So, first of all, news: I’ve started writing for Anime News Network! I got a position there this summer writing episodic reviews, then of Black Butler: Book of Circus, and now continuing into the fall season. You can read episode-by-episode reviews from me on Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, Shirobako and Your Lie in April each week over there. I’m really enjoying it–but all that does mean, however, that I don’t feel much investment in continuing my round-ups of each anime season on this blog.
Instead, I’m just going to write about and analyze whatever strikes my fancy, and I’m starting with what might be an odd choice, but should hopefully make more and more sense as I go on. Ouran High School Host Club chewed up my heart and spit it out when I first watched it this past summer, as well as making me laugh really freaking hard. It fully earned its spot as one of my all-time favorite anime, and as one of my obsessions for the next several months. But of course, I’ve seen plenty of “good anime comedies with heart” before: Azumanga Daioh, the better episodes of Hetalia, and so on. (Or this summer’s surprise hit, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, although that’s more the sort of exemplar title that deserves its own series of posts.) And I enjoyed them, but never on this level. What makes Ouran so special?
Well…there are a lot of reasons, but a lot of them boil down to its protagonist: Haruhi Fujioka.
Shojo anime–especially of the “reverse harem” variety where Ouran sits quite comfortably–revels in romantic wish-fulfillment. That usually means, however, a fairly weak female protagonist to soak up all the boys’ attentions. I don’t mean “weak” just in the sense of actual power, though she usually is that, too. But I mean weak as character. She has to be a vague fantasy for girls reading to slot themselves into, so they can easily imagine themselves in the story. Think Twilight here, since Bella Swan is a perfect example of this sort of character. Or think the dreaded fanfiction term “Mary Sue”–which has been rightly criticized for its sexism and how the Internet is eager to apply it to any female character aimed primarily at female audiences, but the characters themselves (the ones who actually fit the criteria) are rarely all that progressive, either.
Criticism of the “Mary Sue” concept points out that there are plenty of these for male readers, too, and that’s certainly true. And it’s especially true in genre fiction, like comic books and anime are. Heck, anime today is filled with male wish-fulfillment protagonists, from Kirito in Sword Art Online to Inaho in Aldnoah Zero: non-descript dudes where the point is their non-descriptness, that they get to be “badass” and the (male) viewer can imagine himself in their “badass” place, too. It says a whole lot, though, that that’s the fantasy that boys supposedly want, and that the equivalent for girls is to be waited on and protected by boys. (And again, this is hardly purely due to “Japanese gender roles”–YA in the West is full of this thing, too. Patriarchy can work surprisingly similarly across cultures.) And the personality traits go with this too, when the characters have any–the guys being powerful, the girls being meek icons of traditional femininity.
Haruhi is different from the get-go: she’s introduced looking like a boy (and being mistaken as one by the Host Club), and a rather awkward, dowdy one at that. She’s covered up in a baggy sweater and big glasses. It’s in this…“disguise” that she’s recruited for the Host Club, as the boys (and especially the clueless Tamaki) mistake her for one of their own. She’s surprisingly comfortable with this, as Haruhi has never been one to care much for either looks or gender roles. She says outright that gender is irrelevant to her conception of people and her own identity, so she doesn’t care if the student body thinks she’s male. She cut her hair short because she got gum in it and, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter to her: it was “just hair.”
This is pretty revolutionary on its own, especially for shojo, but there’s even more to her refreshing personality than that. Most shojo heroines are meek and sweet, going along merrily with the antics of the pretty boys around them. Haruhi’s reactions are… to laugh. Or roll her eyes. Or make sarcastic comments. As in, the way most people would to the over-the-top antics of one Tamaki Suoh:
It makes her that much more relatable and real to audiences watching–especially to female audiences, who are used to being represented in these by bland, cutesy ciphers. Haruhi’s still plenty cute, of course–and still totally has her pick of the boys in the host club, who all love her to bits–but her personality packs a punch, both in uniqueness and emotional resonance. She’s the kind of girl you actually want to root for here for who she is, not just what she represents.
It’s easy to see Ouran, then, as the sort of work that people think appeals to its female audience for the boys, when the girls are actually more key to the series’ success. Shojo reverse harems are full of pretty boys organized into “types” for girls to fawn over (though, of course, Ouran’s are better-written than most). When it comes to the characters, though, Haruhi is what makes the series unique. Not many shojo heroines are actually interesting people you’d want to be like beyond just in terms of getting you boys. Not many react to the ridiculousness of their situation with emotional honesty. And when ones adds in Haruhi’s rejection of traditional gender roles and side-eye toward societal expectations in general, she’s really more like the anti-shojo heroine–much more like the caustic female characters you’d find in more guy-oriented manga, but minus the fanservice, and with more emotional depth to allow other female readers to relate to her. It’s no wonder that she’s the series’ most popular character.
