Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ouran High School Host Club (manga, vol. 1) by Bisco Hatori

Haruhi is a scruffy-looking scholarship student in an elite school for rich kids. One day, Haruhi stumbles into a music room in an attempt to find a quite place to study and discovers the Ouran High School Host Club, a group of guys who flatter and attend to the needs of their female clients. Poor Haruhi is forced to become a host after breaking an expensive vase. It eventually becomes clear to everyone in the host club (even their clueless club president, Tamaki) that Haruhi is actually a girl. Still, Haruhi's never been very gender-conscious, and there's no other way she could afford to pay the club back for the vase - it looks like she's going to have to hide her gender from everyone besides the host club members and be a host until she graduates.

In this particular volume, Haruhi deals with the prejudice and jealousy of one the host club's spoiled regulars. Also, Haruhi and the rest of the host club help heal the relationship between one of the club's clients and her fiance. Finally, a rich young woman from France arrives and announces that she is Kyoya Ohtori's fiancee (Kyoya is the club's scarily calculating vice president). In actuality, Kyoya just bears a striking resemblance to her favorite character in a dating sim - of course, that realization doesn't stop her from wreaking havoc with the club and its members.

I first became aware of this series when I found fansubbed episodes of the anime version (apparently FUNimation has licensed it, but I don't think they've actually released anything yet - the result is that most fansubbers will likely no longer distribute it, despite the fact that it's still unavailable for legal purchase in the US). In some ways, I enjoy the anime version more - I love the Japanese voice actors, the clean artwork, and the bright colors. However, at the moment the manga is the only legal version of this series available in the US, and it's a lot of fun, too.

If you read the back of this volume before reading the story, you'll already know that Haruhi is a girl, so I'm not really sure if it matters much how easy it is to figure she's a girl before it's officially revealed. Haruhi's design is certainly ambiguous - she could be a cute, big-eyed boy, or she could be a girl who happens not to have a big chest or to pay attention to her looks. As for the guys, it's highly likely that one or more of them will appeal to just about any reader. Tamaki is the gorgeous and charming one, with a healthy streak of energetic (yet appealing) idiocy. Mori is tall, quiet, and very loyal to Hunny. Hunny, despite being one of the oldest of the host club members, looks small enough to be a child, and acts like one as well. Hikaru and Kaoru are twins who don't really care about much besides each other. Finally, Kyoya, the one with the glasses, is intelligent and calculating.

Each character basically fits into a certain character mold - when Renge, the girl with the dating sim obsession, comes along, many of her observations about the host club members are actually fairly accurate, despite what Haruhi says about not judging people according to stereotypes (dating sim or otherwise). How accurate Renge is won't really become apparent until later in the series, but I don't really mind that the characters are stereotypes. Bisco Hatori makes them fun and interesting despite (or maybe because of?) that. Although this volume (and the series in general) has the occasional serious moment, this is primarily a humorous story.

While there are plenty of drool-worthy male characters and some romance between minor characters (like the one client and her fiance), don't expect much in the way of romance between Haruhi and any of the other characters. In this volume, there are signs that Tamaki may be interested in Haruhi, and I know enough about later volumes to say that other characters start to show an interest in her as well. The problem isn't so much the guys as it is Haruhi - she's so oblivious that she doesn't even notice when others are interested in her, and, anyway, she's not even looking for romance.

My only complaint about this volume is the density of the artwork. There's so much detail crammed in many of the panels that it can be daunting to get through some of the pages. I'm amazed Hatori got any sleep at all while creating the artwork for this first volume - I wonder if she manages to keep this level of detail in later volumes?

Finally, before I forget, this volume has some nice extras. There's an extra short story involving the host club members and Hunny's favorite stuffed animal, a couple short comics that focus on Hatori Bisco herself (a research trip to an actual host club and a little information about Hatori's feelings about the manga and the results of a favorite character poll), a few pages of character information, and a sketch of an alternate magazine cover image. I loved the character profiles, because Hatori drew each of the host club members in regular clothes, rather than school uniforms - I love Tamaki's outfit, and I wish I had Hunny's coat.

  • 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 (a real girl, not a cross-dressing guy).
  • 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.
  • Megatokyo (manga) by Fred Gallagher and Rodney Caston (no longer involved in the series) - If Renge's story was your favorite, you might like this series, which, in addition to being something you can purchase, is also an online comic that you can read for free at the Megatokyo website. Piro and Largo are two Americans who play too many video games - Largo is obsessed with shoot-em-ups and Piro is obsessed with dating sims. The two guys fly to Tokyo to buy some great Japanese games and end up getting stuck there with no money. Piro lands a job in a store for otaku, while Largo causes havoc and somehow manages to end up with a job as a teacher. Like Renge, Largo and Piro have a tendency to view the world through the lens of whatever game they're obsessed with. Socially awkward Piro tries to figure out relationships using what he's learned from dating sims and romantic manga, while Largo battles a world that he thinks is filled with zombies and other monsters.

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