Mirror, Mirror: Ouran High School Host Club and reflections of twin identity

By: Michele Kirichanskaya March 2, 20220 Comments
Kaoru and Hikaru holding roses and linking arms

Spoilers for Ouran High School Host Club

While there’s plenty of media with twin characters, few ever explore twinness in a way that felt real to me. Media like The Shining, Zach & Cody, the Wesley Twins, and others mostly play into stereotypes: you’ve got the matching clothes, voices speaking in unison, the creepy dopplegangers, or the twin sisters ready to fulfill one’s fantasy (shudder).They left me wondering if I’d ever find a story that made me feel understood as a twin myself. Then I found Ouran High School Host Club.

One of the most clever anime/manga series of the 2000s, Ouran High School Host Club is best known for the gently satirical way it engages with classic shoujo tropes, with its characters performing and overexaggerating  certain traits for an audience of squealing female clients. It examines twin tropes through Hikaru and Kaoru, playing up certain stereotypes while dismantling others, and creates a more human portrayal of twin identity than most of the media it parodies.

The relationship between Hitachiin Hikaru and Kaoru embodied many of my own experiences being a twin: the incredible bond of intimacy and camaraderie of growing up with someone who looks and thinks almost exactly like you, being treated as a curiosity or gimmick, and struggling to be recognized as an individual.

the twins as young children standing together in pink and blue dresses

Ever since we were born, my twin sister’s and my identities have been intimately connected. Walking through the world as a twin meant walking around with a mirror since the day I was born, sharing a similar face with another person. It meant people thinking of me and my sister not as separate individuals, but as a conjoined unit, neither existing without the other. It meant having to fight harder to assert my individuality, the right to be seen as myself. 

At first glance, Hikaru and Kaoru appear to adhere to the cliches more often than not: wearing the same or similar clothing even on their days off, speaking in unison, and often trading identities to mess with the people around them. They often play a game called “Which One Is Hikaru?” in which they ask their patrons to guess which brother is which while hiding their sole distinguishing trait: how their hair is parted. Even if these behaviors are stereotypes, there is some truth to them, as seen in my own history with my twin.

When we were children, our parents often dressed me and my sister in matching outfits, blue for my sister and pink for me. Like the Hitachiin brothers, we would often play a game where we asked teachers and family friends to guess who was who. I’m not sure why we did this. Maybe, like the Hitachiin twins, we enjoyed the attention our similar looks garnered, despite how annoying it became later. What makes Ouran High School Host Club different is that it delves into what many stories ignore: the twins’ perspective. The series explored not only the general public’s reaction to twins, but also the twins’ reaction to the public’s curiosity and annoying fascination. What struck me even more was how the series worked to establish both Hikaru and Kaoru as emotionally nuanced and separate characters.

Hikaru and Kaoru standing close together

At first glance, the twins’ presentation within the show seems to contribute to the larger problem, as their chief selling point is the performance of a pseudo-incestuous relationship termed “intense brotherly love”. However, the appeal to a common fetish is a ruse designed to draw in a certain group of clients, as the two explain to Haruhi:

Hikaru: “Listen up. Having a couple of good-looking guys with homosexual tendencies earns the club high points. It also helps that the two struggle between their attraction and their friendship.” 

Kaoru: “And in our case because we’re twins our relationship is taboo and therefore more intriguing.” 

Hikaru:“And besides, who hasn’t fantasized about twins? Having two loves is better than one, don’t you think?” 

Kaoru: “It’s a young woman’s romantic fantasy.”

While incest is a major taboo in most societies, that seems to fall by the wayside for most people when it comes to fetishizing twins. In popular fandom, “twincest” is often treated as alluring, rather than appalling, and watching two identical women make out is a common fantasy in porn aimed at heterosexual men. My sister and I have felt the effects of such fetishization in real life as we’ve seen straight men react to us as teenagers and adults, like we’re something out of a porn video, their fantasy waiting to happen.

