Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
The super-exclusive Ouran Academy caters to Japan's rich and powerful, and the first-year honors student Haruhi Fujioka, who won a scholarship to attend, is a mere “commoner” by comparison. One day, she stumbles into the Third Music Room, meets a cohort of handsome, privileged young men who have formed a Host Club. She then stumbles into a vase supposedly valued at eight-million yen. Obviously, she can never hope to pay for it, so the club's vice president makes her an offer: She joins the club herself, and if she manages to attract one-hundred regular customers, her debt will be forgiven. There is only one catch—her classmates have to believe that she is a boy. Can she do it? And how will her fellow club members cope with the secret?
Since Osamu Tezuka's Ribon no Kishi, cross-dressing girls have had a long and storied career as series heroines. But alas, Ouran High School Host Club, the proverbial drag king archetype has reached her (his?) nadir. Although Bisco Hatori's breakout hit does surprisingly well in its animated adaptation, it spends far too much time on slickly styled, postmodern play and not nearly enough on the human side of the story. If the guts of a great shoujo manga is about the social and psychological complexities of adolescence, then Ouran is a pretty, bishounen-laden package that, once unwrapped, proves disturbingly hollow.
But what a pretty package it is—an asset that is not to be underestimated under any circumstances. Visually, it is quite an attractive anime. Colors are rich and vibrant, animation quality averages solid and consistent, and the Ouran campus (Westminster Abbey done over in improbable blushing pink) is appropriately over the top. Editing and cinematography are also decidedly non-standard, and this boasts the show's cachet significantly. Some of the creators involved with this one were also involved with Revolutionary Girl Utena television series, and there is something of that modern classic of animation in many of the surreal sequences and suggestive use of floral arrangements, flashing arrows, and fast, rapid-fire cuts. The thirteenth episode, which transports the cast into the world of Alice in Wonderland, is a particularly striking example of the show's attention to form.
Yet whereas in Utena these cinematic techniques are deployed to naughty, even sinister, ends, in Ouran you can forget any deeper meaning; it's just supposed to be silly. The series bursts at the seams with sustained parodies of otaku culture, and the mood is typically that of the tongue-in-cheek titter. In “Attack of the Lady Manager,” for example, a bishounen erogame fan tries to turn the questionable reality of the Host Club into her reverse harem (a term the English dub actually uses) fantasy. And in “A Challenge from Lobelia Girls' Academy,” the series delivers a hilarious send up of Maria-sama ga Miteru, the Takarazuka revue, and other numerous iterations of yuri fan culture. All of these parodies are pitch-perfect, postmodern playfulness.
Indeed, characters routinely break the fourth wall to remark upon how clichéd the situations they find themselves in—not to mention they themselves—are. Unfortunately for the series, they are absolutely correct on both counts, and in final analysis this detracts terribly from the quality of the series. Episodes are, well, episodic and sustain hardly any overarching narrative or gradual character development. The cast, as the show itself loves to point out, are just one-dimensional types, and save for the expected fact that they all seem to fall in love with the heroine, nothing about them changes. There is the stoic guy, the pseudo-jailbait, the twincest, the nearsighted sadistic, and so forth…and they all do exactly what the audience, both the one existing within the world of the story proper and the one nibbling popcorn in front of the screen, expects them to do.
The only half-hearted stab at genuine affective profundity to be found here occurs in episode eight. While on vacation in Okinawa, the Haruhi tries to defend some customers from the unwanted advances from two locals and ends up nearly drowning in the attempt. The boys, particularly Tamaki, are furious at her for her irresponsible behavior and demand she apologize to them. This sentiment does not translate well across cultures; Westerners in general are less inclined to punish their friends for making them worry, especially ones with as much self-possession as Haruhi. And in any case, it does little to fatten up Ouran's shoujo manga gut. That gut remains, after thirteen episodes, but a distant jiggle of its former, 20th century paunch.
The soundtrack, like the visuals, is quite good. Mozart-esque classical strains match the setting perfectly, and the voice actors all know exactly what they have to do. The opening and ending themes achieve a bright, pop sound that is near-identical in both languages. The Japanese and English language casts make excellent, albeit different, interpretive choices. Honey, for example, voiced by the same Japanese seiyuu who lent her talents to Momiji of Fruits Basket, sounds a bit more spunky in English. I would argue that Vic Mignogna was tragically miscast as Tamaki, but this not his fault, and his performance is lively and natural. Too bad even this veteran voice actor cannot imbue this anime with real heart.
Bonuses to this two-disc, thirteen-episode box set include commentary tracks for several episodes conducted by the English-language production team, as well as outtakes, textless opening and ending themes, and a sampling of the original manga, courtesy of Viz Media. Although none of these are must-haves by any means, Funimation's box set would seem oddly incomplete without them.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Gorgeous visuals, good music, and great, surreal film-making that delivers a hilarious send up of otaku culture.
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