February 8, 2016

MANGA MONDAYS | Anime Romance 101: How to Harem

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When you think of a harem anime, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? I’d be willing to bet that, for most people, it’s something like Clannad (or maybe Moster Musume if you’re into that kind of thing). Of all the genres out there, I think this one is criticized more than any other.

And with good reason, I might add. Harem shows tend to abuse tropes and character archetypes much more than other genres while failing to apply any interesting development to those archetypes. After all, with a harem show, it’s much more important to have the male lead accidentally cop a feel than it is to develop an actual love interest. Moreover, harem anime are often seen as a sort of Mary Sue fantasy for viewers. To this end, harem protagonists are often extremely shallow and poorly characterized, allowing the viewer to easily project onto them. Not that this should be a surprise, considering that most harem anime are adapted from eroge, in which the main character is unnamed and unvoiced to give the player a more first person experience.

Worst of all, however, is the consistent lack of any progression in the romantic subplots hinted at involving each and every harem member (admittedly, anime with simple love triangles are routinely guilty of this as well). The end result is quite often an unsatisfying, lukewarm anime that struggles through a few ecchi jokes a season and ultimately goes nowhere. This criticism isn’t just from anime watchers, either. It is apparent in a variety of shows that attempt to parody (Is This a Zombie?) or deconstruct (School Days) the genre.

Photo Courtesy of Studio Shaft

But I’m not here just to talk about how stagnant the harem trope is as a whole. I’m also here to talk about what I think it means to do it right. Of course, there are stereotypical harems like Clannad and Nisekoi, which are widely popular simply because they are excellent for a number of reasons: being emotionally resonant for many viewers (Clannad) and including character expressions that generate memes at an unprecedented rate (Nisekoi).

However, I also want to direct attention to a somewhat less popular subgenre: the reverse harem (that is, a harem with a girl as the focal point). I get a lot of weird looks when I tell people how much I like reverse harems, but hear me out. Because the genre incorporates many shoujo tropes, reverse harems are often able to present romantic themes more delicately than their traditionally shounen counterparts. I suppose that this might just be my inherent dislike of shounen as a whole showing through, but in my experience, reverse harem anime tend to spend more time on developing character relationships and personalities rather than just having the main character cop a feel or accidentally get a panty shot.

Photo Courtesy of Studio Bones

The example I point you all to as proof is the classic Ouran Highschool Host Club. You’ll notice that I actually linked to Funimation’s site just now. That’s how much I want you to watch this anime – immediately. Not only does it show just how great harems could be as a genre (romantically and comedically), but it also has a number of great messages about gender identity and being yourself. In essence, my point is that the harem genre is not inherently shallow and perverted. It’s a great way to tell a story if used correctly.

For anyone interested, here’s a list of good reverse harem anime to check out.

Michael Mauer is a sophomore in the college of Arts and Sciences majoring in Computer Science. His favorite anime is Neon Genesis Evangelion and he never leaves home without his Homura Akemi necklace. He can be reached at [email protected]. Alternatively, just hunt him down on Facebook or Google+.