Monday, June 29, 2009

Ouran High School Host Club, Part 1 (anime TV series)

This first boxed set includes episodes 1 to 13. Since FUNimation is perfectly capable of including an entire 26-episode series in one boxed set, the only explanation I can think of for why they decided to break this series up into two boxed sets is that they wanted more money. I find that a little annoying. Maybe they figured that this series would be popular enough that people would be willing to shell out the cash for two boxed sets - after all, I did, and I've still got fan subs for the entire series saved on my computer.

Well, enough with the speculation, and on to the synopsis and commentary.

Synopsis:

Ouran Academy is a prestigious school filled primarily with rich and privileged students. The one exception is Haruhi Fujioka, an intelligent scholarship student who might as well come from a different planet than everyone else at Ouran. Haruhi is looking for a quiet place to study one day and stumbles upon a music room filled with young men who claim to be part of the Ouran High School Host Club. Haruhi accidentally breaks one of the club's expensive vases and must now find a way to pay them back. The club members come up with what they think is a great idea - clean Haruhi up and make him work as a host club member to pay the club back for the vase.

There's one small snag, however - Haruhi is a she, not a he. Tamaki, the president of the host club, occasionally entertains fantasies of Haruhi dressing like a cute girlie girl, but it's really in everyone's best interests if no one outside the host club knows Haruhi's true gender. After all, if people find out she's a girl, she won't be able to work as a host anymore. Not only would she be unable to repay the club for the vase, Tamaki wouldn't get to see her very often. A depressed Tamaki does not make for a good host club.

Haruhi thinks the club is a little weird, but she at least approves of some of the things they do. Above all else, Tamaki's main goal is to make sure that all guests of the host club are happy. Usually, all he and the club members have to do is flirt with their guests and play their various roles to the hilt (Tamaki is the princely type, Haruhi's the natural, Kyoya's the cool type, Kaoru and Hikaru are the mischievous ones with a hefty dose of implied twincest added in, Honey's the boy-Lolita type, and Mori is the strong and silent type). However, occasionally they must be a bit more actively involved with their clients. In this particular boxed set, they help a shy couple communicate with each other again, they help a young boy with his first love, and they help another student get along better with his little sister.

When the club members aren't dealing with clients, they're dealing with each other and working through their own problems. Haruhu's biggest problem is making sure that no one finds out she's a girl - something that becomes more difficult when it's time for physical exams at Ouran Academy. However, later on there's another threat to Haruhi's continued presence in the host club - the girls from Lobelia Girls' Academy, who see straight through Haruhi's disguise and are determined to wrest this poor girl away from the host club's grip. Haruhi must also deal with the frequent annoyance of constantly being around the filthy rich - the guys in the host club have absolutely no idea what life is like in a middle class household, and Tamaki especially is often inadvertently insulting in his ignorance.

One episode reveals a little about the twins and the closed-off life they lived up until they joined the host club. Other episodes reveal a little about Honey and Mori and their close relationship. The final episode in this boxed set is one of the strangest in the series - Haruhi has a dream that mixes her experiences and the people she's met at Ouran Academy with the story of Alice in Wonderland.

Commentary:

This series is high on my list of fun anime - not a whole lot happens, but the characters are so likable that it really doesn't matter, at least not to me. There are tons of cute male characters (how could there be a host club if there weren't, after all?), but the show has heart, too. In the very first episode, Tamaki is shown to actually, truly care - the way he behaves isn't just an act, he cares and he believes everything he says. With Tamaki, at least, this comes up over and over again, and the results can often be very sweet.

And, ok, while it's nice watching the guys do whatever it takes to help those who come to them, a big draw of the series is, of course, the guys themselves. There's someone for just about everyone. My favorite is Kyoya - like Renge, I love cool guys with glasses. The bit with Kyoya and Haruhi on the bed had my inner fan girl squealing, even as the sane part of my brain was saying, "Gah! No! Bad Kyoya, bad!" Some of the types may throw newbies to the reverse harem genre through a loop - I'm thinking particularly of Kaoru and Hikaru's twincest appeal and Honey's boy-Lolita thing. The whole boy-Lolita thing has shown up before in popular US-licensed anime - namely, in Fruits Basket (Momiji and Honey are even voiced by the same person in the Japanese language track, further emphasizing the connection). Twincest, not so much, at least not that I can think of. Actually, the only other identical twins I can think of in anime/manga are the ones in Fushigi Yuugi, and I don't recall twincest being part of their appeal. Ayashi no Ceres had that whole thing with Aya and Aki, but that was intended to be horrible, not appealing.

