Harem Anime and Manga – Expectations vs. Reality

There are certain things that anime & manga fans tend to take in stride after following the medium for a while that, to outsiders, would probably seem ludicrous. One of these things is the existence of the “harem” genre. In anime & manga terms, a harem story refers to a romantic comedy where a boy, usually an average high school student, receives the romantic affections of several women, all of whom fall into different categories (ie. the shy one, the abrasive one, the upbeat one, the older one). The story follows the relationships between these characters and the awkward situations they find themselves in, feature at least some “fanservice” (putting the girls on display for the sexual gratification of the male viewer) and end with the most prominent girl being chosen as the “winner” – that is, if they ever end at all. Examples of the harem genre include Love Hina, following a boy who lives at an all-girls dormitory through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Nisekoi, following the heir to a Yakuza family being forced into a fake relationship with the daughter of a rival gang boss to avoid an all-out war, and To Love-Ru, following a high school student who gets married to an alien princess.

To somebody just getting into anime & manga, hearing for the first time that this description applies to so many stories is a little jarring. However, to longtime anime watchers, it’s just another genre, and a popular one at that. Harem has become so big in anime & manga that even sci-fi and fantasy shows such as A Certain Magical Index and Sword Art Online have incorporated harem plot elements, and doing so has only bolstered their popularity. With the anime & manga community now generally numb to the cliches and tropes of the harem genre, it’s easy to forget that, when looking at it’s very concept, there are a lot of issues with it, mainly the unrealistic expectations they set up in regards to how men interact with women.

On their own, these stories are relatively harmless. But, believe it or not, there are several men who take these stories as genuine guidebooks on how to get a girlfriend, and any deviation women may make from this formula is their fault. This has lead to many issues with how women are treated in the anime & manga community, as there is a clear disconnection between the expectations these shows set and the realities of speaking to the opposite sex. In order to understand this disconnect, it’s important to understand both aspects:

Expectations

toloveru

In harem stories, the man is completely passive. In fact, he is totally unaware that he is getting these girls’ attention, and gets their romantic interest by simply being placed in situations where he demonstrates his heroic or kind traits to them. This leads to an awkward dynamic as, for whatever reason, the girls are unable to communicate their feelings to him and he is incapable of picking up on them, but also implies that, in order to be successful with women, one must only wait for the opportunity to demonstrate their good points. Since these opportunities are rare if not impossible to come by in reality, this translates to the man attempting to spend as much time with the object of their affection as possible in order for the opportunity to eventually present itself.

The main defining characteristic that the protagonists of harem stories have is that they’re nice. Aside from that, their personality and appearance is made to be as average and bland as possible in order for the viewer to identify with them and place themselves into their position. Since the girls in harem stories typically have low self-esteem, they fall for the protagonist due to him either frequently complimenting them or simply doing nice things for them. By doing this, it creates the expectation that, in order to be successful with women, the only requirement is that you be nice to them.

Finally, there is the categorization of girls into specific molds. This is done to appeal to different fetishes and preferences in the anime & manga community, which are then exploited for the male viewer’s pleasure. In the harem genre, women’s desires and actions ultimately revolve around the male protagonist, and their bodies are toys for the male viewer to use sexually. After watching women being portrayed this way in several stories, the impressionable male viewer will, either consciously or subconsciously, begin to objectify women, either by placing them on a pedestal or ignoring their boundaries. When women revolve around you, why go through the effort of treating them like people?

Reality

angryguy

In reality, passivity will, in most cases, earn absolutely nothing in dating. The man waiting to show his crush an opportunity to demonstrate their talents by being around them as much as possible will, in the best case scenario, lead to the woman mistakenly believing that his intentions are to be a good friend to them. In the worst case scenario, it will lead to the woman being annoyed or put off by their presence, but not willing to say anything out of fear of hurting the man’s feelings. After being in this position for a while, the man will complain about being “friendzoned” or place himself as the protagonist in a story of tragic unrequited love, when in reality he has done absolutely nothing to further the relationship.

