There is an episode of Extra Credit, a web series about video game development, that discussed the idea that game genres should be separated by what fantasy they’re trying to evoke. I bring this up because this is probably how I’d rather separate the various genres of anime. Anime, as a medium and as a generalization with exceptions, tends to be escapist stories and are generally about showing various fantasies that the viewer can live vicariously through (if you’ve ever wondered why many anime protagonists are very milquetoast and bland compared to the supporting cast, that’s actually why).
With that description, I’d like to take this editorial to talk about a genre that tends to be wildly mischaracterized, with an absurd amount of baggage that comes with it and most recommendations for these series being preempted with a laundry list of caveats: harem anime.
This is a genre that has given me no small amount of difficulty understanding (for starters, I thought me liking anime was weird because almost everyone I knew before high school who liked anime was a girl, and then we get into how much of a pretentious prick I was in high school, so this genre was never going to be liked by me then). It’s a simple genre (well, more a premise, but a premise repeated often enough to become a genre), but it’s one which is returned to so frequently, and will make money (for obvious reasons), but tends to be reviled outside of the circle of harem fans. It tends to be marketed in incredibly pandering ways, but will very rarely look like the type of series you’d gladly show to a checkout clerk to purchase. They tend to be the shows with the laziest writing, but their characters will NEVER GO AWAY! Just what is it that makes this genre tick?
Well, going back to the fantasy angle, we should first try to explain what the harem genre is (just as a quick disclaimer, this will only be discussing traditional harem anime, reverse harems will not be covered, although I do invite someone with more experience with that to do an article on it). Well, in terms of the fantasy it’s trying to convey, in the simplest term possible, it’s the idea of a guy being a chick magnet. It’s a well-treaded idea in western media, especially if you look at the fact that one of the longest running film franchises in history is about a man whose entire existence is predicated on being a power fantasy of drinking fine drinks, driving cool cars, using cool gadgets, and bedding many beautiful women.
So, if this fantasy is one shared with the west, why does the west tend not to really embrace harem series the way Japanese audiences do? Well, it’s because of presentation. I brought up James Bond as an example of this fantasy in western media, but there is one distinct difference between the 007 series and, say, Heaven’s Lost Property: the prominence of the women involved. James Bond beds many women over the 24 films made, but they almost never recur and are not really given much in the way of characterization. They’re props to reinforce how awesome Mr. Bond is. Each film, he beds a woman, meets his next girl Friday, then ends the dilm doing her. The first woman is usually killed in the film and the later one is never seen again.
Harem anime, in contrast, actually focuses more on the characterization of the girls and usually involves them making a presence in the lead’s life. They’re less props to make the lead feel awesome and more a group of people who are usually making the lead’s life more exciting, but also much more difficult.
You see, harem anime tries to show the fantasy of being irresistible to women, but it rarely goes into the full-on “and everything was awesome and I had no problems and had lots of awesome sex” direction (hell, sex is very rarely, if at all, brought up in the shows themselves, but that is more due to other factors). Usually, the girls in a harem series tend to become attached at the hip to the lead, sometimes even living with him (and since the doors in Japan lack locks, that’s why this genre is so rife with “uh-oh, I accidentally saw this girl in a state of undress). The girls, usually, are competitive for the lead, so the atmosphere is usually somewhat stressed. And usually, the character in these series given the least characterization is the lead.
Yeah, the male lead in harem shows are usually the weakest aspect of these shows (unless the series is an action harem series like Sword Art Online or A Certain Magical Index, which usually tends to more resemble the James Bond fantasy of the girls being there to show how amazing and cool the protagonist is). In most harem anime, the lead is kind of bland and a blank slate (hell, one of the most successful ones take this to an extreme and make it work in a way I wasn’t expecting). Again, this is usually by design (trust me, you generally don’t want a harem series that tries to turn their lead into a compelling character, it’s just embarrassing for all involved), since these shows are usually made for lonely otaku to imagine themselves in. While these shows can give some degree of characterization successfully (High School DxD’s Issei is given as much, if not more, characterization than the various girls in his harem, for instance), they tend to be the exception rather than the rule regarding these leads.
However, as should be very noticeable by now, the reason for this is because the focus should be on the girls (when it isn’t, again, things get bad). After all, in it’s purest essence, this is a genre about having a fantasy girlfriend and being able to vicariously live through the lead to live out the relationship. As a result, most of the actual creativity and writing prowess behind these shows are spent making these girls likable.
Notice I said likable and not fleshed-out or complex. The girls in this genre tend to be likable archetypes, with few ever growing beyond that initial starting point.
The girls in harem anime tend to fall into character archetypes more so than characters in other genres because it’s much easier to sell likability with them. As mentioned before, the harem genre is selling the fantasy of “I’m a chick magnet and can have a fantasy girlfriend”, so the importance is not on making the girls seem real, but instead to make them likable (well, likable to a group of nerds obsessed with this material who are familiar with certain story devices and know which ones appeal to them most). This is why many harem series feature girls whose personalities overlap between shows (so many tsunderes, so many punches landed upon the lead, so many declarations of “Baka”, the horror).
