Ouran High School Host Club
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ouran High School Host Club ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Ouran High School Host Club ?
A fixture though it was of my formative anime-fan years, I never got around to checking out Ouran High School Host Club in its heyday. But its popularity is well-known, and it's a testament to its enduring success that this show was on the shortlist for retro streaming reviews and not that other mid-2000's anime starring a Haruhi. Heck, I just said I hadn't watched the show before now and even I'm still aware of 'Kiss Kiss Fall In Love!'. So this provides a great opportunity to fill that long-standing otaku blind-spot, really digging into the series as I at last work my way through it.
A self-aware shoujo show-off, Ouran's immediate appeal is how it revels in the tropey portrayals of the boys of its titular Host Club. Most of us are at least passingly familiar with The Prince, The Small Cute One, The Strong Silent One, etc, but what the show's doing here is taking those archetypes and poking fun at them by making them roles played as a kind of ‘show’ within itself. Already by 2006, these stock Shoujo love-interest types had worn out due to familiarity, so this is a unique way to get us re-interested in them, letting us know we're all in on a big joke. So for instance, we don't just take in the eye-candy of brothers Hikaru and Kaoru playing up their own twincest ship, we get to chuckle at the concept that they're only selling it as a show for their customers. It might all be a bit cynical if these character types had ever been super-idealized, but really, the clear commodification of the archetypes of husband material had always been a part of the genre. Ouran's just being a bit more direct with its gimmick.
That's all good for joke material and watching cute boys doing cute things, but Ouran has already gone further with the overarching concept of ‘presentation’ just in these first two episodes, and motivating much of that is its protagonist, Haruhi. Not content to contrast the boys' fantasy personas against the ostensible reality they inhabit, Haruhi presents a more direct opposite. It's not just a case of rich people vs poor people, though I will get to that, it runs directly, almost immediately into the core question of how important and valuable presentation of oneself is. The Ouran School Kids Club hams up everything about their pretty-boy nature as their core source of power and influence in the academy, while Haruhi has gotten by so far not really caring how she's perceived at all. And hey on that note, let's talk about gender!
General anime osmosis meant I was aware of the initial-episode ‘twist’ regarding Haruhi, but perhaps I wasn't giving 2006 shows enough credit, because I came away pretty impressed with the broader implications of how it was actually handled. Haruhi's rather flippant relationship with how she defines herself isn't just some social progress marker, it speaks already to the core ideas of Ouran: That how you present yourself as far as gender and attraction shouldn't be nearly as important as what you actually do as a person. It mostly shakes out to a bolder-than-usual version of “It's what's on the inside that counts”, but it's neat to see how that aspect spreads out to the other plots we've already seen followed in the series. I don't know that I should dig too deep into the theming already, since it seems like Haruhi and gender will be a recurring element as early as the forthcoming third episode, but there's still plenty to analyze in how that aspect affects just these first couple outings. Which is to say, a lot more than I was expecting from what I previously thought was a one-off gag.
I found myself particularly tickled by the way Haruhi came to see her gender presentation options as purely utilitarian as she was drawn into the Host Club. Her awkward efforts at going fully-femme towards the end of the second episode make clear the lengths she's willing to go to help others, but her reflective kindness is also illustrated in her near-immediate popularity as a host. Sure it's funny to see the other boys gape in awe at the previously-untapped Chad energy that Haruhi seems to be drawing girls in with, but we can tell it's because she's patiently attentive to her guests, not just because she looks sharp in a suit (though there is that, yes). Her empathetic habits are highlighted in the second episode, where it's also suggested that even the outlandish Tamaki affects similar observations, but that also leads us into the somewhat thornier subject of Ouran's class narrative.
We actually don't have a ton to go on yet as far as Haruhi's background and more detailed characterization, but beyond her apathetic attention to how she's perceived, it's also made clear that she is already exhausted with all these rich people. And it's supremely easy to take her side this early on. Even as we're giggling at the boys' outrageous character acting, we're also treated to them nonchalantly drafting Haruhi in as a servant over some accidental property damage, threatening her with private security, and turning her and her budget-minded tastes (like instant coffee) into a sideshow. The question becomes if the author of the writing here grasps how much the socialization of these privileged rich kids is inherent to their station, or if they're trying to innocently illustrate them as simply too affluent to know any better.
I don't want to get too speculative on the road these characters' stories will take, since this whole show has already been out for a decade-and-a-half and that means people could tell me I'm wrong immediately, but moments like the one in the second episode where it's made clear that both Haruhi and Tamaki picked up on a girl's real issue indicates that bringing these high-life hosts down to earth may not be as much of a theme as it could. Similarly, the whole of the plot of that second episode revolves around selling us on the plight of the elite, the idea that the ultra-rich deal with emotional strife, just like us! But even as I admit that there's something uniquely sweet in the situation of people in an arranged marriage learning they love each other and being coerced into confessing, there's a ringing hollowness in the back knowing each of those lovebirds stands to inherit a multi-million dollar business. That would buy a lot of relationship counseling that the Host Club just gave them for free.
But that's still very much in the “Let's see where this goes” column, and Ouran High School Host Club has filled out plenty of good spots in the meantime. It's got an easygoing charm to its presentation, which makes it plenty fine to chuckle along with it, especially once Haruhi becomes a member of the hosts proper and starts asserting herself more. There are clearly depths to be mined here, both in detailing these characters and their facades and the concepts of identity therein. Ouran has turned out to be even more unique than I knew, and I'm extremely curious to see where else it will go.
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