Teenage sleuths date back to the days of “The Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew,” but unlike those literary icons, the high schoolers who set out to solve a mystery in Mari Asato’s “Hyouka” do not perform thrilling deeds of detection and derring-do.
Based on Honobu Yonezawa’s 2001 novel, the film is instead realistically small-scale and low-key, while its hero is the most reluctant detective imaginable.
High school freshman Hotaro Oreki (Kento Yamazaki) is a born cynic and loner who hates expending unnecessary energy and wants to be what he calls a “gray” presence on the social fringes. So “no” to sports and other strenuous activities and “yes” to only one friend: the impishly grinning, formidably bright Satoshi (Amane Okayama).
But at the behest of his older sister, who is traveling in India, Hotaro joins the school’s classic literature club, to which she once belonged but which is now in danger of extinction. Expecting to be the only member (which would suit him perfectly), Hotaro encounters another newbie, Eru Chitanda (Alice Hirose).
Curious and vivacious, Eru is obsessed with an incident in her early childhood: Jun Sekiya (Kanata Hongo), her uncle and club senpai (senior), told her something that has haunted her ever since, but she can’t remember exactly what he said. She can’t ask him directly since he disappeared 10 years ago and has since been declared legally dead. But Hotaro finds clues in the controversial cancelation of the school festival back in 1967, when Sekiya was a student, as well as in the club’s anthology that he edited.
Asato, a horror specialist making her first directorial venture outside the genre, takes a nerdy investigation by students into deeper, darker psychic territory with atmospherics that chill.
But in relating the events of 33 years prior, the film also leans heavily on flashback and narration, and feels deadened as a result. Despite his central role in Eru’s personal mythology, Sekiya remains a ghostly presence, making it hard to care about him as a human being rather than a plot device.
Also, despite his “genius of deduction” reputation among his club mates, Hotaro spins a theory about Sekiya that doesn’t add up. Only when he questions a witness of those long-ago events — a soft-spoken, close-mouthed female teacher (Yuki Saito) — do he and the others finally start learning the truth as the story moves toward its final message — or rather warning. Hotaro’s long walk down a narrative blind alley, however, feels like wasted motion.
Nonetheless the film has its fascinations, beginning with its unusual title — “hyōka” is an old Japanese word for “ice cream” — and continuing with the skeptically smirking Hotaro, who is a type more common in real life than in the typical seishun eiga (youth film), which is more likely to be brimming with pure-hearted idealists.
“Hyouka” is also that rare kind of film that presents the uncomfortable truth that not only is youth fleeting but also that the young are quickly forgotten by those who come after them. Sekiya’s existence may have blazed bright in the lives of his contemporaries, but to Hotaro and Eru it has been reduced to a collection of crumbling old magazines, the faded memory of a childhood encounter and an ancient club tradition whose origins have long since been forgotten.
In that sense, “Hyouka” may be Asato’s scariest movie of all.