When you think “high school life”, the word “rose-coloured” comes to mind. When you think “rose-coloured”, “high school life” comes to mind.
These are the opening words of Hyouka’s first episode, said by our protagonist Oreki Houtarou. It instantly lays out one of the central themes of Hyouka. Oreki is constantly questioning and struggling with society and its perception of high school life. It’s only natural, he’s a 16 year old boy who’s only just started high school. He’s entering a time in his life where he transitions into adulthood. Many things are bound to be confusing and not make sense to him. Therefore, he has decided to live a “grey” high school life, rejecting what society sees as the perfect high school life. He has a motto to live by: “If I don’t have to do it, I won’t. If I do have to do it, make it quick.” This is how he’ll always be, and how he decides to spend the entirety of his high school life.
Or will it?
Episode 5 of Hyouka is one of the most interesting and fulfilling episodes of anime I’ve seen in a long time. It satisfyingly closes the book on the show’s first mystery, the story of Sekitani Jun and the origins of the name “Hyouka”. Oreki and the other members of the Classics Club had been asked by Chitanda to help solve the mystery. Sekitani Jun was Chitanda’s uncle, and she seeks closure of what the true story of his high school life was like. He had told it to Chitanda when she was a child and had a big impact on her even at a young age. The main thing that made this episode so interesting to me however lies in its characters, and how they react and learn from the story. Yoshiji Kigami, the episode director, also has to be praised for helping to craft such a wonderful episode.
The start of this episode immediately picks up from the last, with Oreki and Satoshi walking home. It’s dark, raining, but most noticeably: Grey.
Satoshi is questioning Oreki throughout this opening scene. Why have you been solving so many mysteries? Doesn’t that go against your energy-conservation motto? What caused this? He’s seen a change in Oreki since joining the Classics Club. Oreki uses this questioning as a time for self-reflection, represented in this scene by a clever shot of his reflection in a puddle underneath him.
This self-reflection leads to a striking moment. Oreki turns round to Satoshi and proclaims that “I’m tired of being grey.” This is a major turning point for Oreki. His beliefs that he was certain couldn’t be challenged, have been through his short time at high school. He says that he feels “restless” when he sees the other members of the Classics Club. He wants to know more about them, and find something that he himself can be as invested and energetic about. The sense of realisation and wanting to open up more to the world is also represented visually. Up until now, Oreki is shown isolated and in grey surroundings. However, as Oreki opens up Satoshi, the sun starts to shine more brightly on him. This shows how he’s starting to doubt his way of thinking; and that a brighter, more fulfilling high school life can be something he can attain.
He still has reservations, Chitanda is someone who will always be highly energetic and curious about the world around her. Satoshi and Mayaka already lead a high school life revolved around engaging with student clubs. In his eyes he still sees his friends as “wasting energy”. However the important thing is that he is starting to understand more about them. He’s had a taste of what it feels like to go out of his way and be part of something with his peers. He can start to understand what it’s like to have curiosity like Chitanda, and being part of something as a group.
This opening scene amazed me the first time I saw it. Instantly from the start Hyouka’s fantastic directing, writing and character development shines through. I wasn’t expecting such a big turning point for Oreki to be presented so early on in the episode. Densely packed with meaning, it’s something special only a veteran such as Kigami could create.
Oreki self-reflecting is ever present throughout the episode. Immediately after the opening we see him lying at home reflecting on the events that have happened so far. Does he want to be like Chitanda and Sekitani Jun? What counts as rose-coloured? Who knows, they’re complex questions. Good time for his sister to call and push it aside for now. We’re also treated to another shot of light coming through. This time the light is focused on Oreki in an enclosed space, with the darkness around him.
Some friendly banter and updates about their respective lives occurs, until Oreki’s sister throws a spanner in the works. She says that the story of Sekitani Jun was “Tragic” and “Depressing”. This crushes the previous image the show has given us. Up until now Sekitani Jun was a hero, a noble sacrifice who stood up to authority for the sake of his fellow students. Oreki sees a lot of himself within Sekitani Jun, even if he doubts whether he wants to be like him. This drives Oreki to find out the truth.
Oreki calls out the other members of the Classics Club, and comes to the conclusion that they need to look more closely at Hyouka. The writer’s interpretation of the story of Sekitani Jun can be seen in multiple ways. He ultimately decides that to find out the truth, they’ll need to find the original writer. Luckily for them, the author still works in the school. Mayaka knows them well, the librarian: Itoigawa Youko. We then go through her life, aged 61 to 16, in one of the most impressive transitions I’ve seen. It feels like reading a good biography of someone’s life, condensed within six seconds.
Youko is impressed with Oreki’s theory, saying it reads like he was there. Despite this, she says that there is a lot more to the story of Sekitani Jun than what is presented. She then walks the Classics Club through the events, both through words and visually.
The cultural festival means everything to the students. It’s embodies everything the students believe in. Passion, energy, community. In their eyes, any attempts to meddle around with or to shut down the festival means a lot more than that. It’s seen as an attack on everything they stand for, an attempt at suppressing them by authority figures. This generational gap also comes to play in the modern day. Youko now thinks the whole ordeal was silly, but also admits that it’s something that can only be said in retrospective. Mayaka also instantly turns to say that it’s not true, showing that the passion for the cultural festival is something students still have in Kamiyama High today. Up until now, the cultural festival was seen as just something the students do for fun. Something to look forward to, to break up the monotony of the school year. Now we see that it’s something with a deep-rooted history. The history of student culture, and to a larger extent the history of Japan can be found within the festival. They’re a representation of what the culture and climate was at the time. Satoshi even makes alludes to this, saying that “it’s a world we couldn’t imagine nowadays.”
So, as commonly seen in 1960s Japan, the students started a movement and protests against these changes. This is where the real tragedy of Sekitani Jun is revealed. No one took leadership of the movement out of fear of consequence. Sekitani Jun was selected as the face of the movement. Not out of any noble cause, but out of being the weakest. The protests escalate. Disaster strikes. One of the bonfires burns down a school building. The administration has to punish someone, and as Sekitani Jun was seen as the leader, he was the one in the firing line for expulsion.
That rose-coloured image, of a noble hero sacrificing himself to stand up for his fellow students is shattered. The real meaning of Hyouka is revealed.
Hyouka is Sekitani Jun’s warning. In English, Hyouka translates into “ice cream”. It’s meant to be a pun for “I scream”. In reality, Sekitani Jun was weak. He could never be the noble sacrifice or an example of the rose-colored life history has painted him to be. He was powerless over the whole situation, dragged into it by his peers so they couldn’t be punished for the protests. He never engaged in the world, and when it came time to speak up he no longer had a voice.
Chitanda’s long search for closure if over, with the final page being turned on this complex story. The shot accompanying this shows a literal rose-coloured sky, but it’s also showing that dark clouds. It’s telling that even the most rose-coloured stories may not be what they see.
The episode wraps up, Oreki is going to be writing about Sekitani Jun in the club’s anthology (to his dismay) and once again go through self-reflection. Chitanda goes through a moment of realisation. Her energy and curious nature was something that can be traced back to Sekitani Jun’s story. From a young age, she has heard this story. She’s heard about what a passive life can do, and how harmful it can be. Learning about it in the today was merely a reminder of the consequences that have happened. She doesn’t want to face the same fate as her uncle, and has made sure and will continue to have the presence amongst her peers as she already does.
For Oreki, it’s a more complex matter. Sekitani Jun’s story serves as the same warning Chitanda received all those years ago. With his current state of being, he could easily suffer the same fate. His relaxed way of being can easily be exploited by others for their own personal gain, and the consequences can be huge. While he’ll never aim for a rose-coloured high school life, this marks the start of a high school life where he takes action.
In a lovely final scene, Oreki writes back to his sister. He thanks her for the recommendation of joining the Classics Club. From the beginning, he had believed that he was forced into joining through his sister’s nostalgia. Now it’s clear that it was because she knew that Sekitani Jun’s story would serve as a warning to Oreki, and knew it was something he had to learn from.
“Consider this a status report” closes of Oreki, as the episode and the arc ends.
After finishing this episode, I was immediately thrown in a state of self-reflection myself. Such a wonderfully crafted episode changed my perspective on many things the show goes through. The cultural festival is now an integral part of the show’s world, with the amount of history and importance it has to the characters. “The niece of time” is a title that shows why Chitanda is the way she is. Her personality and outlook of life was highly effected by her uncle’s story, it’s something she learned about from a young age. The aspect of time itself is interesting, showing that there is plenty to learn about from the past, which are useful lessons today. The future is also important, no one wants to look back to the now in ten years time and regret what they’ve done.
Hyouka is one of the most unique coming-of-age stories I’ve seen. Episodes like this reaffirm why it’s a story that has been much discussed about long after its initial airing. Hyouka is a classic to look back and learn from, just as the Classics Club do in the show itself.