When you open the door at the end of the North corridor, in the third music room, you’ll enter…the Host Club!
Today, I’d like to start a bit of a project. I’ve been in love with the anime Ouran High School Host Club for a long time, and well, we’re gonna talk about it. A lot.
The manga, written and drawn by Hatori Bisco, ran in LaLa Magazine from 2002 to 2010, and in the midst of that, in 2006, Studio Bones released a 26 episode anime series.
I was unaware of the manga at the time, even though it was released in the US starting in 2005, but watched the anime when it was still coming out in Japan in 2006, and fell in love.
On its surface, it did not look like something I would like; certainly not something I would fall in love with, and revisit on and off for the next decade+. When I discovered it in 2006, I was between my first and second years of college, and although I felt so much older than the characters, we were really only separated by a few years. I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be, like a number of the characters. And more than that, I was struggling with the idea of “girly” media.
Ouran is undeniably aimed at a female audience, but it’s more self-aware (and, frankly, better-produced) than a lot of other shojo series of the era. I wasn’t used to seeing shows as they aired in Japan (remember, this was before simulcasts or streaming services—if you lived outside Japan and wanted to watch the latest anime, you or someone you knew had to be comfortable with torrenting). The animation was so fresh and crisp.
This was a show aimed at girls that I also felt was intelligent and carefully-crafted enough that I, a “intellectual woman,” could feel comfortable loving it. Whether I was loving it despite or because of the “girly” elements could be left unsaid.
It has been over ten years, and I still love it, for the girly aspects as well as the symbolism and quality of production. So, let’s get into it, shall we?
INTRODUCING: OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB
In a nutshell, Ouran High School Host Club is a shojo series about a club devoted to entertaining guests, at a rich private school, with a female protagonist and a set of attractive male characters in a reverse-harem format. It follows the antics of the club members as they struggle with growing up, coming into their own identifies, and learning to be a part of their world. The main theme of the series is: be who you are, and do something you love.
Ouran is presented as a satire of the type of shojo series that were especially popular in the 90s and early 00s. Most notably, Boys Over Flowers (Hana Yori Dango) which began its run as a manga in 1992, and was still running when Ouran began in 2002. Boys Over Flowers follows a girl who, despite being from a middle-class family, has enrolled in an elite private school, and has to contend with the eccentric behavior of a group of wealthy boys (known as the Four Flowers). It is one of the best-selling shojo mangas of all time, and has been adapted into an anime, as well multiple live-action tv shows and movies both in and outside of Japan. One of its most recent adaptations, Meteor Gardens, was produced in 2018 in China and distributed in the US (among other places) as a Netflix Original. It was a big deal at the time, and it’s still a big deal now.
Ouran adds another element that was also popular at the time: Haruhi, although female, ends up cross-dressing as a male student to be a host in the club, and at least some of the tension of the series revolves around whether or not her secret will be found out.
WHAT IS SHOJO?
The term “shojo” comes from Japan, literally translates to “girl,” and is used in relation to manga and anime publishing to denote an intended audience: girls and young women.
Many famous anime series qualify as shojo series: Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Fruits Basket, and many others. Although the term technically just refers to an audience, there are a number of similar themes that tend to pop up between series (which, unsurprisingly, tend to follow expected gender norms). These series tend to be character driven more than plot driven, focus on high emotions, romance, and coming of age. Beyond that, they can be any genre, from high fantasy to slice-of-life high school drama. It’s a market, not a genre in and of itself, but it can often be used as short hand for romances.
The male equivalent, shonen, applies to series that are produced for boys, and encompasses such famous shows as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Tenchi Muyo, and so forth. But, we’re not going to go into that here.
The term “harem,” used within anime and manga, describes a structure of show that was very popular in the 90s for shonen series, where you have one male character and a bevy of cute girl characters who are more or less presented as possible love-interests. The shojo equivalent, where you have one girl and an array of male love interests, is typically called a “reverse harem.” It’s usually more titillating than overtly sexual, but it really depends on the series itself, and the age of the intended audience.
In the 1600s, Japan developed a nightlife entertainment that is often referred to as the “water trade” (mizu-shobai) or “floating world.” It gave rise to bathhouses and inns, as well as geisha tradition, and also more red-light entertainment. One of the modern evolutions is the hostess club, where a man will pay to be entertained (non-sexually) by women who work as hostesses. The equivalent, a host club where women pay to be entertained by male hosts, is also popular. These bars are a bit hard to envision for Westerners, because we don’t have an equivalent outside of strip clubs and sex work, but these bars can be quite chaste, with rules specifically banning touching or suggestive conversation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with sex work, but this, certainly in relation to the high school club in the series, is not that.
The premise of this series is basically based on a pun: instead of the word “club” meaning a bar or dance club (as in, “let’s go clubbing”), it instead refers to a school club (as in “let’s go to chess club”). And thus, the series was born.
THE ANALYSIS [IS COMING]
I’ve been wanting to do a detailed analysis of this series since I first fell in love with it back in college, but, well, I never quite knew how to approach it. It’s so hard to tackle a whole television series; there’s just so much material to work with. After years of putting it on the back-burner, I decided that the best way to analyze it is the way I originally fell in love with it: one episode at a time.
I’m warning you now, there will be spoilers. As I’ll be looking at one episode at a time, chronologically, I’ll focus my analysis on that episode or preceding ones. So if you’re watching along episode by episode, I won’t spoil future plot developments, but I will spoil each episode as we get to it.
If you’re new to anime or manga, I will be defining terms as they come up, but this series relies a lot on an audience that is already familiar with the type of show the series is ostensibly parodying, so I’m going to have to get into the weeds a bit. If I skim over something that you’d like more information on, I’m happy to answer questions in the comments, or address things in a later post. Please, send me your feedback and questions!
Although I first watched this show through less-than-legal means, I do not support such actions in this day and age. We have so many ways to get our hands on anime now; if you can get it by legal means in your region, please do so! At the moment it is available in the US streaming on Netflix, digitally through Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray from various sellers.
Ready? Join me in the next post for “Episode 1: Starting Today, You Are a Host!“
This post has been edited from its original version, in 2020.