11/07/2007

Why watch harem?

What is eternity doing tonight? has become Mega Megane Moé. For the latest posts, please change your links accordingly.
Word association time: I say harem, you say:

A) Unrealistic.
B) Simplistic.
C) Uninspired.
D) Boobies!

Many anime fans would pick one of these four to describe the genre; something that really shows the relatively bad reputation that one-guy-many-girl shows have. But there is, just like most other genres, much more than meets the eye in harem shows.

What earns the harem genre such a hard reputation is the wide range in quality that a crowded market like it is bound to contain. More so than any other, harem shows are prone to cash-ins, cheap adaptations, and lazy work simply because it's the type of show that has a proven audience.

Why? Because it appeals to many people on the lowest, most physical level of two-dimensional sex appeal. Those who manage to keep blood flowing to the brain are the ones who instantly write off the genre as brainless fanservice.

But just like take-out food, you can't condemn a whole flavor (in this case, of anime) based on on bad experience, and so today's public service message will deal with the fact that there are plenty of good harem shows out there (or shows with harem elements), as well as plenty of good reasons to watch it.

Let me note first off that "watching CG jubblies and panties" is not on my personal good-reason list; fanservice has never made much sense to me, and I prefer more interesting uses of my time and hands.

But more complex opponents may argue that the rest of harem shows, if not fanservice, is blatant 'wish fulfillment'. The whole concept of 'many girls in love with one guy' is seen by them as unrealistic and ridiculous. And yes, it's true that they're right.

I'd be wrong to deny that there is a bit of an intrinsic appeal of being in the center of that black hole of female-attracting-ness, but often times it's not the male character that harem fans can find the most to sympathize with, but the female characters.

It's kind of like, to make a stretched analogy, a sports match.

Maybe a track meet. There's a bunch of varied, diverse character of many different types - 'nations' of a sense - competing for one common goal, or guy. While these 'nations' may seem rather stereotypical at first (i.e. one might see the Nigerian track runner, the Chinese gymnast, etc. in a certain light), they aren't expressly confined to the beliefs or personalities of such a nation.

In that sense, while one can list off the character designs of a lot of harem shows at first glance - the Childhood Friend, the Promised One, the Lolicon Who Wants to be Mature, the Tsundere, etc - you can't limit your beliefs to thinking that the childhood friend will always be submissive, the promised one will always win, the energetic girl will always be as flat as a washboard, and so on. Or, at least, if you do, you might be surprised.

There are plenty of surprises in terms of characters in harem anime. The maids of Tsukihime, Hisui and Kohaku; to dismiss them as pure fetish characters would be doing their stories a great disservice. Lisianthus of Shuffle has much more to her than her rabid crush on Rin; her introspectives are one that could appeal to any fan of romance. Mina of TokiMemo; Da Capo's Kotori; the list goes on. Obviously, these characters still are a bit cliche, still a bit predictable, still a bit pandering, but their personalities aren't shallow by any means.

Likewise, harem shows can, in their strange little way, entertain male (or female) viewers in the same way that sports event to. They are actually very dramatic competitions at times.

And not just in the sense that they are all competing over one guy - some of the character vs. character interaction in these shows has made great shows out of the harem formula.

Who could forget how Shuffle broke the boundaries in many ways, with both intense female on female conflict (in a story-driven way, not in the 'hot' way)? Or the almost legendary tale of the three guys who met in the season, School Days? Yes, it may be a little bit soap-opera-ish the way two girls will fight over one guy, but the amount of raw emotion that these scenes impart are just stunning at times. If not realistic, it's very entertaining drama.

Or, taking the other sense of competition into play, the harem show allows for an emotional attachment to characters the same way that many people get attached to the local sports team. Each person will likely have a favorite character from the varied cast of haremettes, one that they will root for beyond all others.

And so, like any sport worth it's salt, what results is some great emotion swings and levels of interest generated as fans add up the numbers, make the predictions, and put it all on the line to see who is going to end up taking the man home.

The secret to a winning anime is quite simply, letting the viewer connect with one of the character on an emotional level, and this can be achieved quite well with the relatively diverse storylines and backgrounds that five 'main' characters can bring to the table; the highs and lows of watching, say, Nayuki, or Kaede, or Kotori battle it out only adds to the fun.

After all, unlike some other shows, a good percentage of harem shows don't choreograph the 'winners'; while in an action or sports show you know the good guys are likely going to win (barring minor setbacks and Evangelion), with harem shows generally most if not all the characters are on equal footing. And if not (Childhood Friend/Promised One are sometimes the obvious winners, unfortunately), one can always root for their character to make some level of progress, the same way that lucky West Coast football fans get to hope that the 49ers will have a .250 winning percentage this year.

So it's not just the desire to own five girls that attracts a lot of people - or at least me - to harem shows. Quite often, in the absence of more pure romance shows like Cardcaptor Sakura, Code-E or NanaDrops, harem shows are almost, if not just, as good as appealing to those who like a heartwarming, romantic story.

Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and it would be wrong to use the words 'harem' and 'heartwarming' in the same sentence. As long as there are middle-aged people living in their parents' basements there will be harem shows that are nothing more than a vehicle for bouncing breasts and panty flashes [that should send the hit counter skyrocketing]. Even some of the anime I've listed above as worthwhile ones, such as Shuffle, or Da Capo, do spend a large amount of time masquerading as fanservice flicks.

But to condemn whole shows, or even the whole genre as such, just like labeling any other type of show, whether it be action, sports, or even English, as bad, would be doing harem shows a gross misjustice. If you've got an eye for romance stories, even emotional stories, give some of the deeper (read: visual-novel-adapted) shows labeled as 'harem' a shot. You might be shocked.

-CCY

And to be honest, a lot of shows don't have 'breast' fanservice so much as 'moe' fanservice now...

8 comments:

I think you're more or less right--there is nothing intrinsically wrong with one genre over another, even the harem genre. But it really is as a genre prone to the most exploitation, the most cliches, and the most lazy storytelling out of all the currently popular anime genres in fandom. (Classic example: Nagasarete Airantou.) There is also nothing wrong intrinsically with wish fulfillment in fiction, idealization, and the like. It's just that at least for me, the writers forget that for escapism to be believable and complete, you still have to have a modicum of emotional realism amidst the fantasy and wish fulfilling. There needs to be a hook or else it just seems unmotivated and random. A little of that leaven can make the whole loaf rise: witness Clannad, which is the least annoying so far of Key productions precisely because it has some more believable interaction and emotions.

If you asked me that word association test, I'd have responded: "fun!"

Most of the time, I watch harem shows because for the most part, what I watch are the harem comedies, rather than the dramas. It's a chance for me to de-stress and unwind after a long day. There's damned little to laugh about without reservations in the Real World, so I treasure every chuckle I get in a harem show, when all I need to think about is how amazingly cute this character is, or how amusing the situations can get.

Weirdly enough, too much schadenfreude is unfunny to me, which is why several harem comedies (Seto no Hanayome, for instance) don't really appeal to me that much. But I don't really care how many cliches or lazy plots there are in a show, as long as it gives me plenty of cute girls to look at (and has the screentime focus on those girls), has enough comedy (preferably witty banter or Boke/Tsukkomi), and doesn't try to take itself way too seriously.

I suppose it could be considered wish fulfilment in a way: it's not that I wish I had a girlfriend like one of the female haremettes, but more that I had friends like the haremettes, who are easy on the eyes, and also aren't as apathetic/cynical as most people I meet in Real Life. Cynics, after all, are not moe.

I'm with DKellis...I watch harems (sparingly) for comedy.

Mike: Yeah, I guess a little bit of wish fulfillment is good; you make a good point that believability is one of the most important things to unrealistic setups like harem shows.

Personally I found a lot to like in all the Key productions so far, but maybe that's because I looked past a bit of the intrinsic ridiculousness (and the whole get-in-line arc feel to it) and more towards the characters, who, while a bit forced, were very moe. XD Clannad does feel a bit better with the way they're building up Nagisa and Tomoya's relationship, though.

DKellis / Griever: Hmm, that's another side to it. I didn't really consider the humor side of harem shows, mainly because I couldn't think of many that had real humor to it (as opposed to, 'hey look, I fell on top of you. laugh.').

But I suppose shows like Clannad could be a good example of funny shows that happen to have some harem elements to it (although arguing that it's going to stay that way is futile). I personally haven't watched (or haven't recgonized that I have watched) a lot of shows that mix harem and comedy; usually I stick to harem for the drama/romance and slice of life for the comedy.

Yeah, I watch harem comedies for the humour, but I can't really name any which had good humour all the way. (Unless you want to stretch the definition of "harem" and include Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Or go the other side and include Ouran High School Host Club.)

It's just a mindless sort of entertainment which is perfect after stressing out my brain on work. The male protagonist gets caught between his two strong-willed love interests, and both blame him! Funny! The Official Couple go on a date, and their friends tag along to spy on them! Hilarious! Things like that, which would never elicit a laugh from the stratified critics, but which don't rely on brain power to understand. It's like watching a sitcom.

I watch slice-of-life for the comedy as well, but harem comedies have the additional fun factor of romantic entanglements (which nevertheless get resolved with a Happy Ending, or at least a Status Quo Ending), and (almost by definition) the large number of cute girls.

Weirdly, I've actually managed to offend some Clannad fans by my opinion of the series, and this is an opinion which is favourable, albeit in a very narrow sense: namely, I mentioned that I wouldn't mind if I could watch a version of Clannad which was the same as it is, but with all the angst, the drama, the serious bits, all carefully surgically removed, and thus leaving the comedy. Because the Fujibayashi twins are awesome, and Sunohara is utterly misplaced in a drama series.

^ What he said. Darn these timezones. :P

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