MANGA REVIEW: Saving Life (Vol. 1)

They say March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion… so what does “Maid May” do? Since we started this month to celebrate anime and manga maids with a long expose on the hilarious and extraordinarily messed-up He Is My Master, it only seems right that we end it on a very different note with a review of the short and sweet manga Saving Life by Mario Kaneda. This manga deserves a spot on a site like Anime Obscura more than most, because neither the manga (which only received a single volume released stateside) nor its author even have their own Wikipedia page at the date of this review. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out, as I quite enjoyed my time with this one.

We’ve all been there, bro. Just… maybe not to the extent you have.

Saving Life tells the story of Haruhiko Ayanokouji, a teenage boy who was born into a life of fabulous wealth. His family lived in a mansion, had a whole staff of maids and servants, and controlled a huge conglomerate named after them. However, Haruhiko rebels against what he calls his father’s tyranny, which he later specifies involves forcing him to abide by some unnamed “condition,” and he leaves home to make his own way in the world. This means that the rich kid is suddenly living the pauper’s life in a total dump of a house, but to Haruhiko’s credit, he is a capable and hard worker, so he’s gradually making headway in lifting himself out of debt, if not out of poverty.

He’s helped in this effort by his cute and responsible friend Yoriko, who can be a bit of a taskmaster when it comes to scolding him on keeping up with schoolwork. At the same time, she clearly also has a bit of a crush on him. Haruhiko catches a bit of a break when he gets a job at a family restaurant called Danny’s (a transparently clear reference to Denny’s), but his good luck is counterbalanced by the fact that his clumsy blonde senpai, Junko, somehow gets it into her head that his competence is a sign that he’s a spy from a rival restaurant. This beautiful, hyper-competitive, and dumb-as-a-rock girl vows to somehow seal his professional doom.

Finally, at the end of the opening chapter, Haruhiko is shocked upon his arrival home to find his and Yoriko’s childhood friend, Nanako, waiting for him in his house and dressed as a maid. (Aha, aha, you see? There it is!) Although not explained in detail in Volume One, it’s hinted that Nanako was the child of a servant in the Ayanokouji household during her girlhood and has learned to be a professional maid in the years since then. She explains to Haruhiko that his family was worried about him, and so was she, and they gave their blessing on her moving in as his live-in maid despite his rotten financial circumstances. From here, we follow Haruhiko and his girl-friends (not girlfriends, as yet) as our boy tries to live the “saving life” of the title and survive on a budget.

I discovered this manga during a dive in RightStuf’s clearance bin and picked it up for just a few dollars. Trying to dig up more info on this series was and is none too easy. Its back cover advertises that its author (Mario Kaneda) was also responsible for the much more successful Girl’s Bravo, and it was a Tokyopop manga released in 2010. That second fact alone speaks volumes, since that once-massive manga publisher was in the middle of a downward financial spiral that year that would end in its total shutdown and near-dissolution in the early months of 2011. Tons of titles part-way through publication at that time were sucked into the abyss of Tokyopop’s sinking ship at that time, never to be seen again, and I’m sad to say that the planned subsequent volumes of Saving Life suffered the same fate. There is a page for Volume 2 on Amazon with an anticipated release date, but based on the timeline, I’m quite sure it never made it to print. This seems to have been a short series even in its original Japanese run, with one site I found advertising a “complete run” of 3 volumes.

As an incomplete series, is it even possible to recommend Saving Life? Well… it does make it harder to recommend, but as I mentioned in the introduction, I honestly did enjoy this volume. Saving Life has a couple of things going for it that make it a pleasure to read.

The art in this volume is excellent and does a great job of accentuating the comedy, cuteness, or seriousness of the situation, as the scene might require. This is a harem and ecchi comedy, with plenty of “convenient” stumbles, wet T-shirts, and panty flashes, but the flavor of fanservice on display here is much more cute than lewd. Even in some of the more revealing scenes, it’s pulled off respectfully and doesn’t make you think less of the characters involved. The character designs were appealing, and often their facial expressions when they reacted to things were a hilarious highlight. One of the few negatives I’d mention on the artwork is that most of the backgrounds were nondescript and bland compared to the vivid characters interacting inside them.