Being nice is, obviously, a good trait. But it’s the foundation that more should be built upon, not the entire presentation. While in harem anime & manga girls have low self-esteem, in real life girls usually have higher standards than any man who is nice to them. Whether this includes physical appearance or a distinct trait that they prefer is their business. In addition, when the man is constantly nice to a girl and does not receive anything in return besides the two reactions mentioned above, they might begin to get frustrated and blame the girl. This is a very dangerous mindset to have, as it shifts the blame and serves as a way to avoid self-examination.

In harem anime & manga, women are, essentially, subservient to the man. In reality, women usually have social lives, things to do and other male friends besides the man who yearns for their affections. Because of the expectation set up in these stories, the man does not know how to deal with this and tries to get to the point where the woman’s life revolves around them by doing as much for them as possible. If the woman has other friends that they hold more prominently than them, they will take it as a slight against them or treat their friends as obstacles that are in their way. Ultimately, this perspective results in treating women more as trophies or lust-objects than actual people, as the desire to “own” a woman the same way the protagonists of these stories do outweighs their respect of the woman’s lives.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why harem anime & manga could be potentially dangerous to the impressionable and lonely young men who tend to make up their intended audience. However, this is not to say that all anime & manga is the same. There are, in fact, positive role models for how to act towards women that exist in this medium, and it’s important to acknowledge the good alongside the bad to provide a counterbalance.

Positive Role Models
yamato1

Yamato Naoe – Maji de Watashi ni Koi Shinasai!

Yamato Naoe is the protagonist of the visual novel Maji de Watashi ni Koi Shinasai!, or “Majikoi” for short. He is a member of the Kazama Family, a group of childhood friends, and serves as the group’s tactician. The novel follows their adventures as they get involved with classmates and people around the city.

The main important thing Yamato has that other protagonists lack is social experience. As a result of having a large group of friends that he makes a daily effort to grow and keep maintained, he knows exactly how to speak to other people, as well as girls. This experience gives him the confidence to be proactive. When a girl grabs his attention, he makes a conceited effort to show them the good parts of his personality, instead of simply waiting for fate to drop an opportunity in his lap.

In addition, Yamato is not simply nice. He is highly intelligent as well as sneaky and manipulative, but not to the point where he would hurt innocent people. He has other defining character traits that cause girls to become attracted to him, and know how to use these traits to his full advantage. This is not because he wishes to own the girls or have their lives revolve around him, but simply because he likes them and wants to have a normal relationship with them. It’s plausible that girls would like him, but not every girl that he knows is attracted to him, nor does he expect things to be that way.

hachibei

Hachibei Maeda – Ai Kora

In terms of role models, you could certainly do better than Hachibei Maeda, the protagonist of the manga Ai Kora (Love Collage). He is an incredibly open pervert and fetishist who is not attracted to girls, but to their individual parts. After a fire claims the dormitory he was planning on staying in, his teacher offers to let him stay in a shed in the girl’s dorm. Since said teacher has his ideal legs and the other girls living in the dorm have his ideal eyes, breasts and voice, he happily accepts.

When reading that description, it would seem odd to place him on a list of positive role models for how to speak to women, but Hachibei, for all his faults, is completely and totally honest. He does not put up a front around the other girls and never once lies about his intentions, while at the same time he makes an effort not to violate their boundaries. Because of this, the other girls in the dorm come to accept his presence and his quirks since they understand how he operates and that he would never do anything truly bad. This stands in contrast to the harem protagonist, which, if they come to have feelings to any girl at all, will typically take at least a hundred chapters to confess.

While the manga does place him in situations where he gets to show his good side to his objects of affection, Hachibei, like Yamato, is proactive in his pursuits. In fact, calling him “proactive” would be a massive understatement. Throughout the manga, Hachibei goes to extreme lengths and performs massive feats of strength to get girls’ attention, and after watching him try so hard to make them happy, the girls naturally become attached to him. Not because he’s simply “nice”, but because he genuinely wants to help his crushes and makes a conceited effort to do so, while at the same time being completely upfront about his attraction to them. When put together, those two traits make a powerful combination.

laslow

Laslow – Fire Emblem Fates

Note: technically, this example is from a video game, but since the story and art style are heavily influenced by anime & manga, it’s included here.

