Written by Anthony CockingFebruary 12, 2021
If you’ve ever browsed through the genres of anime, you may note that it’s a bit more descriptive than your usual selection. Sure, you’ve got your staples such as comedy, horror or fantasy, but alongside these are striking offshoots that catch your eye.
Some are fairly self-explanatory: mecha encapsulates the wildly popular robot-themed thrill rides that helped the medium thrive in the 80s, while magical girl features girls of the magical variety. There’s a lot more depth to them than that, obviously, but you can glean the gist of it from the get-go.
One such theme that might not instantly make sense is the one we know and love as harem. Based on the name alone, you may think that these anime aren’t for you — it sounds like it could have a lot of adult themes, and entry-level otaku need not apply.
Let’s demystify a few things, however, and delve into what makes this genre lighthearted fun, with wonderful, rich characters that you’ll soon find irresistible. The genesis of its designation stems from the fact that these anime are centred around one male lead character, surrounded by or pursued by a group of women.
In its female parallel, reverse harem, the opposite is true. The protagonist may be an unwitting participant in this circuitous game of seduction, or perhaps they’re the one instigating it; the consistent certitude is that there are far too many eligible suitors/suitresses to choose from, and yes, I’m aware that last word has not been in the English lexicon for about two hundred years.
Just accept it and let’s move on.
The first thing to establish here is that, more often than not, these are innocent pursuits of the heart; young, likeable characters who are simply trying to navigate the veritable minefield of love. At times, this can lead towards ribald encounters (remember to check the rating if you’re ever unsure!) But the closest equivalents in genre would typically be romance, comedy or slice of life.
That last one is particularly true, as harem and reverse harem series capture moments of awkward, relatable trepidation just as well as any other anime of their ilk. Could you see yourself in this situation? What life-altering choices would you make if it were up to you?
On the micro level, harem anime display sublime examples of characterisation. Often, you’ll see the familiar tropes — the aloof tsundere, the reserved dandere, and indeed, even the self-revering kamidere — but some defy definition, and really have to be seen to be believed.
Take the flamboyant, pompous and yet doting Tamaki Suou from Ouran High School Host Club. Oblivious though he may be, his charm and devotion make for a hilarious, fascinating fellow.
Or what of Haganai’s Sena Kashiwazaki? She puts up a standoffish front that hides a fragile ego and desperation for real friendship.
If the protagonist at the heart of it all is to fancy any of these characters, it stands to reason that we as audience members will find them compelling in some way, too. The more we unravel the skein of their personality types, the more we begin to understand their nuances, their flaws and their fears.
With such a vibrant range of dispositions on offer, you’re bound to discover someone you like, and who you can get behind. In this way, too, we begin to form our own kind of affinity for one particular character to win the heart of the protagonist. Would you prefer Ritsuka (Dance with Devils) have eyes for the stoic Rem, or are you more of a Shiki stan? Are you hoping Hachiman (My Teen Romantic Comedy Snafu) will break through to Yukino, or is the sweet Yui his one true love? In either case, let’s be honest, the only correct answer is Saika-kun, and you know it!!
There’s a reason why shipping is such a popular activity, and sometimes, these anime don’t even focus on romance in any way, shape or form — it just happens to be loaded with beautiful girls/boys and a whole slew of tension. These unexplored narratives really let you fill in the blanks however you see fit.
Truly, harem is a diverse and versatile genre, with a little bit of something for everyone. Whether you’re after something charming and pleasant, or you’d prefer it a little heavier on the fan service, you’ll undoubtedly locate an anime suited to your tastes, each with their own unique twist or style.
And of course, subverting expectations is a frequent concept. Stand My Heroes: Piece is Truth is deeply rooted within its otome-based origins, where every bishounen carries a startling, dark agenda. Rosario + Vampire places its protagonist in a hysterical ‘fish out of water’ situation, enrolling in a boarding school intended solely for monster students. Then there’s Trinity Seven, whose lead character just straight up decides he’ll be a mage out of pure hubris.
The fact is, there’s nothing to be fearful of when it comes to this genre. It may sound a bit daunting at first, but give it a shot; you may be surprised by how quickly it grabs your attention!