Apart from its visuals – which are admittedly splendiforous – there’s probably nothing about this series that’s going to blow you away. As such, it has to get a lot of the little details right in order to be interesting, and for three episodes (especially the first two) that was a pretty near thing for me. After this week, though, I think the show has crossed a threshold and gotten its hooks deep enough under my skin to close the deal. Hyou-ka is very much a mood piece, really all about the atmosphere it’s trying to create out of harmonious elements that are relatively nondescript on their own. To some extent last week and even more this, things seemed to click, and I found myself drawn into the world it creates on-screen.
My first observation from this episode is that the conversation between Oreki and Fukube that opened the episode was interesting – more so than we had any reason to suspect it would be. It felt extraneous and unnecessary – which is exactly what made it interesting. Actually, it was more of a monologue by Fukube than a conversation, and it effectively amounted to a statement of purpose – “I’m neon bright by nature. I won’t tone myself down to fit in.” In a show where most of the dialogue has been fairly generic that was probably the most interesting speech I’ve heard, and it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a more general statement of defiance beneath the surface. I’m not suggesting that Fukube is gay, or that he needs to be in order to be interesting – but wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a gay character who’s not played for comedy or part of a fujoshi-bait series, or whose orientation is the main theme of the show – but just an interesting guy who’s part of the regular cast?
Whether there’s any substance to that pure speculation on my part or not, the last two episodes have shown that Fukube is an important element of the cast, and his energy is much missed when he’s absent. The odd couple relationship between the genki Fukube and the slacker Oreki is certainly the most interesting one among the main quartet so far, as both girls have struggled to rise about the level of trope representative. Fukube is also showing that for all his self-deprecation, he’s much smarter than he likes to let on – and his role in the detective side of things is as important as his role in the chemistry, because his well-informed skepticism clears away a lot of the chaff, and helps Oreki to arrive at the truth.
And what of that mystery side? Hyou-ka has some work to do to catch up with some of the better stories featured in UN-GO, but this current thread surrounding Chitanda’s uncle has definitely risen to the level of “involving”. The story itself has some interest – looking back at the turbulent 1960’s, when student protests were rocking campuses all over Japan, delicately poking fond ridicule at the pomposity of youngsters who feel so certain that the deeds they do are noble and must be recorded for posterity. But I’ve been more interested in the way the mystery itself was laid out this week, with the scene changes at Chitanda’s mansion and the individual sequences for each club member’s research. It was clever, stylish and well-done.
And in the end, it really comes down to the presentation. It’s easy to forget when you don’t watch a KyoAni show for a while, but these people truly do astonishing work – and Hyou-ka is a triumph of art and animation. What impresses me more than anything is the breadth of quality – there’s seemingly no detail too small for KyoAni to insist it be perfect. Coloring, shading, scale, backgrounds, facial expression, realistic movement – they just do all of it astonishingly well. The level of detail in something as minor as the rice balls Chitanda was preparing is elevated to art, and it’s not just lavish flash either – the free-standing sequences like the pencil-sketch animation and the Ukiyoe-styled montages are full of cleverness and wit. Even if I was totally disinterested in the story (which is by no means the case) I’d probably still watch this show just to marvel at how beautiful it is. Independent of anything else, the animators and artists at KyoAni deserve to be praised to the high heavens for Hyou-ka – their work is something for animation fans of any stripe to admire, and for the entire staff to be proud of.