Laslow is a mercenary and subordinate of Xander, one of the princes of a fantasy kingdom called Nohr that comes into conflict with another called Hoshido. He has a reputation for being a massive flirt and a skirt-chaser, with his efforts usually being violently unreciprocated. Despite this, he continues to hit on every girl he sees, including allies and enemies.

Even though Laslow’s attempts at courtship are mostly unsuccessful, his attitude exemplifies the best traits of the above characters. He is perceptive and can pick up on when a girl is feeling down, and does everything he can to cheer them up. He is completely honest about his intentions whenever he flirts, complimenting them both in order to get their attention and because that’s genuinely how he feels. Whether or not they reject him, he doesn’t really mind, as he takes all his failures in stride.

These are all good traits to have, but there is one important aspect that ties it all together. Putting it simply, Laslow LOVES women. His flirts and pick-up lines are not done out of a desire to prove himself or sneak into a relationship by becoming friends, but because, if he did not frequently compliment women, the pent-up love he has for the opposite sex would explode. This is a really good mindset to be in, as some men let the frustrations of dating get to them and begin to blame their problems on women. That thought never even enters Laslow’s mind, as he all he can see in every woman is their attractive parts.

When pursuing a girl or entering the local dating scene, the number one thing to look at beforehand is your own motivations for doing so. Are you doing it because you want to “prove your manhood”? Because you saw in a cartoon or comic book that men get rewarded with access to women’s bodies for being nice? Because you’re sexually frustrated? Because you’re lonely and want companionship? These are not necessarily bad motivations as they come with being a man, but if they’re all you have, then you might want to rethink your approach. If the answer is “Because you love women”, then you’re doing at least one thing right.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Toronto writer. Specializes in film, music, anime and video games. Loves dogs. And cats. Animals in general are pretty cool, really

Want to write about Anime or other art forms?

Create writer account

41 Comments

  1. nike
    0

    To me the problem with allot of Harem anime is the Characters almost all of them usually fit into some stupid cliche like tsunderes( That’s not to say some cliches cant be done right or go past the cliche and be unique) Plus all the shameless fan service that is obviously catering to horny teenage boys. I’m a teenager and i understand some but alot of the time it gets ridiculous. Lastly the main characters that everyone’s in love with is rarely anyone special which very much confuses me :/

    But i still shamelessly love the harem Genre.

    my favorites are probably Hayete the combat butler manga, and Trinity seven manga don’t know about there anime equivalents.

  2. FiSH
    0

    I think the problem is there just isn’t one that is very good.

  3. Jenep
    0

    The problem with harem anime is the fact that they are all the same and have beem for a long time. Nowadays they are self-inserts/self-fulfillment anime/manga/LN with unrealistic expectations for otakus.

    1. The main character is always some kind of Beta male outcast with a flat personality for who the girls just throw themselves to without any effort or any real reason.

    If they were show to put in the effort to win them over in a more believeable way than “Lol, I fell on your crotch now you love me” than it would be much better.

    2. The girls are always the same with the same pattern:

    A. The first girl – the only one that really matter in the wnd because amyone that appears after her doesn’t matter even if they do get developed because they will end up heartbeoken in the end.

    B. There are two variants of said “First Girl”: the pink haired ditz and the black haired “cool beauty” rich ojou-sama that start out insulting the mc.

  4. Munjeera

    Interesting article. I learned a lot.

  5. Emily Deibler

    Admittedly, I’m not familiar with harem animes, but I like the perspective of this article in regards to gender relations (entitlement and “Nice Guy” syndrome/”the friend zone”).