I also really enjoyed our main cast of characters, all of whom had some really funny personality traits that made for great running gags. The penny-pinching Haruhiko is an absolute skinflint and cheapskate, and his ability to do anything better when he’s getting paid for it was really fun. I thought Yoriko struck a great balance between being super-supportive yet blisteringly independent, and Nanako’s mystical ability to kinda-sorta repair things and her slightly dirty mind beneath a cute exterior were both great. I also thoroughly loved the female friendship on display between Yoriko and Nanako. Harem comedies where the female characters are at each other’s throats in a perpetual cold-war catfight are dime-a-dozen, but the fact that Yoriko and Nanako thoroughly like, trust, and help each other based on their childhood friendship (and in turn, both usually extend that same benefit of a doubt to Haruhiko) was a real breath of fresh air.

The writing is hard to comment on since we only made it a single volume into the series, but it seemed to be setting up a gradual reveal of exactly what Haruhiko’s father did or asked him to do that caused the familial rupture. We also see the beginnings of an anime/manga harem forming, with Yoriko, Nanako, and even Junko all coming to like Haruhiko a little bit, but there are enough differences in their relationships that one can imagine several of these resolving in close friendships rather than a romantic relationship. The style of the writing is episodic and lighthearted – the author obviously wasn’t trying to write a romance for the ages, but a cute and funny comedy with romantic and mystery elements thrown in, and it was shaping up to be a fun little ride I wish had made it a bit farther.

Saving Life Manga

As the concluding entry in “Maid May” of 2021, I do have to mention that the “maid” element in this book is weaker than in many of the other titles I’ve featured this month. The fact that Nanako is a maid isn’t well-explained, and neither she nor any of the other characters make a very big deal out of it. The “maid thing” is present in various ways, though. Nanako dresses like a maid in Haruhiko’s home, she has obviously worked as a maid at some point, we see some maids in his family’s home, and the “Danny’s” restaurant uniforms for female employees have some maid-like touches in their frilliness. Moreover, the defining trait of the anime maid subgenre – a funny story about clumsy but cute girls attempting to take care of a clueless dude – is on full display here. Saving Life won’t rock your world, but you might be able to say it maid your day if you give it a chance.

If you want to get this manga volume as a cart-topper from RightStuf, they still have volumes in stock at the time of this review, and you could certainly do worse in your forays into their clearance section. It can also be picked up on the used market on eBay for a reasonable price as well.

Thank you for sticking with me this month as we took our time in exploring one of Japan’s stranger cross-cultural obsessions, and hopefully you discovered (as I did) a great series or two to enjoy as we head into the hot summer months. Take care, and May the maid uniform be with you!

MANGA REVIEW: Hanaukyo Maid Team (Vol. 1-3)

I often find that my final opinion of an anime solidifies not on the day that I finish it, but about 2-3 weeks afterward. If I find myself glad to be done with it, or if it quickly goes “out of sight, out of mind,” it probably wasn’t my thing. However, if I keep coming back to it by revisiting scenes in my head or rewatching individual episodes, then something about it struck me as special and worthwhile. To my own surprise, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite ended up in my personal winner’s circle. I reviewed the anime a few weeks ago as part of “Maid May” here on Anime Obscura, and while it certainly had its flaws, something about its characters and general vibe ended up thoroughly charming me. So much so, that I ended up hunting down the long out-of-print manga!

The original Hanaukyo Maid Team manga was a collaboration by a husband-wife team who wrote and drew under the pen name Morishige. It was published in Japan from 2000-2006 and ran 14 volumes long. In North America, the license was picked up by the small manga publisher Studio Ironcat, who unfortunately were only able to publish the first three volumes of the manga before going out of business. (Volume 4 was advertised in the back of Volume 3 but was never actually published.) These three volumes also encompassed the overwhelming majority of the source material the anime drew from, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the negative side, those hoping to follow the story’s progression after the events of the anime won’t have much to look forward to here. On the other hand, it affords an interesting opportunity for comparison between the original manga and its anime adaptation. (SIDE-NOTE: Since this particular manga license is long abandoned and has a snowball’s chance in hell of being picked up for a new North American print run at this point, I don’t think it does any harm to mention that decent fan translations are available for the remaining volumes. You can check those out here, but only the three officially-released volumes will be covered in this review.)

I’ll point you toward my review of Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite for the story summary, as the manga and the anime don’t differ significantly on their main plot points. The main differences you’ll find between the two is the order in which major events happen and certain characters get introduced. Most notably, the lovestruck vice-chief of security, Yashima Sanae, doesn’t appear until the manga’s third volume, whereas she was a main character in the anime from the very first episode. The other most significant change was that the dramatic story arc that concluded the anime, “Blue Silent Bell”, happened a bit earlier in the manga and was more of a reboot point than a grand finale.

