Thursday, December 08, 2005

Big Dave was telling me that if I'd liked Tenshi Ja Nai, I should probably check out Ouran High School Host Club. I'd seen the title, but since said title reminded me of some deeply silly stuff I'd seen in other shoujo, I had passed on it as silly girlporn, about the level of those notably Sunako-less parts of the Wallflower. I suppose that was a mistake, because mangaka Bisco Hatori is much, much better at light comedy & quick characterization than the Wallflower's author Tomoko Hayakawa.

The protagonist, a rather androgynous student named Haruhi, is easily the poorest and least-well-born member of hoity-toity Ouran Academy, full to the brim with the spawn of Japan's best and richest. Haruhi stumbles on the open secret of the school, which is a school "club" operating out of one of the music rooms, a "host club" which could easily be translated as "gigolo salon" if you were in an unkind mood. Haruhi, in the process of this stumbling, accidentally breaks the usual horribly expensive vase inexplicably present in these sorts of situations, and is drafted as the high-tone host club's "dogsbody". Haruhi turns out to clean up pretty well, and becomes the latest member of the host club's stable of bishounen. At the end of the first episode, *after* they've introduced Haruhi to their clientele, the rest of the club realizes that Haruhi, who was too poor to afford a school uniform or get a proper haircut, is actually a "she". It hadn't occurred to them to notice or ask. Whoops.

In other hands, this would be a situation ripe for melodrama and high angst, and it's a sign of Hatori's impishness that she quickly introduces a character who's deeply offended that events have *not* proceeded in the typical high-drama shoujo manner, and officiously attempts to direct matters in the literal manner of a film-maker, complete with major character-revisions and copious scripting.

In effect, this is a girl's-harem manga, with a cross-dressing twist. Haruhi and her bishounen are all marvels of efficient character design. She's self-confessedly uninterested in the difference between men and women, and no great surprise there - she's been raised by her father, a deeply indebted employee of a cross-dressing gay bar. Cross-dressing runs in the family, as it were. The other members of the host club are charmingly naive and intrigued by the trappings of poverty, indulging in seminars on the uses and charms of such prole standards as instant coffee and cup ramen. The "King" of the club, Tamaki, is a giddy, monstrously egotistical narcissist, who's nevertheless deeply sincere and vulnerably borders on the bi-polar. The other members tend to represent, embody, or impersonate various girl-lust archetypes, such as the shota (or as the translation oddly puts it, "boy Lolita"), the tall, dark silent boy, the sly, always-smiling dark-haired "megane" vice-president, and the twins, who specialize in the high art of incestuous flirting.

The translation is kind of odd, mostly because they keep tripping up on stuff like gender-specific language. Haruhi decides to use masculine language to refer to herself, and Tamaki reacts wildly and comedically to this mis-behavior. The translator, clearly boggled by the challenge, decides to render it as bolwerized profanity - %$@! - without re-writing the lines to make this fully coherent in the English context. So it reads as if Haruhi is using a cuss word as a personal pronoun. While I know there have been comedy routines built around the near-infinitely malleable nature of profanity, I can't imagine how a cuss-word could be used to refer directly to oneself, really. Not in English, anyways.

Anyways, it's all in good fun. It's the very model of a light school comedy, although you never see anyone study or even crack open a book. You do see the inside of a schoolroom once, but it's after hours for a Christmas eve love confession, so I can't imagine it could possibly count.

More: After reading part of the second volume, I now realize that the "lolita"/"shota" thing wasn't a translation issue, it was the author being really, really weird. Apparently there's some sub-classification of shota fetishism which features horridly cute little fellers, so frilly as to make little lord Faulteroy grit his teeth in masculine shame for the gender. Thus, 'boy lolita'. Right-O.

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