When someone mentions the word “anime,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s a word that everyone thinks about differently. This makes sense because anime has a lot of sub-genres. After all, if you say Hollywood, you’re not thinking of one thing, you’re essentially thinking of every single movie which America produces. Anime is the same way, but the word itself carries a stigma with Western audiences.
The term anime basically refers to any animated product of Japanese origin, with many anime movies and television shows sharing common themes and tropes. For example, when a character becomes exasperated or shocked, there’s a smash cut and suddenly they’ve fallen forcefully to the ground. Even a novice anime viewer could identify this trope.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In my experience, whenever you talk about anime with a non-anime fan, the genre that inevitably comes up as the most off-putting is harem anime. It might as well be pornography for the way they talk about it. But what is it about the harem genre that Westerners find so uncomfortable?
A Word With a History
Harem is a word of Arabic origin, which can refer to either the parts of the household reserved for the women in a family, or the women themselves. Over time, Western depictions of Arabic culture have altered the term “harem” to have a very sexualized connotation. Today, when we think of this word, we usually understand it to refer to a person with many wives or concubines; the same goes for anime as well.
More specifically, a harem in the world of anime describes any situation in which a “normal” guy finds himself surrounded by a group of women. That’s it. That’s the main defining feature. There are also some cases in which the main character is a girl surrounded by boys. These are called “reverse harems.”
There is often a romantic element in harem anime, though there doesn’t need to be to fit the definition. There may be loads of sexual tension or there may be little to no insinuation of sex at all. The guy could only have interest in one of these women, all of them, or he might be too oblivious to notice them in that way.
Whatever the case may be, harems are extremely common in anime and are a genre unto themselves. Harem anime usually focus exclusively on how characters in this dynamic interact with each other.
This may be the primary thing that makes people in Western society uncomfortable. The polyamorous nature of these shows is already outside of our cultural norms. We don’t like it when either gender is in a romantic situation with multiple people at once. Society dictates that romantic relationships should be between two and only two people. As that number goes up, it starts to make people uncomfortable. Unless you’re like, Mormon or something.
Obviously, it would be a huge mistake to say that Japanese culture is the same as American culture. It would be an equally huge mistake to imply that an American would feel the same about any single issue as their British cousins or Canadian step-siblings. Japanese culture may treat aspects of love and sex differently than the Western worlds, but in terms of polygamy, we tend to agree that it’s pretty weird. The institution of marriage in Japan is, in some ways, even more strictly traditional than in the United States, so to say that polyamorous situations would make us more uncomfortable doesn’t make sense.
In fact, most of the comedy in harem anime comes from this basic discomfort with the premise. As an audience, we are supposed to identify with the guy as he fumbles his way through awkward situations with the women who aggressively pursue him. In many cases, these women are also not looking to share, which further dents this argument. There is usually an understanding among the audience, as well as the characters, that at the end of it all, our hero can only choose one girl. The harem genre isn’t just episode after episode of a bunch of girls agreeing to share one guy. It’s not SISTER WIVES (again, sorry Mormons). The pressure of having to chose one girl typically causes a comedic level of stress for everyone involved.
American television has similar situations pop up in dramas and comedies just on a smaller scale. In fact, there are endless American titles that involve a very similar trope. Only we don’t call them harems, we call them love-triangles. Some examples are THREE’S COMPANY, CRUEL INTENTIONS, LOST, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, or virtually any show on the CW. It’s a trope that is at the heart of both comedy and drama, going all the way back to Shakespeare’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
If Shakespeare Did It, It Must Be Cool
So if it’s not the basic premise that makes Westerners uncomfortable about harem anime, then what is it? Perhaps it’s not just one thing at all. Maybe it’s a combination of things that prevent this sort of anime from cracking into a more mainstream Western audience. These anime can become somewhat popular from time to time, but they never reach the mainstream heights of shows like BLEACH or ATTACK ON TITAN.
Some of the more popular harem titles include THE WORLD GOD ONLY KNOWS, TENCHI MUYO! (in all its many forms), AH, MY BUDDA, and FRUITS BASKET, which is a reverse harem. There are harems in titles like SWORD ART ONLINE and GUNDAM: IRON BLOODED ORPHANS as well, though they themselves don’t fall into that genre completely. These titles barely scratch the surface of the harem genre though; a quick Google search will yield you hundreds of titles.