    I especially like this part: “Being nice is, obviously, a good trait. But it’s the foundation that more should be built upon, not the entire presentation. While in harem anime & manga girls have low self-esteem, in real life girls usually have higher standards than any man who is nice to them. Whether this includes physical appearance or a distinct trait that they prefer is their business. In addition, when the man is constantly nice to a girl and does not receive anything in return besides the two reactions mentioned above, they might begin to get frustrated and blame the girl. This is a very dangerous mindset to have, as it shifts the blame and serves as a way to avoid self-examination.”

    Great work!

  6. TAXMAN
    0

    Sword Art Online is one of the most popular anime out there right now, and it’s a great harem.

    Kirito has like 5 girls immediately interested in him. This is excluding one that died over the course of the story, and another that is an AI who views him as a father figure. 3 or more girls liking one guy constitutes being a part of the ‘harem’ genre.

    • soleburn
      0

      SAO shouldn’t evem be a Harem anime since he has a girlfriend from the very VERY start, it only creates uneeded drama made for dramas sake and not for the supposed plot (if you can even call that abomination an anime with plot) it has.

      • TAXMAN
        0

        Actually Kirito doesn’t have a girlfriend from the very start. He meets someone early on and she dies. Then he’s back to single and has Silica and Elizabeth both fall for him, before Asuna ever realizes she likes him, and kind of commits to him. There was always sort of open doors for other girls to connect with him and develop feelings for him.

        Not to mention even after Kirito and Asuna seal the deal, the others aren’t willing to give up that easily and even say that they are just giving them space for the time being. SAO definitely has ‘harem’ as a sub genre to it.

        Also considering the wide appeal of the show, it’s that balance of action and relationship drama that has probably drawn in a lot of viewers. There are minor annoyances, but it’s plot is solid. If you consider SAO an abomination of an anime though, you probably haven’t watched a lot of anime.

  7. Isaias
    0

    Some of my all time favorite:
    Ranma 1/2 (anime)
    Mahou Sensei Negima (manga)
    The World God Only Knows (anime, but may need to read manga to finish the story)
    Oreshura (anime)
    Haganai (anime)

    I highly recommend anyone into the harem genre, to check those out.

  8. Stoner
    0

    Nice article on the Harem genre! Personally, I can’t get into reverse-harems. Personally for me, It has to be a bunch of girls fighting over one guy. Also, having awesome action and actually an interesting/epic plot are definite pluses.

  9. Tristan
    0

    It’s getting harder and harder to create original stories for harem animes.

  10. Marshall
    0

    I think harem anime really depend of the protagonists nowadays. Since there is always the same group of love interests with cliche types: Classics Tsundere, Loli, Megane, etc, etc. Of course the love interests must also diverge themselves from what everyone expects.

  11. Stackhouse
    0

    The one problem for me with harem is that there is almost no character development the introduce characters ever couple episodes and those characters repeat and do the thing they did when u met them over and over. there our a lot of harems that dont do this and have alot of char development, thats why i like to watch rom coms cuz they have alot out there with excellent story telling and char development.

  12. Carl
    0

    There are some harem that were really amazing like akatsuki no yona.

  13. opks
    0

    If you don’t like Harem anime then there’s something wrong with you

  14. peek
    0

    The way I feel about harem anime is that I can tell it’s just a shameless, wet-dream fantasy… but it’s soooo addicting and I love it! But the harem has to have at least one interesting/awesome girl I can root for, and the main character can’t be too annoying. All too often the main character is obnoxious.

  15. sammy
    0

    The only harem I’ll ever watch nowadays are stuff like Highschool DxD, where the Harem King unabashedly wants all the boobs and doesn’t act like a dense pussy about all the girls who are into him, like that dude from To Love Ru.

  16. oh wow! this is similar to my proposed article title “how harem protagonists are not in the friendzone simply because they’re nice”, but you definitely brought more breadth into the discussion =)

  17. Rein
    0

    Anime quality peaked in the mid 90’s as far as I ‘m concerned. For the most part, it’s just melodrama with most of the character development squeezed and buttered through internal dialogue or just plain not-quite-hentai to mask thin plot and even thinner character.

    There are a few exceptions but overall, it’s a sea of tripe.

