Hello, hello! The sun is shining (somewhat), the birds are singing, and I am done with University (for now, anyways…)! So, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve now got time to update my blog. Aren’t you all just so lucky?
I may have written about this before on previous posts, but when I was fourteen or fifteen or so, I watched Studio Ghibli’s “Howl’s Moving Castle”. I remember it being a lazy Saturday morning; both of my parents were out at work, and I’d woken up feeling a bit vacant and groggy. I’d made myself a cup of tea, was still snuggled in my pyjamas and dressing gown, and had flicked through the channels on the TV guide.
I then found “Howl’s Moving Castle”, and I sat there for nearly two hours, enraptured.
When you grow up with the only Asian influence in your life being the odd Chinese takeaway, Anime is one of two things: downright confusing, or captivating. For me it was the latter; the colour, the ideas, the story- everything there was like nothing I’d seen before. Though I was raised with Disney movies, I’m not that big of a fan- the exception being “Mulan”, of course. Watching Studio Ghibli was a breath of fresh air- it was something magical; it made me cry and feel warm and fuzzy inside. But after the film ended, the spell was broken. My parents came home, and I really didn’t think any more about what had gone on that morning; though I still acknowledged it as a really good film.
The next encounter I had with Japanese animation came while visiting my cousin. We’re of the same age, but because we’re born three months apart she ended up in the year above me during Highscool. It’s really strange because we’re the same age, but having one year of schooling on me made a lot of difference- she was already doing things I’d not learnt before. We both had different interests, types of friendship group, and even levels of maturity. One of her friends had loaned her this DVD boxset, and she thought it would be really cool to share it with me. “Guess what’s going to happen” I believe she said, excitedly, as the opening credits rolled and I raised my eyebrows in confusion at the guady pink colour. “I didn’t get it until the end,” she went on.
Unknowingly, my cousin had opened the gateway to one of my favourite interests. She had introduced me to the world of Anime, and more specifically, “Ouran Highschool Host Club”.
Unfortunately for my cousin, with all her blustering about the “big plot twist” and not figuring out what was so significant until the end, I figured it out about a minute into the show.
She was gobsmacked.
If you’ve never heard of Ouran before, let me give you some background information:
- It first began as a Manga series in 2002, created by Bisco Hatori. Hakusensha serialised the series between 2002 and 2010. A twenty-six part Anime series was released in 2006, and there’s even a live-action drama.
- The story centres around a sixteen year-old protagonist, Haruhi Fujioka, who through a certain series of unfortunate events ends up with a huge debt. Haruhi then works to pay off the debt throughout the series.
One of the most striking things I’ve noticed personally when I look back, was how naïve I was to the goings on in this Anime. As a Literature Major, whose job is to analyse, understand and critique, I’m kicking myself. There are some really profound issues covered in both the Manga and Anime, and Hatori’s satirical mimicry of Shojou (Girl’s) Manga is so subtle and well done that you can’t help but believe that this isn’t as subliminally serious as it is.
More importantly, it shows just how ingrained gender roles, tropes, and stereotypes are in society- specifically young children. Perhaps generations to come will not be as regimented as I feel before and after my generation may be, but that is only because such significant steps to how we think of gender and sexual identity have changed.
So why am I writing this? Why am I telling you about some Japanese show, and chunnering on about how society is screwed up, and how the future looks bleak if we don’t do something about it?
Because that’s exactly what I’m going to do. This whole post started because of a song recommended on Spotify, believe it or not. This song goes by the same of “Ouran Highschool Toast Club”. Spot the difference.
The song created by a band called ‘JANK’, has such strange and unyielding lyrics when you first listen through; and its weirdly catchy- at least to me, anyway.
‘Toast Club’ as I’m going to affectionately rename the long-winded title, confused me straight off of the bat. The lyrics seemingly follow no chronological order, switching between different ‘unrelated’ statements. When separated and analysed closely, what, in my opinion, is the main message of the song becomes apparent.
