Editorfool 10.22.12 | Boy Meets Girl And Girl And Girl And Girl

Our Lovefool’s on a much-needed vacation, so her Fearless Editor steps in with a look at one of the more maligned romance comics genres: the harem comedy.




Greetings, nerdlings and lovefools! Jason Green, Fearless Editor here. As longtime fans of the column know, our Lovefool’s homesickness for the Gateway City is well documented, so when Erin asked for a fill-in this week so she could make a quick trip St. Louis way, I was happy to oblige. (And, because I’m the guy in charge, I can even post it a day late! Ha HA!) But what to write about? Well, being that I’m a dude and this is a column about romance comics, the obvious choice would be “romance comics for dudes.” I know, it sounds like an oxymoron: guys don’t generally go for the mushy stuff, right? Ah, but for decades now on the other side of the Pacific, the manga and anime industries have let loose a flood of romance comics in a subgenre specifically designed with the young, awkward male teenager in mind: the harem comedy.
What is a harem comedy? Think of it as Archie cranked up to 11. Everybody loves watching Betty and Veronica vie for Archie’s affections, right? So hey, why not add in Cheryl Blossom. And Midge. And Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats…and, heck, Josie and Melody while you’re at it. And Miss Grundy, only now she’s smokin’ hot, only in her 20s, and waaaaay into America’s favorite redhead. And get rid of Reggie and Moose and Jughead and all the other guys because they’ll just get in the way. One nerdy guy and a whole bevy of beauties, one of every flavor, all clawing over each other to win our hero’s favor. What could possibly go wrong?
Turns out: a lot. Harem comedies tend to be one of the most slavishly formulaic forms of anime and manga out there, and as the fortunes of the anime and manga industries have plummeted in the last decade or so, the market has been flooded by new cookie cutter entries in this seemingly recession proof genre. This, naturally, has been to the detriment of the anime industry in particular—because if there’s one thing worse than boring, formulaic shows, it’s a lot of boring shows following the exact same formula—as what was once a mighty force in pop culture has become a niche medium playing only to diehards who will buy every bit of tie-in merchandise they can find if it features their favorite harem hottie. In some ways, it’s not unlike the niche-ification of the American comics market, although in the case of harem comedies, the heroes are typically anything but super.
Now, that being said, harem comedies aren’t all bad. (I am, after all, the guy who spent a week telling the world how much I love Love Hina.) Nor, as you might think from my description above, are they all straight up slice-of-life romantic comedies: some mix in elements of sci-fi, fantasy, action adventure, even horror (if the last one sounds unthinkable, check out When They Cry, a show that is about half substandard high school comedy and half bug-nuts, legitimately unsettling murder mystery). There are plenty of bad harem shows out there (and note I use the term “shows” below because a lot of these comments come from my experience watching anime, but don’t think for a second these tropes aren’t just as rampant in manga), and despite whatever genre window dressing is added, pretty much all of the ones that fail do so in at least one of three ways:
  • Female characters that are types, not people: If your series is going to be nothing but interactions between a guy and a series of girls, those girls better have something at least vaguely interesting going on. But in your typical bad harem show, the girls are there only to fawn over the hero and any other character details are purely coincidental, these traits only there so you can differentiate the one who wants to be a singer from the one who wants to be able to cook but can’t because every time those characters appear onscreen, they mention either singing or cooking. This has only been exacerbated by the rise of anime and manga based off of dating simulation video games (or “dating sims”) where the reduction of the characters to fetish objects is kind of the whole point of the games. This has led to a homogenization of character types—the demure one, the lady-who-doth-protest-too-much tsundere one, the nerdy one in glasses who just needs to break out of her shell, the one that’s creepily too young for the hero, the one that’s creepily too old for the hero— across the genre, leading to these shows not only be repetitive within themselves, but repetitive from one to the next. But hey, if the girls are boring, they’re just eye candy anyway, as long as the hero’s cool, right? Well…
  • Would you like some T(estosterone) with that milquetoast? Because, man, if you watch harem shows, you’re out of luck on that front, because these “heroes” are typically the most sad-sack guy on the face of the planet. Now, in some ways, Love Hina’s lead Keitaro is the ultimate example of the milquetoast harem hero: he’s kinda nerdy, kinda dumb, really terrible with the ladies, but for some inexplicable reason, the ladies are drawn to him anyway. But Keitaro at least had personality, drive, and a kind-hearted spirit to give him some qualities worth rooting for. A decade-plus from Love Hina’s success (and, again, with more influence from dating sims), the harem hero has devolved into a blank slate cipher to serve as a stand-in for the viewer, a viewer who, if most of these shows is any indication, the producers must think are friendless nerds who never talk to girls or even leave their house except to buy character merchandise. And hey, if they’re selling to guys who buy body pillows of all 31 (!) girls in the cast of Negima?!, maybe they aren’t far off. But hey, if you’re aiming solely at diehard fans, you better offer them plenty of…
  • Fanservice! A term coined by the legendary Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman, Sanctuary) and immortalized in the lexicon by the female-packed mecha anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, fanservice is just a more friendly word for T&A, something harem shows are typically packed to the gills with. On some twisted level, it even makes storytelling sense: if you have a hero who can’t talk to girls, and a whole ton of girls who have nothing to talk about anyway, how do you get them together? Why, you just have the boy trip and fall and land on their boobs or accidentally rip off their clothes or whatever flimsy excuse you can come up with for some incidental nudity. Now I’ll admit, when I was, like, 17, fanservice was a nice side benefit, but now as a grown-ass man, it’s just tedious. Even shows that manage to cook up a decent plot and some interesting characters can be undone by too much fanservice.
Does the class need an example of the tropes in action? I offer up the trailer for Yumeria, a sort of sci-fi-meets-Sailor Moon harem show, which you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFCToaxLELY The lead so average that they have to tell us just how many ways he’s average? Check. The otherwise entirely female cast that check off a laundry list of fetishes? Check. Fanservice situations that result in the lead being called a pervert? Check times six. See, it really can be that bad.
Now, harem shows aren’t all doom and gloom, but I’m closing in on 1400 words here and should probably call it a day. If your Lovefool ever takes a vacation again, I may just return and give some examples of how a harem comedy can actually go right. | Jason Green

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply