Wednesday, January 31, 2018


I cry...
To try to cry my pain away
Alone, nobody around
I say you pay for all the things you said 
"I Cry" (Nadia Gifford)

I am not that well-versed in Japanese classical literature actually. I know a bit of Classical Japanese, and I know a bit of the stories through references, but I have never read completely through tales like Genji Monogatari...

Oreki Houtarou's plans to spend the coming three years at high school in an energy-efficient manner (meaning: without any extra activities) are immediately shot down by his globe-trotting sister. She orders her brother to join her old school club at Kamiyama High School, because the Classic Literature Club is on the verge if extinction due to the fact the last members graduated last year, meaning that if there's no influx of new members this year, the club's effectively dead. Houtarou finds he's not the only one to join the club, as Chitanda Eru, heiress of one of the prominent families in town, also joins the club "for personal reasons", as well as two of Houtarou's childhood friends. After learning that Koutarou has a knack for solving small mysterious events that happen at school, like the mystery of the book that is borrowed, and returned on the same day every week by different people, Eru decides that he's the one who can help her. She confides in him that she joined the club because she needed to dig in the history of the Classic Literature Club, as she wants to learn more about her uncle who has disappeared, and her only clue is a fading memory that links her uncle to the school's Classic Literature Club and their club magazine, Hyouka, which is also the title of today's book. There's also an English subtitle, The Niece of Time, a reference to The Daughter of Time.

Hyouka was the 2001 debut novel of Yonezawa Honobu, published in the Kadokawa Sneaker Bunko line for light novels. It turned out to be a golden debut, as Hyouka was followed by several sequels to form the Classic Literature Club series, which was adapted as a succesful anime TV series in 2012, which was named after this first novel in the series. The anime series is fairly populair even outside Japan, and I think most people will know Hyouka better just as a school anime series, rather than as a detective series or the debut work of Yonezawa. I haven't seen the anime myself by the way, as I kept saying to myself I'd read the books first, but it took me quite some years to actually get to them (I have read other works by Yonezawa in the meantime though).

Now I think about it, Hyouka is quite similar to Yonezawa's Petite Bourgeoisie series, as both feature high school students, a protagonist who is somewhat reluctant to actually detect, a more active female counterpart and of course, everyday life mysteries. The mysteries solved here aren't bloody murders, but other, rather innocent happenings that happen in your normal life that might raise an eyebrow. The first few chapters for example throw the cited example of a rather boring book being borrowed every single week on the same day, but by different people, or one where Eru is locked inside the club room, even though there's only one key to the door, which was in the possession of Koutarou (who most definitely did not lock the door). While not a spectacular as a triple murder, I've come to appreciate this subgenre of detective fiction, especially when they're done like in Hyouka: the situations are somewhat mysterious, but normal enough that they raise questions, and they're properly hinted. Bonus points for the fact the situations fit perfectly with the school setting.

After the introducing chapters, Hyouka moves to the main storyline, which is about Eru's uncle and what transpired at the Classic Literature Club thirty-three years ago. Here the mode changes to that of something that resembles a mix between a historical and a bibliophilic mystery, as the club members search for old books and other materials to deduce what happened three decades ago. One has to admire how Yonezawa used precise wording in each of the documents to nudge the reader in the right direction, as well as the fact how each new document presented changes the working theory. So first a theory is made based on document 1, which is then altered because of the contents of document 2 leading to theory 2, etc. It's a great showcase of the cause-and-effect relation between clues and hypotheses, even if the deductions feel less 'tight' (or decisive) compared to the mysteries found in the earlier chapters because it's based on textual interpretation.

I first read this book as a short story collection, as early on each chapter had its own mystery, but it turned out it was a proper novel, and I liked in hindsight how good the clueing was throughout the book, with little comments or revelations made the earlier parts coming back for the end. This is what any good detective novel should do, of course, but because I first read it as a short story collection, I wasn't prepared for that much story integration across stories, and even after noticing it was not a story collection, I thought the clueing/foreshadowing was done really well.

Hyouka was thus a fairly entertaining book, even if a bit short. While the book does feature a finished storyline, it also feels like the start of a story, so I guess we'll learn more about Houtarou, the other characters and the school itself in subsequent entries. So while Hyouka on its own is a good, but light meal, I have the feeling the whole course will turn out to be quite satisfactory. And hey, I might even try the anime.

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『氷菓』


  1. I saw the anime. It was in 2 parts. It was excellent.

    1. The reputation of the anime is really good, isn't it? I have seen tons of people who usually don't watch mystery series go out and get the BD releases, so it appears it really has a wide appeal >_>

  2. Unless they get themselves involved in swimming, Kyoto Animation usually comes through.

  3. I watched the Hyouka anime a while ago, and... I thought it was underwhelming. Of course, I'm a sucker for the over-the-top grandiose Kindaichi Shonen-esque impossible themed serial murder mysteries, so it might not be so surprising that I wasn't as interested by the subdued mysterious events within everyday life.

    I didn't like how the main mystery was propelled by Eru just forgetting what she wanted. And then it was underwhelming when Oreki finished his deductions and she went "Oh I *just* remembered it all!" because it made the entire process of investigating feel pointless. That was just the anime, so I don't know how the book handled it.

    That being said, I really liked the Student Film arc, which it doesn't sound like was included in this first book, so... there's that to look forward to! The second opening to the anime is also one of my favorites of all time (not because the song is particularly great, but because I think the opening perfectly captures the essence of the show in a way that few openings/endings do.)

    1. I don't mind the "oh, now I remember" thing less in these kinds of everyday life mysteries, as it does happen in everyday life :P Of course, that doesn't mean the core mystery doesn't need to be alluring in some kind of way.

      The film club story is from the second volume, and I already read it. Review coming up in... *checks schedule* two weeks? Spoilers: it was awesome.