I've always been fond of Ouran High School Host Club. The anime was the first one I ever watched (...at least, the first I watched knowing it was anime) and the manga remains my favorite of all reverse harem manga. It seems, though, that not only has Ouran ruined me for other reverse harems, but it might have ruined me for other Bisco Hatori works as well.
BEHIND THE SCENES!! (Urakata!!), by Bisco Hatori. First published in 2014 and first published in North America in 2016.
Ranmaru has spent his whole life presuming that he's a disaster. He's no good at fishing like the rest of his family, he's torn apart every club he's ever joined, and he's convinced that college will be no better. Then he stumbles across The Art Squad, a rag-tag team of art students who supply everything from model to costumes to SFX for the school movie clubs. They see great potential in Ranmaru's eye for detail, but can they get past Ranmaru's persistent pessimism to convince him?
I have to give Hatori serious props for the premise of this series. A shoujo series that's set at college instead of high school? A mostly male cast who aren't played up for fujo fanservice? A focus on the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making student films? It's truly unlike anything else out there, and I'm always for more novel scenarios in shoujo. Sadly, the rest of the book is nowhere near as inspired as that premise.
The big failing here is with the cast. A big part of what made Ouran work was that Haruhi was a very down-to-earth and blunt kind of person. That allowed her to be a rock in the sea of silliness around her, something to which Hatori could anchor the more dramatic or emotional parts of that story. Ranmaru does not work in that same way. He's not only just as frantic as his clubmates, but his pessimism means that he tends to get swept up in the plot versus taking action within it. Together, these qualities mean that he tends to get lost within the larger narrative and that's a bad quality in a protagonist.
That could have been overcome if the rest of the Art Squad were written in a way to overcome Ranmaru's faults, but if anything they are kind of bland in comparison. Most of them are friendly, welcoming sorts, so they tend to be defined more by their roles in the squad versus any individual quirks. The only one that managed to make an impression was Ryuji, the club leader. Part of this is simply because of his character design, but he shows himself to be good at organizing all the nonsense while keeping everyone's spirits up. He's a born leader, but his innate confidence also means that he kind of steals the spotlight from Ranmaru.
The plot itself is also rather scattershot. Once Ranmaru is convinced to join the Art Squad, the plot mostly centers on some zany person from one of the film clubs calling upon the squad to make something for their productions, during which zaniness ensues. There's also usually some sort of B-plot where Hatori shines a spotlight on one of the other squad members. The two are integrated fairly well, but it's hard to care too much when most of them are too poorly defined to command the reader's attention. After reading this, I can't help but get the feeling that Hatori didn't really have a plan for this series beyond the first chapter or two. As such, she too is simply throwing things together in a rush as others demand it. It's just a shame that the end result still ends up feeling like a bit of a mess.
At least Hatori's art maintains its high quality. Unlike her last couple of series, she doesn't recycle any character designs here. There's a pretty even blend of men and women here and they are all attractive, well-dressed and unique. That being said, the standout one is (once again) Ryuji. In a sea of (mostly) blondes, his dark, mid-length wavy hair makes him stand out and I'd be lying if I said that he wasn't kind of attractive. In comparison, Ranmaru's pale, tousled hair and generic good looks makes him look like countless other shoujo dudes even if that's kind of the point to some degree.
Of course, this is meant to be something of a comedy and that's always been Hatori's greatest talent. She's great at drawing wild expressions without necessarily sacrificing the beauty of her characters and that's in full force here. She's also prone to packing her panels with gags, be in the form of side conversations, someone's ridiculous imagination, or just a lot of flailing about. This was true for Ouran, and it's still true for Behind the Scenes!!. In lesser hands this might come off as chaotic, but Hatori knows when to slow things down visually with a simple close-up or some panorama of the club's fine work. Thus, the busy moments never lose their comedic impact and the manga remains easy to follow.
Behind the Scenes!! looks great, but it lacks the kind of verve and focus it needs to become something truly special. It has its charms, but it's not going to replace Ouran in the minds and hearts of manga readers any time soon.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 4 volumes available. 3 volumes have been published and are currently in print.