I’ve been meaning to write a post about cynicism and the Christian life for a while, but couldn’t find the right way to approach it. I finally found some inspiration from an unlikely source: an anime called Hyouka and a great series of write ups on the show from a blog called Wrong Every Time. These ignited some amateur English-major analysis of my own (which could be totally wrong), and launched some fruitful reflection on cynicism. No need to have watched the show to understand this post but beware, there will be some spoilers. Otherwise, enjoy!
Hyouka and Helplessness
Hyouka tells the story of four friends who solve mysteries together as part of the Classics Club. Oreki (third to the right) is a lazy energy-conserving genius and the main protagonist. Chitanda (far left) is his joyful and endlessly curious foil. Satoshi (far right) and Mayaka (second to the left) are Oreki’s childhood friends.
At its heart, Hyouka is a show about helplessness. ‘Hyouka’ is the title of an old club anthology and the key to the show’s first mystery. At first, it appears harmless and nondescript – the word ‘Hyouka’ simply translates to ‘Ice Cream’. But, after learning the details of how it came to be, Oreki and his friends realize Hyouka is actually a silent cry for help: ‘I Scream’.
This bit of wordplay colors and characterizes the rest of the show. Hyouka becomes a symbol for something that appears trivial, but actually reveals a person’s inward pain. Many of the subsequent mysteries follow the same pattern as the first. They begin with ordinary details, but eventually reveal someone who feels hurt or marginalized. An unfinished script, for instance, reveals a quiet author who has been pushed aside by her more outspoken classmates. A series of petty thefts reveal a web of hurt feelings, unmet wishes, and personal insecurities.
This idea of Hyouka – the silent cry for help – has stuck with me, even after I finished watching the show. Here are two observations about the idea that make it interesting and helpful to my thinking:
I. Hyouka captures the ache of ordinary helplessness — Most mysteries use dramatic crimes and character motives to captivate their audience’s attention (think CSI or Sherlock Holmes). Hyouka’s mysteries, however, are more subdued. Characters don’t murder or kidnap others; they act out in insignificant and barely noticeable ways. They aren’t motivated by rage or pathology, but by ordinary struggles we can all relate to. Hyouka doesn’t make a big show of a mystery’s “reveal”. In fact, it hardly lingers on its characters at all. We see a brief glimpse of someone’s inner pain and then the show moves on — to another character, another day, another mystery.
This subtlety, rather than minimizing idea of the Hyouka, more perceptively captures it. Hyouka captures ordinary helplessness – the kind we feel most often, but which can be the most difficult to explain. Ordinary helplessness, Hyouka argues, can be just as devastating as the pain of obvious tragedy. The difference is that this pain breaks you not all at once, but as a slow and constant ache. It is pain too trivial to share without feeling overdramatic, yet not drastic enough that we can’t go on. So we let it exist in the background and only hint at it to others.
II. Hyouka captures our conflicted response to helplessness — The wordplay of Hyouka both conceals and reveals. It does not declare what the author really feels, nor does it hide it altogether. It’s a clue for the attentive eye. A piece of evidence that reveals the truth.
This provides an astute observation about the ways in which we respond to helplessness. When we feel helpless, we feel a strong desire to conceal. After all, everyone else seems to have their life together and the reasons why we hurt are so mundane. Who would understand or take us seriously? Wouldn’t people think less of us for being overly sensitive? We feel shame in showing who we truly are.
At the same time, we feel an equally strong desire to reveal. We want someone to see our pain and to understand it. Even if we don’t, at some point we have to find an outlet to let out our pent-up frustration – just as someone holding their breath must eventually exhale.
What results from these two competing desires to conceal and reveal? Hyouka – silent cries of helplessness – in all their various incarnations. In the world of Hyouka, mysteries do not come from criminal masterminds, but from the inner conflict of ordinary hurting people. Shouts for help in small details and cryptic actions, passed over by the masses but discovered by the observant eyes of these four friends.
Satoshi the Smiling Cynic
As the show progresses, we see ‘Hyouka’ extend beyond the club’s mysteries into the lives of the main characters. Satoshi is Oreki’s childhood friend and one of the four members of the club. At first, he seems happy. He’s always wearing a smile, is well liked, and actively participates in school activities. As time passes, however, we learn to trust his cheerfulness less and less. Visually, he is often shown smiling while shrouded in shadows. And despite his cheerfulness, he always seems strangely detached.
In a later episode, Satoshi goes from solving mysteries to being the subject of one. From investigator to the investigated. When Oreki corners him, he finally explains the reasoning behind his false cheerfulness. Nick, at Wrong Every Time, summarizes it in this way:
Then Satoshi spills it all. “I won’t ever be the best at anything,” he says, dwarfed by snowflakes falling like bright stars. “Or rather, I’ve stopped trying to be.” Reflecting back on his middle school self, he reflects that “winning was boring. So I got tired of it. I became obsessed with not being obsessed with anything. Since then, every day’s been a happy day!…” These words ring completely hollow to our understanding of Satoshi…
Satoshi wants to be a person who can truly engage with the world, but his fear is much stronger than his hope, and so this is how he rationalizes his refusal to engage. He says that winning is “boring,” and tells himself he’s not actually in engaged in anything – but all this really means is that he’s still committed to the adolescent mindset of either being a winner or a loser. Satoshi can’t see value just in the attempt – like Kouchi from the manga club, he doesn’t even want to try if he knows someone will be better than him…
Satoshi has many things going for him. He is gifted with a computer-like memory. He has friends who love and care deeply about him. But none of those things provide any comfort because he is constantly measuring himself against Oreki. Time after time, he puts forth his best effort to equal or surpass his friend, placing his self-worth on the line to be validated by a win or crushed by a loss. And each time, lazy Oreki, with a yawn of bored indifference, outperforms him. Satoshi is brilliant, but Oreki is blessed with extraordinary unreachable genius.
Every failure reminds Satoshi of his mediocrity. It reminds him that no matter how hard he tries, his best efforts will never match Oreki’s and he is helpless to do anything about it. This is a crushing realization and Satoshi applies it not only to his relationship with Oreki, but to all of his life. He loses confidence in his ability to engage the world. He no longer trusts that there is a relationship between hard work and worthwhile results.
So what does he do instead? He becomes a cynic – though he won’t admit it to himself or to Oreki. He stops competing. He avoids any risk that reminds him of his limitations. He distances himself from everything he cares about. And he does it, not with a scowling face like we might expect, but with a smile.
His cheerful persona acts as a defense against feelings of failure. It allows him to avoid the ups and downs of competition and the sting of losing, and instead to create a stable kind of joy. He can still enjoy the good things – friendships, lighthearted contests – while ignoring everything else.
We’ll return to the merits and demerits of Satoshi’s chosen strategy in the next post. But for now, I want to end this post by noting the close connection between helplessness and cynicism for Satoshi. When we look closely, we see that Satoshi’s smile and the cynical philosophy behind it are his ‘Hyouka’. They are the way he tries to conceal pain – from other and even from himself. But they are also the way he reveals his pain. Through his smile, Oreki and we the viewers gain a truer insight and understanding into his character.
Can you relate at all to the idea of Hyouka? Can you sympathize with how Satoshi feels? I sure can. All of this might still seem odd and irrelevant, especially for those of you haven’t watched the show. In tomorrow’s post I’ll use some of these concepts and ideas to talk about cynicism in my own life. But until then, farewell!