Friday, August 13, 2010
Even if I were still a high school student, I would have some difficulty understanding what goes on in Japanese schools. The sighs, the dating simulations, the group associations, all of that is so alien to my experiences and conceptions of what constitutes high school life. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I took up a challenge to review the first volume of Bisco Hatori's very popular shojo manga, Ouran High School Host Club (wait until you see the second work I have to review, likely in the next 24-48 hours). Let's just say that the reading experience was...illuminating.
For starters, I am not very familiar with how to read a Japanese manga, especially those of the shojo type. After learning that the front is actually the back and that I have to read left-to-right and right page before left, flipping back through the book to follow the story, I was finally ready to begin. Ouran High School Host Club vol. 1 is actually three adventures combined into one. The story revolves around a somewhat nerdy "scholarship kid" (meaning that a poor child had his/her tuition paid for to an exclusive private school) named Haruhi. Haruhi had to get her hair cut after a bubble gum incident and her contacts were lost, so she had to wear her grandfather's old glasses. All of this combines to make this first year student (freshman, anyone?) look like a boy and she is thus viewed as such for most of this book. This female-male swap is played up in interesting ways by Hatori; there are some sexual undertones, but surprisingly not of the Sapphic variety in this story.
Haruhi has a rather rough introduction to life. She stumbles about and breaks an expensive (in the American translation, it is listed at $80,000) vase that belongs to the Ouran High School Host Club, a social clique dominated by the most elite of the Ouran student, the Class A's. Haruhi is humiliated and forced to work off her debt to the Host Club, as she is to solicit "clients" for them. This sort of "dogsbody" work serves to create several amusing social clashes between the proletarian Haruhi and the gran bourgeoisie Host Club.
Ouran High School Host Club is played up as a sort of "screwball romantic comedy," and that perhaps is a good starting point for trying to understand this strange sequence of stories. Haruhi is oddly desexualized for much of this series, as Hatori chose not to play up her androgynous look as something sexual. Instead, there is this odd homoeroticism found in how the twin brothers, Hikaru and Kaoru Hitachin, interact with each other. There is nothing really explicit about it, but the way the two are drawn and how they connect with each other appears to insinuate things that are then left unsaid and not acted upon. Very odd characterizations for some of the others at first, yet I got used to the brooding, somewhat narcissistic and insecure Host Club leader, Tamaki, and the rest of the Host Club crew as the storylines progressed.
The plots for the three stories are on the surface very conventional. In the first, the Host Club and Haruhi come to know one another and Haruhi's screwup with the grocery shopping (she buys what she is used to eating, like ramen noodles and instant coffee, things that the rich boys would never have sullied themselves with consuming) leads to mockery changing into a strange sort of respect for the socially-unconscious Haruhi. The middle episode, dealing with a lavish Christmas party and Haruhi being taught to waltz and told to bring in girls for the Host Club boys, was perhaps the most endearing of the three, although at times Hatori's asides threw the story into a different direction, as this tale (and to a degree, the others when she would do this) was very self-aware and could be seen as a metafictional commentary on said romantic adventures. The final episode, starring a real otaku, Renge, was almost incomprehensible at times. The story within a story, with interactions masking other interactions and the intents behind them, was very difficult to piece together at first. Yet somehow I managed to do this.
The illustrations were fairly well-done, although there were times that Hatori over-indulged with the Batman-esque Smash! and Krang! sequences. The sometimes otherworldly-looking characters (designed, I know, to underscore their emotions at the time) are perhaps a staple of manga and I presume anime, but it was something alien to me, unaccustomed as I am to these type of stories. From what I can gather, Ouran High School Host Club is not exactly experimental, but rather a very light-hearted take on some serious high school issues. Perhaps this is so. All I know is that the social stratification here was alien to me, as if it were social cliques on steroids and with some divergent ways social betters and inferiors address one another.
Although I would not say that this was a great piece of literature by any stretch of the imagination, I think I could say that "illuminating" would be the most apt word to describe my interaction with this manga. It was diverting, occasionally amusing, and sometimes even instructional (in a very exaggerated sort of way) of certain elements of Japanese school culture and otaku that I did not know before reading this book. Although I highly doubt I'll make a regular habit of reading manga, at least this one wasn't so batshit insane/stupid as to make me wish to commit seppuku after reading it. And now to prepare myself to read a yaoi. God have mercy on my soul.