Understanding the Genre: Harem Hoedown

Ah the harem genre, famously considered the worst genre in all of anime.  Or is it?  Well yes and no, while a lot of people like to lump all harem shows together I tend to take a different view.  As someone who has watched more harem shows than I probably should have, I think it’s time to fight against some of the common conceptions of the harem genre, and I’ll include reverse-harems too.  There will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s start by dialing the clock back to the mid and late 2000’s and talking about what harem shows used to be, and then how they compare to what they are now.  Back in the day all harem shows were ecchi, romcoms.  They had one guy, lots of girls and usually it would take the entire show for the guy to decide which girl he wanted, and the ending would be when the couple got together.  There are plenty of exceptions of course, perhaps most famously To Love-Ru, where the guy never does end up picking his best girl.  But the one of the most notable differences between harem shows then and harem shows now is the main guy.  In the mid and late 2000’s the main guy was almost uniformly a wimpy, useless nice guy.  The only major exception that comes to mind is Zero no Tsukaima, which more closely resembles a lot of modern harem shows but we’ll get to that later.  The point is that the majority of harem anime in the mid to late 2000’s followed a pretty strict formula, they were all ecchi romcoms, they almost all had useless wimpy male leads, and they were split 50-50 or 60-40 between shows where the guy ended up with a girl and shows where the guy doesn’t end up with one.  So what’s the difference between harem shows then and harem shows now?

The biggest difference is that modern harem shows have very clearly split into two different sub-genres.  For the sake of convenience I’ll be calling them the “light novel harem” and the “new harem.”  Contrary to it’s name I don’t mean any harem adapted from a light novel when I say light novel harem, instead I’m talking about the kinds of harem shows that are copy pasted in so many fucking light novel shows.  Back in my Raging Rant about male power fantasy-based SAO clones, I said that a lot of the worst harem shows come from these kinds of light novel adaptations.  Part that has to do with how terrible these light novel are in general but I’ve gone into detail about that before.  The point is that the light novel harem shows closely resemble Zero no Tsukaima, where the girls fell for the male lead one after the other and the male lead had this special power that made him the strongest fighter in the show.  There are however two major differences between most light novel harems and Zero no Tsukaima, one, that light novel harems usually aren’t as funny because they put less emphasis on comedy and more on action, and, two, that most light novel harem leads usually don’t end up picking any of the girls because they care more about pandering and fanservice than actually making a romance story that works out.  I mean Zero no Tsukaima had plenty of fanservice, and usually better fanservice than the modern light novel harem at that, but it a least still told an actual romance story by the end.  Light novel harem shows suck at telling stories because they just want to appeal to male power fantasy and make easy money off stupid teenagers who have no idea how to distinguish quality shows from shows which pander to them specifically.  Anyway, moving onto the new harem.

New harem shows more closely follow the typical harem structure from the mid to late 2000’s.  Monster Musume for example pretty clearly falls into the traditional harem model.  However there are some noticeable differences, mainly that new harem shows are getting a hell of a lot better than their traditional counterparts.  Monster Musume is a pretty popular harem show that people love, and I love it too, but I think’s a pretty humble example of what new harem shows are capable of.  Setting aside the obvious visual upgrades new harems have, I think the writing has started getting better.  In Monster Musume the girls had slightly more complex characters than their traditional counterparts, for example.  But for my money the best new harem shows are Akatsuki no Yona (told you I’d get to reverse-harems) and Date A Live.  Akatsuki no Yona in particular flies in the face of all the negative stereotypes of the harem/reverse harem genre.  It had minimal fanservice or manservice, it had a gripping narrative, it had some kick ass action scenes, it built a believeable fantasy world and it had great characters.  It was a reverse harem that was actually one of the best written shows of it’s season and just one of the better written anime shows in general.  Akatsuki no Yona proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that harem/reverse harem shows can be genuinely good, while still being harem/reverse harem shows.

