Hyouka: A Dying Land

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. The piece takes primary reference from Episode 22, “The Doll that Took a Detour.”

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It is the ending of an episode that ends this Japanese Hyouka season, “The Doll that Took a Detour.” It is the Hina Doll Festival’s end.

The many men responsible for the celebration, having proceeding from one village to the next by procession, allowed themselves feast and merriment for the duration. The women, formerly in ceremonial wear, have likely dressed themselves more casually for the after affair, dusting off the cherry blossoms that caught on them from the air, having put away the clothes and props they need for next year’s fare.

These people are old. The festival is old. The dispute that brought about the tradition of the festival is old. The momentary dilemma between the two villages that nearly disrupts the procession’s route… it hearkens from old.  As Houtarou Oreki and Eru Chitanda walk from the festivities back to their respective homes, the latter turns to the former within the vicinity of the cherry tree, blossoming out of season, to say something. She says something like this to him.

This land is dying.

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Grass may continue to grow, and cherry trees may continue, out of season, to blossom, but the way of life that Chitanda’s ancestors have led for generations, the traditions responsible for the the Hina Doll Festival, the available pool of people that can be responsible for upholding these traditions…  all of it is under threat. The average age of folk in the countryside is increasing. The average population of folk in the same place is dropping. The old, who’ve only ever known a life of tradition, have resolved to live in their traditional homesteads until death. The young are fleeing to the cities, seeking contemporary excitement and employment opportunities. Few decide to return back to the countryside to raise families, and the children of these families grow up knowing only cities as homes. Eventually,  there won’t be enough people to make this way of life sustainable. The procession will get smaller every year. Perhaps after some time, traditions will begin to die out. The festival may disappear entirely.

And yet despite that, despite knowing that, Chitanda declares that she’ll stay. She’ll stay behind in this dying land. She’ll tend to its death bed however she can. Graduating  from high school, she plans to study agricultural science in college. She plans to return back with what she knows to help improve the productivity of her family rice plantation.

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Agriculture is the traditional profession of the countryside. Rice is considered the most culturally significant of agricultural produce. And yet farmers in Japan struggle to maintain the productivity and profitability of its rice fields, let alone its agriculture in general. They struggle to make a profit to preserve this vaunted cultural artifact, relying as they do on a sympathetic government to protect their market share with subsidies and tariffs, to provide them with what is basically artificial life support. It seems that no matter what old agricultural households like Chitanda’s can do to increase the crop yield of their farms, they may never be able to grow, harvest, and ship enough to compete with world prices without assistance. Between mountain ranges, urban settlement, and the current legal inability of consolidating parcels of arable, there is simply not enough land in Japan to achieve competitive economies of scale. Japanese consumers are forced to pay higher prices for even produce staples like rice to keep alive this industry. These prices are especially hard on city youth struggling to obtain a decent living standard.

These traditions are especially hard on Chitanda. She was born into tradition, and is expected of things because of her traditional upbringing. Among these expectations are for her to inherit the traditional family business. The curious soul she happens to be, with that part of her that yearns for the liberty to pursue investigations, adventures, the excitement and euphoria of having her curiosity sated, she will ultimately have to settle in a place and position that deprives her of that freedom to seek.

Yet it’s important to take in account that this is only an expectation. All the obligations she’ll have to endure if she chooses this way of life is by her choice.  She understands that there are more ways of life than the traditional one the old people follow. She’s tasted those other ways in high school, participating in the Classics Club and playing detective with Oreki. She enjoyed what she sampled. She can depart, literally, figuratively, or both, like many others, to the city once she’s an adult and never look back.

And yet she can’t help but look back, because she loves this dying land’s people. She loves this dying land’s traditions. She loves her dying land. It isn’t the most beautiful land. It isn’t a land with a lot of potential.  It’s probably not the most sensible land to live in, because apparently, she personally has to step in to mediate some rivalry issue that’s both freaking several centuries old and the old people still freaking give a shit about… because tradition. Frustratingly… precious… tradition. Only occasionally do the cherry trees bloom out of season.

And yet that tradition is responsible for the Hina Doll Festival.  That tradition is embodied in the family and community of old people she belongs to and cherishes dearly. It is, like the aristocratic attire Chitanda and Oreki wear: old and noble. Even if she has to compromise on her curiosity, even if her decision only seems to prolong the gloomy inevitable, she’s decided to stay. This is a dying land, and however oddly this may sound, she’s resolved, or rather resigned, to live in it.

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Why does she go about her way to suddenly say all this to Oreki? There are subtle indications in the show so far that they hold romantic sentiments for each other, and subtle indications that they may even be aware of each other’s romantic sentiments. This is Chitanda bearing herself, her soul, her secrets, making clear that there’s always been a line between herself and Oreki, a line that may not have been completely explicit until now, if her duties while on family business didn’t already give it away to him. Chitanda’s been committed to sticking behind for the longest time. Oreki, on the other hand, has only gradually started to realize these commitments of hers. Oreki’s held a counter attitude of non-commitment toward his lifestyle. It’s the nearest equivalent to a regret-less youth free to travel to the city. If Oreki wants to be with Chitanda, then he’ll also have to compromise on his freedom as well. It’s a big decision, and she understands if he feels too overwhelmed by it to follow her.

And yet, in spite of his supposedly proud inert nature, he shares the burden of running the festival. He feels his inertia shatter trying to take a peek at what Chitanda looks like during the procession.

To the unspoken question of whether or not Oreki is willing to suffer his freedom for Chitanda, he imagines what many viewers have agreed is the closest thing to a marriage proposal:  I can help you with agronomy. I can help run the business side of your farm.

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A wind picks up, and cherry blossoms fly into the air. It singles a different kind of spring.

As much as this is an episode about an ambivalent, but resigned Chitanda and the oppressive circumstances facing the rural farmers, traditionalists, and seniors of Japan, it is also an episode about Japan itself.

Eru Chitanda is the daughter of the Chitanda family. The Chitandas are the children of the dying land. A land of the countryside, and the land of Japan. Japan itself is becoming old. About a quarter of Japan’s population at the time of this post are of senior age, and without population growth in the way of increased birth rate (which the Japanese aren’t providing enough babies for) or immigration (which the Japanese are extremely hesitant on promoting in their country), the population will continue to get older. The Japanese population will also begin shrinking, to the point that about mid-century, the total population will be down to under 100 million, from a current population of about 120 million. Putting aside the effects this population contraction would have on the country at large, increasingly fewer working-age Japanese will be present to support an increasingly greater number of seniors. It is expected to stress the senior healthcare and social security budget of the Japanese government and tax more of Japan’s relative youth in order to make up for the financial shortfall.

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Perhaps it’s premature to say that Japan is a dying land, but it’s probably not an overreaction to argue that policy reforms, cultural reformulations, social transformations, some adapting and reinventing may be necessary to prevent Japan from economically and demographically contracting. But in spite of the melancholy of this mono no aware, most Japanese don’t curse themselves for having been born Japanese. As much as Oreki finds Chitanda beautiful, many Japanese sees Japan in a similar way. So with sincere affection, they struggle on, working, hoping they might yet be able to reach spring and in-season cherry blossoms.

5 thoughts on “Hyouka: A Dying Land

  1. This is one fine post, hats off. For one of my most favourite time of all time. You’ve worded everything so well, it brought back the nostalgia. Kudos.

  2. Pingback: Hyouka, Episode 22 [END] – Mage in a Barrel

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