On the nature of mystery itself in Hyouka

Well, turns out Hyouka has not one but two posts on the old Super Fani already. I guess I shouldn’t write one of my own then? I mean, that’d be overkill. Except, of course, that Pontifus was wrong. So let’s fix that, shall we?

How was he wrong? Well, in “A Hastily Erected Shrine to Historiography in Hyouka” he claims the show isn’t a mystery, but a slice of life show. Whoops.

Now of course I’m fucking around. It is, to some extent, a slice of life show. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a mystery.

(I should say at this point like Pontifus at the time I, too, haven’t actually finished the series. So don’t spoil anything in your comments past episode 17. Thanks.)

One would expect a mystery to have conundrums in it – Hyouka does. One would expect a mystery to have people detecting in it, and Hyouka does. I’m being obtuse, but you get the idea. Really, though, there is one thing that might make one think Hyouka isn’t a mystery – its own mystery. What is the big secret in Hyouka? It appears to be the name of the anthology book itself, but that ends startlingly quickly. It isn’t necessary, of course, for a serial mystery to have a single secret behind everything, but many often do. It’s fair to wonder what Hyouka’s is – and possibly even fair to wonder if the show is a mystery at all if the secret remains undetectable.

But, and you’ll love this, you will – Hyouka has a big damn secret, and it’s this: what drives mysteries themselves. Hyouka is a meta-narrative.

This, too, is unsurprising in itself. People in a mystery show talk about famous detectives and authors. Yes, obviously. But that’s metanarrative in the way pop culture jokes are – amusing and sometimes relevant, but at the end of the day simply nods, unless they go together with something else.

Let’s see if you think this is fair: the first arc of the show is the Classics Club detecting what happened in the history of their school and their own club. The second “arc” is really a collection of one-episode “mysteries” that demonstrate that everyone is getting used to Oreki doing his thing. The third arc is the next meaty one, in which the club is tricked into writing an ending, and discover the real explanation too late to help the author, who is curiously effaced from the narrative (something that backs up Pontifus’s claims about death of the author in this series). The fourth arc is about the cultural festival and the series of thefts that lead to a kind of riddle. As I said, I haven’t seen past that.

Well, what happens in each, to the characters at least? In the first everyone learns about one another, Oreki finds his skills are in demand but still believes they don’t mean anything. In the second that continues until it becomes a rhythm – in fact, the show takes advantage of the tropes and expectations of serial anime, appearing to relax into a pattern of small mysteries. The third arc violates expectations suddenly, whipping both the viewer and Oreki around a sudden turn – the show is not necessarily about Oreki solving everyone’s problems with his detective prowess, and his confidence in his skills is shaken to its foundation, just as he, and the viewer through the repetition of small mysteries Oreki solves, started to take it for granted. In the next arc everyone begins to get frustrated with the state of affairs, in different ways: Oreki wants to withdraw because his pride has been injured; Fukube wants to do what Oreki does and is frustrated Oreki doesn’t value his own skills; Ibara wants to be able to make sense of things and has her own small mystery that she solves like a Chandler or a Hammett hero, by bulling through and just asking things over and over; Chitanda gets tired of being the public interface of her group of misfits.

This is, if you will, the Empire Strikes Back of the Soul for these characters.

I haven’t talked about a bunch of stuff yet, just the anime. That’s weird, huh? OK, let’s do that.

AJtheFourth explained some of the mystery intertexts in “Notes on Hyouka as an Explanation of Detective Fiction.” That’s some good background. Pontifus’s other Hyouka post also explores some connections to old detective stories. But, for my purposes, AJ moved in the wrong direction and Pontifus went into particulars. I want to take a big view of things for a moment, show you the lay of the land. So here’s a short and incomplete history of the mystery genre. I promise it’s less boring than it sounds.

OK, first there’s non-fiction, actually. The serialized memoirs of Vidocq are the first mysteries in some histories of the genre; they’re the tales of a former criminal released from the Bastille to help the police in their detection. Yes, that really happened, though Vidocq appears to have exhausted what really happened and then began to just write fiction. That’s followed by Poe’s three Dupin stories (one of which is actually Poe claiming he can solve a real-life mystery to get readers and is unreadable – yes I’ve read it) and his tale “The Gold-Bug” which deals with a treasure map and cryptography. Poe also claimed he could solve any cryptogram sent to him, and solved some in his articles.

