A couple months ago, I spent a good amount of time re-watching Fullmetal Alchemist, both series in their entirety. There was no particular reason for this; I just wanted to, because it’s been a while since I first saw it and I am a very different viewer now than I was then. So I watched Fullmetal Alchemist and that was a great time because, y’know, it’s Fullmetal Alchemist, but then it was back to the grind, since I needed something to review and had unknowingly allowed my stockpile of scripts to dwindle. So I take a look at my requests, and lo and behold, there it was: Ouran High School Host Club. I was understandably still in a Bones mood, and most of the voice cast was even straight from Fullmetal Alchemist. “Awesome!”, I thought. “What a great way to get back in the groove.” And was it? Let’s find out.

As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to do much explaining here, because the show can do it for me. Take it away, Tamaki!

Only those with excellent social standing and those from filthy rich families are lucky enough to spend their time here at the elite private school, Ouran Academy. The Ouran Host Club is where the school’s handsomest boys, with too much time on their hands, entertain young ladies who also have way too much time on their hands. Just think of it as Ouran Academy’s elegant playground for the super rich and beautiful.

So we have the Host Club, pretty boys entertaining pretty girls. The boys being flamboyant Tamaki, the cool and collected Kyouya, the strong and silent Morinozuka, the childlike Haninozuka, and the Hitachiin twins, Hikaru and Kaoru. When a young student named Haruhi accidentally wanders into the Host Club, he accidentally breaks a priceless vase. Being a lowly commoner, and without the money to repay the Club, Haruhi is pressed into service as a host. The only problem is, and here’s the hook, Haruhi is actually a girl.

When I first heard the premise behind Ouran High School Host Club, I can’t say I was completely sold, though this was probably due to the fact that I had previously seen its central conceit, the girl who everyone thinks is a guy, in a series called Aoharu x Machinegun, which was not that great of a show and actually rather irritating when it came to that exact plot point.

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But, I had reason to be optimistic, because something here immediately caught my eye. It wasn’t the comedy or the characters, that stuff actually had to grow on me, no, what I immediately noticed was the show’s quirky and absurd visual personality. In fact, there was a lot more personality than I was expecting. I’ve been too inundated with the GJ Club’s of anime to expect a high school comedy to actually look distinctly memorable, but Ouran very much does. It’s almost never content to do just a “normal” shot. No, let’s have feet in the foreground! Let’s have dramatic shadows! Let’s have the frame dominated by water’s reflection, so it looks like the characters are floating in the sky! There’s an odd fixation with a number of things: hands, windows, divisions (whether a wall or something else of a similar nature), and roses (so many roses, you’d think you were watching Utena). On top of that, we have an affinity for placing multiple characters in the frame, with some in the foreground and others in the far background, rather than having to cut between the characters or utilize a more mundane layout.

This is all really neat, it accentuates the show’s wacky off-kilter vibes, and is itself amplified by the bright and pinky color palette. Many of the idiosyncrasies on display are even very nearly Shaft-like, with a number of recurring motifs that exist for seemingly no other reason than to cement a visual identity. Arrows will at random point out important parts of the scene, there’s an an odd running gag with monkeys and banana peels, light bulbs shockingly enough illustrate epiphanies, there’s a lot that is just wonderfully off-the-wall without overwhelming the viewer.

I also really like the character designs. They’re simple, but distinct. You won’t confuse anyone with anyone else (except for maybe the twins, but that’s the point), and everyone looks sleek and stylish without seeming ridiculous, which can be a tight balance.

To be fair, the visual inventiveness does slow down over time, but I can’t say this was entirely unexpected, given the natural constraints of time, budget and effort, and going full throttle every second isn’t always for the best; there is some wisdom in restraint. Also, this wasn’t the first Bones show I’d seen to front-load its interesting imagery, but as long as it maintained the unique individuality to some degree, I decided I wouldn’t mind, and it did, so I didn’t.

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What took longer to grow on me was the characters, because for a while, even a long while given the length of the series, I found most of them entertaining enough, but shallow, shallower even than most of the episodic one-offs.

But, as time went on, it became clear that the show knew what it was doing, as more and more characterization slowly worked its way in, solidifying a cast that, while not exactly “deep”, was deep enough, and it became more abundantly clear what the show was trying to do. The characters are all meant to be somewhat typical and cliched, so that it can then turn things around and explain how they got to be who they are, that they actually have a history and a personality behind what is at face value a stock archetype.

In particular, in the last quarter or so of the series, it’s almost like a lightning round of character development, each episode one after another focusing on a different member of the Host Club. The twins get an episode, Kyouya gets an episode, Tamaki gets an episode, Haruhi... well, the whole show is kind of her episode. It’s not the most inspired way to build character, but it works, especially since most of their stories are relatable enough or human enough to draw some sympathy. To be perfectly honest, I can’t say I loved every character by the end, Honey and Mori especially still felt flattish and not as nuanced in my opinion, but everyone else really worked, with my favorite episodes of the series hands-down being those that centered on the characters as characters, like episodes 20 and 24.

It helps of course that these people are all voiced very well. As you may have picked up on, I actually watch Ouran dubbed, as I am prone to do on occasion. I don’t doubt the Japanese cast is very good, especially seeing that we have Maaya Sakamoto and Mamoru Miyano as Haruhi and Tamaki respectively, but this dub was more than strong enough for me not to miss it. You’ve got Travis Willingham, Greg Ayres, Luci Christian, Todd Haberkorn, the ever-excellent J Michael Tatum, the one the only Vic Mignogna, and Caitlin Glass as Haruhi, who also served as the ADR Director. Her performance was the one I found most interesting of them all, because she needed to sound fairly androgynous given the nature of her character, in that most people don’t pick up on the fact that she is not male, and this is something that I usually feel Japanese voice actors pull off far better than English ones, but Glass actually did surprisingly well.

