I have to give full credit to Hyouka, a series that’s really raised its game in this culture festival arc. There was always an insidious quality to the way the show wormed its way into the consciousness, not with conventional plot so much as mood, but this arc has seen the show really firing on all cylinders. I would never imagine a school festival arc could stretch out this long and still be compelling, but then I’ve never seen a school festival arc quite like this one.
It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me there’s something almost genius about the way this arc has built on itself, laying out a succession of seemingly unrelated (and immensely entertaining) time wasting events and slowly but surely tying them all together. The first couple of episodes were dedicated almost entirely to building the atmosphere at the festival, and did so brilliantly – and the clues were so subtle and the time-wasting so joyful that you hardly noticed they were even there. Then a couple of plots began to slowly reveal themselves like dim shapes forming in a mist, just at the corner of your vision and barely recognizable as more than just random vapors. And now as those shapes solidify, we’re seeing that those two plots are not only real, but connected to each other. It’s really been the best slice-of-life and the best mystery scene-setting we’ve seen thus far.
Along the way we’re also seeing some of the best character development we’ve had in the entire series as well. Again, I have to give it up for Hyouka, because it’s that rare school life show with a mixed cast that treats both genders as equally important – and truth be told, the guys are really the more interesting and complicated characters here. But what we’ve seen in this arc is Houtarou subtly slip into the background, leaving a void that Satoshi and Mayaka have moved in to fill. Houtarou remains the central figure, the pivot point, and it’s still his POV that the series always returns to. Chitanda provides the kawaii overload and the broad comedy with her ADD personality and complete lack of irony (and boundaries). But Satoshi (who’s always been the most subtle and deceptive cast member) and Mayaka have seized the day from a character standpoint, each taking a pivotal role in the current mystery.
Either Houtarou’s sister is actually involved in the ABC thefts, or he’s just gotten an incredibly lucky break by having “A Corpse by Evening” dumped into his lap. The work by the in-school circle “Ajimu Takuha” isn’t just the manga that changed Mayaka’s life –it’s also apparently the key to the current thefts being perpetrated around the festival. The artist is the Seito-Kaicho Kugayama Muneyoshi (who we’ve briefly met) and the writer someone named Anjou Haruna (who we haven’t, that I know of) but it’s the unnamed backgrounds assistant who provided the liner notes to “corpse” in which a new manga is promised for next year’s (the current) Kanya Festa, entitled “Kudryavka’s Order” (after an astronaut dog that died in space) and based on a famous Christie novel. No such manga exists as far as we know, but a couple of interesting possibilities present themselves. I wonder if this might be a manga presented as a kind of performance art – as if the thefts and notes are the text, and life itself provides the art. In any case, I’d be very curious to know the identity of this mysterious backgrounds artist.
Even as what’s potentially the most interesting mystery of the series sprouts from the most entertaining non-plot episodes, the most interesting part for me is seeing Satoshi and Mayaka react to all this. She continues to be subject to cruel treatment by her sempai at the Manga Club, building up to having her costume ruined by having ink-stained water dumped on it (accidentally, but in the act of minor bullying), and she’s visibly straining under the pressure. This is a side of her we haven’t seen much of – righteous and idealistic, but also vulnerable. The difficulty she has fitting in is painful to watch, even as much of it is clearly a self-inflicted result of the eminence front she always projects. High school is always a search for identity, and we see this playing out before our eyes with Mayaka.
With the always fascinating Satoshi what we’re seeing is quite different. There’s always been an undertone with him – a hint of anger underneath his smiling demeanor and genki personality. Satoshi is determinedly individualistic, but he’s always had some resentment that despite being the passionate and energetic one, he can’t do what Houtarou does effortlessly. More so than at any time we’re now seeing the façade start to show some real cracks, and the frustration beginning to edge to the surface. For the first time he’s trying to step beyond his “database” role and be the star, to trump Oreki and solve the case – and it isn’t working. So far Satoshi has been foiled at every turn, and now he sees his best friend again edging closer to solving the mystery. While Satoshi is putting in the miles looking for answers, Houtarou as always sits on his throne (in this case folding chair) and the clues are drawn to him as if magnetically. I’m most interested in seeing what happened with Satoshi here, especially if he’s again left out of the heroism. I don’t think Satoshi’s nice guy persona is an act – he really is a nice guy – but he’s got anger in him just like all of us, and a sense of justice that doesn’t like what it’s seeing. This is an element that bears close watching.
Lest I imply that Chitanda is idle while all this is happening, she certainly isn’t (is she ever?) – the dreaded curiosity (which seems to be the key word of the day) continues to drive her forward, and it’s she who makes the connection between A Corpse by Evening and the festival poster drawn by Kugayama-san. She also manages to get herself booked on the Broadcasting Club’s Noon broadcast, hosted by its flamboyant President Yoshino Yasukuni (Yoshino Hiroyuki – check) and is off to a flying start is making a complete mess of that. She never offers much in terms of actual character growth, but there’s never a dull moment when she’s around.