Reading the manga after watching the anime, the thing I found most notable about the original Hanaukyo Maid Team manga was that it read like an experiment-in-motion, a series that had to search around for a while to find exactly the right vibe and tone that it wanted to hit. Once it found it, though, it leaned into it hard and immediately became a better comic as a result.

Volume 1 of Hanaukyo Maid Team is the most unrefined of the bunch in terms of both its visuals and story. We’re introduced to Taro, Mariel, Cynthia, Ikuyo, and the “bedwarmer” triplets of Lemon, Marron, and Melon (though never introduced by name in the manga) as our initial cast of main characters. Ryuuka is also introduced early on, though she’s less of a main character throughout these three manga volumes than she was in the anime. Konowe is another major cast member who makes her first appearance in this volume’s latter half. We also meet the freaky-looking guy below, Haruo Sankoda, who is a classmate of Taro’s from school.

These early chapters are 100% comedy and 0% drama, with hijinks from Ikuyo blowing things up providing much of the story and no hint of seriousness in sight. Interestingly, Taro is also of a fairly normal height in this first volume, but shrinks as the series progresses, something Morishige later admits in a note on his character profile. All told, these early chapters are pretty weak, though we do get small hints at higher ambitions for the story in the Konowe chapters and when Cynthia’s alternative personality, Grace, appears at the end of the volume.

Much of Volume 2 is taken up by the “Blue Silent Bell” story arc, and it constitutes a massive turning point in the manga’s tone. Without spoiling anything too major, some shocking revelations about Mariel’s past come to light, and Taro and his team of maids have to rescue her from a hostile force led by Taro’s own grandfather. These chapters are not only serious and action-packed, but become borderline-dark at points. The art and the writing both drastically improve in quality as this story arc progresses. The depictions of Taro’s grandfather shown below tell the story as well as anything, with him looking like a goofy old geezer at the start of Volume 1 and like a sinister mixture of Gendo Ikari (Evangelion) and Zouken Matou (Fate Zero) by the end of Volume 2.

Volume 1 versus Volume 2. Man, one book can really age a guy!

The manga becomes lighthearted again once “Blue Silent Bell” concludes, but it’s now clearly a much better manga with higher aspirations. Morishige seems to have become interested in not only providing good comedy, but in fleshing out their characters more and making us care about them. They treat “Blue Silent Bell” as the manga’s unofficial reboot point and are even willing to retread some familiar ground in order to do a better job with their premise. The end of Volume 2 retells Grace’s origin story with much more pathos and drama, and certain plot points and characters that were incompatible with the story’s new direction are also dropped by the end of this volume. Taro’s daily life at a public school is no longer mentioned, and the creepy-looking and uninteresting Sankoda character disappears from the story. (Good riddance.)

Volume 3 strikes a nice “best of both worlds” middle ground between the silliness of Volume 1 and the dark goings-on of Volume 2, treating Taro and company as complex human beings but putting them in hilarious situations. Much of this volume shines a spotlight on Konowe and helps us get to know and like her better as a character. It also introduces her apprentice, Yashima, who steals the show for much of Volume 3 and features as a key character throughout. This is a plus, as Yashima is an eminently entertaining character in these chapters. There’s also a bit of a throwback to the original story in one respect, in that Ikuyo outdoes herself in the mayhem she causes in the mansion.

After reading the manga, I can safely say the anime Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is something of a master class in how to do a good adaptation of very uneven source material. Rather than try to retell the early chapters of the manga in a direct play-by-play as it grasped around to find its direction, the anime took the tone and look of the series as established by the end of the manga’s third volume and retold the entire story in that style from the very beginning. This required some pretty heavy cut-and-paste editing of certain story elements. They brought Yashima in early, presented Ryuuka and Taro with their visual designs from later volumes, and reworked “Blue Silent Bell” into a proper dramatic conclusion rather than a jarring reboot point. All told, though, it really paid off. The manga is a lot of fun, but the anime is far and away the better version of this story when it comes to consistent quality.

Something else I realized is that the anime included an unresolved plot point from Volume 3 of the manga (the underground castle and the portrait of a woman who looked like Mariel). However, by putting it before the events of “Blue Silent Bell” rather than after, it could easily mislead viewers (including this one, who fell for it) into thinking that it was just a poorly-explained connection to the Bell arc rather than a wild loose end completely independent of it. All told, I have to give props to both versions for different reasons: to the manga for having the artistic courage to reinvent itself midstream into a better series, and for the anime for having the artistic smarts to improve upon the original manga by incorporating lessons learned along the way.

