  The BGM itself is forgettable, though there’s a nice usage of Bach’s Air on G-String set to some pencil sketch animation that offers a combination almost too beautiful for TV.

In the final analysis, Hyou-ka feels very safe.  There’s no evidence that the story is going to have the creative flair that marks so many shows this season, or that the writing is going to take any chances.  I do wonder if KyoAni might find themselves caught between hard-core fans of their more recent catalogue reluctant to accept a premise like this with a mixed cast, and fans of their earlier work looking for something with a bit more edge.  On the other hand, since there is a source material to consider things could still take a surprising turn here and there, and the overall mood of the premiere is certainly pleasant and occasionally quite entertaining.  As good – no, great – as the animation is, it’s  not as though Hyou-ka has to re-invent the wheel to hold your attention – it just has to be decent, and the lush and detailed visuals will carry it across the finish line.  I’d like to think KyoAni is going to aim even higher than that, but based on recent evidence it doesn’t seem like their style.

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  1. A

    Well, KyoAni did try a bold route with Nichijou (which I very much love) but it didn't sell well.

  2. D

    I'm going to have to strongly disagree with you about Houtarou's seiyuu. I felt that Nakamura was perfect in this role for the same reason that he was so great as Tomoya. He really shines in a role where his character feels detached and anything you ask of him is a chore. The others I could take or leave but I found Nakamura's voice anything but ludicrous here.

  3. d

    I am going to have to disagree with you to agree with you. CAUSE for once we have a voice that seems realistic but is not perfectly fitted for the character. It feels more realistic. E.g. not every big biker dude has a low and wild voice. The imperfection makes this series even more everyday. More realistic.

    No time machines, no vampires, no strange animals (sorry mashiro pro), no tsunderes, no bad jokes, no sudden trips to become a servant in a ryokan, no dead girls walking around.

    I am loving this series. Sorry, Fate/Zero. And sorry Acchi Kochi.

  4. K

    Besides agreeing with what Dingus just said, I would add that if Nakamura Yuuichi has a great chemistry with Sakaguchi Daisuke due to their partnership in Clannad, then I don't see why we should have a problem with them reuniting together again.

    And personality wise, Satou Satomi is more suited to doing polite girls like Chitanda rather than tomboys like Ritsu. (Just google up her photos and videos to see what I mean. )

  5. F

    What’s last shall be first

    We finally come to the last of the Spring series debuts

    Enzo, you make AKB48 cry. ALL OF THEM!

    (I can't believe AKB0048 STILL doesn't start till next week)

  6. Last of all the Spring premières I give a damn about…

  7. A

    You really are being speedy with all these posts, gj Enzo! hang in there.

  8. Now that the premières are all out, I'm going to be making some cutdowns. Unavoidable.

  9. A

    sigh… another unimaginative cliche story.

    – school setting (check)
    – MC is a high school boy who only want an ordinary life (check)
    – pretty girl falls for the MC for no reason (check)

    how many high school romcom do we need Japan?

  10. l

    High School = dream setting for the japanese. Can't help it.

  11. F

    I'm pretty sure that its the boy who fell for the girl this time. Eru did not seem to express any particular interest in Houtarou, while he most certainly is interested in her.

    As for the rest…and your point is…?

  12. T

    "there’s a nice usage of Bach’s Air on G-String set to some pencil sketch animation…"
    I did love the use of Air on G-String, but I'm pretty sure that the pencilled part was set to the Moonlight Sonata.

    And my hopes for this seem to be a bit higher than yours, and for two reasons:
    1)Satoshi and Chitanda look like they might be pretty damn fun to watch, and
    2)I really, really liked the mood of the thing. I tend to think that every KyoAni production, from Kanon to K-On!, is largely (though not entirely) about the mood they set, and there were a few sequences here where I'd say they just about nailed it (whatever 'it' may be).

  13. i

    I couldn't put my finger on exactly why i enjoyed this first episode but i think "mood" describes it perfectly. I never thought about it before but that is a good observation.

  14. A

    You know, i felt bored watching Hyouka this morning. But, I have this interested feeling toward Hyouka. Yes, it's a safe choice for KyoAni, but this kind of anime bring out the best of KyoAni. I disagree with you regarding the VA, I think they suits the role of the main characters perfectly. We should give Hyouka a chance, because mystery anime takes more time to develop and hopefully the plot will get more interesting from here

  15. S

    I know what you mean about being bored by the show. I watched it after work today (yay JST) and was originally underwhelmed, but the same thing happened with AnoHana and I adore that show. I have high hoped in this show because of because these characters seem to have depth that hasn't been hit yet.

  16. I

    Safe describes this anime quite well.

    The first thing that ran through my mind when watching it was "Haruhi-Lite".
    A similar initial setup but with Haruhi and her, either big turn on/off, antics removed and replaced with a soft spoken girl, who likes holding hands and seems to have gained eye mastery of Haru's water gun (although this could be Oreki going through a moe overdose).

