Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ouran High School and the Ideal Foreigner in Japan

The reverse harem has become almost ubiquitous in shojo manga in the last 10 years. After the whole manga and anime world was glutted with shonen harem plot lines, it was a refreshing change to see the guys act like school girls all trying to get the same girl. All that embarrassment and obliviousness by the heroine was just a joy to watch. I can't remember how much I giggled as a high schooler over those plots.

Do you guys remember this anime? I think it exploded in the US and I remember dozens of anime conventions that honored Ouran cosplayers. After the anime ended, I tried to stay up with the manga, as it wasn't finished when the anime was produced, but I lost interest (and forgot) in checking up with it every month. So I kinda knew how the ending was suppose to go, but I really didn't at the same time. Now that I've gone back and reread the series, there was one main thing that I noticed; Tamaki as the ideal foreigner experience in Japan.

I remember this anime like it was out yesterday. The voice actors, the music, and the hilarity are still so vivid and fresh in my mind that it was almost strange to revisit this world that Hatori Bisco created. What I mean by 'strange' was why I was going back and rereading a story that I already knew so well. What I thought was going to be a walk down memory lane turned into something completely different.

Usually I am not very into episodic stories, part of the reason why I'm not a big sitcom watcher. I need at least an over laying plot for me to actually keep my interest over however many seasons. I had this problem when I was starting to read Reborn!. The first year of that manga was nothing but stupid humor without any real advancement into any type of plot. I had almost given up on it by the time chapter 56 rolled around and there was actual action developing. Of course, I am a anomaly as Reborn! was hugely popular and American and British sitcoms are all over the place and almost intricately linked to most Americans lives.

Ouran starts off kinda episodic. Being that this story takes place in a high school and all the characters involved are also living episodic lives, this makes since. Hatori's complete disregard for the seasons and the characters having two springs throughout the "year" the story takes place also helps. It's not until the introduction of Tamaki's solitary life from his Japanese family that Hatori really has a developing plot. Tamaki's usual flamboyant personality covers his own weakness and his very Japanese belief of not talking about his true feelings with anyone except to Kyoya.

When you read this manga, it would be very easy to claim that the introduction of Haruhi was the real catalyst for change in the characters, but the truth is that its Tamaki. The reason why Tamaki works so well in this manga is the fact that he is not completely Japanese. As we have seen in other shojo manga dealing with rich guys and a lower income heroine (Hana Yori Dango), being rich gives characters more freedom in certain instances. But what really gives Tamaki more freedom is the fact that he's got not one but two 'get out of jail free' cards in his back pocket; he's rich and he's half French. He has the power to control and influence a group of people because he is "different", he is not completely a "foreigner" but nor is he completely "Japanese".

As a foreigner that lives in Japan, I have a first hand knowledge and understanding of how foreigners and also returnees are treated by contemporary Japanese society. The Japanese are still an isolated culture who haven't fully embrace the concept of "globalization". While they will accept certain ideas, they will completely change it into a very Japanese way where older men run everything and those men are not very openminded. Foreigners, which become more and more common, are still only 5% of the population. We are exotic and we are outside society. Of course there are Japanese who go out of their way to find and make foreign friends because its "trendy" and to practice their English, but usually I become friends with returnees who feel more comfortable with foreigners than Japanese after being away. We are more open and accepting of nerdy hobbies and we are forever outside the rigid cultural expectations and behavior. While it will be perfectly common to have some Japanese invite you to their house and show you their hina matsuri, or Girls Day, dolls, they won't invite you there more often than that.

Recently I have been thinking about how returnee characters are used in manga and anime and the reason I've been thinking about it has gotten increasingly more common to see returnee characters. Adachi Mitsuru had Miyuki as a returnee (who never actually spoke in English and just said "bara bara") back in the 70s and she was one of the few I remember from the old manga being one. Telling at the time how exotic Miyuki's character was, but now I feel that mangaka are introducing these characters more and more frequently. Some are just side characters, like in Hiyokoi, while others are the main characters like in Beck, Kuroko no Basuke, Reborn!, and in Ouran Host Club. All of these returnees or half Japanese characters are all accepted by their peers with only minimal jokes about their English skills during exam times. Otherwise they are almost 100% seen as Japanese.

These characters are the ideal in how returnees and half Japanese are accepted by the dominant society. Not only are they almost completely integrated into the social group they function in but they are allowed to change the thought process of the people around them. They become the catalysis for change in their social group. Instead of them having to change for Japan, Japan changes for them. Because returnees and foreigners are so often seen as outside the social conventions in Japan they are given a sort of "free pass", if you will, and are not fully accepted. Even you are fluent in the language and can communicate you are, and always will be, a foreigner. We are endearing and cute to learn from but we are never apart of the dominant society.

Tamaki spreads his Western ideals all over the place and they are whole-heartedly accepted by the dominant society in which they live in; which in this instance is a rich kids school. Tamaki's issues with non-acceptance from his grandmother is the constant battle foreigners have in Japanese society. At the end, Tamaki's life ends up being a happily ever after story by him being completely accepted by his grandmother, thus making him completely integrated into Japanese society. It is sad to say that Tamaki's story is the exception and not the rule.

Out of all the manga I mentioned earlier, the one manga that got returnees right was Harold Sakuishi in Beck. Those characters were so far from the expected Japanese personality and the English in that manga was spot on. Taiga in Kuroko is actually kinda fun, but his personality is completely the same as other JUMP shonen heros. You could completely forget he was a returnee except for his constant frustration with polite Japanese and the couple pages of perfect English conversation he has with another returnee Tatsuya. Out of these two examples, Beck follows with Ouran with how the returnees are used as a protein catalyst to change the kids around them. True Koyuki is credited with changing and keeping the other members of the band together, but it was Ryuusuke and his sister that changed their world first but they also lived on the fringe of Japanese society in the music world Sakuishi creates.

While rereading Ouran, the biggest thing I noticed was Tamaki and his complete integration into Japanese and also how he as a catalyst for change would make perfect sense to a Japanese reader. Not only is this manga a fun read, it's also telling of how some Japanese can truly understand a layer of the story that a foreigner wouldn't understand unless they had lived in Japan themselves. Tamaki is a complete fantasy character at the moment, but he is a good start for readers to actually learnt to accept foreigners and people who aren't completely "Japanese".

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