  18. Sol
    0

    I do like some harem anime’s and manga’s but it really does get annoying at times when the mc has all these girls throwing themselves at him and he would rather run and hide in a closet. I understand this all stems from the Japanese obsession of idols needing to be pure and untainted but it’s dam sad.

  19. seal
    0

    I love harem animes. lol Don’t mind fan service either, but as long as it isn’t more about fan service than the actual story.

  20. Townsperson B
    2

    This is very well written. I’m not a fan of the harem genre myself, but I have watched quite a few of them in the past, in order to learn more about the anime world and discover where my tastes in anime and manga lie. I am not sure I agree about something you said; that the women in harem anime/manga typically have low self-esteem, but I suppose, since I’m not much of a fan of the genre, I haven’t done much to really examine it in detail; Maybe you picked up on things that I did not. I enjoyed the way you applied the psychology behind the harem genre to real life and real people, and I’ll be honest, I saw myself in that last paragraph. Even though I’ve always craved it, I’ve never put much honest effort into finding companionship, especially since I strongly lack self-esteem and can’t even fathom the idea of someone loving me for who I am. But you made me realize that I may have been wanting a relationship for the wrong reasons – at least in recent months. Thank you for that.

    I recall a simple but powerful quote by Yoshino Takigawa from Zetsuen no Tempest; “A girlfriend isn’t something you get just because you want one.”

  21. Its all about Tokyo Ghoul.

  22. Faner
    0

    A lot of harems are more about the comedy or the variety of the girls than being an ‘actual harem’ where the protagonist has a real chance with the girls.

  23. Orosco
    0

    There’s good harem anime and there’s bad harem anime, just like any other genre. The Monogatari series is one of the best anime series out there (with Bakemonogatari being the best anime ever made, IMO), and that can be considered a harem anime.

  24. Chau
    0

    Ouran High School Host Club anyone?!

  25. I think your assessment of of the harem genre is pretty accurate. I’ve definitely enjoyed the humourous and lighthearted nature of the harem anime I’ve watched but have also been bothered by the expectations it sets. I think some of the same expectations also translate into reverse harem too (waiting for love to just happen, expectation that men should just fall all over you etc.).

  26. C-Cent
    0

    My Romantic Comedy Snafu is the best harem series by far.

    • Culp
      0

      Tenchi Muyo, Shuffle, Ranma 1/2, Clannad all those are examples of good Harem anime’s.

    • Noel
      0

      Anything from any genre can be good but most of it isn’t and that’s not just true of Anime. But anime more than any where else has shown how much genre conventions can be defied or subverted with shows like Evangelion and Madoka. The problem is harem start at a disadvantage because they are lumbered with a main character that’s just vector to give the characters we actually want to see screen time. A better show would have confidence in telling stories about those characters without that narrative drag.

      Personally I think Bakemonogatari is the best (or at least of recent years) with the back end of the first series being the high point. It’s got enough self-aware post modernism that the main characters lolicon/sistercon tendencies isn’t too creepy. But if the second series proved anything, the less time the main character gets the better the show is.

    • Purcell
      0

      Anyone Watched Date A Live Or Campione! Those Are Pretty Good Harems

  27. C8lin
    C8linZimmer
    2

    This article is a nice explanation and critique of the anime harem genre as it relates to the male viewer, but I would be interested in hearing more about the genre’s female audience.

    At first glance, the objectification and categorizing of women appears to be “fanservice” for the male viewers, but then why do women contribute to these’s shows popularity, even when the show is not a reverse harem?

  28. I got that harem anime == oversimplification/distortion of male-female relationships. Is it not true that superpowered martial artists fighting impossible villians and always winning is also an oversimplification?

    • Adam

      Not necessarily. Fighting is something that very few people generally do, so when people read those manga they don’t take it as “Oh, I should fight because anyone can do it!” they take it as “Oh, I should reach for my dreams!”. Whereas romance is a very real part of almost everyone’s life, so the message that harem stories send can be applied much more literally.

