Thematics in Hyouka: A character study of Oreki Houtarou
Throughout the entire show Houtarou’s outlook on life has stood central. He changed from being a shut out person, not willing to interact with his surroundings into an ordinary person, who initiates a conversation and doesn’t mind offering his help to others. At first sight it can seem like an ordinary fix in character, but this isn’t something that happened on a whim, or over the span of a week or three – this is something that happened over a period of 10 months. The journey was tough, and even still unfinished as far as the viewer could see. But there is plenty to talk about.
“I don’t do anything I don’t have to. What I have to do, I do quickly.”
Self-deprecation as protection mechanism
Self-deprecation is the act of undervaluing oneself, accomplishments and qualities, sometimes to the point where one could deny having said qualities and devaluing the worth of accomplishments that person certainly could be proud of.
Self-deprecation is the keystone of the foundation on which Houtarou’s motto to live by is built. For the longest time, he denies being more skillful at deduction, finding links and the ability to bite into a mystery than his peers when solving a mystery. He claims it to be luck or coincidence. However, I believe that he doesn’t actually believe it to be luck. Instead, Houtarou does not allow himself to believe he is skilled at something. He has been stuck in the loop of being ordinary, of leading a gray life, that he has problems imagining himself as someone who can excel at something, who can lead a rose-colored high school life.
I will admit that it is rather difficult, and a bit of guesswork, to puzzle together Houtarou as we never got to see anything from his past or household. The information to be gathered is all of the present, which makes finding a reason for how he become the person he is today difficult and based on guesses and probabilities. I do have my own theory that can support Houtarou’s behaviour and decision making throughout the series however. Namely that Houtarou isn’t unhappy, but he isn’t happy either. He is smart enough to do better than average, but never does so. Yet he’s unhappy with the that his high school life isn’t rose-colored, and he shows that through doubt rather than admitting to wanting to change. On top of that, episode 6 showed us that Oreki Houtarou has a sense of pride. He doesn’t want to admit failure where he believes he could have succeeded, so he downplays it.
The biggest problem plaguing Houtarou was certainly the ending in ‘Mystery Movie’ arc, in which he realizes that he has been used by Irusu, and that all her sweet words were merely a way to get him to do what she wants. Everything he had started to believe in, the possibility that he might excel at something. Something that could give him the confidence he could rely when trying to break away from his gray life – because, after all, he saw Irusu as an objective bystander instead of a friend who’d say anything to motivate and encourage him. Hearing that he was special from her meant more than hearing it from Chitanda or Fukube. But it was all a trick, a lie.Worse was that everyone approached him separately to tell him he was wrong, all for different reasons – reasons he overlooked. But they didn’t do it in front of the group because they didn’t want to make him uncomfortable in front of the rest. Houtarou feels he’s being pitied, right after he had been celebrated as a star for a quality only he possessed.
I would hardly say the scene is underappreciated, but it is perhaps the most important one in Hyouka, in combination with the conversations he had with both Fukube and Mayaka in the pool OVA.
Want, or could?
What I think is that Houtarou used to be confident, but lazy. He is a smart kid, and more than likely was already so before entering high school. He thought he could do whatever it was that he was asked to do, and he noticed that he often could indeed perform those tasks successfully. Most of a persons confidence and self validation comes through school results at the age of 10-14, as its the main objective their parents drill on and the only platform that has a big enough group of peers to compare themselves to. And he was smart, always succeeding and scoring high grades – and over time starting to consider himself smart enough to get by while doing nothing. He got lazy, and for a while he still managed to keep up thanks to the effort he put into his studies. However, keeping up because the subject is a spin-off of something you did study only lasts for so long. Thus when relying on previous efforts stopped going as well as he wanted it to, he lowered his own standards in order to not having to face the fact that he wasn’t doing as well as he could. Which, in turn, had to be protected by something, his feeling of pride was on the line after all. He was smart, thought of himself as someone who could perform at the top of his group of peers and suddenly he couldn’t keep up. And now he finds himself in a pinch. He has gotten accustomed to living a life of energy conservation, and seeing as Oreki Houtarou is still a lazy teenager, what is easier than feigning ignorance? Feigning indeed, because the moment a person comes into his life, ruins his comfort zone and forces him to face the reality that is the fact that he isn’t using his smarts to the best of its capacity, he slowly but surely starts to feel the will to change. A desire Fukube, the person who knows Houtarou the longest and the best, does make a remark upon, only for Houtarou to wonder if he wants to go back to his old life. The life in which he wasn’t on energy conservation mode, but also the life in which he enjoyed a rose-colored life.
However, the wanting is part of the cover-up, the facade he put up to protect himself from both his own expectations and of the people around him. And he has began to experience this cover-up, this facade, as natural emotion. His lowered standards became the standards he actually valued himself at, the facade that he didn’t have anything he excelled at became the reason for a life in which he strove towards mediocrity. The question was thus never whether he wants to or not, and is in fact more likely the question of “could he go back?” Because over the duration of the story he gets praise from a lot of persons, both of his friends of whom he thinks only do it to support him, but also those who he looks at as objective bystanders, acquaintances, and who wouldn’t gain anything from complimenting him to support him over thanking him for something he actually did well. And yet he can’t accept the compliments he receives. He doesn’t think he deserves any praise for his efforts, because his standards are set low – because he lowered his standards by so much. He makes himself believe that everyone could have done, it given enough time. Yet at the same time he is also making progress. He’s trying to change, beginning to change even, but has problems finding a foot on both sides at the same time. He can’t seem to find a balance he feels comfortable with. It is something that is shown on more than one occasion.
Episode 11, Houtarou and Irusu at a tea house
“Last time we were here, you told me I had a talent. What talent?” is what Houtarou asks Irusu.