Random thought: While I was watching this show, particularly during episode 12, "Honey's Three Bitter Days," I couldn't help but think how lonely the host club actually is. They flirt with all these girls, and Tamaki, at least, is doing all of this to make girls happy, but even with Tamaki it's not really real, is it? None of these guys date anyone, and all the girls who go to see them are all just clients. If a girl forgets that it's not real and falls for one of them, she's out of luck. It's kind of sad, really.

Moving on, another appeal of the show, for me anyway, is the artwork. It's bright, clean, and pretty - basically, it fits the overall mood of the show. Again, it reminded me of Fruits Basket. The two shows don't have the same sort of colors (Ouran is heavy on pinks and purples), but the style is still quite similar. One thing about the artwork, though - I didn't notice this so much the first time I saw the show, but the Ouran uniforms apparently gave the animators some trouble, particularly the little Ouran symbol on the jackets. Sometimes the jackets have the symbol, and sometimes they don't.

I've mentioned this before, but I first saw this show in fansubbed form, so my primary experience with it was with the Japanese language track. That may be part of the reason why I prefer watching this in Japanese with subtitles (by the way, Japanese without subtitles is an option, for those of you who want to try out your Japanese comprehension skills). At first, I was really against some of the casting decisions for this show, particularly Vic Mignogna for Tamaki. However, they've since grown on me. Vic is quite good as Tamaki, and Caitlin Glass is great as Haruhi. My main problem now, I guess, is with the voice actors for Kaoru and Hikaru, particularly Greg Ayres - everytime I hear Greg's voice, all I can think is "Shinpachi" (from Peacemaker). It's distracting. However, Greg and Todd do an excellent job with all of the simultaneous lines, so I can't complain too much. One of the things I disliked the most about the dub was FUNimation's decision to redo the opening and closing songs. The original Japanese opening song took me enough time to get used to, but I find the English version almost unlistenable. The closing doen't grate quite as much, but I still prefer the Japanese. I didn't like this when they did it with Fruits Basket, and I don't like it here, either.

For me, the dub versus sub debate isn't just about the voices, it's about the script, too. If you were to turn on both the English dub and the English subtitles, I doubt there'd be much that would actually match. For the most part, though, the dub script at least matches the spirit of the original lines - that won't appease purists, but it's better than it could be. Unfortunately, there are times when, for some unknown reason, the English dub abandons even the spirit of the original lines. The English subtitles have their own problems, though. At times, they seem to be literal translations and, as such, can occasionally be somewhat awkward and/or difficult to understand.

No matter what language I watch it in, however, I really like this show. I like its humor. I like the characters, even minor ones like Haruhi's father (he's hilarious, and I love how he casually kicks Tamaki's butt). I love its mix of craziness and sweetness, and I love its hints of romance (and wish those hints had become more than hints, darn Haruhi's obliviousness). There's still one more boxed set to go, so watch out for a post on that sometime in the future.

Extras:

Although I've seen boxed sets with more extras than this one has, many of the extras that this one includes are my favorite kinds. No anime DVD would be complete without clean openings and closings, so that's included - if you've got the DVD set to English dub, then the English dub versions of the songs will play, so you need to switch to the Japanese language track to hear the original songs. Quite a few trailers are included, so my list of "anime to eventually buy" has increased a little. The "Ouran High School Host Club manga pages" (you can "flip through" the pages on the DVD) are pretty bad, but then I didn't try looking at them on my computer - maybe they're better quality there. On my TV, they were unreadable.

The best extras, in my opinion, were the actor commentaries and outtakes. I love listening to English dub voice actor commentaries. Three of the episodes in this boxed set have commentaries. All three commentaries feature Caitlin Glass, the ADR director and the voice of Haruhi (some may also know her as the voice of Winry in Fullmetal Alchemist). The commentary for the first episode also includes Vic Mignogna, the voice of Tamaki (Edward in Fullmetal Alchemist, Ikkaku in Bleach, and a gazillion others). Episode 4, "Attack of the Lady Manager!," includes J. Michael Tatum, the voice of Kyoya (Jiro in Black Blood Brothers), and Monica Rial, the voice of Renge (Muuchan in Tactics, Saizo the pig in Peacemaker, and, just to include a "normal" role, Lyra in Fullmetal Alchemist). Episode 5, "The Twins Fight!," includes Greg Ayres, the voice of Kaoru (Chrono in Chrono Crusade and Shinpachi in Peacemaker), and Todd Haberkorn, the voice of Hikaru (Watanuki in XXXholic). My true nerdy-ness becomes apparent when you realize that I could list nearly all of those extra roles off the top of my head.