In this sense, Ouran is a lot like the appeal that, say, Jane Austen’s novels have on women, and Haruhi like many of her wittier, more spirited protagonists. I was actually inspired to write this by an article at The A.V. Club about the history of Pride and Prejudice adaptations. It explains that when P&P adaptations go wrong, it’s in assuming the book’s appeal is purely due to female wish-fulfillment, of getting courted by sexy guys. That’s certainly not nothing, but most women who really love and understand Austen’s work don’t actually want to live in that world. (That’s where it and Ouran differ–I would love to live in the Host Club’s world. I’d be first in line at Music Room 3.) And more importantly, her female characters tend to be more of a draw than the boys. Plenty of books from Austen’s era have brooding hunks, but most of them don’t have a Lizzy Bennet. Women read Pride and Prejudice for her as much as, if not more than, for Darcy. And likewise: we watch and read Ouran for Haruhi as much as, if not more than, our favorite boy(s) in her reverse harem.
All this makes Haruhi as a character, and Ouran as a larger work, seem like a feminist revelation, but there’s plenty to criticize about her and Ouran on those grounds, too. She seems a little too calculated to be the type of “clever” girl that boys will naturally like. She gets their jokes, she’s sarcastic, and not big on dressing or acting traditionally “girly”… and yet, she’s nurturing and caring, still fulfilling the role of support and caretaker that are the real crux of those feminine standards that Haruhi eschews. The idea brings up the ideal of the “just one of the guys” Cool Girl, who is able to get the boys in that way that their girlfriends who love shoes and shopping don’t, but is still conventionally feminine enough to be attractive, not off-putting to and challenging those standards in the way that a woman who is truly butch or mannish is. This could be my personal anxieties talking: As someone whose social-awkwardness goes beyond just not caring about certain social standards, but often not being able to read them in the first place, it was that aspect that made Haruhi a little harder to relate to for me. Depending on what kind of girl you are, Haruhi is either like you or she’s someone you should be. But what does that new standard mean? Is it progressive?
Perhaps not, if you’re looking at Haruhi in isolation. She’s progressive for the shojo genre, but ultimately just a new standard for women to live up to that defines us in what boys think of us. But the thing is, you can’t just look at her in isolation. The story is not just her own, and the way she rubs up against those male characters–and who they are–is necessary in examining Ouran’s gender politics, intentional or otherwise. (And considering the sort of people working on Ouran–such as Yoji Enokido, one of the major writers of Revolutionary Girl Utena–I have trouble completely sweeping this under the rug as “just a joke.” Ouran does have something to say about gender, and class, and gets in a lot of social commentary about those topics in-between the hijinks. Comedy, in fact, is probably one of the best genres for truly cutting and subversive social commentary, and always has been–but, more about that in the next post.)
The most important thing here, is that Haruhi isn’t the only character in the series who is defined, in part, by her unusual amounts of empathy and knack for reading people. This is also Tamaki’s greatest strength as a person and as a character. After seeing, throughout the series, how Haruhi is able to reach the boys of the Host Club (and often, the girls they try to help, too) in a way that no one else could, we’re shown, in two flashback episodes–one focusing on the Hitachiin twins, and another focusing on Kyoya–how Tamaki himself earned their trust and friendship by seeing through the masks they put on for the world, diagnosing their problems and offering solutions. Tamaki is the glue holding together the close-knit club for this reason, and Haruhi also penetrates their defenses due to her sharing this trait. Otherwise, Haruhi and Tamaki are quite different people, but this commonality is important to their relationship and their places in the Host Club (and also, what draws them together romantically).
This also reveals that Ouran doesn’t define this particular trait along gender lines, showing this as a positive in both men and women, and as a standard for everyone. Both Haruhi and Tamaki have masculine and feminine traits, and both can be positive and negative. And Ouran‘s gender politics go further, in impressing this message on all the characters. Kyoya has always valued emotional restraint and careful planning, but Tamaki encourages him to enjoy the more frivolous things in life–and nudges him toward the emotional honesty that allows Kyoya to admit how much he’s always wanted those things. He teaches Kyoya that masculine ambition is important but not in lieu of other pursuits. Mitsukuni, or “Honey-senpai”, had to hide his childish, girlish traits, like love for cake and all things kawaii, behind the façade of following in his family’s footsteps as martial-arts master, and it’s Tamaki and the host club that help him come to who he truly is.
Ouran’s gender-bending protagonist isn’t just a breath of fresh, more relatable air for shojo readers, and she isn’t a gimmick hiding more traditional and regressive gender attitudes that are typical of the genre. Haruhi is, in many ways, reflective of the show’s overall flippant, subversive attitude toward gender and gender roles. It’s why, at the end of the day, I have to say that she’s one of my all-time favorite female protagonists in anime, and a big plus for women’s representation in shojo.
Up next (probably): Ouran’s class- and genre-consciousness.