Wednesday, March 27, 2019

harem ハーレム

WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In anime and manga, harem is a genre where one male protagonist surrounded by a cast of mostly girls and potential romantic interests. It also refers to any such scenario.

ハーレム
Anime: Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic, マギ (Episode 18)

The term reverse-harem, or gyaku-harem, refers to the opposite scenario: a girl surrounded by guys.

In Japanese

The Japanese term for the harem genre is hareemu ハーレム, a katakanization of the Arabic word ḥarīm.
アイドルとか復活させまくれば夢のハーレム!!
ハーレムってなに??
あぁーごめん
子供はまだしらなくていいんだ~~
Manga: Dr. Stone, ドクターストーン (Chapter 24)
  • aidoru toka
    fukkatsu
    sasemakureba

    アイドルとか復活させまくれば
    If [you] revive a lot of idols, and so on.
  • yume no haaremu!!
    夢のハーレム!!
    It's the harem of [one's] dreams!!
  • haaremu tte nani??
    ハーレムってなに??
    What's a "harem"??
  • aa-- gomen
    あぁーごめん
    Aah, sorry.
  • kodomo wa mada shiranakute ii-n-da~~
    子供はまだ知らなくていいんだ~
    Children, still not understanding is okay.
    It's fine if [you, who is] a child doesn't understand it yet.

Definition

The harem genre is defined simply by the fact that you have one male main character surrounded by girls. Sometimes these girls are romantic interests, but there are cases they are not. Sometimes you have multiple male characters, sometimes, only one.

Besides this, there are other things that help define the genre. Mostly: the girls.

Girls

In order to understand the harem genre in anime, we have to understand who's responsible for the birth of this abomination: the otaku and moe culture.

Even before the moe boom, there were harem anime, like Tenchi Muyou! 天地無用!, but the modern harem genre of the last two decades is mostly the otaku's fault.

In plot-driven anime, care is sometimes taken to have a non-skewed gender ratio. For example, in Cowboy Bepop, Edward was originally supposed to be a boy, but if that were the case, the four characters would become three guys and one girl. In order to avoid that situation, Edward was changed into a girl.

What would be, then, a reason to make a cast composed mostly entirely of girls? Well, obviously, it's to have more girls in it. But why, in kamisama's name, would you need so many girls???

As the moe culture developed, the number of tropes and moe attributes associated with characters grew ridiculously.

At first, the fictional attributes were grounded on real-life equivalents, like oppai おっぱい. You had a girl who has large breasts, because some guys like large breasts, and one girl who had a flatter chest, because some guys are into that.

And there was a girl who was older, a senpai, or a girl that was younger, a kouhai. And then there were the older oneesan, and the younger lolis. The girls that had twintails, and those that had ahoge. And those that were the most "pretty girls" around, the bishoujo.

Then there were girls that were pure otome, rich ojousama, rotten fujoshi, gaudy gyaru, nerdy otaku, delusional chuunibyou, assertive nikushokukei, or masochistic or sadistic do-M or do-S, or tsundere, kuudere, yandere, or that exposed the skin of their thighs between their mini-skirt and knee-high socks: zettai ryouiki.

As more anime were made, the otaku found the most weirdly specific stuff to like about the characters. So much stuff that a normal anime can't contain all of it. Thus, the harem genre was born: an attempt to pack as many niches as possible into a single series.

Harem anime are like an all-you-can-eat-buffet. There's all sorts of stuff. It's a jack of all trades and master of none. This isn't only why it exists, but also why harem anime sucks in general.

You see, before stuff like zettai ryouiki was a thing, nobody could specifically aim at designing a character with zettai ryouiki, because it wasn't a thing yet. Therefore, characters were designed, and after the fact people would say: this character had a zettai ryouiki.

With harem anime, the natural order of things is reversed. The author doesn't make a character that behaves in a way which you can analyze as a tsundere in some way. The author deliberately designs the character as a tsundere, for no reason other than: every harem must have a tsundere.

It doesn't matter how out of place a tsundere character is in the series. There must be a tsundere character for the sole reason of covering as many niches as possible. And there must not be two tsundere characters, oh no! Each harem gets one, and only one, tsundere.

That's the same reason some battle harem anime eventually come up with a hundred-years old loli goddess or something like that. A loli doesn't fit in your battle anime, unless she's immortal, then it makes complete sense.

The Guy

In a harem anime, the guy doesn't matter.

After all, the anime is about the girls. Consequently, harem anime is placed in the contradictory situation where the main character, the protagonist, is also the least important character of all.

Many harem anime are inspired by dating sims, where the protagonist is nothing more than a proxy for the player. Just like how in Legend of Zelda and Half Life the protagonist doesn't talk, in dating sims the protagonist doesn't have a personality.

Because if the protagonist had a personality, and that personality was at odds with the personality of the player, that would break their immersion. For example, if the protagonist loved pineapple pizza, most people wouldn't be able to relate to him.

If the player can't self-insert into the protagonist, the player can't think it's themselves dating the girls, so the whole premise of a dating sim falls apart.

Due to this, the protagonist of dating sims and harem anime alike must appeal to the lowest common denominator. He can't hold any opinion whatsoever about any matter at all.

He has no hobbies, no talents, and absolutely nothing particularly interesting and special about themselves, except maybe a dark, tragic past, or the fact they've suddenly won the lottery, or just happened to be the grandson of a billionaire, or something like that.

In isekai anime, the generic background is often just being extremely overpowered for no apparent reason.