“You really want me to tell you? … The talent of deduct-”
“Irusu-senpai, what you told me last time we were here… Those with talent who aren’t aware of themselves cause pain for those who have none. What a joke. You don’t care about the ones with no talent! All you care about are results. When you said I had talent, was that also for Hongou’s sake? Were you also lying when you said that everyone should be aware of their own talents?”
“Those words were not what I really think. Whether you consider them lies or not is up to you.”
An answer to which Houtarou reluctantly, yet relieved, “That makes me feel better.” answers.
Episode 17, Fukube discovers that Houtarou identified Jumoonji
“You can not say the word ‘expectations’ when you have confidence in yourself. Expectations are what you have when you have given up. You can’t help it. Unless you have already given up, it sounds so fake. A good example would be … the difference between me & him. I didn’t want to beat Houtarou. But if you’re always looking up to someone…”
And you can’t blame Houtarou for not finding his balance. He is trying to make a change, and he has a lot of thoughts that keep spinning through his head. If he makes the step and decides to change, will he be able to live a rose-colored life happily and successfully, or will he turn around and around, aimlessly wandering, unable to find his place in this world as he sees both his desire and safety net fade out of reach. He wants to live life actively, but the risk is that if he reaches out he won’t find anything, and by then he can’t go back to his old life and only has cruel and cold reality left that he can’t find the motivation to move forward, without having a cushion to fall on.
It pains him in other ways too. Realizing that he makes other people feel inadequate because he can’t face the fact he might be good at something is a heavy burden. It means that he has to believe that he has qualities that make putting in an effort worth it. But at the same time, he is still in doubt with himself. And that doubt isn’t undone as easy as one might want. Doubting yourself is more difficult that doubting others, because once you have taken a stance on something, how do you begin to persuade yourself when you’re on the defensive?
Limited by self-set social boundaries
To devalue your qualities and accomplishments is one aspect of the whole situation, but if the image you have of yourself is that low, then it doesn’t stop at undervaluing yourself. It goes beyond that, as your lowered self esteem will cause you problems when you want to break way from it all. It will make you, once again, doubt yourself and wonder if you can actually make the change.
That is the problem Houtarou faces. “If I decide to change, will I succeed? Or will I end up nowhere?” It is an aspect of social anxiety, because while you have no problems at engaging conversations with other people, you do feel uncomfortable stepping out of your comfort zone in order to change to the point where you’d rather crawl back than take the leap. Change is always scary, but less so for people who are self confident and have a steady ground beneath their feet, whereas Houtarou doesn’t have that steady ground beneath his feet. And for the bigger part of Hyouka, that’s what we get. We see Houtarou struggle, climb and fall down – doubt himself, get support and find a new path to try and climb back up again. Little by little Houtarou changes, one by one the barriers go down and step by step his comfort zone extends. One of the best examples is a scene from the OVA, in which Chitanda makes a remark on the fact that someone in the pool might become a gold medalist. The OVA takes place right after he is got used by Irusu and is struggling with himself, although during the episode he also regains a lot of his old wit back while not putting up his walls again.
“It’s a simple question of whether he has the ability or not. If he is special, he will. If he is normal, he won’t.”
“Oreki-san, do you want to be special?”
“Not really. Either way, I’m just a normal person.”
Houtarou goes through many changes, but little by little he gets more comfortable in his own skin, and he finds himself enjoying himself more in more situations, meaning that he stops shying away from activities.
At the end the Mystery Movie arc his confidence gets crushed, and later restored again by finding new reasons to believe in himself, yet he still wants to share his findings. He sheepishly tricks Chitanda (and by that I mean ‘making Chitanda realize he’s too proud to boast but really wants to share his experience’) into asking what he found out after realizing that his script didn’t match up with that of Hongou.
During the Culture Festival he goes out of his way to help during the cooking competition and even goes as far as blackmailing the school counsel’s vice-president in order to sell out their anthology Hyouka.
And in the very last episode he even offers help to complete strangers. They turn down his offer, saying that they’re already glad they got a replacement. “You’ve got your act together, son.” A compliment to the likes he never received before. It makes him realize how easily he offered his help, and that being involved with other people isn’t just about putting in effort but that it can be satisfying as well.
The last scene of the show is the unresolved romantic scene. A scene that does not fit in with the actual storytelling, but it was a wonderful portray of Houtarou’s progress.
A rose-colored future lies ahead
Leaving a troubled and darker past behind
The reason I want to press attention to this is because it shows Houtarou hasn’t fully changed yet. Houtarou realizes that he can’t even confess his crush while she might as well have said that she loves him when she told him that she wanted him to see the place she lives at and where she will return to. And yet the doubt keeps eating away at Houtarou, as he probably just wished that Chitanda would have straight up confessed to him. It shows Houtarou isn’t there yet, and one might take that last moment as a lesson.
You might always be working towards a better form of yourself, without ever creating the perfect image we all want to look at when staring in the mirror. At one point you have to accept that that non-perfect person in the mirror is you, and that wanting to better yourself isn’t bad as long as you can take a step back and realize whether or not you are already at a point that provides you with happiness.
Houtarou went from asocial cynic to friendly high schooler, which was exactly what he wanted to be in the first place; someone with a rose-colored high school life who can enjoy life instead of seeing it as a drag. And even though the fact that he couldn’t voice his thoughts at the very end does indicate that he is not there yet, he has come a long way. Live life to be happy and make the future shine brightly for you, so you can escape the gray life you feel imprisoned in.
Ending the show, looking back on everything that has happened since the first arc, I have to give credit to Yonezawa Honobu, the writer and creator of Hyouka. Houtarou was fantastically written as a character and certainly carried Hyouka in a spectacular fashion.