Every so often, for whatever reason, I get the desire to check out some harem anime. For a long time, it was my go-to genre, but now it’s just a passing urge. This time, I ripped through two different harem anime. First one, enjoyed it thoroughly. Great characters (immediately changed my desktop wallpaper to the one I found most moe, haha), decent story, laughs all around. The second one… Sigh. It pains me when a series exemplifies the term “harem trash”, especially considering my affinity for the genre. Because of this whiplash, I felt the need to rant a bit about the genre as a whole.
I will start with a bit of a disclaimer (maybe more of just defining the scope of the post?). While I have checked out some reverse harem series (where there is one female with her harem of male characters), it tends to work differently than a standard harem with a male lead. The tropes aren’t typically the same, and results in a different feel for the series. As such, I just want to clarify that this post is focused on male-centered harem anime, rather than including the reverse harem genre.
So I feel like the quality of this genre depends heavily on what tropes are used and how. It’s not uncommon for anime of similar genres to have similar tropes, but harem anime have a tendency to use very, umm… frustrating tropes. To make it worse, they’re used constantly, with little variance. I swear, the protagonist is always some good-natured guy who has some terrible luck (or fantastic, if accidentally groping a girl through some miraculous acrobatics and receiving her ire is considered “good”) and is denser than a brick of lead. I mean, these girls would probably have better luck hitting on a brick wall.
Another commonality across most harem is the commonality found in the female cast’s personality archetypes. It’s like the creators are just going down a checklist. Meganekko (“glasses girl” for those of you new to anime)? Check. Tough girl with a soft side? Check. Tsundere girl? Check. Osananajimi, or the “childhood friend”, character? Check. These archetypes are all very common. Occasionally, it’ll mix in another just to throw the fans off. Add in a yandere character, and it can throw off the balance of the love polygon. Sometimes, a trap character will really break the mold. But, typically, you will end up seeing similar character types across multiple harem anime.
Now, having common archetypes is not always a bad thing (these archetypes rise to prominence BECAUSE people like them), but it’s usually the lack of character development that really drives the lukewarm feelings. The characters, both male and female, tend to never really grow past their archetype definitions. The dense male lead remains dense. Tsundere character continues to hide her feelings behind anger. Childhood friend never wants to take that step and be open about her feelings. Part of this is the archetype is intended to be the driving interest for this character, to let fans of that moe have a favorite character, so to “break character” would deny those fans as much as it would be satisfying. I’m a big fan of tsundere and osananijimi characters, and seeing them cease to be that kind of character would leave me with mixed feelings. Unfortunately, this leads to another common criticism of the genre.
Have you ever noticed how most of the time, these relationships never seem to get past the flirting phase? The creators flirt (yeah, pun is intended, deal with it) with progressing these relationships, but it almost never seems to happen. Well, there’s a key thing that’s required: character development. Pair a male character that’s too oblivious to see her feelings with a tsundere girl too embarassed to make a move. As long as they’re locked into their archetypes, they’ll never move to the next step. So, by simply using these character archetypes, it basically prevents the anime from developing.
Now, this isn’t always the case, and it depends heavily on what type of harem plot is pursued. It’s largely found in the most common type, where the series has all girls being viable, but no payoff. Think the anime where all of the girls end up saying “I’m not giving up on him.” You see it all the time, and it suffers from all the issues I detailed above. These result in the birth of the expression “trash harem”. But sometimes, the harem plays out differently.
Some series take the approach of “this girl wins”. Honestly, I’m not usually a fan of these, as typically they are filled with drama and heartbreak. In fact, while the never-give-up harem anime are often paired with the “comedy” genre, these are often listed as “drama” (appropriately so). A lot of these are based on eroge or dating sims, and the conclusion follows the route where that girl is pursued in the game. To contrast, there’s another way these can be handled. Anime like Amagami SS, based on a game, takes the approach of shortening the plot to break the series up into arcs. Each arc follows the pursuit of one of the girls. This results in a shorter story for each girl, but ends with a payoff for each as well. No half-assed ending, no heartbreak. It’s debatable if this approach is really “harem”, as not all the girls are pursuing the guy at the same time, but meh.
The other approach, which is typically less common and usually paired with either sci-fi or fantasy, is the “everyone wins” or “marry them all” approach. This is the epitome of the true harem ending. I actually tend to enjoy these, as it retains the harem fantasy that the genre implies while getting to see the relationships actually BECOME relationships. Prime example of this would be the classic series Tenchi Muyo (sequels and spinoffs considered). Now, is this unrealistic? Yeah. But that’s kind of the point. It’s fiction, and it’s a fantasy that, I believe, most guys have had at one point in their life. And hey, there’s a payoff and a happy end for the whole cast.
With all of this, at the end of the day, there is no universal rule for any genre. As I mentioned to start this post, there was a series that reinvigorated my love of the genre. And, believe it or not, it was the first type of harem anime (the “not giving up” one). Despite the heavily overused tropes and character archetypes, the characters actually had some development and were generally likeable. Furthermore, there was a consistent plot outside of the love polygon, and there were some great comedic moments. I can genuinely say I enjoyed it, especially compared to the second series I watched after, where they somehow managed to make a harem series where pretty much every girl in it was the same archetype (yeah, it was as much of a drag as it sounds, though at least it was tsundere). So, don’t throw a series into the garbage bin just because it’s harem. There are some good ones out there. And if you enjoy them, that’s great, go enjoy them. Forget the haters, they can’t dictate what you enjoy.
Got a harem series that’s your absolute favorite? Shoot me an e-mail and tell me about it!