For example, from the first verse; “Sharp lances school dances sharp lances school dances| I am not tall enough to ride […]”, basic evidence for whom the narrative voice is, is revealed. “I am not tall enough to ride”- the issue of height made me think of how at theme parks there is a certain cut off point for age limits, height or weight. By following this idea, the narrative can be established as one whom is still undergoing developmental growth- possibly around young adolescence when puberty has not yet occurred, or during stages of puberty. This idea is reinforced by the use of “Sharp lances school dances” – where a social event becomes synonymous with an object of pain. During puberty, and early formative school years, social interaction can be quite difficult- especially between the sexes; hence why school dances are likened to ‘pain’. I would estimate that the narrative voice is aged between thirteen and sixteen, when highschool (if you’re from the UK) or middle school to the start of highschool elsewhere, clashes with interpersonal developments, mental maturity, physical growth, and raging hormones.
However, I believe that there is more to this song than just highschool pubescent drama. The second verse opens up the opportunity for deeper analysis:
“Everything is a bummer, and summer will not bring me slumber
And I don’t care if your ampeg 8×10 is from 1973
Maybe if you kissed me less on the forehead I could answer you
But maybe we’re both meant to wear the costume […]”
There is a focus on material wealth; “[…] ampeg 8×10 is from 1973”, and ‘role playing’; “[…] wear the costume”. Material wealth and the “culturally constructed” (4) roles that adolescents feel they must assign to themselves, are prevalent here in this verse. The narrative seems to renounce claims of material wealth, “I don’t care if your ampeg 8×10 is from 1973”; they do not care for superfluous displays of materialism, perhaps because they are concerned by other cultural concerns. The idea of ‘role playing’ and applying a “costume” responds to the ideal of constructing specific roles set in society- here the narrative seems curious as to how to approach this ideal; “But maybe we’re both meant to wear the costume”. The “costume” becomes synonymous with the “role”; wearing it symbolises the acceptance of society’s constructed identities and expectations.
From the way the narrative ‘speaks’, it is implied that there is another person they are interacting with; “I don’t care if your […]”, “[…] if you […]”, and “But maybe we’re […]” suggest that there is a second person listening to the narrative. It also suggests that this may be the first time the narrative is voicing their observations, queries and opinions to someone else; “Maybe if you kissed me less on the forehead I could answer you”. There’s a portrayal of how an action so gentle that is considered to be ‘romantic’ or a way to show affection, can silence the narrative voice. The narrative is stating that convention is stifling; that convention, and therefore society, silence many individual voices.
So how does this in any way, shape, or form, connect to anime?
‘Ouran Highschool Host Club’ dealt with many of the issues mentioned above. Material wealth, to Haruhi, is pointless. They come from a ‘commoner’s’ or working class background compared to their peers. As a scholarship student in a prestigious private academy, Haruhi is surrounded by those in a higher social and financial status, though remains fully uninterested by perverse displays of wealth and mannerisms. To further the connection with JANK’s ‘Toast Club’, Haruhi also battles with the gender binary, and cultural constructions; the peers and friends around Haruhi struggle to accept that their own constructed views are fallible, and differentiate with certain people. They push their beliefs onto Haruhi, whom is required to wear the “costume”, both socially and physically. It is within the Host Club’s jurisdiction to run off a theme-basis, in which some costumes are required, but also denotes how the “costume” doesn’t just apply to thematic clothing, but socio-economic, and gender related conventions within Ouran.
The aforemtnioned ‘kiss on the forehead’ is one trope that frequents Shoujo Manga; generally with a ‘weak’ female protagonist recieving the action from a stronger male romantic interest. To my own knowledge of what I can rember from the series, this does not happen to Haruhi, though their peers try to enfornce gender tropes on them.
JANK’s lyrics continue; “Maybe I’ve been walking into houses made of bread, isn’t that sad?”. Bread is a staple food in many diets, though it is viewed to be a Western addition in Japan. Bread is also quite bland, or neutral in variety and taste. Again, there is the use of subliminal motifs to create a deeper understanding within this song. In relation to Ouran, ‘Toast Club’’s lyrics provide two possible ideas. The “[…] houses made of bread […]” may refer to a socio-economic divide; bread is relatively inexpensive, so walking into the house made of bread is to walk into Haruhi’s own socio-economic state. The reality of the latter, is realised while surrounded by ostentatious wealth at Ouran Private Academy. The second idea that the motif provides is ‘neutrality’. Bread as ‘neutral’ or ‘plain’ corresponds also to the questioning of gender conventions. As mentioned before, to “[…] wear the costume” is to play a role and act out a convention, but ‘Toast Club’’s narrative and Haruhi are both hesitant to do so. Within ‘Toast Club’ there’s a progressive desire to attain ‘neutrality’; as shown on the line, “When will I take Finland in this game of Risk?”. In the board game ‘Risk’ (5.) Finland is situated within Scandinavia, a largely independent and neutral territory in the game. The dynamic verb ‘take’ stresses a possessive desire to obtain this independent neutrality, a desire that ultimately may not be fulfilled because of how society forces the need for a “costume”.