Skipping some in-between stuff we get to Sherlock Holmes, the Master himself, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes is not the obsessive rationalist people think he is. Yes, he eschews most personal relationships and is generally only interested in puzzles, but he is also very patriotic and loyal; he once freaks out and can’t apprehend the criminal when Watson is shot. The police have to do it for him, though he led them there. Also, the famous bit where Watson says Holmes doesn’t know the Earth revolves around the Sun also includes a reference Holmes misses to Edmund Burke – in the next chapter Holmes, unprompted, quotes Burke. So not much to go on there. Holmes is more likely than not fucking with Watson, something readers know he’s fond of doing.

Now, here’s where I want to focus. People visualize the history of detective fiction as going from Poe to Holmes to Christie, which is a bad visualization. Two reasons why: one, it assumes mystery fiction is defined by Christie and that the Holmes stories are actually not good mysteries. Hyouka itself points to that debate when Fukube explains to Ibara, who has only read Holmes, that it’s not wrong to say the script writer was going to be naïve because she only read Holmes mysteries. This is actually not true, but I’ll try to show you why in a moment. The second reason that visualization is a bad idea is that it leaves out an entire realm of detective fiction: the noir detective as popularized by Hammett and Chandler (remember I mentioned them earlier?).

I suspect one of the reasons that happens is that Hammett and Chandler are American, and their writing was gritty, while British Christie’s writing was genteel and more upper-middle class (people believe the Holmes stories uphold the standards of the upper-middle class as well, but why, then, does he make fun of royalty to their faces and prefer the company of poor actors and disreputable people on the street?).

This is getting long.

There’s a big secret to mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle appears to have known about it. Poe too. In a letter, Poe mentioned the reviews for his Dupin stories. He says he’s glad people liked them, but confused as to the specific reaction, that he was so clever for being able to work out the puzzles (something people actually said, yes). He said, in turn, that it was no trouble at all to work out puzzles he created. Doyle cited “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” as one of the best Holmes stories in his opinion, and like Christie he did value realism in stories – no bullshit answers or fake science or anything. Without spoiling the story, “Speckled Band” makes no fucking sense. The scholarly argument I think best deals with those two pieces of information is the claim that it is meta-narrative – that it shows to the reader that he or she does not care about the detection, but the detective. That is, we may all say it matters that mysteries follow all the rules, and give everyone all the clues, but that doesn’t matter unless you read them as puzzles and not stories. For people who like mysteries for what they offer as a genre, not a series of puzzles, the clues don’t matter, only watching the detective solve things matters. Effectively the detective is a wizard with one difference – the claim that the detective’s feats are possible in the real world / zero world. Christie et al play the game, but in the end even their fans come to the rules afterwards – if you don’t like Christie’s writing or characters, it doesn’t matter how well she followed the rules.

If you don’t like “watching” Poirot solve things, it doesn’t matter how good everything else is. Conversely, other things can be weird and it doesn’t matter because you got to see an excellent detective.

Now, remember that mention of Noir fiction I promised I’d get back to? They’re mysteries. In The Big Sleep Marlow tries to figure out who killed someone; in Red Harvest the unnamed narrator (who works for a fictional agency much like the Pinkertons) is meant to find out who’s holding power over a tycoon, starts to solve a murder, and then solves all the crimes in town and proceeds to entrap, blackmail, blow up, and threaten everyone, including cops, because he wants to get back at the town that possibly made him kill a woman in cold blood when he was passed out. If you’re like me, that sounds like a lot more fun than Poirot (not to say I don’t enjoy that too, I do). And in a way these stories have more to do with Holmes than Christie’s do. Holmes goes from place to place, looking at things, until he arrives at an answer. The reader is never given his clues. Same in noir detective fiction – in fact, often the detective knows the answer almost immediately, but plays everyone to find out why or because of loyalty (see The Big Sleep). Sometimes the answers don’t matter (see Red Harvest).

OK. Now. I told you that to tell you this: Hyouka is investigating exactly the same thing Doyle was when he wrote “Speckled Band.” What makes it enjoyable to watch someone solve things? Why are people drawn to folks like that and to stories like that? The show depicts people being drawn to a detective, even though that’s not really his day job. So it’s a controlled environment – there’s no mystique, no sultry dames, hard liquor, or shoulder-holsters. And sure enough, people are drawn to Oreki – both characters and viewers. The visualization of the detecting process, through the imagery in everyone’s heads, shows the detective as one who parses information, makes sense of chaos. As AJ points out, each of the characters is an odd sort of archetype. Fukube is a database, Chitanda is curiosity, and Ibara is the “Watson” (possibly a stretch, but the archetype works for where I’m going).