Back Covers of Volumes 1-3

I can’t complete this review without commenting on the quality of the books themselves and the presentation by Studio Ironcat. Ironcat sometimes had a reputation for questionable releases, and the only other comic I personally owned of theirs prior to this was a single comic of Cutey Honey that was so poorly-translated as to sound borderline-illiterate and with the art printed altogether too dark. I’m happy to report that Hanaukyo Maid Team fares significantly better for the most part, although there were some quality-control issues I’ll get into in a minute. The physical construction of the books themselves is good, albeit a little smaller than most typical manga volumes printed today in both height and thickness. (And none of the three volumes is exactly the same height, something I’m sure will fill OCD manga collectors with unbridled joy.)

Volume 1 had the most problems of the three releases by far in terms of both intentional (but bad) editorial choices and unintended goofs. There were several times when the artwork was too dark, and there were also a number of typos in the text, ranging from the routine (like misspellings) to the truly bizarre (like the image below, where the start of someone’s email got typed over an image and left in the final printed volume).

Ironcat also apparently struggled with image manipulation for anything more complicated than replacing the speech inside speech bubbles, and their solution in the first volume was to put a long glossary of kanji sound effects with reference by page number in the very back of the book. The image manipulation thing is an understandable problem, especially if they had few artists or graphic designers on staff who could make translated sound effects look good or “repair” the damage to the artwork after taking out the Japanese-language text, but the end-of-volume glossary felt like an “amateur hour” solution to the problem. Flipping back and forth that much made for wildly impractical and confusing reading, and most of the time I just didn’t bother.

In later volumes, they came up with a still-strange but far more practical solution to this challenge by placing translations in the white space above or below the manga panels. This allowed you to read the English translation on the same pages where the kanji appeared, and the way they presented them made it easy to connect the translation to the appropriate panel. This made for a much more pleasurable and well-informed reading experience than the earlier “end notes” approach. You can check out the image below for a good example of this strategy at work.

Volume 2 also included considerably fewer typos (zero of the weird variety), and I don’t believe I spotted any typos at all in Volume 3. The third volume also displayed a leaps-and-bounds improvement in the presentation of the art itself, which is a bittersweet victory in light of the manga’s discontinuation immediately afterward. Ironcat had obviously figured some things out and was in a much better position to do this manga justice moving forward, but the vicissitudes of business and the manga market had other plans.

In the end, the North American release of the Hanaukyo Maid Team manga is best thought of as a bonus retelling or “storyboarding” of its more readily-available anime. The anime honestly does a better job than the first three manga volumes of depicting the Hanaukyo Maid Team’s early adventures, but the original comic definitely has its charms. The spots where it differs from the anime make for interesting reading, and it includes several manga-exclusive story arcs that are hilarious and well-worth experiencing on their own merits. (“Taro’s Day Off” from Volume 1, the “Valentine’s Chocolate” story from Volume 2, and Konowe’s training adventure from Volume 3 are easily my favorites among these.) These manga are long out-of-print but tend to be very reasonable on the used market, running about $15-25 USD on eBay at the time of this review if you find them from the right seller. As I mentioned near the outset of the review, true Hanaukyo fanatics or completionists can also check out fan translations to finish the story.

Well, we’ve maid it more than halfway through Maid May, reader. Stick around – there’s more frilly foolery of the anime maid variety to come!

8 Rules For Making a Perfect Harem Anime

So, you’re an average Joe or Jane living an average life, when suddenly a mob of breathtakingly-attractive members of the opposite sex (or the same sex; I ain’t judgin’) appear out of nowhere and start fighting over you. It sounds like a dream, but since they’re all a bit unhinged, violent toward one another, and don’t give a damn about property damage, your potential orgy becomes a crazy romantic comedy instead. If this has ever happened to you, you should visit an insurance agent forthwith, but you are probably also the protagonist of an anime harem romantic comedy. (How are you reading my blog?!)

The harem romantic comedy subgenre (“harem” for short) has ebbed and flowed in popularity over the years, and I would say it hit its high water mark in both volume and quality in the 1990s through very early 2000s. It has never completely gone away, though, and probably never will, because the general setup has proven time and again to be such a rich vein for sweet, sexy, and hilarious moments. With that said, not all entries in this subgenre are created equal.

As something of an aficionado who has watched my fair share of these shows over the years, I believe I can identify certain rules, or perhaps principles, that work together as a formula to make an excellent harem anime. A harem anime might be able to get away with violating one or two of these rules and still be okay, but adhering to most of them is a prerequisite to being outstanding. Violating most of them is a near-guarantee that it’s going to be bad.

