My boyfriend wanted to watch Hyouka, and I wanted to watch it again, so I forced him to do it together. And then, something funny happened: watching this series I had so many memories of (watching it when I feeling down as an escape into an alternative mundane life, so close to mine and yet so much more), I realized it was about memory.
Let me bore you with some description before I can explain why I interpreted it that way. The story begins with a monologue from its protagonist, Oreki Houtarou, giving us his theory of how the population of high school students divides. On the one hand, we have those who lead a “rose-tinted” life: that’s the majority, those who wear the bright color that in their hearts as a symbol of the dynamicity and romance of their high school days. And in the minority, we have Oreki’s own color, grey, which represents a “low energy” lifestyle: no big dreams or desire to “live out one’s youth to the fullest”, just the hope of living through those days in a comfortable, relatively enjoyable way without having to make too much effort. Upon enrolling high school, his older sister, who is away on a trip to India, orders him via letter to enter the club she used to be a part of, the Classics Club, as it is on the verge of closing down due to not having a single member. Oreki obliges, thinking it will be a mostly peaceful affair, he’ll be alone there after all; but when he enters the clubroom, he meets one Chitanda Eru, an extremely curious girl who, upon hearing about some “mystery” of the kind that we all run into in our daily lives (why did this person act in this way? and whatnot) cannot help wanting to know the truth… and it turns out Oreki has something of a talent for solving those. Unable to escape her burning demand to learn, he will find himself solving a number of mysteries, mostly having to do with their school.
This starting point is, in itself, perfectly banal, and lends itself to a most dull description: Oreki, the blasé young man, is made to realize with the help of a heroine that life is full of mysteries waiting to be solved, which is to say that it is rose-tinted. But much more fascinating is what is common about all those mysteries, i.e. that their solution concerns the unravelling of some memory.
The first major mystery revolves around Chitanda’s uncle Sekitani Jun, who had been part of the Classics Club, and had given its yearly anthology its title: Hyouka. Upon asking him the meaning of this title as a child, Chitanda broke down in tears, but cannot remember why, hence her presence in the clubroom at the start.
Now, at first sight, the stage is “always-already” set: the figure of the revolutionary comes fully interpreted: his youth must have been rose-tinted (aren’t the student uprisings the last romantic moment of 20th century history?), and all that remains is to unravel the empirical details of just how this young man became a whole school’s eternal icon. But the moment where we are about to accept this, Hyouka turns around and exclaims: not so fast! Sekitani’s youth was not rose-tinted. The literal translation of “Hyouka” is “ice cream”, which pronounced out loud turns into “I scream”. Sekitani Jun had been made into a scapegoat by cowardly students who wanted to play at being rebels without having to carry any of the consequences; he’d left his distressed feelings in the title.
Here already, we can observe a shift in focus which will remain all throughout the series. What had begun as a mere mystery, that is to say, a puzzle with a missing piece or two, has now turned into a pure hermeneutic effort: it’s not that Oreki is missing any information, but that needs to interpret it correctly. When bringing the solution about, Oreki is no detective, but rather an interpreter, a “vanishing mediator” whose purpose is to allow Sekitani to finally scream, decades later.
This is yet more powerfully exemplified when the Classics Club (now four with Mayaka and Satoshi, Oreki’s middle school buddies) gets asked to complete the script of the detective-horror movie one class is making; it turns out that the scriptwriter has fallen ill before being able to finish her work. Struggling for a while, Oreki eventually devises an ingenious meta-solution by which the cameraman is discovered to be the murderer. But, despite this display of smarts, the reaction is largely disappointed among those involved with the script. As Oreki deducts himself later on, he’d ignored the scriptwriter’s feelings, devised a solution utterly alien to her desires; what she’d wanted was a mystery without deaths. In fact, she isn’t even ill, but was given this excuse as an escape by a classmate so as to avoid having to bear more criticism from others who wanted a more brutal script. Oreki is deeply disappointed by his failure: as he realizes, the point was never ingenuity or his ability to bring about some fresh solution to a problem; what he had to do was to read the scriptwriter’s aim through what she’d left, to give expression to her desire.
There is much to be said about Hyouka’s structure, but what strikes me right now is the relation between the member’s individuality and their belonging to the Classics club. The school festival arc, which takes up the middle part of the show, is a high moment of individualization which is guaranteed by this very belonging. Having gathered around the Classics Club (the Sekitani case functioned to this purpose), the four leads there endeavor to succeed in individual ambitions (with other clubs or as individuals) while attempting to sell as many copies of their anthology as they can. What’s interesting, and reflected at the end of the show, is the precariousness of the club’s position; it is a small one, always on the verge of death. In fact, when Oreki’s sister sends him the letter to tell him to join the club, she is in India, which is where Sekitani Jun went missing. It is not enough to guarantee individual growth, it cannot be a self-containing place; but it guarantees a core of togetherness, a place of certain relations as well as a connection with a history, that allows this very individual growth in other places.
