I have not been quiet about how harem anime just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Even if I go back in time and think of all the anime I enjoyed, I realize I only tolerated them because the plot was good. In hindsight, the harem subplot itself was a negative. Because the protagonists for most of these anime are so painfully boring that they add virtually nothing to the plot. And yet, for some reason, I’m supposed to believe they are the male character everyone is in love with?
Harem protagonists are so bland in the first place because that makes it easier for the viewer to project themselves onto the character, considering there isn’t much of a personality to overtake. It’s wish-fulfillment, plain and simple. Imagine having self-esteem so low that you watch shows where you can pretend to superimpose yourself on some guy with a gaggle of women around them. But, sadly, that’s partially why the industry is still thriving.
I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t relate to a character. Characters with shared experiences are such an integral part of any story; being able to empathize with their struggles is the point. But there’s a difference between seeing your trauma reflected in character versus wanting to be a character simply because he has a harem of waifus to service him at every beck and call.
That’s not to say all harem are inherently bad. Normal harems can be fun and nuanced, if their protagonists have a developed personality that isn’t just an empty ‘cool guy’ shell for someone to project themselves on. I mean, just look at Ryuji Takasu from ToraDora!, who was the farthest thing from ‘edgy and cool’. So how did we go from endearing and engaging main leads in the harem to whatever we have going on now? Let’s discuss.
The NEET Issue: How Did It All Start Out?
So, we all know the joke about how anime was a hobby for basement dwellers. And that stems from a modicum of truth. We all know how the word Otaku has been reclaimed, but in actuality, it was akin to a slur in Japan. An Otaku was someone who was obsessed with something, and it was used in a very derogatory manner.
And slowly, it became synonymous with anime and NEETs (Not in Employment, Education, or Training). And Japan is very strict about that sort of thing, where if you are a social hermit, you are further isolated and shunned. So, when you’re alienated by the real world, you turn to the fantastical one. You start idolizing caricatures of what you think other people would like and mimic what is, essentially, exaggerated stereotypes.
This is how the rise in wish fulfillment anime such as harem and Isekai truly had its start. There was a market there to sell a dream that didn’t exist to the ones most vulnerable enough to buy into it. And the easiest way to do that was to create anime male leads that those people could project themselves onto.
Harem Protagonists VS The World:
I’m not saying incels are the reason harems exist. But it wouldn’t be too far from the truth? There is something about the fantasy of having multiple women be in love with you, no matter what fault you commit. It’s a power trip for many.
I mean, look at what the setting normally starts from. The main character is a regular guy and/or a loser from the real world, but when he’s Isekai’d, he turns into this super cool and edgy hero who is adored by everyone around him for his amazing intellect and power. Oh, and he’s miraculously hot now too. Also, all the villains hate him for being so amazing. All the ladies love him despite his awkwardness or because of how smooth he is.
It’s easy to lose yourself in a fantasy like that. That every woman in your local vicinity will be in love with you if you act a certain way and if you show them shallow attention. Or sometimes, the complete opposite, which is where you act with mean authority towards them. In either case, the protagonist is bland, almost formulaic, and they bring nothing to the show.
Why Reverse Harem Is An Exception:
To be fair, things have started shifting ever since anime became more global, thanks to the advancement in distribution and production all over the world. Because the audience is evolving, so are the anime genres. This means that we are getting stories that touch upon political/cultural issues, fewer censorship laws, and, yes, more relatable stories that cater to a wider audience.
But it’s also how we are getting a rise in anime that are reverse harems. And for some reason, reverse harems always have a more fleshed-out protagonist compared to their male-centric counterparts.
They are their own person, not blank canvases to project on. And perhaps that’s because the main audience for them is mostly women, and the female gaze tends to be less objectifying.