For the purposes of these rules, the character everyone is going ga-ga over is the “protagonist,” the assembled crew of those vying for him or her are the “harem,” and the individual members of that harem are romantic “options.” So, let’s get into it.


For the first 4 episodes, Invaders of the Rokujyōma takes on a relatively  slice-of-life/comedy bent as Kōtarō des… | Rwby anime, Digimon tattoo,  Sailor moon super s
Invaders of the Rokujouma

1. The 3/1 Ratio: The anime should have at least 3 episodes of runtime per romantic option.

Of all of the rules on this list, none is more commonly broken, and none is more commonly fatal from a quality standpoint. In a nutshell, some harem anime try to pack far, far too many romantic options into just a few episodes. The resulting problem is that none of them receives much attention, none of them gets much character development, and none of them makes much of an impression once the anime is over. Since anime creators rarely get to dictate the number of episodes their series will get, the better option is usually to intentionally limit the size of the harem.

By definition, “two is a romantic comedy, three’s a harem,” but the best-crafted shows in this genre keep their crew of girls or guys relatively small. That allows the viewer, along with the protagonist, to really get to know them, appreciate their quirks, and fall in love with them on a deeper, less superficial level. It also allows the romantic options to interact with one another as well as the protagonist across multiple episodes, reinforcing what we know about each character and why we should care about them. Harem anime that fail to follow this rule feel like a recording of a frenetic speed-dating session where we have trouble even remembering characters’ names, much less their personalities.

I will note that my “3/1 Ratio” is not exact math, and it is flexible in several ways. For one thing, it doesn’t mean that each option must receive precisely equal spotlight time in terms of their episode count, since some story arcs may necessarily take longer than others. It also doesn’t mandate exactly three episodes worth of individualized attention. In fact, this 3/1 ratio takes into account that you’ll normally have at least one “intro” episode where we meet everyone and one “conclusion” episode that wraps everything up, and those will almost always be equal-opportunity.

A great example of an anime that follows the ratio but also shows how it can be flexible is Invaders of the Rokujouma. It’s a 12 episode harem anime that also happens to coincide with the “exotic girlfriend” anime subgenre. With 7 recurring female characters, it seems to be radically exceeding the ratio at first, but one girl is a side character who is not at all romantically involved with the protagonist (moving us to 6), one is just a wingman for her friend (moving us to 5), and another functions as a sort of aspirational dream girl who receives a small amount of attention across all episodes rather than a dedicated storyline of her own (through this unusual loophole, moving us to 4). 4 options X 3 episodes “per” = 12 episodes, putting this anime in exactly the right sweet spot to comply with the ratio. It also includes one header, one trailer, and gives each girl in the harem exactly two consecutive episodes of spotlight time. By following the 3/1 ratio, we get to know all of them well enough to see why we should care about any of them.

Anime that did this right: Invaders of the Rokujouma; Fruits Basket; Majikoi; Ah My Goddess!

Anime that messed this up: If Her Flag Breaks (Gaworare); Are You the Only One Who Loves Me? (Oresuki); Maken Ki; Tenchi War on Geminar; Brothers Conflict

Otomate's Hakuoki Finally on Mobile Devices! – Figuratively Speaking

2. Six or Seven is Plenty.

This functions as a sort of corollary to the previous rule when applied to longer series, because while the math certainly holds true on a shorter anime, it doesn’t mean that a 52-episode series should ever have 17 or 18 love interests to keep track of. Even in cases where you have a very long series with multiple seasons, it is almost never a good idea to create a harem of more than six or seven romantic options. Honestly, you probably get the best mileage out of four or five.

There might be a few isolated cases where this rule is bendable, usually in cases where the ridiculously vast size of the harem is the entire point of the series. (Hanaukyo Maid Team might be a good example of this principle.) In general, though, if you want your viewer to remember and care about your crew of romantic options, the smart approach is to focus on a manageable-sized cast.

Anime that did this right: Tenchi Muyo (original OVA, Tenchi Universe, and Tenchi in Tokyo); Ranma ½; Hakuoki; To Love Ru

Anime that messed this up: Negima; Sister Princess; Date A Live (by later seasons)

Boys Over Flowers - Anime dos anos 90 já está disponível na Crunchyroll
Boys Over Flowers

3. The Protagonist Should Be Lovable And Interesting, Too.

Other than the pervasive ecchi content, the other most common complaint about harem anime from people who don’t like the genre is annoyed mystification over the following question: “Why would anyone be fighting over this loser?” And all too often, they have a point.