Date A Live on the other hand was not nearly as good as Akatsuki no Yona but it’s still a good show despite sticking much closer to, ecchi, romcom, fanservice romps that harem shows are known for.  I think Date A Live strikes a good balance as a show which is still clearly in the tradition of the older harem shows, but also is improving that old formula.  There’s definitely fanservice scenes and old nods to the typical gags of traditional harem shows, like the guy or girl walking in on the other in bath, but while that stuff is usually annoying I forgive it in Date A Live based on the fact it serves the plot.  Yes Date A Live has a plot, and no it’s not like Nisekoi or something where the plot is truly threadbare and the real point of the show is just to have fanservice.  In Date A Live all of the relevant girls are Spirits and each of them has the potential to do, or has already done, tons of damage to the world either by killing humans willingly or by the disasters they cause just by coming to Earth.  The main guy, Shido seems to fall into the archetype of wimpy, useless nice guy, he is only useful to the story because he can seal the Spirit’s powers, which he can only do after dating them and kissing them.  Trust me, it makes for a better story than I’m making it sound. However in season 2, the plot advances quite a bit, new enemies appear on the horizon, there is suddenly a lot more potential for darker and more serious episodes to come, and Shido actually levels up his own powers and goes full on badass near the end.  In addition to a plot and characters that are actually going somewhere, Date A Live brings some interesting technology, superpowers and action to the table, though the animation of these scenes is pretty uneven, with some looking great and others looking like they skimped on the animation to save money.  The Spirits have incredible designs though.  When I look at Date A Live I see a show that takes the old style of harem show and gives it a boost, it builds on the foundation, bringing new kinds of scenes and storytelling to the harem formula while still retaining some of the more enjoyable aspects older ecchi romcom shows had to offer, to make a show that objectively is only decent but something I love nonetheless.

So what’s going on here?  If the harem genre is so famous for being bad, and many harem shows are still quite terrible, how can it be improving too?  There’s a couple reasons.  One, the harem genre has acquired a bad name for several reasons.  A lot of the older harem shows suffered from being so similar to each other, as well as just being badly written.  Because back in the day, harem shows were the cheaply produced, easy money makers of the anime industry.  And because of all the bad harem shows of the past, the genre has gotten a bad reputation.  However, in the past few years traditional harem shows have stopped being the cheap, easy money makers of the anime industry, that role has been passed onto to light novel adaptations like the Asterisk War or the current season’s Hundred.  And as noted above, a lot of shitty light novels have a harem in their template.  You see harem shows still are the cheap, easy money makers of the anime industry, but now it’s the light novel harems that fill that role.  This might seem like I’m splitting hairs here but there is an important take away from all of this, yes light novel harems are perpetuating the idea that harem shows are the garbage bin of anime, but the same is not true of new harem shows.  This isn’t to say new harem shows can’t be bad, the current season’s Netoge no Yome wa Onnanoko ja Nai to Omotta is a fine example of a terrible new harem show, though I think has more to with the fact that the main premise is dated back to the mid and late 2000’s like a traditional harem show more than anything else.  But if you pay attention to you might notice that new harem shows have been getting a pretty good reception compared to their light novel counterparts.  Akatsuki no Yona, Monster Musume, Yamada-kun and the 7 Witches, Outbreak Company and even Nisekoi, which is never going anywhere and is therefore boring, got a lot of positive attention in the anime community.  Hell if my memory is working correctly Nisekoi wasn’t viewed in a particularly negative light until the shitty second season, or maybe after it became common knowledge that the manga was going nowhere fast.

The point I’m trying to make here is that as the harem genre evolves, the old reputation the genre is stuck with is not helpful anymore.  Sure there are still shitty harem shows, and if you never found any of the calling cards of the genre appealing you probably still won’t find much on offer (though Akatsuki no Yona proves there is in fact things on offer for those who aren’t into fanservice), however I think it’s time for the anime community at large to stop writing off the harem genre entirely as it has been wont to do for years now.  If you still really want to shit on harem shows, then shit on the bad ones, don’t lump the good and bad together and declare them equally terrible.  In a similar fashion I think now is a good time for people who have been wary about the genre, either because of it’s reputation or prior experience, to consider giving the new harem shows a shot.  Because there are genuinely good shows out there, shows which bring interesting things to the table.  In my experience, new harem shows can actually be rather creative, funny, interesting and refreshing.  Back when Monster Musume was wrapping up that’s how I described the show, refreshing, and while at the time I was comparing it to all the older harem shows I’d seen, I have since started looking at it on a larger scale.  Harem shows used to feel so stale and boring and generic because it was the safe bet, so many of them were made the same way, because that’s what the audience kept buying.  Now the audience is buying tons of shitty light novel adaptations.  Now for the first time in about a decade, harem shows have the freedom to try and be something new, to push the boundaries of what the genre is capable of and create a new identity for itself.  For the first time in a decade, harem shows can cast off so much of the baggage that has been weighing the genre down.  If the genre itself has shed the baggage why should we the audience be held back by the same baggage?

