The harem trope is so prevalent in anime that it has become a genre of its own. Although there is no limit to the number of love interests a main character can have, one must have at least three to qualify as a harem rather than a love triangle. Harems with female leads and male suitors are included under the umbrella of harem anime, but are technically defined as reverse harem while the traditional harem term indicates a male protagonist with female romantic interests.
The genre’s appeal lies mainly in the wish-fulfillment it provides audiences, allowing them to imagine being desired by a variety of attractive individuals, who tend to fall into established categories of love interest types. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a fun archetypal harem anime, but for those looking for something that breaks down the elements and rethinks them, here are five anime that deconstruct the harem genre.
5/5 Neon Genesis Evangelion
This seminal anime has long been considered a deconstruction of the mecha genre, but its skillful subversion of harem tropes can be overlooked. At the start of the series, Shinji is clearly attracted to the show’s major female characters, Misato, Asuka, and Rei. Three beautiful women with vastly different personas and appeals, a typical harem dynamic. Like other aspects of the series, the familiar trope entices the audience to think so Evangelion is just another mecha anime (albeit one with a killer opening) before it takes its plunge into the deepest, darkest depths of the human psyche.
As Shinji’s mental state begins to crumble, so do the trio’s and Shinji’s individual relationships with them. Rather than Shinji’s bond with the women helping them in standard harem style, his presence in their lives partially triggers the resurgence of the trauma and emotional disturbances hidden beneath their eccentric personalities. Their pain and past ends up redefining the relationship they have with Shinji, effectively crushing the prospect of a conventional connection between either of them. This can be applied even to Kaworu, whose intense connection to Shinji is undermined by his true nature as an angel. Many harem anime end without the main character settling on a lover, but in Evangelion, none of the cast are capable of being functional partners to Shinji. Maybe that’s why decades after the anime aired Evangelion The story was supposed to end with Shinji starting a new life with Mari, a character who represented a fresh start.
4/5 A break in the sea
While the anime’s male protagonist, Hikari, has enough love interests to constitute a harem, the fantasy series centers not only on his relationships with them, but his entire group of childhood friends as they develop feelings for each other and often inadvertently break each other’s hearts. . Emphasizing the ever-changing bonds of both friendship and romance between a tight-knit group of teenage friends, the anime’s harem is reconfigured from a wish-fulfillment scenario to a thoughtful navigation through the waters of first love and growing up.
The affection Hikari’s harem members have for him, that he and others have for them, and that they grow to have for others are all a reflection of how emotions shift and reshape from childhood to adulthood, and an acceptance that these changes and pain which can accompany them is a natural part of life. A break in the sea‘s harem, like a break in the waves of the sea or the days of youth, is only a temporary but memorable moment.
3/5 School days
Adapted from the visual novel known for its abundance of deadly endings, School days is one of the most infamous harem anime of all time. Many have criticized the series for its despicable female protagonist and the bloody mess that was the final episode. Yet these critics miss what School days is at its core, a parody of the high school harem genre and a subversion of its tropes. It takes the wish-fulfillment fantasy format that is the basis of a majority of harem anime and twists it into an absolute nightmare. It masquerades as a standard romantic drama, and once it has the viewer fooled, it reveals its true, gruesome nature.
It would be a stretch to say so School days is a representation of everyday life, but it certainly casts a cold sense of realism on the harem genre, showing (albeit at worst) the consequences of engaging in multiple relationships with people who have genuine feelings for you, and know each other. And convey that it reflects poorly on one’s character to behave so carelessly and indecisively when handling other people’s hearts.
2/5 Ouran High School Host Club
This romantic comedy is one of the most beloved and well-known reverse harem anime in the genre. Although it’s littered with tropes of the medium, from the damsel in distress to the scholarship student at a posh private school, Ouran Host High School Club twists the harem convention by having a heroine who is almost a complete inversion of the average shoujo protagonist. Where many have blushed or screamed, Haruhi is completely nonchalant and unaffected. It’s not uncommon for heroines to play the straight man among a variety of chaotic characters, but few play it as poker-faced as Haruhi who spends a decent amount of her screen time either ignoring the other hosts’ antics or being blissfully unaffected by them.
The anime also dissects notions of gender in a unique way, when the harem trope is usually highly structured around the concepts and roles. Haruhi considers her gender to be of little importance, and does not bother to correct the hosts when they mistake her for a boy and joins the club as a host herself.
1/5 Ranma 1/2
Although the shonen comedy is often cited as one of the pioneers of the harem genre, it manages to position itself as a deconstruction of the same genre decades later. The function of most harems in anime is to emphasize a protagonist’s appeal as a lover and their ability to form meaningful bonds with a variety of people, as well as entertain the notion of the protagonist having various archetypal romantic interests. In contrast, whereas Ranma ½ The titular protagonist cares to some degree about all his admirers, he only develops a deep connection on screen with Akane, the heroine of the series.
The rest of his pursuers fall superficially for his physical prowess (with the exception of his childhood friend Ukyo, but their relationship stagnates almost immediately upon her introduction) and pursue him obsessively, often resorting to trickery and manipulation. Their fanatical behavior is juxtaposed with Akane, who gradually falls for Ranma and does not try to force her affections on him. The romantic rivals are essentially being punished for lusting after the main character, despite their usual harem behavior.
With the addition of Akane’s own reverse harem, the mixed bag of rivals and their unyielding liberation for the heroes provide much of the show’s action. The bickering of love interests as a driving force in the narrative is a staple of harem anime, but in the case of Ranma ½, Akane and Ranma hide behind the chaos caused by their rivals as an excuse to avoid confronting their feelings for each other. Although this chaos also awakens the same emotions and drives them to the surface. Unfortunately, Ranma ½ got too caught up in the harem circus, and both the anime and manga ended Akane and Ranma’s story on an incredibly unsatisfying note.
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