Haruhi similarly strives for neutrality; they state that their gender doesn’t matter; to paraphrase, that it is “what’s ont he inside that counts”, therefore Haruhi demonstrates their indifference with gener roles.
The line, “Just read your head on my pancreas-issisippi Christian born again”, demonstrates societies’ conformist need for ‘labels’, and how this is potentially confusing and ludicrous to a young person going through a time of introspection and physical growth, such as the narrative in JANK’s song.
Adler states; “Haruhi is largely indifferent to how others perceive their gender, and, in Japanese, usually uses a gender neutral pronoun to refer to themselves”. This statement reaffirms the ideal of unnecessary conventions; because there are so many labels introduced and proposed, that they stifle what is truly trying to be achieved.
In both the song ‘Ouran Highschool Toast Club’ and the Manga/Anime ‘Ouran Highschool Host Club’, there is an ongoing progression: To try and remove defining labels and escape the gender binary, and to progress in a time when life, one’s body, and the world around one is confounding. JANK’s song serves as a lyrical interpretation of the Bildungsroman; in which the formative years and spiritual education are addressed. I feel as though this is firstly introduced during puberty- when life is at its most mystifying; the narrative in ‘Toast Club’ I estimated earlier to be at this stage. The confusion and the Bildungsroman are approached in the last line of the song; “Sorry if you don’t get it […]”. It illuminates the perplexing phenomena that is puberty, and the struggle to define one’s self with society’s constructed labels, or “costumes”, or to remain neutral. Bisco Hatori’s ‘Ouran Highschool Host Club’, through the indifferent character of Haruhi “[…] does imply that sexuality and gender identity are not choices”(6.), and that “Haruhi is never stereotypically female, and is allowed some room to be themselves, but only within certain limitations largely set by the cismen in their lives.” (7.)
Again we see the cultural macrocosm of the gender binary and gender roles, and how though society has acknowledged other forms of sexual and gender identity, the norm and conventions denote that these progressions are slow to be accepted. Society as a whole is becoming more aware of these progressions, but it is a slow process. I, as you may have noticed, only just realised the satirical and progressive undercurrent in one of my favourite Anime’s. With relevance to JANK, Hatori and the Bildungsroman, during the confusing formative years, one is most likely to fixate and through phases. For myself, one of these fixations was Anime, and because of this I blindly focused largely on the humour, the strange style of animation, and the characters. I didn’t try to introspect, or look into the deeper themes within the story.
This is my final point; during puberty, it is hard to define one’s self, because one is not mature enough or ready to “[…] get it”. As I am older, I now have begun to notice my inexperience. JANK and Hatori have both acknowledged these problems- the former, illuminating the desire to be heard, and the “costumes” that society enforces us to wear. The latter, that society is slow to change, even if it has acknowledged potential changes; and that neutrality, even if it is implied, will never be truly obtained unless society is willing to progress as a whole.
B i b l i o g r a p h y
(1.) Sourced from OH-TOTORO.com on GIPHY
(2.) Sourced from TECHNOIR.NL on GIPHY
(3.) Image sourced from http://myanimelist.net/anime/853/Ouran_Koukou_Host_Club [ACCESSED 09.06.2016]
(4.) “Ouran Highschool Toast Club” – JANK, ‘Awkward Pop Songs’, (2016): https://ohnoitsjank.bandcamp.com/track/ouran-highschool-toast-club-4
(5.) The board game ‘Risk’: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hasbro-28720-Risk-Board-Game/dp/B004NODJ3Y
(6.) and (7.) Adler, Jackson, “Ouran Highschool host Club: Haruhi, Heteronormativity, and the Gender Binary”, (March 2015): http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/03/ouran-high-school-host-club-haruhi-heteronormativity-and-the-gender-binary.html [ACCESSED 5.06.2016]