In terms of just production and of mere analogy, I looks at Kyoto Animation in the anime industry the same way I would look at Valve Corporation in the video game business. Not to say that each of these companies' products are always individually related to each other (sometimes), but I feel both really do share a lot in common: a high level of polish, a relatively low number of titles despite their numerous years of operation, so really good highs, some really bad lows, a couple of mixed sequels and a couple of under appreciated gems just about sums up the history of both.
Hyouka is KyoAni's newest release, and though it's really tough to say where it fits with the whole Valve comparison at this juncture, what we have here is a fine first episode, with a lot of promise, of a series that's ironically about never working so hard in your life to avoid doing work.
The show starts us with a crash course of the thought process behind our main character. While it's easy to simplify Houtarou as a really lazy and laid back guy, the first 15 minutes of Hyouka really wants to cram down your throat exactly how uniquely lazy and laid back he is, which is sort of important to understand where this series is going for the long haul. We learn a lot about Houtarou early as his friend Satoshi goes on about how his personality is the very definition of grey, bleak and uninteresting. He's an asshole with no intention to hurt anyone's feelings, so he's never isolated or without the ability to make friends. He's cynical, but has good intentions. He's mean, but has never given an insult.
It's hard to describe Houtarou, because he's defined as a very uninteresting guy, but he's also one of the coolest motherfuckers in anime this season. He's a bro, but with an unhealthy state-of-mind. Put simply, he minds to himself, does his thing, he's never abrasive and doesn't give a shit about what you do, but at the same time he doesn't judge you for it. As seemingly dickish of a main character he may be, I commend him for his refusal to be an annoying, average protagonist. Never over reacting inappropriately, always playing it cool with a hint of cynisism, but never brash, the only other way I can describe him is that he's very Kyon-inspired from Haruhi Suzumiya lore.
It isn't until Satoshi finally stops going on about how strange he is does Houtarou actually tell him something completely unexpected: he's joining a club. Even if it's only by request from Houtarou's older sister, a former member of the club who doesn't want it to be abolished due to low turn-outs recently, the revelation shocks Satoshi, compelling him to stick around whatever club it is he joins. The said club happens to be the Classical Literature Club, one where, apparently, all the members investigate mysteries around the school, Scooby Doo-style.
Well, at least that's what begins to happen after meeting Chitanda, a very soft-spoken and kind female student with high grades from a well-known family who's also joining the club. She's also the kind of girl whose curiosity typically gets the better of her, leading to such wild and overblown fascinations that it typically gets other student to become just as curious as her. She has a way of making anybody interested in a mystery just due to her own eagerness, which at the same time makes her extremely gullible and easy to manipulate.
Within no time, and no sooner swooned by the beauty of this girl, Houtarou is joined by the other two, and together the three start the club and investigate a couple mysterious rumors, with Houtarou serving as the realist of the group who gets his thrills through procrastination, Satoshi playing the eccentric "drama over accuracy" storyteller, and Chitanda serving as the instigator and ringleader of it all.
This is a KyoAni joint, so if their last two or three titles didn't tip you off already, that means that this series is just an absolutely gorgeous treat in terms of animation and visuals. I can trust the rest of Hyouka to keep this same level of polish and quality, which makes it even more mind-blowing that this episode was one of the better looking "first-episode-with-a-high-budget" I'd seen in a long time. From simple tricks and simulations for a subtle depth-of-field as seen in Nichijou, to a really smooth color sheen that's very reminiscent of the also amazing Another anime last season, to backgrounds that blend really, really nice with other characters and background people, I'm walking away really impressed from this show, more so than even Tsuritama's stylized production, and even the new Lupin: The Third series for all it's worth, despite those titles also having exceptional art styles.
The most important thing about this series, though, is that it's more intriguing parts have still yet to come, if the reveal for the series' premise described at the end of this week's episode is to indicate anything. Just the promise of such an interesting idea put to use, Houtarou's need to "fight mysteries with mysteries", in future episodes will make for some very entertaining scenarios, as well as some sure struggles with coping and playing along with Chitanda's constant need for the curious and Houtarou's own curiosity of a life without being lazy that was hinted at throughout the episode.
Similar to how Lelouch needed to stay one step ahead of everything while posing as an innocent student by day in Code Geass, or how Light had to gain the trust of his enemies in Death Note, Hyouka is very similar to this formula of exploitation and trying to manipulate the plot from the inside, all while putting a unique twist on it due to our main character's laziness and perhaps a secret desire to, you know... maybe actually play detective one day instead of trying to get home quicker. It really does reveal a more rotten version of Houtarou, but even he (and the always upbeat Satoshi) acknowledges that; as secluded and emotionless as Houtarou may seem at times, he definitely knows deep down how his actions are really sleezy and selfish, especially at the expense of the fun of a really curious new club mate, sticking true to his motive of "if I don't need to do it, I don't. if I do need to do it, do it quick".
The interesting premise of a series resolved around "prolonging the tedious", or more specifically, creating a relationship around a series of beating productivity at its own game, is one I find entrusted in the correct hands of this studio, as an already mentally exausted Houtarou has only just begun this amazing escapade of what's in store for him down the road. If this series continues to push itself the way it's currently going, or even if it manages to surprise me in a new, amazing way, then I will once again have no doubt that KyoAni will produce one of my favorite anime of the year.
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