Episode 1: Starting Today, You Are a Host
The first episode of Ouran High School Host Club opens with a studious, frumpy student, Fujioka Haruhi, trying to find a place to study in their luxurious private school (the titular Ouran Academy). All the libraries on campus are full of chatting students, but when they try the abandoned 3rd Music Room, they stumble into the Host Club: a group of attractive boys that are ready to entertain bored [usually female] students in the most extravagant way possible. Before Haruhi can escape, they accidentally break an expensive vase, and are roped into doing odd-jobs for the club to pay off the incredible sum of money that Haruhi’s family would never be able to afford. When the club members discover that, despite their sloppy attire, Haruhi actually cleans up well, they are upgraded to a “rookie host”, and soon discover they’re a bit of a natural when it comes to entertaining their guests over tea. They quickly charm the girls (and Tamaki) with a story about their later mother, and how they feel close to her by recreating her old recipes.
Haruhi proceeds to follow instructions through most of the episode, as Tamaki and the twins encourage and deride them. When they purchase instant coffee instead of coffee beans, the hosts and their guests are intrigued by this “commoner coffee,” and make Haruhi serve it to them. For the most part, Haruhi is well-received, with their “lowly” background being considered a novelty. However, one of Tamaki’s guests is anything but supportive, and when Haruhi continues to capture attention, she throws Haruhi’s bag into a fountain, and, when Haruhi points out that she’s acting like she’s jealous, she accuses Haruhi of attacking her.
Fortunately, the hosts are more observant than they look. The twins splash water over her, and Tamaki reveals that she was the one bullying Haruhi. She’s kicked out of the club, and told never to return.
There’s still a catch, though. Although everyone assumed Haruhi to be male, she is actually female. Throughout the first episode, the club members all discover her “secret”, but Haruhi isn’t terribly bothered by this. By the end of the episode, she decides to keep up the ruse so she can continue working as a host to pay off her debt to the club, and the show is born.
If you’ve not watched much anime, this is going to seem like a pretty strange premise to you, but it’s actually a bit of a cliché in shojo stories. As I discussed in the intro post, Ouran is set up as a light satire of many popular tropes from its era, among them the notion of a commoner at a rich private school, and a heroine who is cross-dressing to blend in among male students. However, Ouran takes a few steps to distinguish itself from other series, even if this first episode.
HARUHI: THE RELUCTANT HEROINE
While it’s not uncommon to have a female main character who acts as a “straight man” to the antics of her eccentric entourage, Haruhi takes this a step further. She’s not just presenting as a “normal girl” in contrast to the rich boys; she’s challenging the idea of a “normal girl” altogether.
Haruhi’s “cross-dressing” is unintentional; she didn’t set out to convince anyone she was a boy, and she’s not bothered if they find out she’s a girl. Her gender was assumed by her manner of dress, and probably by the fact that, as an outsider and a new student, no one has gotten to know her yet (and she also hasn’t reached out to them, either).
I want to briefly pause and explain why this is possible, because this actually makes more sense in Japan than in the US, partially just because of the difference in our languages.
English relies heavily on pronouns to define gender. Although we have a non-gendered pronoun, “they,” it is mostly used when someone’s gender is unknown (as in, “Someone left their umbrella here—I hope they don’t get caught outside.”) This is changing, especially in queer spaces and younger spaces, but painting in broad strokes, our language assumes that there are two genders, male and female, and for the majority of the time, pronouns will be assumed based on cultural expectations. Regardless of your gender, people will use “he” or “she” to refer to you, often before they’ve even talked to you.
In Japanese, it is very easy to avoid referring to someone’s gender without actually making any conscious decision one way or the other. The subject of a sentence is often assumed, and when it isn’t, it’s very common to use someone’s name or title instead of “he” or “she.” I am not a linguist and am in no way qualified to go into all the intricacies here, but it’s important to note that, while in English it’s fairly obvious what gender you assume someone to have, in Japanese it would not be. In the plot summary above, it was obvious that I was either trying to hide someone’s gender, or referring to a nonbinary character, right? It wouldn’t have been in Japanese.
