I hate to say it, but I may have gotten to the point where I want my Hyouka with a little bit more plot.
For better or worse, the epic “Kanya Festa” arc of Hyouka has dramatically reshaped the playing field. It raised my expectations of what this series was capable of – shattered them, really. I was quite happy with my quirky little show that was all about atmosphere, and had a way of capturing the feeling of being smart, adolescent and desperate for ways to fill the day – and more than happy to marvel week in and week out at the magic KyoAni was weaving with animation and art.
Kanya Festa changed all that, though. It started out as the same old Hyouka, only better – giving us a couple of episodes of pure atmosphere building, creating an amazingly vivid and seductive world inside the culture festival that made me desperate to go there. But then it built and built on that, giving us both the best character development and most interesting mystery of the series, by far, before wrapping it up with a conclusion that was so elegant and comprehensive that it elevated the series to high art. I never had any expectation that it would follow that up immediately with something else at the same level, but it did leave me with a taste for what the series could be at its best, which makes episodes like this one not quite as tasty as they would have been before.
What we got with the story of Ogi-sensei, the middle-school English teacher of Houtarou, Satoshi and Mayaka, felt very much like something from the first cour of the series. There was a difference though, and that was Houtarou. Whatever else happens in the final several episodes it’s clear that Houtarou can never go back. Hyouka is an interesting series in that the character development is so slow that you almost don’t notice it’s happening – but it’s there. The end of Kanya Festa was like a moment when you stand next to a 14 year-old relative you see frequently and realizing to your astonishment that he’s grown six inches, and you never noticed. It was a little more stark with Satoshi and Mayaka, but no less apparent with Houtarou – and he’s been developing at a glacial pace all along, even through the pre-Kanya arcs.
So how does that manifest itself in this episode, which is extremely Houtarou-centric? Well, things start out very typically – a helicopter flies by, and Fuku-chan goes to the window to look at it. This leads to an offhand remark about an incident from middle school, where Ogi-sensei went to the window and looked out for several seconds as a chopper flew by before smiling and saying, “I like helicopters”. This is an extremely esoteric mystery – one comment made by an old teacher none of the trio who took his class are ever likely to see again. But the important point is that Houtarou actually takes the initiative to act on his curiosity about the gap between what he remembers and what Satoshi and Mayaka do. I think Houtarou’s always been curious, but before, could rarely be bothered to act on it.
It’s not just that, though – alarming though it is that he’d actually take the initiative to research his hunch at the library and invite Satoshi along. No, there’s a degree of empathy that’s grown in Houtarou through his connection with the Classics Club, and that’s what makes distant curiosity about Ogi-sensei into something insistent. He describes it in a very interesting way – that it would “insensitive” if he never looked into why Ogi-sensei said what he did that day. Clarifying for Chitanda, he says it wouldn’t be right not to know how Ogi-sensei felt, even though (and this is the key) he doesn’t need to know.
There’s another element that’s changed for Houtarou too, and that’s his feelings for Chitanda. The two of them ceded center stage to Satoshi and Mayaka to a large extent in Kanya Festa, but they’re very much in focus here. Houtarou’s open admission of curiosity is to the queen of curiosity, of course, like waving a red cape in front of a bull. Chitanda is now curious mainly about why Houtarou is curious, and accompanies him on his research to the library. The episode takes some pains to ensure that the two of them are alone together on this quest, and I don’t think it’s an accident (nor is his musing that he "owes her") – effectively, this is a “library date” (and could anyone make a village library look more interesting than KyoAni?). There are some very funny moments here – Houtarou’s fantasies about riding with Chitanda on her bike, and Chitanda’s general behavior in the library. A public library is a tough spot for her, with the attention span of a gnat – everything is fascinating, but only until something more fascinating comes along. Cabbages, tomatoes, dung beetles – they’re all a part of the wondrous world she’s endlessly curious about.
For my money, I still find Satoshi and Mayaka the more interesting pair. Chitanda has evolved the least of the main cast – she’s still largely a plot driver and comic device (and she excels as both), still mired in her disconnected world where mansions are “average” and life is full of new wonders waiting to be discovered. But Houtarou’s journey from a clichéd teenage version of The Dude (The Dude Abides) to fully-vested member of society has become far more interesting than I ever expected (and I would be remiss in not restating my admiration for Hyouka in being that rare school ensemble show where the boys are as complex and well-developed – significantly more so, in truth – than the girls). And undeniably Chitanda is a major component of that – if she hasn’t developed much, she’s an indispensable element of Houtarou’s development and that makes her totally crucial to everything that happens in Hyouka. If the series spends its last month on well-crafted idyll I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, but I’m spoiled now – Kanya Festa left this cast in a fascinating place, and I really want to see where the road takes them from here.