The DVD release of this anime tempted me with the proud boast, “Voted anime series of the year 2009!” according to a Neo Reader’s Poll. After a few episodes I was wondering if there were slim pickings that year, but no: Eden of the East, K-On!, Monogatari, Spice and Wolf… and yet Ouran High School Host Club won that particular vote. So what was I missing, with this 26 episode series that was 25 episodes more than I wanted? The lurid pink DVD cover should have given me a clue as to part of the problem. I was not the target audience for this anime.
Superficially this is a reverse harem anime, with only one female main character and lots of guys. Haruhi is the girl in question, who is disguised as a male student when she is roped in to joining the titular club, a group of students who entertain female “clients” (other students), who come to the club to ogle them and to be served tea. Straight away this had my back up, because Haruhi is forced into the club because she breaks a vase, while the club itself (and indeed the whole school) is a tedious representation of the privilege that comes with enormous wealth. Both of these objections are ameliorated as the series progresses, with the club becoming a family to Haruhi, and the club members rarely acting in a condescending manner towards the less-entitled Haruhi. Instead they are curious about the life of a “commoner” and admire much about her. Equally admirably, the harem aspect remains on a platonic level for almost the entire series, with just a hint of romance towards the end. This is an examination of friendship not desire.
So why did I still not like it? Partly it wasn’t the fault of the series, because the target for this is clearly female or gay viewers, and I am neither of those things, but I applaud the way this kind of series works as an introduction to anime for those who might not think a genre known for cute female characters is for them. In fact, there are rich pickings out there for anyone who wants their fanservice to be manservice, and that can only be a good thing. The fact that I found the way that the twins pretend to be incestuous to please their clients distasteful is similarly something I can’t read much into other than my own preferences for what I want to watch. If it floats a boat that I don’t sail in, fair enough. But all of this is scratching the surface of why the series didn’t impress me, because I’m far from being incapable of enjoying anime with a male-dominated cast (I am currently watching Dive! and so far I am very impressed). No, there are actually two big problems with Ouran, which made the series a tedious experience for me.
Firstly, the characters are all lazy stereotypes, the familiar female character tropes ported across to their male equivalents. The fourth wall breaking helps, because at least it lets the audience know that the writers are aware of the playground they are playing in, but characters like the “boy lolita” Honey, the manipulative Kyoya, and the faux-incestuous twins are hard to stomach. This is helped by the series’ occasional focus on the backstories for each character and the emotional baggage they carry, which helps to bring them to life beyond their gender-flipped tropes, but that brings us to the second problem. The series won’t ever stray from the upbeat, positive tone, always moderating anything approaching drama with flippant humour. I suppose this makes it cosy escapism for those who enjoy the characters, but it makes the series lack substance, as if it can never quite take itself seriously. In the end, most episodes were a chore, although I am not sorry that I persevered, as there are a few exceptions, most notably the gloriously bizarre 13th episode, Haruhi in Wonderland, although there again we come back to individual preferences because anything Alice related tends to grab my attention. A wise man once pointed out to me that disliking a particular series might be nothing to do with the quality of what I’ve been watching. Instead I might just not be the right viewer. I don’t know if my dislike for Ouran can be attributed to that, or if it’s simply not a very good series. All I can say is that the “anime series of the year” turned out to be my anime yawn of the year. RP