Haruhi’s name is not exclusively feminine. She hasn’t been able to afford a school uniform, so she’s been wearing pants and sweaters to school instead of the girl’s uniform; her hair is short; and she doesn’t use especially girly sentence structures—in fact, she makes a joke at the end of the episode that she should start using the masculine “ore” when referring to herself, instead of a more neutral or feminine word for “I” or “me.” Haruhi hasn’t been trying to hide her gender, but she hasn’t been taking pains to announce it, either.
In other shojo series with a cross-dressing main character, this is usually handled differently. In Hanakimi, for instance, the main character joins a private school to get close to her semi-famous crush—but since it’s an all-boys school, she has to do it as a male student. The stakes are very high for her, especially as she successfully befriends her crush (and other boys). If she gets found out, she will be kicked out of school, and may lose her new friend group entirely.
In Ouran, the stakes for Haruhi are relatively low. This wasn’t her idea, and it certainly wasn’t her goal. By allowing her classmates to continue to think she’s a boy, she’s able to work as a host in the club and pay off her debt, but she could find other ways to pay off the debt as well. She also doesn’t feel constricted by her new role as a “male” student. She doesn’t care one way or the other—as she says in the episode, she has less awareness of that than most people. She thinks actions and deeds should matter much more than one’s gender.
It would be very easy to read Haruhi as genderqueer or nonbinary, and I definitely read her as that when I first watched the show (although I didn’t have the words for it at the time). At the very least, I found her blasé approach to gender refreshing. I don’t want to make any blanket statements about her yet, though, as we’ve got 25 more episodes for her to define herself.
But enough about Haruhi. Shojo series are typically very character-driven, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite parts of Ouran is the characters. So let’s meet our cast, shall we?
Ouran is set up as a self-aware satire of reverse-harem shojo tropes, and it establishes that almost immediately. The boys surrounding Haruhi are different romantic types, naturally, but they are fully aware of it. It’s literally their selling point as a club. You can pick whatever type of guy (or guys) you prefer, and spend an afternoon drinking tea with them.
The Host Club is led by Suoh Tamaki, a blond, charming “prince type” who should be pretty familiar if you’ve watched much anime at all. He’s a man of extremes, bouncing from incredible highs to crushing lows and back again in the blink of an eye. When he thinks Haruhi is a guest, he’s all charming smiles, even though he thinks she is male; he gets demanding once Haruhi is working for them, but he’s quick to try and take her under his wing when they decide she can work with them as a host herself. Other than that, he’s basically the epitome of a spoiled rich boy; oblivious to his privilege, naive about the experiences of anyone outside his bubble, and self-centered in the extreme. But he’s also got a “heart of gold,” and seems genuine in his attempts to please people, if perhaps a bit misguided.
Next we have Ootori Kyouya, the power behind the throne. Although he’s officially billed as the “cool type,” Kyouya is also a “glasses” (megane) character. These characters often appear in anime as evil scientists or doctors (often with a kind of chaotic-neutral bent, neither completely evil nor completely good). Outwardly mellow and studious, these characters usually have a dark side, and Kyouya’s comes in the form of extreme drive and power. He is the assistant director of the club, and is responsible for all the logistical aspects of its structure, while Tamaki flings around vision and desire.
You’ve also got the twins, Hitachiin Hikaru and Kaoru. Although they’re billed as tricksters, they’re mostly fulfilling the “forbidden love” angle—walking that line between brotherly love and gay romance (with an incest twist). If you haven’t watched much anime (or even if you have), you’re may find them a little off-putting at first. I’ll be honest, I almost stopped watching Ouran because of the twins (they just reeked of queer-baiting), but they ended up being among my favorite characters.
For the purposes of the first episode (and most of the early episodes), the twins act as a unit, so I’m going to leave them there for now; but don’t worry, they’ll get individual development as the series progresses.