However, while pop culture often treats female twins as a sexual props (often devoid of agency in said fetishization), the Hitachiin brothers knowingly leverage this trope, capitalizing on their good looks and “homoeroticism” to attract clients. This demonstrates an intriguing case study in power dynamics, in presenting the twins as people who choose to turn the tables on this omnipresent gaze and manipulate it to their advantage. Like many of the characters in Ouran High School Club, the twins are genre savvy and play with “the forbidden love between siblings” trope intentionally, utilizing their appeal in order to win the affections of young female patrons for the Host Club. In reality, while their relationship may appear incestuous initially, it is less defined by genuine erotic interest than of making light of their own “twinness”, using it as an economic opportunity and literal game.

Hikaru and Kaoru wearing hats during their guessing game

The most striking aspect of the brothers’ twinness to me was in the arc in which they first started to forge their own identities. Prior to the start of the series, Hikaru and Kaoru believed no one would ever be able to tell them apart—one of the members of their house staff told them as much. As a result, they became increasingly closed off and hostile to the outside world, believing they would only ever be seen as a unit instead of individuals.

Haruhi’s introduction to the club marks a turning point in the brothers’ lives. Once she gets to know them, she can tell them apart by subtle differences in their personalities. The way she sees them as two separate people, as Hikaru and Kaoru instead of just “the twins,” brings them a sense of humanity that had been previously denied to them by the world seeing them as a gimmick rather than as real people.

Emboldened by their relationship with Haruhi, Hikaru and Kaoru begin to take careful steps toward separating themselves. The climax of their mutual arc comes when Hikaru dyes his hair dark brown, making it easier for others to tell the two of them apart. In a way this mimicked my own life: my sister cut and dyed her hair many times over the years as both of us experimented and grew into our own styles. While my sister has always been the more extroverted one, between her voice and bold, print-heavy fashion, I suspect she played with her hair for the additional bonus of differentiating herself from me. And while it has not stopped people from mixing us up entirely, having a physical marker between us certainly helped more people remember our names, something we both readily embraced. Playing with fashion and words allowed my sister and I to see our differences within our strengths, to understand that we exist as unique, creative individuals who both deserve our own spotlights, rather than just sharing the same one in perpetuity.

Kaoru laying on the floor alone

There’s a sense of grief as the Hitachiins cry over the change, as distinguishing themselves means losing their private world and forever altering, even weakening, their bond. In the end it’s ultimately a good thing, opening up paths for both of them to explore the world and engage with other people without the burden of isolating themselves as twins. By dying his hair, Hikaru asserts an image of himself that is separate from that of his brother’s. Creating a distinct physical difference between himself and his brother marks to the world that he exists as his own person, and not just as a mirrored reflection of his sibling. The change appears to be permanent as well, as Hikaru keeps his hair dyed through the end of the series, unlike in an earlier arc where the two dyed their hair pink and blue as part of a squabble. By turning from the Hitachiin Twins into Hikaru and Kaoru, the brothers turn an unhealthy codependency into a healthier familial relationship between two individuals, filled with a greater sense of love and respect for each other.

Growing up, I never fully saw a reflection of myself  in the media, unable to connect myself with the simplistic stock figure of “twins”: a two-person unit that eerily looked and sounded alike, two characters condensed into one. Yet with Bisco Hatori’s work, it was the exact opposite. Originally teased as a twin stereotype, Hikaru and Kaoru become two flesh-and-blood individuals with their own fears, strengths, and insecurities surrounding their twinness and their connection to each other. In Hikaru and Kaoru, I saw myself and my own sister, characters who were once trapped in someone else’s perception, now given space to grow beyond the stereotype. 

Series like Ouran High School Host Club allowed me the privilege of knowing that my sense of “twinness” was valid, and that twins can knock down stereotypes and simply be something other than your lookalike —yourself. While poor twin stereotypes continue to be exist (with twincest still being the bane of my existence) it is a comfort to know Bisco Hatori’s works exists in the larger spectrum of twin portrayals, influencing both my own writing (fictional and memoir) and the world of fiction as a whole.

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