Helen McCarthy on Ouran High School Host Club.
It’s a criminal world: J.K. Rowling has been taken to task for selectively appropriating the mythologies of America’s First Nations into her universe, and for sanitising the Government-sanctioned genocide that followed the colonisation of North America. Another foreign invader packaging an alien history for creative gain… something we’re all familiar with in comics, manga, anime and movies.
We need, however, to recognise that such appropriation existed long before Rowling first wrote. To give just one example, for decades before she reframed the British boarding school story into the multimillion-dollar-spinning world of Hogwarts, an alien culture on the other side of the world was busily adapting the same story, as well as importing it into its own education system (with a few cute local additions, like sailor suits for girls).
Welcome to Japan, where state education, based on the Prussian model, was compulsory from the late nineteenth century. It was later rebuilt on the American model following World War II, but America arrived in Japanese education after around seventy years of European influence. Along with Western educational ideas, nineteenth-century Japan was busily translating and devouring Western literature.
Tom Brown’s School Days, Thomas Hughes’ novel of a decent young chap’s struggle to survive and thrive in Britain’s exclusive Rugby School, was abridged in Japanese in 1899 and became one of the seminal texts of the Japanese classroom – despite its early translators’ unequal struggle with the arcane terminology of cricket. Other European authors gained popularity in Tom Brown’ s wake. Enid Blyton’s books featuring middle-class child adventurers were popular, with her school story Twins At Saint Claire’s getting its own anime series in 1991. Japanese schoolchildren were dreaming of the magical world of boarding school before Harry Potter was a twinkle in his creator’s eye.
That’s partly why Japan has taken to the private school story with such gusto – but only partly. It takes a look at the numbers to realise why a show like Ouran High School Host Club could succeed on mainstream TV in Japan, and why its sales were low in the UK.
Compulsory education in Japan ends at age 15, after three years of junior high school, but less than 2% of Japanese students drop out at this stage. Because all Japanese high schools charge fees, even the state schools, about half of those remaining go on to a private high school. Some of them move up from a private junior high.
Compare this with Britain, where state education is free and less than 7% of the total number of schoolchildren, around 18% of those over 16, are privately educated. Fee-paying schools are barely represented in contemporary British popular culture, except as shorthand for the class system, because for four out of five British pupils they are as unattainable as Hogwarts. For their Japanese counterparts, there is a much higher likelihood of ending up in a private school. The audience appeal is much greater.
Of course, many anime and manga feature state high schools, including Assassination Classroom, High School Kimengumi, FLCL and Fruits Basket. It’s easy to locate the character with whom the audience needs to identify, someone with problems they will all recognise, like working-class Naota in FLCL or orphaned Tohru in Fruits Basket. And although all Japanese high schools charge fees, private schools are more expensive. So they come preloaded with a sprinkling of the same cachet and curse they bear in the UK and USA: the sense of an elite – endowed, spoiled, over-privileged. Lelouch in Code Geass, a British prince in exile, is, naturally, in exile at an exclusive private school. Magical high school Shiomi Academy in A Good Librarian Like A Good Shepherd is a private school. The problem for the writer is how to shoehorn an ordinary kid into a setting that carries those overtones of privilege.
Ouran High School Host Club uses a trope familiar in British public schools to achieve that – the scholarship. Haruhi Fujioka is bright, bubbly and sensitive, but she comes from a desperately poor family. Entering a world of self-confessed elitism and privilege, this Cinderella stumbles on an unplanned way of finding and winning a Prince – by becoming one. This route had already been followed in another exclusive high school by Revolutionary Girl Utena – the anime appeared in 1997, nine years ahead of Ouran High School Host Club.
Haruhi is indentured into her posh school’s exclusive Host Club to pay off a debt, because its upper-crust members mistake her for a boy. When they finally catch on, some more slowly than others, she’s become so popular that they let the charade continue. Mixing the tropes and traditions of girls’ manga freely with those of private school mythology, Ouran High School Host Club creates a world with just enough difference from reality for its target audience to feel transported out of everyday reality, and just enough connection with the possible – the Japanese-audience possible, anyway – to allow them to dream aspirationally. Japan’s fifteen-year-olds know as well as any Rowling fan that the school of their dreams is impossible, yet the dreams are there onscreen and there’s a 50/50 chance of a private school for them.
The show does what all good school stories and all good fantasies ought to do. It allows the young reader or viewer to envisage a life beyond their beginning. Whether the relationship with one’s birth family is happy, like Tom Brown’s and Haruhi’s, or not, sooner or later one has to step outside it to make some kind of independent life and build a family based on something other than blood ties. School is the place that process begins. From Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Hogwarts, from Enid Blyton to Ouran High School Host Club, the school story is an accessible, affordable course in how to build an adult life – uniforms, posh accents and preconceptions optional.