    I watched this and immediately afterwords watched Tasome X. Fell asleep 10 minutes in.
    Both animes bore me. It could be that just Tasome X was only boring but as Hyouka never wowed me, made me laugh or do anything other lie lazily in bed watching with eyes half closed; I conclude that they both bore me.

    Hyouka is visually ephemeral, it's beautiful while playing but without anything else to back it up, quickly gets dumped out of my memory.

    I honestly don't know where Kyoani intend to take this show but I hope the add something story or character wise next episode.

  17. b

    Since everyone's doing it, might as well join in that the animation is great, as expected from KyoAni.
    It's kind of like the Tomoya/Sunohara combo plus the Kyousuke/Manami pairing with K-on art. I quite liked the conversations in this episode. And those eyes…
    Nakamura Yuuichi's voice is too deep though for Houtarou. And Houtarou as a character is too low key. He's lacking in life and energy. But I think this will change with the involvement of the genki Chitanda, is what the premise might lead us to.

    All I can say is "Watashi, Kininarimasu"

  18. K

    Ever since Clannad and K-ON ended, it's been ages since there's a Kyo-Ani series that actually got me interested. Sure Nichijou was funny like hell, but it just lacked the "oomph" of the two series that I mentioned.

    The same can be said for Lucky Star, I suppose, until Kyo-Ani fired Yamakan did LS start to become interesting. Gatoh Shouji did work on the

    Endless Eight was an artistic gamble that failed, though Disappearance more or less redeemed the studio somewhat, though it's more like Haruhi needing Kyo-Ani more than the other way round.

    I digress.

    Anyway, Kyo-Ani performs best when the setting is light-hearted with full of scenic porn for you to enjoy. It's like riding a scenic train ride in the Alps, you don't have to do much thinking, but you'll still drop your jaw and would always be nostalgic about it for years to come.

    But to dismiss it as another "mindless moeshit" like K-ON is too premature and ignorant, for the original novel was serialized back in 2000, long before "moe" became a marketing success. Hell, the novel doesn't even have any illustrations to begin with.

  19. M

    I'd say it lacks ambition. The first episode was a bit plain and even dull.

    It may be only me but I thought Chitanda may already have a thing for Houtarou. How come she remembers his name and not Satoshi's? And there was more than one suspicious blush.

    The pencil sketch animation was indeed to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata mvt. 1 and 3 and it fit incredibly well. I loved the use of classical music in this episode and I wish we could hear more of that in anime in general.

  20. I guess I mis-remembered which piece went with which sequence… In any case, the classical pieces were definitely the highlight of the BGM – the rest of it was utterly forgettable.

  21. F

    I gotta say that I agree with you. What stands out most is the animation, but that was expected (even just the first Hyouka promo picture is beyond beautiful and instantly made me want to watch it) making everything else seem a bit… unexciting to me. What you said about the seiyuu makes me glad to hear since I also found it distracting, almost too much so.

    I enjoy Yuuichi Nakamura and Daisuke Sakaguchi at their most strained (half the reason I liked OreImo was because of how flawlessly Yuuichi Nakamura fit Kyousuke), neither of which they are here. Listening to the two talk, I can't help but wait for the hilarious dynamics of Tomoya and Sunohara (in a beautifully-animated school setting) to suddenly make their appearance and when they never do their conversations feel lacking and their voices out of place. I admit that is my own bias, but it still took away from my enjoyment of this first episode and I think at least Houtarou would have benefited from being voiced by a less well-known seiyuu. In contrast, Chitanda sounded fine to me, fitting I'd say, since I'm not familiar with hers at all.

    I'll check out another episode, but I just hope the excitement will pick up at least a little so our lead's voice fits him better. Glad to hear what you had to say about this premiere, Enzo.

  22. M

    Oh, and I have no idea why I didn't realize this earlier but Hyouka is very similar to this excellent manga called Iris Zero. The only difference is that the latter has a supernatural element to it (involving eyes, funnily enough).

  23. g

    Completely no impact in this first episode, i felt like i was watching the middle of a 13 episode series that's taking a bit of a breather. I think slice of life is one of my favourite genres on anime terms, however this episode was just dry based on that genre. Yes the backgrounds and other whatever direction of photography and composition was gorgeous, but I wasn't even a big fan of the character design other than Oreki.
    It's a little too early to judge, i hope it gets better because KyoAni IS still one of my favourite studios and will always be viewed as a top tier company.

  24. V

    This feels like one of those shows that make me fall in love with the characters and then keep coming back for more despite the mediocre plot and writing. Helps that the animation is gorgeous.

  25. A

    I agree with Grey that the anime felt dry. I didn't connect to Chitanda and Hontarou, but I liked Satoshi. I didn't feel Hontarou was falling for Chitanda, and the animation while was beautiful it just didn't connect with me. Even the pacing didn't felt right.

    I'll give this the three-episode try but as of now this show didn't left an impression for me.

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