Because there’s a sort of “wish fulfillment fantasy” element to harem anime (i.e. “Wouldn’t you like cuties fighting over you?”), some anime creators try to make the main character a potential stand-in for the viewer. Unfortunately, they often decide to accomplish this by making the protagonist as bland, boring, and uninteresting as possible. You know the type if you’ve watched many anime in this subgenre. When it’s a male protagonist, he has messy brown hair, always wears a plain white shirt, is never physically imposing, has no distinguishing features, is whiny and spineless, and his idea of “defending” a love interest is jumping in front of them with his arms outstretched as a disposable human shield. Female leads in “reverse harems” are slightly less cookie-cutter, but the default in such cases seems to be a clumsy, quietly-pretty (but not impossibly-pretty), slightly oblivious girly-girl with long hair who frets too much.

It is possible to have an “okay” harem anime with a bad or boring lead, since the harem can still be interesting enough to carry the show. But… why do that? A much better method is to make the main character not only likable, but unique and interesting. Offer the viewer compelling reasons why the harem characters love this guy or girl so much that they’d fight over them. That’s the only way you’ll get any genuinely heartwarming scenes out of the show, because viewers will be happy to see a couple get together when they respect both characters who make up the couple.

On top of that, an interesting, likable main character does not do harm to the wish fulfillment element of a harem anime. If anything, most viewers would feel much more flattered imagining themselves as the stand-in for a character they actually like and respect rather than feeling like they were being compared to a bland, personality-less no-name whose on-screen presence irritates them.

Anime that did this right: The World God Only Knows; Ouran Host Club; Boys Over Flowers; Ladies vs Butlers; My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (OreGairu); Golden Boy

Anime that messed this up: To Love Ru; Maburaho; Heaven’s Lost Property; UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie; Diabolik Lovers

Watch Happy Lesson | Prime Video
Happy Lesson

4. Love Can (And Often Should) Take Different Forms.

This is a rule that seldom hurts anything when it is not followed, but following it can absolutely make a harem anime more interesting than it would have been otherwise. In quite a few harem anime, the options all want to become the main character’s girlfriend or boyfriend and all find the same thing(s) about them attractive, and that can provide plenty of entertainment in its own right. However, it’s more realistic and engaging when there’s some variety in the attempted relationships being forged.

People are different – even fictional people – and they will likely find different things about a character impressive, admirable, or lovable. They will also have different needs in their lives that are not currently being met. Because of all of that, it stands to reason that what they like or what they’re seeking from the protagonist would also contain some variety. A member of the harem may love a character and feel jealous when it comes to their attention, but the relationship they are seeking out may be more platonic – that of a friend, a brother/sister/parent/child figure, or that of a professional mentor. This not only helps the sense of realism in the show, but also allows for richer and more creative plot elements than the entire harem simultaneously trying to get into the main character’s pants or skirt.

One of the most unique anime I can think of in this regard is Happy Lesson, which is about an orphan teenager named Chitose who suddenly has a gang of hot women in their 20s move into his home. The catch? They’re all his teachers at school, and all of them want to become his mom! The series does contain one or two characters closer to his age who like him romantically, but this unique, purely platonic spin on the “harem” concept elevates this otherwise-mediocre entry in the subgenre into something considerably more interesting and memorable.

Anime that did this right: Happy Lesson; Haganai; OniAi; Ah My Goddess!; Saber Marionette Series

Anime that messed this up: My Sister is Among Them (Nakaimo); Ah My Buddha; High School DxD

Imagem relacionada | Code realize, Anime, Coding
Code Realize: Guardian of Rebirth

5. The Protagonist’s Appeal Shouldn’t Be A Mystery.

This is related to both #3 and #4, but it’s important enough to merit mentioning on its own, and it’s also possible (albeit uncommon) to mess this up while getting those rules right. The romantic attraction between the protagonist and the options shouldn’t feel like it materialized out of thin air, nor should it feel like a completely unnatural reaction to a toxic personality.

This is usually a direct, straightforward reflection of good or bad writing. Ideally, you’ll have an interesting, likable protagonist whose appeal speaks for itself. Even in cases of a bland protagonist, though, an anime can still follow this rule if it has the protagonist do something positive on an option’s behalf to explain why they find him or her lovable. If they don’t do either of these things – if the protagonist has no inherent magnetism or charm, and if they do nothing to earn affection – and they have an entire harem fighting over them anyway, that’s a huge problem from a basic writing perspective.

