Story Pile: Ouran High School Host Club

Ouran High School Host Club is a self-aware, postmodern romantic comedy shoujou anime series. It follows a gormless poor protagonist, Haruhi, interacting with the ridiculous wealth of the prestigious Ouran academy. In the first episode, Haruhi incurs an enormous debt that has to be repaid, and the only path presented for that is to work in the needlessly ostenstatious and 100% ridiculous Extremely G-Rated Host Club.

A Host Club in this case, for anyone unfamiliar with the real-world thing, is basically a bar with hot boys, and those hot boys are paid a significant percentage of the bar’s proceeds selling expensive drinks. This means these boys are incentivised to convince you to buy a lot of really expensive drinks and spend a lot of time there. It’s not actually sex work, but it is not uncommon for hosts to have sex with clients they like off-the-clock. It’s actually kind of a point in its favour that as sex work goes, the Host often has a lot of freedom to refuse clients because sex isn’t actually part of the deal.

In Ouran, perhaps because everyone involved is just ridiculously wealthy and alienated from the very idea of paying for things, these hosts operate on a much more sincere idea that they’re literally just there to make the guests feel happy, like, for its own sake. There’s a good article’s worth of content there about the idea of the wealthy being so alienated from labor they make labor into performative play, but not here.

This vision of a Host club is sweet, and extremely ridiculous and it plays into one of the themes of the series: Rich people are flipping nitwits.

Smooch content wise: This series lacks for many actual smooches but is full of teasing towards smooches. If you want to see if Haruhi winds up with one of the boys (or even the occasional girl), the series is full of testing and teasing on that front. If you like these characters, if you find the style of it fun, this is a good romantic comedy because the question of Haruhi and smooching is just always there, always ready to leap out and raise the stakes on any given situation. I like this series, and you might like it too.

I don’t intend to get spoilery, but there will be a content warning for stuff in the series, later.

When I dedicated time this month to look at what I’ve been calling smooch media, I thought it was pretty much a given that I’d look at movies. Smooch Movies are easy. They don’t have to give you long term relationship growth, they can just be focused on the kind of personal epiphany you can convey in a costume change and a montage. Long term romantic media tends to focus on a single type of problem, the infamous will they, won’t they question. I love you, but I doubt you want to hear me tell you anything revelatory about Friends (I didn’t like it). And those shows are sitcoms, so they want to maintain static loops for the sake of whacky hilarity.

A story needs clear boundaries. It needs to know what it’s not doing, and it needs to know how much time it has. You know, this is just pacing, it’s a thing we talk about all the time. You know when a movie’s pacing is bad because good pacing makes everything feel better. That time doesn’t have to be actual time by the way – Ouran is well-paced even though its relationship to time is nonsense. The story has multiple vacations, numerous season changes, an enormous variety of settings and locations and this is all taking place within the the supposed duration of exactly one year of high school life, across 26 episodes, each of which can take multiple days.

Still, they have 26 episodes to fill, and for all romantic series you tend to need something going on to fill the time. Soap operas tend to just focus on relationships, but they’re not a good example. You can’t fill your story just with romance, and the romance that is there can’t be static nor can it be boring. Therefore, in a romantic series, there’s this chunk of space in the story to fill with, well, something. You could fill it with daring adventure or tense political drama or all sorts of things. What Ouran High School Hosts Club chooses to use that space for is to show you hot boys and tell jokes.

And mostly, those jokes are at its own expense.

Ouran High School Host Club is a beast of its genre. There is nothing to it that is not a direct reference to well-established, metatextual ideas, and that is a rich field of really indulgent media focusing on appealing – mostly – to girls.

Disclaimer, by the way: I’m not fluent in Japanese, and I don’t want to try and imply I am. I’m not trying to project that I’m using a ‘true and correct way’ of describing this media. I’m talking about Ouran, as with all anime I talk about, through a lens of being a fan, someone who’s also looking at this work through a lens of translation. While I may call this a shoujou anime, that that’s a term of art. For all I know in Japan they call this genre something like Fluzio or Boyardee. For now, that term of art is what we’ll use. So what’s Shoujou?

Shoujou is a general grouping of work aimed at young women, often with strong trends towards indulgence, very rare instances of violence, competition being primarily emotional, boys being Very Good Looking (within a particular type of Very Good Looking), girls on whom it’s easy to project, and a very romantic view of the world. Not just romantic, let’s smooch stuff, but a vision of a world where human emotions are the most important things, so someone’s desire to establish or maintain a relationship changes the course of other events. You know, someone may live or die based on whether or not they’re loved, or more weirdly, someone’s parents may decide to move or not move in a way that separates or connects them to someone, even though those parents have no idea about these connections.

The work is self-aware in that it knows the kinds of genre conventions that Shoujou uses. Oh, it’ll miss a bunch because there are a lot, but broadly speaking if you’ve seen any other Shoujou series, or even Shoujou-adjacent series (these tropes do get used in Shounen series to try and give crossover appeal, like Gundam Wing, a buffet of cute boys with mecha attached), you’re going to see things that are familiar to you throughout the show.

That covers shoujou, self-aware, and romantic comedy, but what about postmodern?

Jean Baudrillard, French Sociologist, Philosopher, Cultural Theorist, Political Commentator and one of the general cleverboots associated with the discussion of Postmodernism, is most well known for his work Simulacra and the Simulation (1981). Without pretending to give you a crash course on the book, we’re just going to discuss his idea of the simulacrum, the idea of the representation overwhelming the real.

