Title: Ouran High School Host Club / Ōran Kōkō Hosuto Kurabu桜蘭高校ホスト部
Mangaka: Bisco Hatori 葉鳥ビスコ
US Publisher: Viz Media
Level: High School
Reader’s Advisory Tags: humor, school stories, shoujo, non-binary character
Content Warnings: Some light innuendos, occasional comedic violence.
I’m very biased about Ouran High School Host Club. It is one of my favorite manga of all time, and one that I have the entire set of on my library shelf. I think it’s a masterpiece of the genre, and I’m not alone in thinking so. So, I just want to be clear: this review is totally biased and driven by a profound love.
Ouran is the tale of Fujioka Haruhi, a scholarship student at Ouran High School. Ouran is a prestigious school for the ridiculously rich, which Haruhi is attending to pursue her dream of being a lawyer like her late mother. One day, struggling to find a quiet place to study, Haruhi stumbles across the Host Club: a group of affluent boys who run a club where they entertain young ladies of the school with nothing better to do. Because of Haruhi’s sloppy clothes (she can’t afford the uniform) and haircut (a neighborhood kid stuck gum in her hair, so she cut it out), she appears to be a nerdy boy to the members of the Host Club. When she accidentally breaks an expensive vase, she finds herself in debt- and is forced to do menial tasks for the club. It isn’t until the end of the chapter, after a makeover which gives her the appearance of a cute boy, that the reader and the members of the Host Club are made aware that Haruhi is a girl. What follows, over the next eight volumes, is a farcical comedy of errors and ultimately heartwarming tale of expanding horizons. The Host Club struggles to keep Haruhi to themselves, and Haruhi struggles to understand the boys of the Host Club.
What makes Ouran so unique is the characterization of Haruhi and the various members. Haruhi is actually a very sensible and intelligent character, and sees herself as essentially androgynous. It’s very easy to argue that Haruhi is nonbinary. Her father is a trans woman, proclaiming that he is in fact bi (I use “he/him” for Ranka because those are the pronouns used in the text), and that Haruhi’s mother was the only woman he would ever love. Crossdressing is not unusual as a plot point in shoujo manga. Another classic, Hana Kimi, features a girl crossdressing in order to enter an all boys’ school. What makes Haruhi unique is that her androgynous personality is what throws her into the situation. She’s not a girly girl hiding out to have access to this harem of dudes- in fact, most of the time, she finds them slightly annoying.
Haruhi is a character who is honest, straightforward, and determined. While all of the male characters inevitably fall in love with her, it makes sense that they would. She gives these rich boys a lot of levity, and understands them in all their idiosyncrasies. She’s the only character allowed to see them outside of their performances.
Each of the boys has a unique personality. Suoh Tamaki is the president of the Host Club, an earnest but dense character with narcissistic tendencies (he’s highly lovable despite being a bit of an idiot). Ohtori Kyoya is the vice president, and the person actually pulling the strings. His strategic maneuvering seems sinister but ultimately has positive goals. Hitachiin Kaoru and Hikaru are twins who are incredibly close and mischievous (there are many similarities between them and the Weasley twins). Haninozuka Mitsukuni (aka “Hunny”) appears to be a cute little boy, but is in fact a senior with killer martial arts skills. Morinozuka Takashi (aka “Mori”) is a quiet and strong young man who waits upon Hunny (their relationship is a callback to traditional Japanese tropes of servitude among samurai). Each boy has an interesting backstory and personality, and expectations are regularly subverted by the text.
Ouran also does a lot of playing with tropes of the genre, and is a direct send up of female otaku culture. The series is a playground of feminine fantasy, while also making clear how ridiculous some of those fantasies can be. The story also blossoms across the eighteen volumes, into a sweet love story and a tale of human connection. Haruhi does eventually fall for one of these boys, but in a genuine way that never sacrifices her personal goals for herself. The ridiculous scenarios are hilarious, and the artwork is gorgeous. Hatori is a master of facial expression, and has a delicate hand. Every illustration is lush and detailed. Images from Ouran are permanently etched into my mind.
I can promise that if you buy this series, it will circulate and that it’s worthy of circulating. Ouran is a classic of the genre and has a lot of meaning for many fans of manga. When I put our set out, I had multiple students thank me for it. It’s an 18-volume series, and it can be cost prohibitive to actually buy for yourself.
I’ll add that the anime is also considered a classic, and is well done. It’s not perfect, and I’m not a fan of how the series wrapped up (it went completely off script from the original manga), but it’s still very good. With Fruits Basket getting a full story animation this year (we’ll talk about Fruits Basket soon), I’m hoping that Ouran may be due for a full story animation as well.