It’s also possible for a protagonist to be too toxic for the harem to make sense. I have seen some anime where the writers tried to make the protagonist prickly to make them more interesting, but they were occasionally enough of a jerk that it strained credulity that many people would like them. (Takeya in DearS, an anime I quite enjoyed overall, was guilty of this in a few scenes.)

Unfortunately, a toxic male protagonist surrounded by women who fawn over him is more often a reflection of some pretty deep misogyny baked into the writing – the author’s belief that women are most romantically and sexually attracted to bad boys who treat them poorly. I won’t say that such women don’t exist in nature at all, because it’s a big world out there, but they’re pretty darn rare, and forming a harem around that concept just feels gross most of the time. In reality-world, both women and men generally save their warm, fuzzy feelings for those who make them feel loved and valued, and fiction tends to be better when it reflects that.

There is a rather unique loophole around this rule that can explain the harem’s attraction to a character who does nothing special, is nothing special, or has an abrasive personality – the “they’re after his genes” scenario. These aren’t common, but a few anime (ex. Maburaho, Peter Grill and the Philosopher’s Time) feature a harem based purely on sex where the options are not after romance at all. Instead, the protagonist has something special in their bloodline (usually some massive latent power) that the female cast members want passed on to their own descendants, which in turn requires making a kid with him. Such anime are almost always sky-high on ecchi content, tend to be rather silly, and generally don’t want you to take them very seriously… but one has to concede, it is at least a reason.

Anime that did this right: Ai Yori Aoshi; Shomin Sample; Hakuouki; Code Realize: Guardian of Rebirth

Anime that messed this up: Trinity Seven; Demon King Daimao; DearS

8 Harem Anime You'll Actually Watch For the Story | All Harem Amino Amino

6. Every romantic option should be a viable one.

Not a lot to say here, other than that a considerable amount of the dramatic tension of a harem anime revolves around a single question: “Who will the protagonist end up with?” If it’s almost a foregone conclusion from the very start and the only real question is how they’ll get there, you’re actually watching a romance anime, not a harem anime.

If it is a genuine harem anime, though, there shouldn’t be any candidates so much weaker than the others that it feels like they were never in the running at all. They don’t have to all have perfectly equal shots, but if it’s not a close race, it substantially lessens the dramatic tension and makes for a weaker show. If there’s only one candidate weaker than all the rest, that’s even worse, since it will cause the double-whammy problem of the audience feeling pity for them as well as being bored with the overall lack of romantic suspense.

There may be an isolated anime or two out there that break this rule without it substantially harming the quality of the series, but those are rare enough that I feel comfortable standing firm behind the general principle. Romantic tension makes for a better harem.

Anime that did this right: Infinite Stratos; Outbreak Company; Monogatari

Anime that messed this up: Ranma ½; Love Hina; Hand Maid May

Prison School - Episode 8 English Sub - YouTube
Prison School

7. Fan Service Is An Additive, Not a Substitute.

By “fan service” or “ecchi” material, we’re talking any lewd or naughty images the animators cooked up for the audience. There is often quite a bit of risqué material in harem anime, simply because the setup lends itself so well to sexy scenes, wardrobe malfunctions, and attempted seductions. (In fact, I’d go so far as to say that while not all harem anime are ecchi, almost all ecchi anime are harem. There aren’t too many shows where sex appeal is the main focus and a single character provides all of it.) And this isn’t necessarily a problem! There is certainly a place for risqué comedy and artwork in anime, and as long as it’s clearly identified by the rating, viewers can “take it or leave it” as they choose according to their tastes.

However, a problem arises when fan service is the only thing a harem anime has going for it. Even for a one-season anime, 12 episodes is a long time to suffer through an anime with a bad or meandering plot, poorly-executed comedy, and boring characters. No matter how sexily it manages to animate its cast, no matter how much time and money is blown on the “animation budget” (ahem), viewers still want a decent story to go along with it. At the very least, all things being equal, they would vastly prefer a story where all of those elements are also strong.

Note that “fan service” and good writing emphatically don’t need to be an “either/or” proposition. A series I would highlight as an example that proves the point by featuring a shocking amount of both is Ladies Versus Butlers. This series is lewd to its very core – its characters tend to look rather suggestive even when they are standing perfectly still or are engaged in normal interactions, and when it actually tries to be risqué, it goes way over the top. Despite that, it has a loveable cast, is well-written, and has many touching and laugh-out-loud moments. High ecchi content is not everyone’s cup of tea and might limit a show’s appeal for that reason alone, but the overall quality of Ladies Versus Butlers proves that it’s virtually impossible to over-spice good writing out of existence with fanservice. Provided it’s there in the first place, the good writing will still show through.

