You Mean You Haven’t Watched Ouran?
Gather round dear readers as we return to the “You Mean You Haven’t Watched…” series! For today’s exposé I’ll be introducing the anime that gave me the base idea for this topic. It’s a deal more recent than our last title, being released in 2006, but there comes a time when an adult otaku has to accept that ten years old is practically retro, and we’re all getting old! Welcome, valued customer, to the bizarre world of Ouran Highschool Host Club!
Now before we begin it’s worth briefly explaining the concept of a host/hostess club, as they are a uniquely Japanese creation. To put it as simply as possible, a host or hostess club is a night-time entertainment establishment where customers pay to spend time with members of the opposite gender in a strictly non-sexual context. Think of it as paying someone to behave in a friendly and/or flirtatious manner towards you; no doubt an appealing prospect for the more socially-reserved Japanese citizenry, provided they have the money for it. Right, woefully inadequate cultural education is done with, let’s get onto the anime!
Haruhi Fujioka is a new student at the prestigious Ouran Highschool, a ridiculously decadent education establishment for the children of Japan’s financial elite. Unlike the other students, Haruhi’s family is actually dirt poor; she managed to get into Ouran on a scholarship thanks to her high grades. While looking for a quiet spot to study away from the frivolous chatter of her fellow students she comes across what she thinks is a disused music room, but actually turns out to belong to the Host Club, a group of six attractive male students who provide pleasurable company to female students. The club mistake Haruhi for a boy due to her scruffy clothing, and when she accidentally smashes a ¥8,000,000 vase it is decided that she will pay off her debt with her body – by becoming a host herself until she has entertained enough clients to cover the damages! One by one the boys discover her true identities, but in order to help her situation they all agree to keep it a secret. And that’s all just the first episode!
Ouran is an interesting property, as it is a uniquely self-aware piece of genre fiction that somehow manages to make serious use of common shoujo tropes while simultaneously either mocking or subverting them. The catty, elitist student body are both sources of friction for some of the characters and a target of ridicule for the audience (the Host Club and their customers’ fascination with the taboo of instant coffee is an absolute delight to behold). The grounds show off some beautifully-designed architecture but it is so ostentatious that it often comes off looking silly, especially the pastel-pink Big Ben clock tower that is ripped straight out of Revolutionary Girl Utena. And just like Utena, the scenes are often littered with illustrative rose petals, which would look very pretty and poignant if there weren’t so gosh-darned many of them!
The genre subversion is especially strong in Ouran’s characterisation, and just like last week’s Berserk this is a show about the hilarious, larger-than-life characters. Each of the Hosts embody a shoujo harem archetype, but in every case this is an act that actually runs contrary to their true nature. For example, Tamaki the charismatic prince is actually just afraid of being alone and the shota-bait Hanni acts sweet and cuddly but is really a short-tempered karate monster. What is interesting however is that by embracing these superficial acts the cast find themselves becoming more stable, well-rounded people and they find a valued second family in the Host Club. In a sense Ouran’s main cast and the customers they wind up helping can show us how to grow as people ourselves; that exploring and embracing concepts that are alien to our own natures help us become more sympathetic and emotionally rounded individuals.
Haruhi is also worth noting as a draw for those interested in LGBT representation in anime. I would hesitate to call her a trans character strictly speaking, but at the very least she is definitely gender-neutral. Naturally, given the premise and genre of the show a great deal is made of her biological gender and the other characters often try to illicit more girlish responses from her, but Haruhi herself is more or less indifferent to all of it; not succumbing to the expectations of her gender, but crucially not railing against them either. She is also true to her own nature; despite being surrounded by flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities she remains a level-headed realistic person which interestingly is what makes her appealing to the Host Club’s customers. Despite being a character from a goofy laugh-a-minute comedy show I believe that Haruhi can stand on equal footing with other strong female anime characters like Utena Tenjo or Motoko Kusanagi.
Just like Berserk, Ouran only covers a small section of a much larger manga series, and it is in this area that it suffers one of its only real weaknesses: a two-episode ending arc that is completely made up for the anime and thus not as strong or satisfying as the rest if the story. However, this is not exactly an uncommon problem in single-season shows, and if you can overlook a slightly weak ending then there are plenty of fun times to be had here. So pull up a chair, choose your favourite type, and let the Host Club entertain you!