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The only pitfall with the dub is the classic problem of dubs, namely that the occasional minor side character sounds jarringly worse than everyone else. In my experience this is an issue that very few dubs, even some of my personal favorites, have managed to overcome, so at this point it just comes with the territory.

Another brief point on the sound side of things is the opening and ending themes. To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I’ve ever watched a series with a redone opening and ending in English for the dub, and I can see why it’s no longer common practice. Uh, they could’ve been worse, and I mean I associate them with the show more than the Japanese ones just because they were what I watched every episode, but they do sound a little amateurish, especially the ending.

On a different note, Ouran continues the personal trend of me, rarely being one to read source material, not really minding anime-original endings. In my own opinion — granted I have not seen every single anime-original ending out there, but of those that I have: Fullmetal Alchemist, Akame ga Kill, Blue Exorcist, maybe more I’m forgetting — I can’t help but feel that people hate on them just because they’re not in the manga, regardless of the actual quality of the material itself.

Controversially, I welcome anime-original endings, if they mean that a series with no real chance of resolution will get one. I’ll always prefer that a series tries to wrap everything up, rather than leaving us on a blue-balls cliffhanger that will never get a continuation, because it’s not like making up a new ending deletes the original one. That will still exist. All an original ending will do is wrap up the anime, because chances are there’s not going to be a second season, and I’d much rather it feel somewhat complete than entirely unresolved.

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So, on that note, I enjoyed the last two anime-original episodes of Ouran High School Host Club. There might be more anime-original stuff in here that I’m not aware of, and if there is, I don’t care. In fact, I would say I enjoyed the last two episodes enough that they improved my opinion of the series as a whole, by going a little more dramatic for the sake of tying up all the character threads into something resembling a satisfying conclusion.

So, I really liked the characters, and the visual design was fun and creative. What else is there even to talk about? Well… I didn’t have many issues; there was basically just this one. It’s only one, but I can’t exactly just wave it off: I didn’t find Ouran very funny.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I never laughed. The changing outfits gag was amusing, the random offhand 4th wall breaks always got to me and sometimes I couldn’t help cracking up under the sheer confidence and absurdity of it all.

But more often than not, I didn’t feel anything. Scenes would very clearly be set up for hilarity, but I’d get through them with a shrug, and this disappointed me. Considering how well-put together the series was with its cast and the production values, I dearly wanted to find it funny. But I couldn’t, and I’ll try to explain why, even if verbalizing inherent comedic preference can be difficult.

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I guess the way to put it is that I felt Ouran lacked subtlety, and sometimes even outright shot itself in the foot. First of all, the delivery could be somewhat overbearing. It doesn’t go for the full-on Manzai, with an obnoxiously loud straight man a la D-Frag, but it does have the exaggerated over-the-topness that only anime punchlines really do. I wouldn’t say that’s the end of the world in and of itself, since series I love like Gintama can also have overblown comedy antics, but it’s almost as if there’s an attitude here where they didn’t have faith in the intelligence of the audience to “get” a joke, and instead we are beaten over the head with it.

The most critical example of this is the text pop-ups. If you’ve watched enough anime comedies, I’m sure you’ve seen it somewhere, where a punchline will be emphasized by some sort of caption, whether it’s the character being stabbed by labeled arrows (“Harsh Word Impact”) or a brief description of some sort spelling out the joke. And Ouran does this constantly. Everything any character does is captioned by this text, either pointing out things that are already blatantly obvious or ruining the subtle side of a joke by outright stating it.

Here’s a very simple example. It’s a haunted house episode. Hani jumps out and screams at someone “I’m the wolf man!!!”. The caption then feels the need to point out that he is in fact dressed as a pumpkin, not a wolf man. Thanks. I know. I get it. That was the joke, I had no problem keeping up with the masterful comedic writing on display. And this is every joke (or what felt like it); every time you’ll have this annoying pop-up pointing out the punchline, as if I was too slow to just get it. Sometimes it wasn’t even a punchline, but just a character’s basic emotions!

Maybe most people don’t mind this sort of thing, because near as I can tell, Ouran is regarded as a pretty funny show. Maybe you like the pop-ups chiming in every other minute, because it doubles down on the joke, but for me it has the exact opposite effect. It actually often kills what slight humor I can find, because I feel like I’m not being allowed to think for myself.

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I know, that was ranty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people feel that I’m being unfair, but really I don’t think I am. There were tons of jokes here that I found at least amusing as simple jokes, but the show felt such a need to belabor them that it whiffed entirely. In hindsight, I wouldn’t call this a shocking turn of events, as there are very few anime that I actively think are hilarious, and I usually find myself just tolerating a show’s comedy to get through to the good bits, so I guess Ouran is just another one of those.

Ouran High School Host Club is a weird one for me, because there’s this gap between how I feel about the different parts of it. I really liked the characters, and the dub and its sense of aesthetics, but in spite of that, I had to admit to myself that I just was not finding it very funny... which is kind of key in a romcom. That said, it is still a show I look back on generally fondly, as while even if the jokes may not land, if you still enjoy the characters, you can derive some fun out of just watching them interact, which is more or less what my experience boiled down to by the end.

So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, I award Ouran High School Host Club a B. Regardless of the fact that I did not love it, I am still glad that I watched it, because it had been this presence I was aware of but never gone out of the way to actually see until now.

If you know you are not one to mind the comedy tropes that I mentioned only a few minutes ago, then you may find Ouran available in both sub and dub on Funimation and Hulu.


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