Hyouka and the Jerk-Genius Detective Trope

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Hyouka is a series about solving mysteries, but it’s also a story world where mystery novels exist, so naturally they come up in conversation. Protagonist Oreki shows little interest in whodunnit books like those by Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but this is understandable because Oreki doesn’t show much interest in anything—in fact, his motto in life is “If I don’t have to do it, I won’t. If I do have to do it, I will do it while expending as little energy as possible.” His best friend Satoshi, by comparison, is much more engaged with the world and with things generally, and in this particular case, is vocally interested in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Oreki asks him if he’d call himself a “Sherlockian”. Satoshi looks a little awkward and says no, he wouldn’t.

Now, this is Satoshi being humble because he’s not as much of a superfan as he could be, but because my main association with the phrase “Sherlockian” is the fandom for the BBC series Sherlock, my first thought was that he was actually embarrassed about having a blog and an AO3 account dedicated to the Steven Moffat show. And that funny little thought inspired me to rewatch this video essay about the many pitfalls of Sherlock—one of which is the show’s utter unflinching reverence for Sherlock Holmes himself, in all his glowing embodiment of the “emotionally detached, logical, and actually a real jerk, but we all love him because of his mega-genius detective skills” trope. And that got me thinking about Oreki, who is very much the Holmes of Hyouka. Yes, Oreki, mister “I don’t care about anything, but I’m good at solving puzzles so people admire me, especially that cute girl over there” himself.

By all rights he could have been just one more obnoxious example of the jerk-genius archetype that has evolved from Holmes, but interestingly Hyouka’s narrative makes a conscious effort to steer him away from it. That same arc with the “Sherlockian” conversation takes a wonderfully meta dip into mystery stories and their revered problem-solving protagonists, and in the end points out that this is nothing worth aspiring to—which ends up being a fun bit of genre play as well as great step in Oreki’s character development.

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The arc in question begins with Chitanda—mystery enthusiast and aforementioned cute girl—coming to Oreki and the rest of the Classic Lit Club asking for help on behalf of a friend. Her friend, the stoic and ladylike Irisu, needs a test audience to watch the movie her class is making. Or at least, what’s been filmed of it so far. It turns out the movie is a locked room murder mystery, and it also turns out it that doesn’t have an ending yet, owing to their screenwriter taking ill. Irisu thus calls upon the club to utilise their skills of deduction to figure out whodunnit so they can finish telling the story in time for submission to the culture festival.

And so the investigation begins: the gang interviews Irisu’s classmates-turned-film-crew to get their take on where the movie might be going, and everyone has a wildly different idea. They puzzle over the script, the set list, the map of the building where the story was being filmed, and all the while Chitanda seems uneasy with the whole thing but can’t quite put her finger on why. When it all seems to be hitting a dead end, Irisu quietly steps in and takes Oreki out for tea and a personal chat. She tells him how thankful she is for his help, and how it’s his help that she needs the most, since he’s the one with the real mystery-solving skills. Yes, only Oreki could do this job, because Oreki is—in her words, words that mesmerise the guy—special.

Humming in the background of this whole arc is a conversational motif between Oreki and Satoshi about whether or not they have any special talents. Oreki, being the lethargic, vocally uncaring dude that he is, said that of course he has no special talents. But Irisu’s assertion that he’s “special” hits him like a shot of confidence straight to the vein. Suddenly, Oreki is way more invested in the mystery—it’s not just about solving a puzzle, it’s about doing something he’s uniquely good at. Suddenly, he’s officially in the role of the detective heroes from Conan Doyle and Christie. Of course, we the audience know this, since he’s the bored and logical protagonist of a story about solving mysteries. But now, in that wonderfully meta sense that embodies this arc, Oreki is aware of it too, and he’s soaking it right the heck up.

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Naturally, it’s Oreki—our “special” detective—who figures out a satisfying answer to the fictional locked room murder. He deduces that the shaky, home-movie-style camera work is not merely the sign of an amateur student production, but a deliberate stylistic choice to imply that the camera operator is a character within the story. Since they have control of the camera, they could commit the crime offscreen. Irisu loves the idea, and it’s what gets turned into the ending for their film. Overall, it all seems to be comin’ up Oreki… until each member of the Classic Lit Club awkwardly confronts him to tell him that they think it didn’t add up.

Each friend noticed a different discrepancy or a different element missing from their set of clues. Oreki realises they’re right—and so his deduction must have been wrong—and goes into a little bit of a headspin. If his idea didn’t match up with the clues left by the screenwriter, why did Irisu accept it so readily?

