Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ouran High School Host Club

The Ouran Host Club is where the school’s handsomest boys with too much time on their hands entertain young ladies who also have way too much time on their hands. Just think of it as Ouran Academy’s elegant playground for the super rich and beautiful.

With those opening remarks, it’s pretty clear that Ouran High School Host Club seeks to enthrall by entering into the wonderful world of rich people. And when I say rich people, I’m talking about that swanky, pompous breed of aristocracy; the kind who would come off as snobbish and contemptible, if not for the series’ snide parodical slant on anything and everything affluent.

Haruhi Fujioka, a sharp-as-steel, upstanding honors student gains acceptance to the distinguished Ouran Academy and is able to attend due to a scholarship despite not being nearly as wealthy as the rest of the student-body. One day, Haruhi stumbles upon a supposedly-abandoned music room only to find the quirky members of the Host Club and ends up accidentally shattering an expansive vase. Consequently, this lowly commoner is forced to become a host in order to work off an 8 million yen debt. Of course, the striking oddity is that Haruhi isn’t what you’d call host-material seeing as…well…she’s a girl.

Ouran is a comedy shoujo-series at heart but the comedy is so sharp, brazen, and well-written that it manages to break ground even when all it’s working with is the rank reverse-harem formula. The humor is indeed impressive and it’s far and away one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, but there’s much, much more to it than that.

With Studio Bones at the helm, stunning art direction is a given. The lavish interior of Ouran Academy is lathered in fluorescent pink and the visuals are outstandingly clean and vivid. In other words, exactly what you’d expect from classy nobility. The animation is equally as polished as there are tons and tons of visual gags (Tamaki incessantly spiraling spectacularly into despair or Haruhi’s “not-amused” expression whenever she’s dumbfounded by yet another idiotic aspect of the host club, for instance) that would have sorely missed their mark had the attention-to-detail been curtailed in the slightest.

As for the audio, the sounds accompanying slapstick humor are a riot and the background music consists of soothing classical tunes. Harsh orchestral clangs serve to punctuate comical moments of distress or self-aware melodrama, but for the unfunny tender moments, the series sticks to its soft, sentimental arrangements.

While Ouran’s a spot-on parody of many of the staples of shoujo romance, it also includes and puts a fresh and clever spin on the set-pieces that school-based shoujo-romance is famous for. Yes, it’s side-splittingly hilarious in its unforgiving lampoonery. Gags run the gamut from conventional (yet never tiresome) such as how girls feverishly swoon over the merest glimpse of glittering manservice , to refreshingly clever and self-aware such as how all of the hosts expertly fulfill a specific fetish of the intended audience. From regal, airheaded poster-boy (Tamaki) to titillating twincest (Hikaru and Kaoru) to a strong-and-silent/shotaro pairing (Honey and Mori), to suave, silver-tongued sophistication (Kyouya), all bases are covered. And once meta-otaku-extraordinaire Renge shows up the series is absolutely relentless in its incisive onslaught and nary a single hackneyed shoujo trope escapes unscathed.

As I mentioned, however, Ouran is more than just an ostentatious platter of laughs. Occasionally, the series does work its way through a traditional dramatic subplot and the knife-edge emotional suspense will leave you speechless. It’s these genuinely heartwarming moments of tenderness sprinkled throughout the series that make the boundary-pushing Ouran both a superb satire of and a wonderful homage to shoujo-romance.

Does Ouran stop there? I’ll be the first to admit that the series has earned its right to sit back and take a breather, but like a true visionary, Ouran doesn’t stop to rest on its laurels for one second. It soldiers forth by pitching some of the best character development in shoujo.

I’ll start with the main mademoiselle, Haruhi Fujioka. Summing up our resident reverse-harem lead in one word is simple: tough. She’s the toughest customer around these parts and her determination is a force to be reckoned with. She’s intelligent, assertive, level-headed, and blessed with a quick-wit, sharp-tongue, uncanny astuteness, and unshakable sincerity. She rarely shows weakness and likes to be brutally straightforward. In other words, she’s everything a traditional reverse-harem lead is not. And because of that, she’s awesome and one of my personal favorite characters in anime.

As one of the Most Triumphant Examples of the Snark Knight, Haruhi is the voice of reason and the conscience behind the Host Club’s myriad of capricious activities. While she’s often seen bemoaning the fact that she’s been forced into servitude, Haruhi quickly warms up to lovable gang of goofballs and acknowledges with a smile that she’s become an irreplaceable part of the nakama. Her flat-out rejection of gender stereotypes, earnestness, and ability to read people like an open-book is what makes her one fierce force of nature. She may dress, speak, and snark like a boy, but she’s still a beautiful, admirable maiden at heart. Oh, and she’s voiced by the irresistible Maaya Sakamoto who not only did a wonderful job making her sound tough and tomboyish, but also won the first annual seiyuu awards for her stellar performance.

