It was fun while it lasted – the most fun culture festival I’ve ever seen in anime, in fact. But all of that was always headed somewhere, and that somewhere is here – right where episode 15 took the show in a much more serious direction. And while it more or less conforms to my view that Hyouka is inversely entertaining in opposition to how plot-driven it is, I’ll give the show credit for taking the characters in interesting directions as part of this episode. It’s a weird series, this – pretty close to unique among all the shows I’ve liked – and my demands for it seem quite different than they are for any other show.
Perhaps the most encouraging element for me is that while the series has more or less focused on Houtarou and Chitanda up to this point – when it bothers to focus on anyone – this arc is increasingly about Satoshi and Mayaka. They’re certainly the more interesting characters within their respective genders, and while I don’t actually like Mayaka all that much, dramatically there’s a little more going on there, seemingly, than there is with Chitanda. As the mystery builds she’s largely removed from it, caught up in her own developing drama with the Manga Club. This is something of an identify crisis for her, and dealing with the bullying of her senpai is an important step for her character. It’s easy to feel her frustration – standing up for yourself against your elders is a huge taboo in Japanese schools, but they (prodded by ringleader Kouchi) continue to noodge her relentlessly about the relativism of masterpieces and “A Corpse by Evening”. In the larger scheme of things this isn’t an Earth-shattering crisis, but for a high-schooler with self-esteem issues such things can feel Earth-shattering – and Hyouka is especially good at exploring those things that seem important to us as teenagers.
As for Satoshi, it’s growing increasingly clear that his constant protestations that he’s only a “database” – which were never really true and which he never really believed – mask a deeper desire to be much more. One of the things I’ve always liked about Satoshi is that there’s a deeper and darker side to him that’s always just barely hidden under the smiling, flamboyant exterior. He wants to be the one to actually solve the mysteries once in a while, and the injustice of the situation – Houtarou professes indifference and possessed the ability to do what Satoshi wants to do – clearly weighs on him. Simply put, he’s a little jealous – to the point where he’s not even sure he’s happy that Houtarou is actually taking an interest in the club thefts, given that he’d actually like to be the hero this time around. When his plan to catch “Juumoji” in the act at the magic club fails, we see that happy façade crack about as deeply as we have at any time in the series – but only for a few moments.
Of course, it’s Houtarou who’s the one who puts all the pieces of the mystery together – the “ABC” style of the thefts, with the victimized clubs progressing in the kana alphabet – and as in Christie’s novel, the initial of the stolen item matches the name of the club. In hindsight it seems too easy, as if the thief wanted to be caught (which would certainly make sense if it was Houtarou’s sister). The Classics Club is next in line (though the Crafts Club could just as easily fit the pattern) and Satoshi thinks this one isn’t up Houtarou’s alley, as the only way to solve the case will be to catch the thief in the act, and in a rare acknowledgment of his true feelings (if only to himself) he vows to catch the thief himself.
That seems to be the theme for this arc in the end – Satoshi and Mayaka searching for their own place, one not defined by its relation to someone else. Houtarou is mostly on the sidelines here, though his practiced detachment continues to show cracks. Chitanda, meanwhile, is primarily interested in the Jumoji case in terms of how it can benefit the Classics Club and Hyouka sales, and gives us the ep’s best comedic moment when she makes a complete hash of Irisu-san’s three rules of persuasion in trying to negotiate some free publicity with the Newspaper Circle’s Tougaito. Her complete lack of a sense of irony almost borders on the personality disorder, but it does make for some amusingly screwed-up human interactions…