Lastly we have Haninozuka Mitsukuni (“Honey”) and Morinozuka Takashi (“Mori”), who largely act as a pair. Despite his young appearance, Honey is older than most of the other characters, but his “type” is complicated. He’s considered a “loli-shouta”, which is a term that derives from the word “lolita”, and can be used to refer to underaged boys, usually when they’re in a relationship with someone older. It’s a bit fraught, but in the context of the show, he’s mostly played for the cute factor, inspiring maternal feelings more than sexual. Much like the twins, we’ll get to him more later.
Mori is the strong-and-silent type, and he lives up to that title by saying very little. Paired with Honey, he takes on a very big-brother position in the club. The two of them are the upperclassmen of the group, meaning they’re third years—in Japan, high school is usually only three years instead of four. Haruhi, Hikaru, and Kaoru are all first years, and Tamaki and Kyouya are second years, so Honey and Mori are the oldest.
One of the things that first impressed me about the series, and one reason I prefer the anime to the manga, is that symbolism is baked into it from the beginning.
In some episodes, the symbolism takes a step back, but in many (and especially the early episodes), the symbolism is frequent and powerful. It is also woven into the show in such a way that it doesn’t really hit you over the head with it. It builds meaning into the show, often on a subconscious level, and in ways that make rewatching it really a delight. Every time I’ve done a deep-dive into the series, I notice something new, and that’s really a wonderful thing.
In this first episode, we are establishing the characters and the rules of the universe, and the visuals help us out a lot. When Haruhi first enters the club, there is a blinking arrow that points to the vase whenever it’s on screen…until its eventual and inevitable demise. To me, this felt like a visual callback to Revolutionary Girl Utena, which is one of my favorite shows, a unique classic in shojo history, and a past production of Ouran’s scriptwriter, Yōji Enokido.
The clock tower is also very prominent—it’s in the first shot of the show, and, in addition to telling us the time (just after 3 o’clock), it signals the kind of luxurious setting we’re entering into.
Throughout the episode (but especially in the club room), we’re bombarded with a lot of flowers, especially roses. This is very typical of shojo series, and are used as a way of conveying emotions. In Ouran, the flowers usually symbolize the emotions of the character they’re surrounding, and they generally go hand-in-hand with an exaggeration or fantasy of some kind. Tamaki gets a lot of flower scenes because he’s by far the most prone to exaggeration and fantasy. Already, we see that the color of rose changes depending on who is the focus of the shot. They first appear when the characters are introduced to Haruhi, and although the roses don’t play a huge part in this episode, they break down like this:
- Dark Blue – Mori
- Pink – Honey
- Light Blue – Hikaru
- Orange – Kaoru
- Purple – Kyouya
- White – Tamaki
- Red – Haruhi
By far the strongest symbol in the first episode is the set of light bulbs. They are unlit, alone against a dark wall, and as each character realizes that Haruhi is a girl, a bulb lights up. Of course, by the end, all the bulbs are lit, and we’re let in on the secret as well.
The order of the light bulbs is pretty telling. The first is Kyouyo, who knows right from the beginning. Next, Honey and Mori figure it out, more or less accidentally; Mori when he grabs Haruhi to save her from Tamaki’s insanity, and Honey when he is talking to her about cute things.
It takes a bit longer for the rest of the characters. The twins only realize it when Haruhi shoos them away so she can change, and it takes Tamaki the entire episode—he only discovers she’s a girl when he walks in on her in her undershirt.
Once her gender is revealed, the camera pans out, and we see that the lightbulbs are part of a larger symbol. A literal one this time: the kanji for “female” (女, onna).
There’s a lot riding on a first episode. You have to establish a setting, introduce [hopefully likable] characters, and create enough tension to keep people coming back for more. Although Haruhi herself seems relatively unconcerned about her future at the club, by the end of the episode we can see interesting dynamics developing between the characters. It’s set up as a romantic comedy, and there’s suitable tension between Haruhi and Tamaki (certainly on Tamaki’s end) to give us an idea of what we’re in for. But with all this talk of entertaining guests and paying off debt, we’re left with a question: what is the real purpose of the Host Club?
We’ll start to explore that in Episode 2: The Job of a High School Host!