Anyway, the commentaries are lots of fun. True, there's lots of, "BLANK was really awesome in this role!" - the actors loved to gush about each other. They loved to gush about the show, too, which made listening to the commentaries a little like watching the show with small group of anime fans. I especially enjoyed it when the commentaries touched on what actually went into creating the scripts and dubs, and the actors' interpretations of their characters were pretty interesting as well. Whether or not you like English dubs, and whether or not you agree with the casting decisions for this show, you can't fault these people for their enthusiasm - if they don't love what they do, they're really good at faking it.

I really liked the outtakes, too - it's 15 minutes of the English dub voice actors flubbing their lines or ad libbing. As with any outtakes, some parts are a little boring, while others are hilarious.

Oh, and for those who care about that sort of thing, the artwork in the DVD cases is reversable - the two cases in this set feature Haruki/Tamaki, and Kaoru/Hikaru.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - After Tohru's mother died, she went to live with her grandfather, but she left his house to live in a tent when he began home renovations. Tohru ends up getting invited to stay with the Sohma family, an amazing occurrence considering that Yuki Sohma is so popular at Tohru's school that he's got his own fanclub. Tohru soon discovers the Sohma family's secret - whenever certain members become physically weakened or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into an animal in the Chinese zodiac. Those who want a school manga/anime with a slow-paced romantic plot (more romantic than Ouran High School Host Club, since Tohru is more interested in guys than Haruhi, although she's about as oblivious), a large cast of gorgeous guys, plus a few fun girls, might like this. Both the anime and manga are good, but the anime doesn't finish the story.
  • Princess Princess (anime TV series) - This anime is based on a manga series, but I've only seen the anime, so that's all I'm going to specifically suggest. When Toru transfers to an all-boys school, he's a little freaked out by how thrilled various teachers and students seem to be about his beauty. He's right to be freaked out, since this school has what's known as the "Princess System" - the prettiest boys in the school can agree to be "princesses," dressing up in lovely girls' clothing and acting as the school's honorary girls. Their job is to inspire the boys with their gentleness and sweetness and to go to school events and cheer the boys on. Toru is reluctant to become a princess, at first, until he discovers that his education and everything that goes with it (room, food, etc.) would basically become free. Those who liked a story with cross-dressing, students who serve other students with smiles and gorgeousness, and humor might like this series. If you're worried about potential shonen ai content (romantic relationships between guys), there isn't really any, although one of the princesses kisses another in order to mislead a crazily obsessed girl.
  • Beauty Pop (manga) by Kiyoko Arai - In Kiri's school, there's a team of three guys who transform random girls by doing their hair, make-up, nails, etc. It's said that any girl they make over is guaranteed to get a date with whoever she has a crush on. Kiri is also a master hairstylist, but she prefers to work anonymously, and she's more willing than the guys to help out girls who aren't already good-looking to begin with. Kiri usually acts pretty apathetic, but she's got a soft heart and can be persuaded to use her skills to improve people's self-esteem. Kiri, like Haruhi, doesn't seem to really be interested in guys, despite the fact that at least one guy does appear to be interested in her. Also, although Kiri doesn't pretend to be a boy, she gets mistaken for a boy a few times throughout the series. One of the guys, Ochiai Kazuhiko, reminds me an awful lot of Kyoya - they have similar designs and personalities. Those who'd like a series that mixes humor with sweet and/or serious stories might like this series.
  • My Heavenly Hockey Club (manga) by Ai Morinaga - Hana Suzuki's favorite things to do are sleeping and eating. She'd never dream of joining a school club on her own, because it would interfere with her precious sleeping time, but circumstances force her to join her school's hockey club. The club is full of rich, attractive guys who hardly ever practice playing hockey, much less participate in hockey games - this club is mostly just an excuse for field trips. Those who'd like another humorous series starring an oblivious female character surrounded by a bunch of attractive rich guys might like this series. As with Ouran, there's the potential for romance between Hana and one of the members of the hockey club, but Hana's too oblivious to notice.

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