Depression comes in all shapes and sizes. Fictional characters often depict various flavors of these. Shinji Ikari from ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ focuses on the dark mental state of someone who grew up lonely and rejected. Rei Kiriyama from ‘March Comes in Like a Lion’ depicts the struggle of someone who has been beaten down by life so often that he’s forgotten how to enjoy life or open up to others. The list goes on.
As someone who suffers from high-functioning depression, and as someone who is surrounded by people who suffer from equal or greater levels of it, these characters resonate incredibly strongly with me. They feel the most real and grounded to me. Plus, it makes their triumph even more satisfying.
However, I worried that no character would ever come close to Shinji or Kiriyama. Those two were so strongly written and emotionally resonant that I feared none would ever come close again. For a while, it seemed I had hit the peak of the mountain.
But then I watched ‘Hyouka’ again. And in doing so, I was reintroduced to Houtarou.
On the surface, Houtarou isn’t an especially deep character. He is a quiet, lazy but brilliant young man who just wants to live comfortably and quietly. But when you dive into the more subtle dialogue, the visuals, and the themes of the story, he becomes an incredibly interesting, sad and relatable character! Another of my favorites!
I’ll talk about a character I dislike one of these days. Probably.
The Lie: I’m Perfectly Normal
Houtarou is many things, but he is far from dull on the intellectual front. His ability to solve mysteries is unmatched by everyone else in the show. But he can’t seem to admit to his own ability.
Every time that Houtarou does something amazing, he writes it and himself, off. “I just lucked into it” he’ll say. And it is as clear as pure water that he isn’t being humble. He genuinely believes that he isn’t anything special. That he is perfectly normal man.
His self-confidence is about as high as the Mariana Trench. Other people try to bring him up all the time, but he constantly deflects them. He never actively displays self-loathing, but his comments directed at himself are never positive.
This lie is often reinforced throughout the series, both by Houtarou and other characters. For example, in the mystery movie arc, Houtarou is motivated by his senior, who showers him in praise, which he has clearly never gotten before. However, he later discovers that she was pulling his strings and had only said that to push him along. This furthers his belief that he isn’t anything special, which drives him further into despair.
Until he spends ten seconds with Chitanda, who kind of forces him back to his usual self. God bless that woman.
The Want: Conserve All Energy
A common symptom of depression is a lack of energy. You find yourself lying in bed, unwilling to do anything. Houtarou is a prime example of this.
When we first meet Houtarou, the first thing we learn about him is his laziness. He never does anything if he doesn’t have to, and if he does, he does it as quickly as possible. The only reason he joins the Classic Literature Club is because his sister would allegedly beat him up if he didn’t. Even then, he makes it clear that he wants to do as little as possible.
You’d think that Houtarou would want to break free from this laziness. That he’d want to find a nice girl or go out on an adventure, as other protagonists in anime do. But Houtarou is content. If everyone else is out being energetic and rosy, then he was perfectly fine being slow and gray.
But there is a distinct difference between want and need. Which is a lesson Houtarou wouldn’t learn until meeting Eru Chitanda.
The Need: Are You Jealous of Our Rosy Lives?
Throughout the show, we see several key and creative visuals that display the difference between Houtarou and the other characters. None of them are quite the same, but they all have something in common: Houtarou will be depicted in all grays, whites and blacks, while everyone else is in full color.
My favorite example of this is in episode two. Upon being pressured by Chitanda, as per the usual, Houtarou suddenly finds himself in a dark restaurant, with Chitanda as the server. Before him are two menus: gray and bland or rosy and thrilling. Houtarou tries to reach for the gray, as that’s what he’s comfortable with. But Chitanda grabs his arm with surprising strength and forces his arm over to the bright and rosy menu.
A few episodes later, Houtarou admits that he might actually be jealous of them for their colorful lives. This is where his ultimate struggle occurs. He wants to stick to what he was, as that was known and comfortable. But at the same time, he needs to open up and accept a more colorful and fulfilling life. Because, whether he likes to admit it or not, it does make him truly happy to live like that.
But old habits die hard. And Houtarou is nothing if not a creature of habit. Plus, being depressed does make it a bit more challenging to put yourself out there and actually change.
When writing a character with depression, many writers go for the obvious points. Not to say that these are bad, don’t get me wrong. But the finer details of depression, such as a total lack of energy or feelings of self-inadequacy, are often addressed in the smallest degree. Even though those aspects alone could be the basis for a whole character.
Houtarou Oreki is a perfect example of this. He is a great, underappreciated character from a fantastic series! He doesn’t resonate with me like Shinji does, but I still see a lot of myself in him. That alone is a strong testament as to the quality.
On a related note: watch Hyouka. It’s really fucking good, easily my favorite from Kyoto Animation. Go buy the Blu-Ray. That is all. Bye-bye.