On the surface, Ouran High School Host Club (original: 桜蘭高校ホスト部, Ouran Koukou Hosuto Kurabu) by Bisco Hatori just looks like your typical shoujo manga. It’s about Haruhi Fujioka, scholarship student at Ouran High School, a school for the posh, wealthy, upper-class sons and daughters of the people who run Japan. One day, while looking for a quiet place to study, Haruhi runs into the school’s Host Club—a club comprised entirely of young, handsome men, who use this extracurricular activity to flirt with and entertain young, beautiful women. (Yes, for real.) Haruhi tries to make a dignified exit, but instead, crashes into an obscenely expensive vase and ends up owing the Host Club about eight million yen. Since she hardly has that amount of money, she’s forced to pay it off by working as the Host Club’s “dog”. That is, until they realize she cleans up pretty, and then she becomes a host alongside the others. (The fact that she’s a girl doesn’t fully become an issue until the end of the manga’s run.)
At first, it’s pretty easy to dismiss this manga as a stereotypical shoujo, just because it’s got all the character archetypes of the most stereotypical shoujo manga. Each boy in the Host Club fits a certain type: there’s Tamaki, the “Prince” type who sweeps you off your feet; the twins, Hikaru and Kaoru, the troublemakers and the fake-gay ones; Kyouya, the mysterious, “cool” one with the glasses; Hunny, the “loli-shota” boy who appears younger and cuter than he really is, and Mori, the “stoically silent” one. Even Haruhi, the protagonist, is at first just the oblivious girl who’s unaware of Tamaki’s extremely obvious feelings towards her.
This is where the manga differentiates itself from the anime. The anime does a fantastic job of translating the zaniness of the manga to the screen (Tamaki’s histronics, in particular, play out to hilarious effect when animated), but it was still only twenty-six episodes. At eighteen volumes and 83 chapters, the manga is allowed much more time in which to properly develop its characters. And each character is much the better for it. As a manga that relies on stereotypes for the very premise of the plot, the characters are supposed to be at least a little stereotypical, but Ouran wouldn’t be as interesting or as good if the characters never progressed beyond those stereotypes.
Saika does a good job here of reviewing the anime and explaining why Haruhi is far more than the stereotypical female protagonist, but the manga has time to make each member of the Host Club well-rounded. For example, Tamaki’s family troubles are played out to the fullest extent and come to a more complete conclusion than in the manga, leading our crazy Prince character to do some serious growing-up. Haruhi herself learns to confront her feelings for Tamaki and realize that there’s more to life than studying. The twins finally start pushing themselves to be less codependent, and they start working to actively be seen as two separate people.
The thing I like best about the manga is that the onus of the plot is solely on the characters, and not on romance, and it’s that more than anything else that makes this story an unstereotypical shoujo. The story doesn’t even fit its most obvious genre trope, that of reverse harem—for all that the Host Club is full of handsome young guys, only two of them are romantically interested in Haruhi. And when the inevitable romance between Haruhi and Tamaki happens, it’s only after all the characters have grown past their stereotypically identifying flaws.
So if you’re looking for a shoujo manga with fantastic characters and amazing character development, Ouran High School Host Club is the manga for you. And if you’ve only seen the anime, please, give the manga a chance. It’s so much better, I promise.