      • Love and war are our oldest and most widely translatable metaphors.
        The Iliad is about people fighting, but it’s not about people fighting.

  29. Most of the time, fitting tightly into a cliche makes a story worthless. I think it’s all well and good to say that harem manga and anime can project harmful stereotypes to impressionable boys, but another crime is terrible manga and anime. The few harem manga that I’ve enjoyed were good *despite* the endless unrealistic drama. It’s a bad trope that occasionally works, and I now avoid it completely.

    I think it’s important to think about why certain things are appealing. Low-level smut in manga and anime targeted at teenage males is there to keep them interested, basically. It can’t substitute for plot or interesting action. Manga which spend too much time on that sort of content might keep a viewer hooked, but it won’t teach anything or remain in their heads for very long.

    By the way, I’m glad you cited Ai Kora because I think that’s just a great comedy manga, harem or not.

  30. Jutor

    Is the harem genre meant to be realistic? From what I have seen, most harem anime and manga are more intended to be ideals, hopes, or dreams. To those who, like many protagonists, are either shy, innocent, or just plain average, harem functions more like a fantasy to provide hope. Whether that hope is recognized as the insubstantial dream it is depends entirely on the viewer.

    consider that unlike any action or adventure anime, harems usually have fairly normal guys such as Tsukune Aono from Rosario + Vampire. harems protagonists were not designed to be the ideal, overpowered, butt kicking protagonist, they are actually often portrayed as rather dumb and unappealing. In this aspect, they are more realistic and relatable than typical protagonists and thus, provide an idealized scenario in which their (and the viewers) plain life becomes a whole lot more exciting.

    It is this very low statues that many can empathize with and project their love onto. It is their realism that allows bonding, their flaws that we can see in ourselves. Harem anime was never meant to be real. They are the outrageous, one-in-a-billion, I’m- glad-I-was-born, wish-it-was-me, dream.

  31. This absolutely works the same way for reverse harems as well! and I do agree with Jutor’s comment. Though it is definitely still a guilty pleasure of mine.

    La Corda D’oro anyone?

  32. Although I do agree with much of the article, I feel like the article may have misspoke at some points as it seems to say that being the opposite of the classic male protagonist is the best way to be. In fact, being the opposite can be just as dangerous for example, being too proactive can lead to possessive behavior – a trait seen in many male characters in reverse-harems.
    Essentially, I’m saying that I don’t think anyone should try to take their relationship advice from manga or anime, whether it is doing what the characters do or doing the opposite of it.
    I think it’s a good article overall but it’s overlooking a lot. Harem manga and anime has a lot more to it than being a nice guy in the right place at the right time. Just look at TWGOK. Keima is far from a role model when it comes to relationships, but he is also far from the type of male protagonist described in this article. The entire reverse-harem concept is overlooked as well.
    Still, a lot of good points. Glad I read it.

  33. With harems in high school anime so common these days, it’s always refreshing when a potential harem doesn’t come about. Chivalry of a Failed Knight really struck me with how it handled the relationship between the protagonist Ikki and his roommate, the heroine Stella. While Chivalry has all the tropes and conventions for a harem anime practically gift wrapped – a school for teens with magical powers, a shy swordslinging girl a particularly… forward little sister in the character Shizuku, etc. – it goes out of its way to establish Ikki and Stella as a faithful, monogamous couple surprisingly early in the series. After establishing the relationship, a good chunk of the anime is focused on their relationships, all the pitfalls only teenagers could fall into, the heartwarming ways they resolve their relationship problems, and even delves into sexuality in a relatively mature, tasteful way. The two even get engaged by the end of the first season. the potential members if Ikki’s harem are all sent on their platonic ways: the shy sword girl returns to her life after getting her father’s dojo back and said father wakes up from his coma, Shizuku accepts the fact that she won’t win her brother’s heart and is given a shoulder to cry on by her own roommate, etc. While harem works do have their place, writers need to really think about whether or not it’s the best writing decision for the project they’re working on.

  34. Legitimately sucks having one i. real life xD

Leave a Reply