The harem protagonist is a generically nice guy. He never says no to what girls want of him. He's an yes-man. But he always says no to evil. Because evil is bad. He white-knights and saves damsels in distress, because that's as generic as he could be, and the average person will be fine with that.

Romance

Romance in harem anime is every sort of bad imaginable.

The entire premise is set to fail right from the beginning. The majority of people aren't alright with a polygamy: you have one wife, just one, not two. Just one girlfriend, not two. You can't have nine girlfriends just because there are nine girls interested in you. You have to choose one.

The plot is already dramatic enough when there's a love triangle, if there's love dodecahedron everything just becomes way, way worse.

Let's start with the logistics of it.

So you're saying there's at least five different girls interested in you. They're all gorgeous, and interesting. Everyone is girlfriend potential.

First question: why don't they have boyfriends?

Because if they're so good, why don't they have a guy already? It's just statistically odd for you to find a group of five girls among which not a single one of them have a boyfriend. Or ever had a boyfriend. And to make matters worse, they're somehow all interested into the same guy.

Second question: why are they even interested into that guy?

As we've discussed already, the harem protagonist has the personality of a banana peel. He's a worthless character whose hair is short and black, and might or mightn't have eyes, and that's about it. Why are all these girls interested in him?

Now there's actually one way to answer both of these questions: he's the only guy around. That explains why they don't have a boyfriend, there are no boys around to friend with. That also explains why they're all so interested into him: he's the only boy around.

Under what extraordinary circumstances could something so absurd possibly be true? Leave it to manga authors to answer.

There's this all-girls school. They've just become a co-ed school. The protagonist is one of the few guys to enroll that all-girls school. So he's one of the few guys around a bunch of girls. This is, unironically, the plot of:
  • Busou Shoujo Machiavellianism
    武装少女マキャヴェリズム
    Where the girls are all armed with swords, and the guys have been turned into girls, except for the protagonist, who refuses to let that happen.
  • Infinite Stratos.
    Where only girls can pilot mechas, except for that one guy, the protagonist.
  • Saijaku Muhai no Bahamut
    最弱無敗の神装機竜《バハムート》
    This anime features a canonical womb tattoo. That's all you need to know to understand the depths of its trashiness.
  • Ore ga Ojousama Gakkou ni "Shomin Sample" Toshite Gets Sareta Ken
    俺がお嬢様学校に『庶民サンプル』としてゲッツされた件
    A commoner ends up in an all-rich-girls school.
  • Ladies versus Butlers
    (basically the same thing.)

With isekai anime the plot is even shallower than that. The protagonist's harem is composed mostly of girls he has saved due to his unfounded overpowered magic spells or sword skills or whatever. It's just Stockholm syndrome all the way through.

In particular, such fantasy anime always have a character that's a slave, or servant, or demi-human, or elf, or half-elf, etc. that's ostracized by society, but not by the protagonist who isn't from that world, and then they mistake that for "being a special guy who doesn't hate me like everybody else.".

Friends

Looking at things from another angle, it's also extremely weird for the protagonist to hang around with girls, exclusively.

It's even more weird for a grown-up dude to hang around with only little girls for 20 episodes, by the way. (see: Shieldbro.)

Authors, realizing this, have developed a way to pretend the harem setting is more realistic than it actually is. It's called: the token male friend.

The token male friend is a character who somehow surpasses the main character in worthlessness. Not only is he male in an anime that's really only about girls, he's also not even the main character. His chances of getting a girl are less than nil.

His existence's only purpose is to make the protagonist less creepy. He does have male friends after all.

However, given they're not popular, authors have come up with ways to make the token male character less useless over time.

For example, some anime made the token male character gay. Because why not? You already got all these girls into the protagonist, why not have guys into the protagonist, as well?

This is actually the less popular choice. Because guys liking guys is gay, and gay has too many guys in it. That's not popular. Obviously, the correct, more popular choice, is to make the token male character a girl. In other words: a trap. Because that's totally not gay anymore.

Plot

The plot of harem anime ranges from battle, to slice of life, to comedy. Since the anime is more about the girls than anything else, the plot generally doesn't matter, and it's all more about fanservice and accidentally seeing things that shouldn't be seen.

This is a serious warning. If you're expecting anything good to come out of a harem anime story-wise, I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry. It's not going to happen, bro. This is all about the girls. If you like the girls you'll enjoy it, otherwise you'll be gravely disappointed.

Since the focus of harem anime is the harem, it tends to have an inconsequential and sometimes funny story that you can just ignore most of the time. The story is its weak point.

But that's not all. As we've reached the end of the article, it's time to disclose the real reason harem anime sucks: there's a guy in it.

As the token trap friend proves, harem anime is just better when there's less guys and more girls. So why have a guy at all?

Having a guy around forces romantic relationships where there shouldn't be any. The guy is the single common point joining a bunch of random girls that should have nothing to do with each other. They must be interested in him for some reason in order to be connected to the story.

Most of the problems of harem anime can be traced back at the existence of the guy.

All the crass fanservice and white-knighting found in harem anime is due to the guy existing.

For example, if you want to show girls changing clothes in the locker room, but the protagonist is a guy, he couldn't be in the locker room with them, so he must be outside the locker room, peeking, in order for the audience to see what's happening. That's crass.

On the other hand, if the protagonist was a girl, there would be no need for such peeking. It's less crass. It's still pretty crass as an anime, but at least there's no perverted character in the anime itself anymore.

The genre of anime that consists exclusively of girls is called CGDCT, or Cute Girls Doing Cute Things. It's objectively superior to harem anime in every possible way. After all, nobody cares about the guy, and nobody minds if he's just gone.

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