Ask John: What Distinguishes Harem Anime?

Question:
There has been a growing debate about whether the anime/manga series Ah! My Goddess is considered harem and exactly how a series is determined to be harem. One member of my forum is basing his idea that harem cannot be associated with Ah! My Goddess because there isn’t multiple women vying for the main character’s love and affection. I’d like to know what you consider the A!MG series as (seinen, harem, etc.) and exactly what harem is defined as. I guess I’m just looking for a hard and true definition on what harem is and if there are more than one type.


Answer:
Before supplying my answer – my personal and subjective answer – I want to first preface some groundwork. The purpose of genre classifications is to enable definition, description, and discussion of particular anime and manga titles. Genre classifications do not, and should not, determine or mandate quality. The fact that a series is or isn’t a “harem” show doesn’t automatically make it good or bad, or make it immediately suitable for select viewers. (The exception to this statement is adult anime, but the stipulation that adult anime excludes underage viewers is as much a legal distinction as one determined by content and quality.) Anime should be judged by their individual qualities rather than assumptions based on uninformed perceptions. Genre classifications are guides, not critiques.

In practical effect, two different definitions of “harem” apply to discussion of anime. The first definition is a literal one. The second revolves around common fan assumptions. In a broadly literal sense, as it applies to anime and manga, a harem consists of a character of one gender surrounded by multiple characters of the opposite gender. I do think that the stipulation of “opposite gender” is mandatory because series featuring primarily only male or female characters like Suki na Mono wa Suki Dakara Shouganai!! and Maria-sama ga Miteru aren’t classified as “harem” titles. Furthermore, a harem title must have at least three supporting cast members of the opposite sex. Series including Orange Road, DNA^2, and Final Approach, which involve only a male protagonist and two girls, are romantic triangles, not harems. However, Kore ga Watashi no Goshujin-sama stars a boy surrounded by three girls (none of whom have a romantic interest in him) and is a harem anime. I don’t believe that it’s necessary for any or all of the supporting cast to have a romantic interest in the protagonist. It’s only necessary that they surround the protagonist. Mihoshi and Kiyone have no romantic feelings for Tenchi Masaki in Tenchi Muyo, yet Tenchi Muyo is a harem anime. Kaolla and Mitsune have little or no romantic interest in Keitaro in Love Hina, yet Love Hina is a harem show. Tina, Taeko, and Miyabi have no romantic interest in Ai Yori Aoshi’s Kaoru Hanabishi, yet that also is a harem title. Finally, it’s not necessary that a harem title have exclusively one male or female character. The series needs only to either concentrate focus on one protagonist or have a distinctly skewed gender ratio. For example, Kimi ga Aruji de Shitsuji ga Ore de includes multiple male characters yet remains a harem show because it has only one leading man. Vandread has multiple male characters, but the females drastically outnumber the men. Judging with these criteria, Ah! My Goddess does constitute a harem title because it revolves around Keichi Morisato surrounded by Belldandy, Urd, Skuld, Peorth, Lind, Hild, and Mara.

As a result of subjective impressions and fervent loyalty to certain anime titles and types of anime, countless fans in the English speaking fan community have developed perceptions and biases toward numerous anime genres including the harem genre. As this question reveals, there’s a common perception that harem anime must involve a love triangle (or love square, or love polyhedron). There’s also a common assumption that harem anime are comedies or that they’re inherently inferior to serious, dramatic anime. Series like Ah! My Goddess disprove these myths. Because the Ah! My Goddess manga is published within Kodansha’s Afternoon magazine, it’s classified as a seinen manga. There’s no reason why Ah! My Goddess can’t be both seinen and harem. The “seinen” classification identifies a target audience. The “harem” classification describes narrative content. Relatively serious and dramatic harem titles, contrary to the slapstick of Love Hina or Girls Bravo, for example, including Ah! My Goddess, Ai Yori Aoshi, Fushigi Yuugi, and Hana Yori Dango demonstrate that “harem” isn’t automatically a pejorative term. The fact that typical harem anime are exploitative, superficial, and redundant doesn’t mean that all of them are, nor does it mean that harem anime are automatically bad. There shouldn’t be any reason to feel shame about describing Ah! My Goddess as a harem title.

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4 Responses to “Ask John: What Distinguishes Harem Anime?”

  1. Alzrius Says:

    As a minor note, the fan community has taken to defining a “harem” as a narrative description where the central character is male, and the surrounding characters are female. Series with the opposite situation (a central female around whom at least three males revolve) is tagged as a “reverse-harem.” While I don’t have any examples, I’ve heard of this latter title being used in some anime.

  2. superplough Says:

    Fruits Basket could be a ‘reverse harem’, Tohru is surrounded by the males of the Souma family

  3. Kurai_Seraphim Says:

    So long as we all understand that Black Lagoon is the best harem anime ever, I think we’ll be okay.

  4. InitialT Says:

    Regarding Ai Yori Aoshi: They may have downplayed Tina Foster’s relationship with Kaoru Hanabishi in the anime – I can’t remember how much the anime diverged from the manga. But in the manga, Tina was probably the MOST in love with Kaoru. A good portion of the latter half of the series was devoted to how she makes her feelings known and how she manages to resolve them. Having that relationship taken seriously, in addition to the one between Aoi and Kaoru, is one of the distinguishing characteristics between it and other harem series.

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