It turns out that the whole thing was a wily scheme: if we’re sticking with mystery novel terminology, Irisu was not the damsel who walked into Oreki’s office asking for guidance, but the true criminal mastermind of the piece. The screenwriter didn’t “take ill”, but was essentially kicked off the project because her story—which originally wasn’t even a murder mystery!—was deemed too boring by most of the class. To insult her creative vision as politely as possible, Irisu suggested the script’s author fake sickness and vanish off the set for a while, so the rest of the team could trample all over her script while not looking like this was deliberate to the public.

While confronting Irisu about all this, naturally Oreki has to ask “and you telling me I was special? That I was talented? Was that all a lie to get me to finish your screenplay for you?” To which Irisu essentially replies “No shit, Sherlock.”

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It’s a kick in the guts for poor Oreki, who had been so unexpectedly buoyed up by Irisu’s belief in him, reliance on him, and of course that bewitching suggestion that he was “special”. With the reveal that he was manipulated into coming up with a good ending to someone else’s crappy student film, Oreki is flung from the pedestal of the Genius Detective and becomes just some regular guy again. This realisation crushes him, if only because of how dumb he feels—not just for falling for Irisu’s con, but for being silly enough to be confident in himself. Having been lifted up, he has so much further to plummet once he’s let down, and he hates it. It’s here that it becomes obvious where exactly his “If I don’t have to do it, I won’t” mantra comes from: it really means “Avoid caring about things at all costs, because if something bad happens it will hurt like hell.” Better to feel nothing than to risk feeling bad by feeling good.

And yet this mindset is also proven to be bunk in this arc, since it’s Chitanda’s extremely empathetic reaction to the mystery that leads to the two of them solving it for real. It was Chitanda, who cares and who feels, who thought to look beyond the objects and clues to the human element. She was thinking of the scriptwriter herself, asking questions of “what was going through her head when she wrote the story?” and “why does her best friend seem so ambivalent about all this?”, all questions that seemed like a distraction while Oreki and the Club were trying to puzzle out the locked room mystery, but questions that ultimately ended up helping the most to reveal the truth.

Empathy, rather than sheer deductive genius, was the real winner here. It makes Oreki’s puffed-up confidence after being called “special” for his detective skills look even more shallow—which is appropriate, given that it was puffed-up confidence based on lies. Perhaps there is no such thing as a genius detective, a wise and stoic fellow who should be revered for his talents in puzzle-solving. Perhaps that’s something that ought to remain securely in the pages of those fanciful Victorian mystery stories, rather than be taken on as an ideal version of oneself.

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Oreki’s oh-so-special status being proven fake, and Chitanda’s empathy ultimately saving the day, stood out to me in particular because in many ways it flies in the face of the pop cultural reverence for the emotionally detached, generally asshole-ish genius detective. It’s an archetype that exists beyond BBC’s Sherlock, cropping up in every genre whether they hark back to Holmes or not, but the comparison caught my eye and made me appreciate the subtle way that Hyouka tears it down. Oreki is initially at risk of sliding comfortably into the trope of the disaffected loner deductive genius, loudly claiming not to care about anything, quickly earning Chitanda’s sparkly-eyed admiration when he shows off his skills. But over the course of the series—beginning strongly here—he gradually begins to crawl towards a place where he’s not so cool and collected, not so afraid of emotional investment.

It helps, of course, that the show is awash with visual imagery pointing to the fact that Oreki’s detachment is a negative thing. He’s shown stuck in grey, cloudy spaces; sits alone in symbolic theatres; and is always contrasted with the vibrance and openness of Chitanda, who causes metaphorical plant life to sprout around him when she first enters his emotionally avoidant life. The neatest culmination of all this is the second opening credits animation, which shows him trapped behind glass unable to communicate with anyone, until Chitanda and his other friends help pull him out back into a world of warmth and colour and connection. It works well as a visual metaphor for the isolation of depression, where it can often feel like all communication happens through a pane of glass, and a person can feel alone and invisible even in a room full of people. It helps to acknowledge that this disaffected jerk-genius thing is symptomatic of a personal problem, rather than something to be celebrated.

The student film arc conveys that while he might be smart, Oreki’s no Sherlock Holmes, nor should he aspire to be. Holmes is something of a static character, after all, already talented and intelligent with no room to grow. The student film arc emphasises that Oreki has plenty of growing yet to do, but it ends with him at least facing the right path rather than wandering aimlessly in his grey cloud. The resolution of the mystery and the resolution of this little slice of character drama are nicely interwoven, and interwoven further still with many affectionate nods to the mystery genre itself… while at the same time reminding us that real life is rarely as neat as a fictional story. So hey, maybe don’t base your life on them or seek validation from their tropes… least of all the Moffat version.

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre

3 responses to “Hyouka and the Jerk-Genius Detective Trope

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