If anything, we should be paying more attention to harem shows more than ever.  It’s not often that we get to see major cultural shifts in any medium, getting to see where new harem shows will end up is interesting by itself.  But I think it’s also a chance improve the standards of the harem genre.  For now shitty light novel adaptations have the spotlight when it comes to audiences making money, but that will pass, probably in a few years.  You can make money off generic copy-pastes of popular anime but that’s basically just capitalizing on a fad and fads are by their very nature temporary, and mindless fanboys will eat up a lot of shitty anime but even they get tired of eating shit eventually.  Alternatively the fanbase might just outgrow the fad as they get older, and if the rest of the communtiy gives the fad a bad reputation, it might be poisoned for incoming fans and its success will vanish; you know, like what happened to the harem genre.  But if we the anime community support good new harem shows like Monster Musume and Akatsuki no Yona, and stop supporting shows like the current season’s Netoge no Yome wa Onnanoko ja Nai to Omotta, then maybe, just maybe, we can force creators of harem shows to raise the bar.  Because new harems have the ability to be less niche than their counterparts.  All harem shows are niche shows to some extent but light novel harems and traditional harems are specifically designed to tap what is considered the largest customer base for anime, teenage boys (or in the case of reverse harems, teenage girls), and to not worry about appealing to anyone else.  New harem shows can still appeal to the same audience, but without the same kind of backing that the light novel harems have from the business side of the industry, and based on how much more frequently light novel harems are made compared to new harems I would say light novel harems have a quite a bit more backing, new harem shows should be more open to trying to grab new audiences in order to stay successful.  This is part of why I think new harem shows are improving, they have to if they want to survive, they can’t just stick to the same tired trends or even exploit the popular new trends and reach the same success that light novel harems do.

By upping their game and appealing to another crowd, and I hate the reverse harem genre but I love Akatsuki no Yona so it is quite doable, new harem shows have a chance to reinvent the harem genre, or at least to officiate the birth of a different type of harem show, one without the bad reputation the harem genre has.  And as far as I’m concerned I think new harem shows are succeeding in this endeavor insofar as they are upping their game; obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this.  So weird as this may sound out of context, I think harem shows are going to be worth paying attention beyond a personal want for fanservice and/or the desire for fap material.  It will probably take a long time for the harem genre to lose it’s bad reputation or for the genre to get split into separate categories on an official, community-wide basis, however there are good shows in the genre coming out now, and their success or failure will have a hand in determining the kind of stories, gags, fanservice and culture of future harem shows.  Now is the time to show support for the good harem shows, be they new harems or light novel harems, because as much as I shit on light novel harems there are a couple I have enjoyed, but this especially applies to new harem shows because light novel harems are super popular regardless of quality at the moment.  Right now new harems are showing more creativity and artistry than a lot of light novel adaptations across all genres, and that creativity and artistry deserves to be celebrated and deserves to succeed.  So I ask you, out there on the internet, to kindly consider paying more attention to the harem genre and giving support to the shows which you feel deserve it.  Thank you for reading and I do hope you enjoyed it, see you in the next one.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding the Genre: Harem Hoedown

  1. I’m neither for or against harem’s but I do need there to be an actual story to pull things together and something that resembles character development to stay interested. Most harems have traditionally missed both of these marks but you are right in that some do manage to do both. Thanks for sharing your views.

    Like

    • You are absolutely right, a lot of harem shows don’t have a plot to speak of and substitute fanservice for character development, and those are certainly the biggest weaknesses the genre has. And it’s because of how common those weaknesses are in harem shows, that I feel we should support and/or celebrate harem shows that break the mold and do go out of their way to tell a story and spend time developing characters. Thanks for weighing in on the topic.

      Liked by 1 person

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