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.
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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? 😉