A young and very ordinary young man who has had bad luck or is completely lacking in charm in the realm of the fairer sex suddenly becomes the focus of many beautiful women, be they childhood friends, schoolmates, or literal aliens. Weird and / or destructive love battles arise, especially when some – or all – of these women are overwhelming. Our main protagonist gains an enthusiastic, if somewhat dysfunctional, family unit and can be content with random peek shows and accidentally crash headlong into numerous necklines.
This is the abbreviated version of most harem anime out there, especially before 2010, and these types of shows have become such a core genre of the medium that no season seems to go without the introduction of a new title or two.
A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the term: in general, the harem genre is shaped by a teenage male protagonist who, through a twist of fate, surrounds himself with three or more attractive ones – and, either instantly or eventually, romantically desired – finds women. Many harem shows remain vague until the end of the series as to which of these women the male character is most interested in, provided that a choice is made at all. In such cases, the shows tend to open-ended or imply that the protagonist chose to stay single to save someone embarrassment or heartache.
Alternatively, a harem title can almost instantly limit focus to a single member of the female cast, making the viewer at least tacitly aware of the canonical choice. The secondary women then exist to provide comic or dramatic story arcs, misunderstandings galore, and other subplots to keep the narrative moving – along with a healthy dose of fan service, of course.
When the reverse pattern occurs, in which a main female character is mistakenly surrounded by three or more attractive men, it is known as the reverse harem. As you’d expect, most harem and reverse harem titles are pretty lighthearted and humourously confident especially nowadays, although they can be more dramatic emotional or even quite somber at times.
It is important to note that the word “harem” in relation to the anime and manga genre, like many other anime-specific terms, was created by western fans of the medium. In Japan, these titles are usually just referred to as “love comedies”. As such, the term is relatively new and was only introduced in the 1990s thanks to the great success of the Tenchi Muyo! Series in the US However, the history of the genre itself, as we understand it, came into being with the release of the Urusei Yatsura (Those disgusting aliens) Manga in the 1970s. The anime adaptation of the title comprised 195 episodes that aired from 1981 to 1986, as well as six films and 12 OVAs, and was released not only in Japan but later in countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, France and of course us
The history of Urusei Yatsura follows Ataru, a high school student whose only notable talent is hunting the ladies. When a group of aliens invade Earth, they play a game to determine the fate of the planet: If a randomly chosen human (who turns out to be Ataru, of course) is able to defeat his champion in a day game, the invasion is canceled. If he wins, Ataru’s childhood friend Shinobu promises that she will marry him. During the game, Ataru manages to steal Lum’s bikini top and get her to fly at him to get it back. Ataru catches her and shouts triumphantly: “Now I can finally marry her!” Misunderstood as a suggestion, Lum accepts on the spot and moves in with him immediately.
From then on, the story of Ataru and Lum continues while various attractive aliens try to steal Ataru from Lum or vice versa. the Urusei Yatsura Anime became immensely popular – in fact, it was the first title to inspire fan-written translations – and was essentially responsible for creating the basic structure of almost every harem anime that followed.
In the early 1990s, the modern day bishoujo (literally “beautiful girl”) game was developed, the most notable sub-genre of which is Ren’ai video games – better known outside of Japan as dating sims, where the official goal is usually to the romantic affections of a single female character at the player’s choice from the half-dozen or so available. These types of games often served as the basis for many harem anime titles, and continue to do so today, including those like Sakura wars, Mix! and Rumbling hearts. They also heavily influenced the concept of the next major milestone in harem anime history: Tenchi Muyo!.
Like the bishoujo games of the time, the first Tenchi OVA, which debuted in 1992, was clearly intended for a young male audience. The now proven concept of a male protagonist surrounded by a bevy of attractive women had really caught on, and indeed Urusei Yatsura introduced the original framework for the anime genre, it was Tenchi that popularized it. The series also helped pave the way for the later success of many similar titles, such as: Saber puppet, Mars successor Nadesico, Maid may, Steel Angel Kurumi, Dear Hina, and canon. This type of harem titles became particularly popular abroad, with Oh My Goddess! (1998-99) and Dear Hina (2000), for example, attracted a lot of mainstream attention.
Still, it’s safe to say that despite the continued popularity of harem titles, the general perception of the genre among numerous anime fans, at least outside of Japan, is often not particularly favorable. It has been heavily criticized for its ongoing fan service, and as a result, is often shunned as sexist and objectifying by many viewers – and while not every televised harem series is reduced to that single selling point, some manage to be truly offensive.
For example 2004 Dear S. revolves around a high school boy named Takeya and his self-proclaimed alien slave Ren. The anime also features a teacher who likes to stretch out on her desk during class while wearing only lingerie, and a series of competitions between Ren and another alien, mostly centered around cooking and various other household chores.
Besides that, Dear S. and similar titles are by no means representative of all harem anime out there. While a large number of harem titles lack named outside of the lead male characters, this may be as much an attempt to control the size of the normally already large cast as anything else. Meanwhile, a large cast, consisting mostly of young women to begin with, maximizes the chance of serving any viewer, not just those looking for huge breasts or scantily clad aliens.
It’s also important to note that for most of the titles that make the canonical pair visible from the start, any strong sexual or romantic interest on the part of the male lead is centered on that single character – in other words, he’s not likely that he regards the entire group as his sexual prey, provided his personality is at all assertive. Much more often, the lead actor – who is commonly portrayed as shy, humble, or just plain boring – feels confused, intimidated, or even irritated by the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Additionally, many, if not most, reverse harems, aimed primarily at young women rather than men, include their own fair share of cookie characters, fan service, and other stereotypes associated with the genre. At the very least, certain criticisms seem to be quite hypocritical from viewers who find harem anime intrinsically more ridiculous, oversexualized, or offensive than their pretty-boy-centered counterparts. from Fushigi Yuugi to Fruit basket, Hakuouki to Yona the Dawn, Ouran High School Host Club to Uta not a prince-sama, amnesia to Devilish loversTo name a few, there is certainly no shortage of reverse harem titles.
Last but not least, the prevailing assumption among some viewers is that all harem titles are comedies and are therefore somehow inferior to more serious or more complex animes. However, not every anime can or should be deeply serious business – a show doesn’t have to be on the same philosophical level as, say, Evangelion to be considered good or pleasant.
In any case, while perhaps not as common as their comedic equivalents, there are relatively serious harem anime that draw on socially relevant drama, downright romance, or even entirely somber thematic elements. Oh My Goddess!, Ai Yori Aoshi, Elf song, canon, Mix! and Clannad are all good examples of this. In short, there is sometimes more of harem anime that catch the eye, and not every title relies on tired fan service or slapstick comedy to sell a compelling or touching story.
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