A fan we can believe in.
So, Hyouka. Its become my favorite currently-airing show, although it took a bit to work up into that – in fact, I didn’t follow it from the beginning at all. It was only the luck of me being stuck somewhere without internet, and with the first three episodes of Hyouka downloaded (but unwatched) on the computer that resulted in me finally giving it a go. And while the first two episodes were hardly a thrill, there was something that kept me engaged, some reason I downloaded a few more, stayed watching long enough that I was then caught up in the Niece of Time arc, at which point I was absolutely enthralled.
While I loved the Niece of Time, and I thought the murder mystery movie arc was also quite good, I don’t think that the point of Hyouka are the mysteries. That we have the “silly” and “dull” one-episode mysteries, like “why did Chitanda get angry at her teacher?”, “is there a ghost in that window?”*, and “where is the mysterious club’s poster?” only proves that, in my estimation. Instead, I would argue that Hyouka’s core purpose is, primarily, the development of Houtarou into a confident young man (as opposed to a socially withdrawn one – if he doesn’t stick his neck out at all, then he can’t have his lack of self-confidence in his abilities confirmed as the correct assessment of said abilities).
…err, ok, I kind of wandered off my topic a bit with that, but bear with me, I’m getting back on course.
Given that the mysteries are the catalyst, not the point, I think what can best be said about why I stuck with Hyouka despite the early dullness (that mystery club episode was dire), is that the characters are quite engaging. Even in the very early episodes, Chitanda, Satoshi, and Mayaka all give us reasons to be intrigued – they don’t fall in line quite as we would expect with their apparent archetypes, and its enough to make one slightly curious, even if the deviations at that point are so minor. Chitanda smells like a moe manic pixie dream girl… but there’s her persistence in wanting to know why, to have her questions answered. Satoshi seems the usual male sidekick character, but he isn’t totally obnoxious, nor does he speak endlessly about girlllsss. Mayaka has a crush on Satoshi, so maybe she’s just here to round out the group, but she has an argumentative relationship with Houtarou that is more what we’d expect from a male-male friendship, not a male-female one. Really, early on, it is Houtarou who is the only character who isn’t really sticking out much from his character type.
But, I’m posting about Mayaka, not about Houtarou (although it’d be fun to look at him specifically in another post).
I like Mayaka a lot – and there’s a lot to like about her. She’s a sharp girl, she has outside interests, and she doesn’t act like a fool around her crush. She is not a character we see terribly often in anime, unfortunately. I suppose the best way to describe her is as “realistic”, that sometimes-scourge of the aniblogosphere, because, well, what does that even mean? Why does it even matter?
When I speak of realism, I tend to mean “are the people acting like people could be reasonably expected to act?”. I also tend to take it more in aggregate: if thirty shows this year have a character acting like x, and this isn’t a way we would expect thirty different characters to behave, then it isn’t realistic. However, if only one or two of them are, to me, that does fall within acceptable bounds. Granted, we also have to factor in whether that behavior is in line itself with how that character has previously behaved. If it is an action that is wholly out of left field, and then is never justified with further development of the character (maybe the character has just axe-murdered someone despite having been previously a sweet, loving, gentle, caring character… lookie here, animu, if you don’t give me a reason to believe that they could turn so fast, you’re not going to be well-judged by me).
The short-answer: when a girl has a crush in anime, typically she’s either a. totally shy and embarassed around him, b. she’s always being excessively cruel to him, or c. she embarasses the shit out of him by sticking her boobs in his face or by wearing revealing outfits in his presence. The second part of the short-answer: the secret female otaku who is actually totally cute and desirable has become a trope.
Mayaka has a crush on Satoshi. And yet! She doesn’t do any of the above. She occasionally gets shy, as seen in episode twelve, but, generally speaking, she doesn’t alter her typical behavior in his presence. She isn’t trying to win him over, either. She likes him. He doesn’t. End of story. By making it so straightforward, it comes across as refreshing. It isn’t as if we need yet another show in which the female character is making an idiot of herself over her love-interest.
Mayaka loves manga. How do we know? Well, unlike in other shows featuring conventionally attractive girls who like manga, its presented fairly subtly. It is mentioned in passing that Mayaka is in the Manga Bookshelf Club. We are shown a shot of her room that displays bookcases full of manga, and we later on watch her unpacking additional boxes of manga. We do eventually come to her cosplaying, but by now its already been established that she loves manga (obviously the boxes scene comes after this, but, again, we already had figured it out by now). Of course, her cosplay choice in episodes twelve and thirteen is also worth taking note of: she’s cosplaying as a character from a manga that was first published in 1975. This is not the choice of a casual fan – she has a deep interest in the medium. The Vocaloid and
Touhou (edit: apparently not Touhou, actually; sorry for the mistake) cosplayers are meant to highlight this, especially as the bitchy Touhou girl states that there is no variance in quality for any manga, its all the same. She’s not a devotee like Mayaka is, doesn’t have the depth of knowledge about the form, really sees it just as a disposable source of entertainment. For her, it could’ve been anything, and it just happened to be manga.
By the way, this isn’t a criticism of that approach to manga. If people feel that way, fine. However, the girl in this case happens to be the type who likes to provoke others, and is unpleasant, so it may come off as a criticism of the belief-system on my part. I do disagree with her viewpoint, but I also think its fine for folks to believe it.
I also enjoy that Mayaka, while a bit embarassed about cosplaying, doesn’t try to hide or cloak her fandom in other ways. It isn’t some big secret that she’s a member of the manga club, and her manga is openly displayed in her bedroom at home. This isn’t the perpetually-blushing Haruka Nogizaka nor is it the infamous Kirino. And, as I implied before, she isn’t the loud, obnoxious fan, either. She’s the middle ground, which from my experience is the more common of the three, albeit it is the one least often depicted. To me, this indicates that Mayaka is neither a walking fetish (quiet girl who secretly luuuurves dem mangas) nor is she a walking joke (crazy girls who loudly luuuuurves dem mangas… especially that BL stuff!); she’s an actual character, and the show has taken the time to reveal her to us without thinking us too stupid to understand unless we are directly told. Mayaka’s a dedicated fan, even if she doesn’t turn to someone and say, “I’m a really big manga fan.” We can just figure that out from what we see on-screen.
Mayaka’s also pretty sharp, as I said, and how could I dislike that? In the light novels, its mentioned that she’s much smarter than her grades would imply, as she is a perfectionist who doesn’t finish tests because she’s too busy agonizing over whether the answers she’s given are correct or not. In the anime, we are simply shown her looking dismayed as time is called and she is still considering a question, which doesn’t really convey the same nuance, but I don’t think we’re meant to think that in the anime she’s not as smart as in the light novels. And while the smart, pretty, perfect girl may be a trope of itself in anime, these girls often are only so academically, and act like morons in real-life situations. Mayaka, thankfully, avoids this, contributing to the solutions of the mysteries thoughout the show, and clearly considered by Houtarou to be a reliable person on this front – when she questions the rightness of his answer to the murder mystery movie, he doesn’t dismiss her, but accepts her assessment.
So, basically… Mayaka is a pretty awesome character, and definitely one of the best female characters we’ve seen this year. I would even go so far as to delcare her one of the better female characters I’ve ever seen in anime, given the degree of care and detail put into her depiction. Mayaka could’ve so easily just been a one-note character – girl with a crush on Satoshi! – but Hyouka does so much more with her. And it is in this, this attention to its characters, not just limited to Mayaka, that the real quality of Hyouka lies.