Baudrillard divides history into three basic chunks – a premodern, where all representation of things is known to be of things. That is, an image is not real, it is only meant to relate to real things. Then in an industrialised world, when things get copied and reproduced, the ability to know the real from the image of the real is diluted – and finally, in our new days – and this is 1981, so before the internet – he argues that we have the world of the simulacrum. That is, a world where images create real things; things are images before they are realised as things.

Images, Baudrillard says, twenty five years before Ouran happened, are not created to reference things, but rather things are made to comply with images. Now, part of this, he argued, is that the world had become a place where what was true was less important than what was perceived as true. People become images, alienated from the things that make those images true, they fake it till they make it, and that’s part of the whole problem of this time in history.

This mostly gets trotted out to talk shit about celebrities on Instagram, which is really tiresome, because that particular mindset – the idea that a thing’s image is more known and important than the thing itself – is just basic semiotics. It’s also not even vaguely current. There’s an old quote – get a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep till noon – which has been attributed to a lot of people throughout the centuries, including Ben Franklin and Mark Twain (though god only knows if they said it). There’s more of your image creating reality right there.

This relates to Ouran, in that this is a series about people who live their lives as images, and this is where the series gets really postmodern.

The thing is, it’s not just that Ouran uses tons of tropes, because that’s something lots of series do. What sets Ouran apart is that it doesn’t just use the tropes, it actively commentates on them, and it commentates on them within the context of the story. It isn’t just that these characters are archetypes, it’s that people in the club will talk about the things they do that fulfill that archetype, or ways to play up that archetype, ways to be perceived, and ways to avoid disrupting the archetype.

The first episode features Haruhi having a conversation with Tamaki, about what it means to be a person. During this time, Tamaki is absolutely a nitwit, a point the series likes to drum on, but in that conversation, Haruhi asks: Isn’t what’s important about a person what’s inside?

The series then spends twenty-six episodes talking about how hard it is to work out what that even means.

The series uses big, bold imagery, bursting across its diegesis with non-diegetic elements to convey metaphor. There’s a lovely sequence in the first episode that takes some time to work out, and I needed explained to me but it makes complete sense once you get it, with bold black screens and light-bulbs on it. There are title cards, blinking and pointing arrows signalling the position of plot elements, cutaways to fantasies that are being constructed while people talk about them, and repeatedly, the story drums on the idea of images and how people play into those images.

With twenty-six episodes and seven major characters, Ouran High School Host Club gets to really develop all the characters, and their relationships. Most characters show up multiple times, and the story gives you a lot of chances to see them from different angles. Even Mori, the prop-like tallboy has a few episodes that show you his depths, which is nice.

Now, I did say there’s some content-warningy stuff at work here. Straight up, there’s talk about crossdressing culture in Japan, which is at best uncomfortable. There’s some light homophobia, with characters being super uncomfortable about being gay even as they’re comfortable teasing by seeming gay, which makes gayness into a sort of exploitable paintjob. There’s some talk about lesbianism that’s a bit ass-backwards, and being a show about fandom tropes, there’s a lot of stuff that lives in that space of unrated fan content.

Straight up, it refers to Honey as a loli-shota style character, which uh, that’s some very Content Warningy content there too, even though it’s talking about a boy who is not vulnerable despite the aesthetic. There are points where people are pinned or injured or threatened in image only, just to turn people on. The twins talk about their closeness and their intimacy and is that, like the Host club itself, a g-rated way to discuss actual incest as kink for an audience.

There’s also a moment in episode 8 that deserves to be warned about specifically. For a series full of performative identity, there comes a moment that seems to be totally sincere in which a guy pins a girl to a bed and threatens her. In a greater context, it can come out that he ‘didn’t mean it’ and that it too was performance, but you’ve got to go a long way to get to that proof, and it can be all it takes to colour a character’s entire existence for you. It’s also not even that important – you can skip episode 8 and still have a perfectly enjoyable 25 episode anime. 8 even has a discussion of what girls should try and do, and it’s, it’s just bad. It’s real bad. Skip episode 8.

There’s this sequence of layers of perception in Ouran. First, characters are putting on layers of performance as club members, and they’re teaching each other that same performance. Then there’s the layer of how they perform to one another – the club members each have varying degrees of openness with their fellow hosts. And then, within the structure of the Host club, the hosts have another fiction where they all assign themselves family roles so they can function. There’s a layer of what the audience thinks, within the universe, and also what the audience of that audience thinks of that audience. This is done with Renge, who is an in-universe commentator who talks about the audience the club has, to the audience the show has.

Then there’s the extra layer that this story is all, let’s say softened for TV consumption. The aforementioned twin sexiness, or the implications of Honey and Mori’s relationship – the show doesn’t say that the characters are implied to be fucking. Are they? is it obvious to you that they are? is it obvious they’re not? It might be that characters in-universe know they mean sex, or it might be that they’re innocent, and Renge is meant to add an a raunchy air to it, or maybe yet still, Renge might also be innocent, and you, the audience’s audience’s audience might be the place the sexuality get spiced in.

You can choose. Like the characters choose. They choose who they are. They choose how they want to see one another, they choose how they want to see themselves. I see Ouran as bearing the message: Be Yourself, Whoever You Choose That To Be.

I like Ouran a lot. One of the things I like about it, what I love about it, is that you can choose where in the mess of interpretations you can stop, and the story invites it. You can see your own love story through the lines of the narrative. You can want Haruhi to wind up with one of the other Hosts. You can want those Hosts to wind up with one another. You can pile ’em all up in a heap.

The story isn’t going to do something so gauche as to confirm anything as merely true.

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