On the other hand, the second season of Maken-Ki proves that no amount of fanservice can replace good writing. The first season of this anime would win no awards for its disjointed and meandering plot, but it did at least make a weak effort at having one and was slightly better for it. The second season didn’t even bother, jettisoning any pretext of plot in exchange for “plot,” and it resulted in an anime season that had no more artistic value than any other embarrassing thing you’d want to erase from your search history.

Anime that did this right: Ladies Versus Butlers; Prison School; Monster Musume; Golden Boy

Anime that messed this up: Maken Ki; Mr. Nobunaga’s Young Bride; Mouse

The Quintessential Quintuplets Mobile Game Available Now
Quintessential Quintuplets

8. Production Values Matter.

This one may sound like an odd one to include, because it’s not unique to harem and is equally true of any anime genre. However, since we’re listing the rules of what it takes to make a good harem anime, I’d be remiss to not say that this subgenre benefits or suffers from its production values just like any other.

An interesting aesthetic, appealing and unique character design, beautiful colors and lighting, good animation, catchy opening and ending songs, and good background music can elevate a mediocre harem anime or make a great one shine even brighter.

A generic aesthetic, bland or off-putting character design, flat-looking or lazy artwork, stiff or no animation, forgettable opening or ending songs, and inappropriate background music can kneecap even a very well-written harem anime and make it forgettable or outright bad.

Anime that did this right: Are You the Only One Who Loves Me? (Oresuki); Grisaia series;Quintessential Quintuplets; Samurai Girls / Samurai Bride

Anime that messed this up: Rosario Vampire; Happiness; Love♥Love; Koi Koi Seven; To Heart series


And that’s it! I hope this tour through the philosophical underpinnings of silly romantic comedies about a crowd of girls or guys drooling over an “unlucky” protagonist has been useful to you. Candidly, I think it will be useful to me here at Anime Obscura as something I plan to point back to when reviewing harem anime in the future.

I feel I should mention one or two things in closing this little list. First, you may have noticed what seems like a rather glaring omission – the rule that “the harem options themselves should be lovable and interesting.” While absolutely critical, the reason I didn’t include that particular rule in this list is that it’s actually the one thing that harem anime virtually never mess up. Even the densest anime creators seem to understand that their harem characters are the life and soul of the genre, and even if they break all eight of my other rules, they get that one aspect right and create love interests that are at least somewhat interesting and feel like they have the potential to be lovable. If a harem anime goes wrong, the problem is usually not with the harem options themselves, but the fact that they were not fleshed out fully enough (rule #1 and 2) or that their relationship to the protagonist felt forced, illogical, or boring (rules #3-5). In the handful of cases where they serve no purpose other than eye candy, they violate rule #7. Between all of that, I felt like enough bases were covered that this didn’t need to be listed as a separate rule. If anyone wants to make it an apocryphal ninth rule, though, I have no problem with that.

I should also stress that I can only mention shows here that I have personal experience with or knowledge of. There may be other anime that would serve as better examples of breaking or following these rules, but they just aren’t in my repertoire at this time. I also have to admit that while I have watched most of the anime I mentioned here in their entirety, there are a handful (especially among the “bad” examples) where I’ve only watched an episode or two and formed my opinion based on that. If I’ve falsely inflated or sullied a particular anime’s reputation, you have my apology in advance. I still stand firm behind the general rules I’m advancing even if I were to make a minor goof on a “case-in-point.”

Finally, I’ll close with the usual disclaimer about how every rule has exceptions, and about how it’s possible to break the rules and still have things work, yadda yadda yadda. You’ll notice that some anime I singled out as problematic in certain areas were featured as exemplary in others (Oresuki and Ranma ½), and a few of the ones I have pointed out as having problems are nonetheless “Top 10” anime for me overall. It’s very possible for a harem anime to still be outstanding thanks to its overall merits even if it gets one or two aspects of the overall “perfect harem anime” formula wrong.

All the same, I’ll be happiest when they get all of it right, because if the harem genre teaches us anything, it’s to shoot for the moon in terms of our expectations. After all, why settle for one good thing when you can have it all? 😉

Are You The Only One Who Loves Me? / Oresuki