Now, Ouran could have gotten along perfectly fine with playing everyone besides Haruhi as smarmy, cosmetic cornucopias of comedy. And to be honest, outside of Haruhi herself, that’s precisely what I was expecting throughout the early parts of the series.

For example, princely President Tamaki comes off as a mix of breathtaking bishonen beauty and dribbling dimwittedness. While he’s very much the central comedic relief character, he’s also been gifted with a heart overflowing with empathy. As the series goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that it’s not his overpowering dense-ness that causes a gravitational rift which attracts others to him, but rather his infectious, honest compassion.

For proof, look no further than the episode where he singlehandedly draws the twins out of their shell. Or the episode where he unwittingly breaks the usual calm and composed Kyouya and shows him the folly of his disgruntled, myopic mindset (in their first meeting, nonetheless). While he may be a freewheeling, foppish flirt, Tamaki marches through life leaving an indelible impression on every single person he meets.

Then there’s Kyouya. Again, he could have just been the poisonous accountant, elegantly waltzing through life with slicked, black hair, a clipboard in one hand, and a sly, seductive, chesire-cat grin plastered on his face. However, this “Low-Blood Pressure Demon” is not without his share of personal demons to face.

Besides having a heart of gold underneath all that scheming (as shown in his “Reluctant Day Out”), Kyouya is locked in a struggle to stop from being overshadowed by his two elder brothers. The desire to be noticed and to surpass one’s siblings is a very relatable tale and it shows the extraordinary lengths Kyouya has gone to in his bid to make a name for himself not only among his friends, but his family as well. Kyouya’s situation with his overbearing family is just as precipitous as Tamaki’s and his estranged mother. Calculating and conflicted, Kyouya is definitely much more than just a pretty face for the glasses n’ checkbooks complex.

However, by far the most compelling character development of the series goes to the Hitachiin twins. I’ve never seen a fraternal relationship between twins handled so delicately and believably.

The twincest between Hikaru and Kaoru is one of the most memorable and hilarious recurring gags of Ouran, so it’s quite jarring when the series turns their relationship from forbidden and licentious to genuinely wholesome and authentic.

The most impressive part about the Hitachiin twins is how radically different the two of them are. Hikaru is hot-headed, insecure, and flippant, whereas Kaoru is understanding and kind. The lengths the series goes to make the two stand apart as individuals while also working in a “third” personality (the twins when they’re together) is nothing short of praiseworthy. And if you want emotional turmoil, look no further than Hikaru and Kaoru.

Flashbacks reveal that the twins didn’t start out as prank-loving, mirthful misfits, but rather detached antisocial ones. All of their lives, they’ve wanted nothing more than to be told apart, but at the same time, couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the other’s side. Haruhi’s ability to instantly distinguish between the two of them and connect with them on an individual basis leaves the twins with earth-shattering implications as they both harbor romantic feelings for her. While it was Tamaki’s heartwarming honesty that persuaded them to open the door to the world, Haruhi’s presence further drives them to open that door, and consequently the gap between the two of them, wider and wider. It’s bittersweet in every sense of the word.

Did I forget someone? Oh right, Honey and Mori. Truthfully, Ouran should have done more with these two. The episode centered around Honey’s militant older brother was amusing, but any hint of development on Honey’s part turned out to be nothing more than elaborate trolling. And as for Mori’s day in the limelight, well, the Kasanoda arc did more for Kasanoda himself (in addition to the budding relationship between Tamaki and Haruhi) than it did for Mori.

It’s unfortunate, but by the time the credits roll, Honey is still a sweet-scarfing package of shota and Mori is still a stolid, stoic giant. Guess you can’t win ‘em all. Still, I’m more than willing to turn the other cheek since the rest of the cast is so brilliant.

When it comes down to it, Ouran has an excellent handle on timing and moderation. It mostly plays to its strengths of incredibly strong humor, only occasionally straying down serious street. But when it does, the transition is smooth as silk and the resulting poignancy is eminently palpable (see Kyouya breaking free from his frame; arguably the climax of the series). The ending may be contrived and slapdash, but the unsightly skid-mark is easily overlooked due to the fact that the series nails character development with picturesque perfection.

This is hands-down my favorite shoujo-series to date and this is coming from someone who, I assure you, is both a guy and completely straight. Ouran is a riotous treat for all; regardless of gender, everyone will find something to love when they walk through the ballroom doors and allow themselves to be pampered by the incomparable Ouran Host Club.

1 comment:

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