It's been a dry season for anime, so I've been checking out some older shows that I missed the first time around. One such program has been Ouran High School Host Club, based on Bisco Hatori's comedic shoujo manga.
The show was a minor sensation when it first aired in 2006, the same year that brought us such phenomenal series as Death Note, Code Geass, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Although it was just a notch below those shows in popularity, I passed on watching it because, from the description, it did not sound like something I would be interested in.
Ouran is the story of Haruhi Fujioka, a scholarship student at the elite Ouran Academy. As the story begins, Haruhi wanders into the room of the "Host Club," a group of bishounen students who gather to cater to the frivolities of their dedicated female clientele. After Haruhi accidentally breaks an expensive vase, she must repay the club by posing as a male and serving as a host until her debt is cleared.
On the surface, the arrangement of one female protagonist surrounded by six handsome males sounded like typical reverse harem, which was not my favorite genre. In hindsight, I can only say that the show was badly served by the plot descriptions I read. I'm glad I came back to give it a chance, because it's turned out to be, not only one of the best shows of the last ten years, but also one of the first truly post-Utena anime.
Loading up the first episode, I was still apprehensive, but the show had me within the opening scene of Haruhi stumbling upon the Host Club. As the characters converse, an arrow flashes distractingly, accompanied by an annoying beeping sound to direct the viewer's attention to a vase that would otherwise be just a meaningless background object. None of the characters are aware of it, but it cannot escape the audience that the show is deliberately telegraphing the fateful incident that will see Haruhi joining the Host Club. The flashing, beeping arrow device reminded me strongly of the ironic pointing fingers used throughout episode 22 of my favorite series, Revolutionary Girl Utena.
After watching the first episode of Ouran, I looked up the credits and found that there was indeed an Utena connection. The head screenwriter for Ouran was Yoji Enokido, who had served the same role on Utena, while the director, Takuya Igarashi, had worked with Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara on assorted Sailor Moon projects. According to some sources, Igarashi also worked on Utena under the alias "Jugo Kazayama." My initial pointing arrow connection may have been tenuous, but the further I got into Ouran, the more it reminded me of Utena.
Stylistically and aesthetically, Ouran evokes Utena in its floral motifs, picture frame borders and captions, rapid-fire cuts to obscure images, classical soundtrack, and surreal storybook shots that literally interpret the teenage characters' thoughts and emotions. Ouran Academy itself might as well be Utena's Ohtori Academy, another baroque K-12 private school where students were hardly ever seen actually attending class.
I've since read some of Bisco Hatori's still ongoing manga, which, while lampooning nearly all else shoujo, has made no allusions to Utena that I've seen. The fast pace, daydream sequences, and roses are all present in the source material, but, where the anime diverges, it leaves me even more convinced that the Utena-isms must be Enokido's work. This may be most apparent in the adaptation's handling of the character Renge, a dating sim enthusiast who constantly attempts to steer her fellow students' lives and business to be more in accordance with the melodramatic plot lines of her favorite games. In the manga, she just randomly butts in, but in the anime, her appearances are announced by her ritualistic emergence from the ground via a fantastic motorized platform.
Where Ouran differs from Utena is in the substance of its content. Like Ikuhara's inverted fairytale, Ouran is a self-aware work that aims to subvert shoujo conventions. But Bisco Hatori's story is, first and foremost, a satirical comedy. By the story's own admission, the Host Club members can be defined by such cliches as "stoic type," "boy Lolita," "twincest," and "glasses character." The material then pokes fun at these types by exaggerating them, by having the characters play against type, or by having others upset their routines by exposing their silliness. Rather than sweeping Haruhi off her feet and carrying her away to a grand lifestyle, the filthy rich Host Club males are the ones intrigued and confounded by her "commoner" ways. The level-headed Haruhi meanwhile becomes the voice of the author and audience, her unmoved expression deflating most of their lunatic egos. My favorite host was Tamaki, the flamboyant "prince" character. Utena's Akio Ohtori was a perversion of the fairytale prince, a manipulative bastard who seduced without discrimination to serve his own ends. With Tamaki, Ouran runs in the opposite direction to present a charmer who, while narcissistic, is also often buffoonish, always sincere. As the leader of the group, he is the heart of both the club and the series, his persistent delusions and rapid swings of confidence providing much of the humor.
The show is not perfect. Despite the artistic similarities, it is not as deep a work as Utena, nor does it aim to be. In its exuberant hunt of reverse harem cliches, it at times teeters on the edge of succumbing to the melodramatic formula it seeks to parody, particularly in its overuse of the sociopathic yet emo twins. But every time it starts to look tired, it recovers with renewed vigor for another round of hilarious gags. And, for all its often biting humor, the show also has occasional genuine moments of penetrating beauty, as when it explores the backstories of the club members, who must have had good reasons for joining up to form Tamaki's surrogate family. The Utena-lite composition serves the series well in these scenes that paint the past through dreamlike images to show how these characters bloom. Ouran High School Host Club strikes the balance better than probably any other anime series of the last decade, offering plenty of laughs alongside an abundance of striking images that will stay with me far longer than anything in, say, Gundam 00.