This structure is attributed its proper ideological correlate at the end of the show, when Chitanda tells Oreki about her vision for the family business. She does not think her countryside life is a dreamy one, far from that; but it is home, where she will invariably come back to. The club’s precariousness is associated with her family’s agricultural business; so little on the vast scale of our globalized society, but around it bonds have formed; the city in which she lives is, strikingly, surrounded by mountains, bringing about this “fulness” of the place all the more. She then admits she would be no good at growing the business’ profit; but this itself a utopian vision: strikingly, when talking about her goal, which is making more and better rice, she describes the ends of it as making the town “richer”, whereas making the business more profitable would make everyone “less poor” in her own words. This “placeness” on which Hyouka concludes is the claim that this small country town, left behind in the sweeping movement of centralized industrialization, holds in its very precariousness the potential to really be a place, with an identity and therefore a history; an unstable, but definitely existing, semblance of rootedness in an otherwise unstable world. It is therefore an effort of reconciliation, and strikingly the show ends on Chitanda announcing that “spring will soon come”. When Oreki imagines proposing that he become the one to deal with the business side of her family affair, he positions himself as the spot of grey which ensures that it is not quite spring yet. But Hyouka claims that this spot of grey is constitutive of the coming of spring; how could this little town remain connected with the rest of the world, otherwise? The point is not to lament the precariousness itself, but rather to find the value that this very situation brings out, in contrast to those places whose continued existence is much more guaranteed. And the conclusion is: this lack of guarantee compels us to remember, which is the condition of living together.
I think at this point we can interpret the purpose of remembrance in Hyouka’s mysteries. The mysteries are all connected to this placeness, in some way; strikingly, Sekitani’s rebellion was against the shortening of the school festival by the school’s direction; revealing this story established the identity of the festival and the meaning of selling the Hyouka anthology there beforehand. In restoring Sekitani’s message, the Classics club reconciles itself with its history, justifying the effort to keep the club alive, as a place precarious indeed but which is a community in the “true” sense of the term, not merely a club to belong to in name but a place which offers a whole connection between lives past and present.
If this is the thread linking the show’s main mysteries, it only makes sense for Oreki to be such a “vanishing mediator”. Even in the case of the movie, where the writer is very much alive, Oreki believes her to be gone, and no one really knows about her situation is. Once again death is in the air, which places a mission on Oreki’s shoulders: he must deliver the message before it fades away, before the very existence of its original speaker becomes a thing of the past. Thus Hyouka’s “remembrance imperative” does not concern some communal legends, it is a profoundly individualizing gesture:in performing it, Oreki allows many varied individuals to speak their desire, to make sure their letter reaches its destination, thus tying people past and present together, reminding himself and those around him that their existence is fundamentally tied with each other’s; remembrance here becomes tied with the realization of communal existence. It is also an ethical gesture, in that it compels people who receive the message to treat with full respect those which they may have ignored in the noisiness of everyday existence.
Like Oreki, I too am an interpreter. Most of what I do in my daily life is investigating the meaning of narrative works and rendering those results on paper (not that I really want to make it sound like some scientific study). Today especially, Hyouka’s message holds a special resonance. Whatever the larger sociopolitical meaning of Hyouka, Oreki’s act of hermeneutics as remembrance has a very special resonance to me now. After the Kyoto Animation incident, it has been difficult finding the words to say. As a general rule, I am on the side that interpretation should never let itself be so circumstantial; I could never bring myself to reinterpret KyoAni’s works on the basis of what happened. But still, the desire remains in me, the hope that the act of interpretation could have some ethical value, even in the fact of such cruel circumstances. Can I let myself claim to an ethical gesture when I attribute meaning to a work? I can’t avoid the question now. I did not originally plan to write this part; but, thinking about the themes I wanted to associate with Hyouka, I began to feel as though it would, in fact, be unethical to remain silent about these themes’ resonance with the current situation.
Hyouka’s answer may go as follows: the feelings of the creators are to be found in the work they produced. When Oreki interprets the movie’s script, he is not guessing away at the writer’s personality and the like; rather, he asks: “what can I draw from the textual material at hand?” and from there he attempts to give voice to the writer’s desire. Interpretation is always of desire; the object in front of me is driven toward some final word that it wants to convey to me; as the interpreter, the analyst, I attempt to put words on this desire is as it develops along the course of the narrative.
So, when writing about Hyouka, I still cannot think of a way of paying homage to people like Takemoto and Nishiya other than interpreting it as I always do, hoping that allowing the work to speak anew will work to pay homage to the heart they poured in creating the series; because interpretation is an act of remembrance. It is the act of reminding me and others that the work still desires to tell us something, and that we should care for this something. I deliver this letter to make sure it does not fade away; to keep us intimately connected with it. “Hyouka wanted to say this, too; it wanted us to remember.” But it is in the fact that this letter is not a neutral one that lies the ethical significance of the interpretive act: I do not merely let the past speak, but show how desire is always on the side of life, so that even in this new environment, the work’s desire can connect with ours in new way, thus keeping us connected with it, and keeping alive to our memory the people who made it via this desire. Whatever they had in mind when they created it, their desire will remain significant to us, so long as we keep delivering the letter.
Writing this, I recall Benjamin’s words in his Theses on the Concept of History. The work of the historian is catching that fleeting moment where the past can enter in resonance with the present. Isn’t this true of the interpreter as well? To catch this moment where a hermeneutic object can find its resonance in the present history. The point here is not to twist interpretation so that it can fit some idea of the present, as the past is entirely unique and unrepeatable; but it is also connected to us by one thread, and it is revealing the two points, one past and the other present, which resonate with each other that is the condition of a successful interpretation.
Having said this, one should not forget about those who never got the chance to shine in Kyoto Animation works, those who passed even sooner. For those, I can only say, almost in defeat, that the works they admired will continue to live on. That we share this desire, this admiration, to contribute to the life of Kyoto Animation’s productions. To keep their heart beating into the future.
Wrestling interpretation from the coldness of academic methodology is well-nigh impossible; but such moments allow us an opportunity to reaffirm that, indeed, interpretation is not merely about interpretive ingenuity, but reminding us all of the very presence of those works we interpret by wording their specific resonance with the present. Difficult as it is, I will continue to talk about KyoAni’s works in the same style as always; because I do not know any other way to continue bringing them to life.
Thank for you for inspiring me to write so much over the years.