A Closer Look
Since the only prerequisite of a harem or reverse harem anime is that the protagonist is surrounded by members of the opposite gender, these anime can take on any variety of forms. They can be sci-fi, dramas, comedies, romance, mecha, or some combination of all of those.
For example, THE WORLD GOD ONLY KNOWS is a story about Keima Katsuragi, a second-year high school student who is obsessed with dating sims. One day, he accepts an email challenging him to “conquer girls.” While he thinks this is about a new game, it turns out to be a contract from an adorable demon named Elsie. The contract binds them and they must thereafter seduce high school girls in order to oust loose souls hiding in their hearts.
DEATH MARCH TO THE PARALLEL WORLD RHAPSODY is the story of Ichiro Suzuki, a game designer who takes a nap and wakes up in a parallel world. Throughout the story of DEATH MARCH, we see Ichiro come in contact with a lot of women who join him on his adventure. Actually, it’s almost exclusively women that he interacts with once he arrives in the parallel world. A few of these girls are interested in him romantically; however, most of them are not. Ichiro seems disinterested as well, turning down one of the girl’s advances in an early romantic situation. Much of the plot focuses on Ichiro’s interactions with these girls who have become his responsibility.
These two titles are linked within the harem genre, but in the end, the harem is really all that they have in common. That, and fan service. There’s plenty of that.
The Male Gaze
Other than this defining structure, fan service seems to be another commonality when it comes to this genre. Now, fan service can mean a lot of things, but in anime, it typically means objectifying women.
Tight clothing, no clothing, up-skirt camera angles, bathhouse scenes—the list goes on. There’s a lot of fan service in harem anime—there can be a lot of fan service in anime in general—but many harem anime kick it up a notch.
In fact, many popular harem anime could be described as ecchi. Ecchi “is an often used slang term in the Japanese language for playfully sexual actions. As an adjective, it is used with the meaning of “sexy”, “dirty” or “naughty;” as a verb, ecchi wo suru, with the meaning to have sex; and as a noun, to describe someone of lascivious behavior.” Many of these anime seriously delve into sexual situations and some of them even portray nudity for no real reason essential to the plot. One could argue that sometimes it’s for a laugh, but sometimes it’s really just to show a girl’s butt.
Again, I’m trying not to make a blanket statement. Harems can take a variety of forms. However, in many cases, the women in these anime are completely defined by their relationship with the primary male character. We see them from his point of view and learn about them through their interactions with him, which is a bit problematic. These types of anime typically portray women as nothing more than objects of male desire. The female characters only want to be seen by him and are often mere caricatures of male sexual fantasies. These shows are concerned entirely with how the male character sees the women around him, which dehumanizes them.
So…Is That “The Deal” with Harem Anime?
Perhaps, in the end, this is what makes Westerners so uncomfortable. It can be a frustrating part of anime, even for the most die-hard fans. Something about portraying nudity or even hinting at nudity, in animation makes people way more uncomfortable than seeing it in reality. With their action typically surrounding these kinds of ecchi situations, harem anime delves into this territory a lot.
The problem is that this genre tends to perpetuate a lot of negative stereotypes. It typically shows a sensationalized version of male-female relationships that make women a commodity for male consumption. It can promote negative body images through its depiction of women with often-absurd proportions.
There is a lot of room to be terrible within this genre because of this. As is the case with most things, for every thoughtful or well-done version of these stories that come along, there are twenty awful takes of the same thing. Though, for all the problems some may have with this genre, it is still wildly popular. In today’s cultural climate, it’s popularity is actually a little surprising. I guess it’s easy to underestimate how much teenage boys want to see naked girls.
Don’t get me wrong, Harem anime can be legitimately good at times. And some of these problems aren’t unique to this genre. Some of them aren’t even unique to anime. I think that while it’s important to talk about these issues, it isn’t impossible to enjoy the genre for what it is. Still, it’s probably a good sign that anime like this doesn’t catch on more here in the Western world. Maybe it’s a sign that we’re growing away from chauvinist entertainment, or maybe we just produce enough of it on our own that we’re not seeking it out elsewhere.
Feature image courtesy of Anime News Network