So, in other words, Fukube is a Christie fan and Ibara is a Holmes fan. The former likes details, the latter the solution, the magic. Chitanda likes whatever can get her what she wants, which is answers (different from solutions). Ibara herself takes on the hardboiled detective role in the cultural festival arc, going from person to person, asking questions, until she gets answers. No fancy logic games or tiny details unnoticed by everyone else. She forces her way through. And it works as well as Oreki’s methods. I should point out as we go by, also, that Oreki frequently fakes information and puzzles, as Holmes did. I’ve lost count of how many fake advertisements he put in the agony columns of newspapers.

No matter what sort of detection each character prefers, they’re drawn to Oreki because he can actually do it. Oreki, by the way, presumably developed this skill so he could quickly and easily discern the path of least resistance for every problem. But everyone else values his skills so highly. Why? Now, maybe my answers will change once I finish the series, but here’s what I think right now:

Oreki makes sense of things. But he, himself, proves that things don’t have to make sense. He doesn’t understand life or what he wants from it, even while he answers the puzzles and questions of others. Why does it bother him that he’s successfully tricked in the scriptwriting debacle, if it means the trouble to him is over? He has his own assumptions that blind him, even as he can see through and discard everyone else’s. So it’s not as simple as the detective making sense of the world, as it often is.

What about the allusions to harboiled detective fiction, which often posited the world doesn’t make sense at all, and the detective, as a result, is a depressed alcoholic or a barely repressed bundle of violent rage? Does the world of Hyouka make sense?

Well, Oreki’s sister bangs around the world seemingly magically, with no job. Oreki’s parents are absent, as are all the parents. Fukube decided to be a database with no goal in sight, no desire to learn about anything, or even everything. Chitanda’s uncle was thrown out of school for no good reason. Two high schoolers can become obsessed with who borrowed a yukata, and why it had to be a secret.

That’s actually the episode that gives us the key. Chitanda wants siblings to be partners in life. Oreki doesn’t believe that’s the case, as his sister apparently abandoned him – he doesn’t notice all the letters, which start with the one making him join a club now that she’s out of the country. As soon as she’s gone, she gives him a new support structure. So his sister was doing, and does do, exactly what Chitanda wants. Oreki understands exactly what happened when the one sibling took the other’s yukata, but not the precise dynamic of their relationship. Someone can be possessive of things and still value people. He misses that.

So what do mysteries do, according to Hyouka? This show says that the mysteries in life, the things that apparently hide meaning, are just puzzles.

Meaning and answers are separate. The detective provides answers, but each viewer, reader, or friend has to provide the meaning.

Hyouka breaks apart the mystery and posits that mysteries never hide meaning, only answers – and, at that, answers to puzzles they made themselves. But even though the puzzles are empty games, mysterious because they’re presented as such, they have a wealth of meaning for the reader. Why else would the Holmes stories feature Holmes complaining all the time about Watson’s creation of mystery stories and not textbook cases of how detection should be done? Because it reminds the reader that the meaning is independent of the mystery.

In the solution of the mystery of “Hyouka” itself is implied something else – that is, when Oreki explains to everyone what “Hyouka” actually means (“I scream”), he reminds everyone that no one else knew. The person who knew Chitanda’s uncle didn’t know. But still “Hyouka” had meaning – it wasn’t a void, wasn’t without referent. It was the title of the anthology. That, in itself, is meaning, or at least provides a place for meaning to pool around something. The pain of the individual (Chitanda’s uncle) is not important except as a way for the characters to make meaning around events (Chitanda’s childhood fright, everyone’s exposure to the story of the anthology).

You’ll notice in this post I never referred to what Holmes, Poirot, Oreki, et al do as deduction. That’s because it’s not. They perform induction, never mind what Holmes calls it. Dupin called it ratiocination.

OK, I’m going to fall over now.

edit: I forgot my shameless plug. How could I? If you like this mess, check out my own blog, Wondrous Windows. It’s focused on fantasy and SF, but I get up to a lot of stuff over there.

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1 Comment

  1. An Ode to a Stationary Girl, Eru Chitanda | atelier emily

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