This, however, comes at the price of the girls being compelling characters. Since the genre is generally focused on selling the girls as fantasy girlfriends, there’s a certain level of fetishization they are given that makes it hard for an average viewer to engage with. The big difference, say, between a girl in a harem show (like, say, Rosario + Vampire’s Moka) and the lead in a more traditional romance series (say, for example, Chibi Vampire’s Karin) is that we are supposed to follow and root for Karin, hoping that she ends up with the boy in the end, while we are not expected to root for Moka, but instead imagine her as a romantic companion for the viewer (again, we don’t root for her to get with the Tskune because he’s nothing more than a vessel for us to live out this romance with her). This fetishization creates an immediate barrier that makes these shows near impenetrable to anyone besides someone who already declared who is best girl.
Alright, so we’ve gone over the concepts of the character types in harem series, but do they do anything in these shows? Well, that’s a stupid question, but the answer is yes. You see, since the genre is more a premise than anything else, writers have realized that you can take this premise in any number of directions, resulting in various plots. Sometimes, the show occurs after the male lead and the lead female return from another world and must go to a school to learn about their new powers (that awful show I keep linking to as a joke). Sometimes, it revolves around the male lead being prophesied to become the destroyer of the world. Sometimes, it’s about an alien girl who becomes accidentally betrothed to the male lead and makes his life a living hell. Sometimes, the girls are fetishized and sexy monsters (and somehow, it’s one of the bestselling manga series in the US). Sometimes, it tries to mix the harem antics with more traditional shonen action tropes (and somehow becomes the gold standard of fan service). Sometimes, it’s a regular rom com that just becomes this (and is in a mainstream magazine, and is really successful). There isn’t really a set plot they follow, they just all involve this premise of multiple girls falling for one guy.
As I mentioned before, harem series have also split into two distinct sub-genres: the harem comedy and the action harem. The former is the more traditional version and is more focused on the interplay between the girls, letting the personalities play out against each other, and making the male lead’s life a living hell. The later, by comparison, is about the girls being the catalyst for the male lead to become awesome and save the world (these two can overlap, but it these shows are usually less comedic in nature). I’ve seen that more mainstream anime audiences (read: people getting into anime, but not at “my waifu”-level) prefer the action harems, but the harem comedies have the bestselling harem manga in the US (seriously, how did this become so successful?).
Alright, so now that we have this all taken care of (as in, I’ve just described the genre), what’s my impression of the genre? What is my opinion of an entire genre that alienates many fans while fostering many creepy ones? What is my thoughts on a genre that is such easy fodder for decrying sexism and is probably only liked by guy pigs?
Well, like most genres, there are good series and bad series. While the genre can be quite bad, it’s basic idea isn’t one I object to.
My own history with the genre aside (a clueless introduction to Tenchi Muyo on TV back when I was a small child, my aforementioned pretentious period in high school, and my first harem series I knowingly watched being the one with this scene), it’s been a rocky introduction to this genre. But, on principal, if a genre exists to sell a fantasy, I won’t claim it to be a failure if I don’t like the fantasy. The harem genre is selling a fantasy (and sexy merchandise), and while I didn’t get it back then, I understand it better (and actually appreciate it, if my recent streak of harem reviews are any indication) now.
I also completely understand how this just doesn’t work for certain audiences. This is not a universal fantasy. Also, with my explorations into the genre in manga form (which is quite the goldmine of both undiscovered gems and the creepiest garbage), I’ve found some of the worst titles I’ve ever read in this genre (I’ll leave one as being a harem with the worst possible collection of girls, and it gets more explicit with it’s fan service (by the end, it borders on actual hentai) at it keeps going). So, I can understand why some people would like to avoid the potential dumpster fire that this genre can produce.
Well, now that that’s out of the way, are there any series I’d recommend to people interested in looking into this genre?
Well, you can start with Nisekoi. It’s fairly innocent and lacks many of the caveats that most of the genre has. If you want to take a start in this genre, it’s a good place to start.
For a more fan service-based series, I can recommend the earlier-mentioned High School DxD. It’s probably the one that can alienate the largest amount of people, but I can easily state that the series became the gold standard of fan service for a reason.
Third, if you want to know what the most successful one in the US currently is (and is oddly also popular with women) and don’t mind the fan service almost crossing into softcore porn, there’s Monster Musume, where every girl is a monster girl and laughably contrived nudity is way too common.
And, lastly, I’ll recommend the series that finally got the appeal of the genre to me: The World God Only Knows. The series is more of a parody of the genre (and doesn’t really have that much fan service in it), but it gets across the idea of why someone would want this fantasy better than any other series I’ve ever encountered.
The harem genre is often misunderstood as nothing but a pervert’s wildest fantasies.While that isn’t wrong, it’s a gross misrepresentation of a genre selling a fantasy that people are often still sold in other media.