I’ve been doing some thinking about the concept and tropes of harem anime recently. Here is Part 1 out of I don’t know how many parts but expect at least one more. Today’s topic is the concept of responsibility in harem anime.
The basic concept of a harem show is that it involves one guy surrounded by multiple gorgeous women who are all either vying for his affection, or could be conceived as such. As such, it tends to be a rather divisive genre among fans. Some of the more controversial topics in anime spring to mind, such as sexualization of anime characters, arguments about whether or not harem shows hurt or help anime, what makes a “good” anime character, or whether or not the fans of such shows are just perverts with no taste. One common criticism of harem anime is that they tend to feature a do-nothing protagonist who sits around and lets his gorgeous harem girls sexually tease and prompt him without himself applying any sort of initiative. However, what I have come to realize is that harem anime, with very few exceptions, requires a certain level of passivity from its male protagonist, without which the “harem” concept would weaken and crumble.
The “Arms’ Length Harem” as I have dubbed it is a simple concept. It is where, as stated before, a male protagonist in a harem anime never actively makes a move on any of the girls until perhaps the very end when the story is nearing its conclusion. The reason for its existence is also quite simple: as long as the protagonist is at “arms’ length,” he is absolved of responsibility. What this means is that as long as the male protagonist does not make an active effort to start a relationship with a female character, he is in a sense still “innocent” and can maintain the harem illusion. It doesn’t matter how many times he accidentally walks in on girls taking a bath or how many times their breasts fall on his face because he is not the initiator and thus it is never actually his fault.
As soon as he makes a move, he must take responsibility, and if he tries to maintain the harem while also in a relationship with a girl, he loses the support of the male viewers who want the benefits of being considered a good and pure man at heart who is surrounded by beautiful women who tend to be in various states of undress at any given moment. The male protagonist cannot be an uncaring, unfeeling womanizer if he wishes to keep the support of the men viewing him.
Even in erotic games and dating sims, this sense of innocence and responsibility is maintained. In games where you pursue only one girl per story path, while you can sleep with all of them eventually, in the specific plotline the player is pursuing there is only one “true” girl. In games where you have sex with multiple partners, sometimes simultaneously, the girls are usually the ones to initiate. And in games where the hero is actively trying to have sex with multiple women, at the very least this is displayed front and center and the main character is given a predatory personality to match his actions, i.e. making it not an Arms’ Length Harem at all.
An interesting case study is Itou Makoto from the School Days anime, who is a male harem protagonist who goes against this “unwritten” rule of harem protagonists. Makoto starts off just like any other harem protagonist, being a nice if innocuous guy who finds himself in a situation where multiple girls are interested in him. However, unlike most protagonists, Makoto gains an extreme amount of confidence from the knowledge that girls can find him attractive, and it transforms his personality from a caring individual to a player who manipulates girls so he can sleep with them. As one might expect, Makoto does not have many fans in the anime community beyond those whose who like him in an ironic sense. However, it’s not just his sleeping with multiple women that garners him hatred, it’s the way in which he does it, as well as how his sense of responsibility is entirely lacking.
Makoto tries to do exactly what I said is death for the male harem protagonist: he attempts to maintain the harem while actively pursuing girls, but on top of that he tries to act as if he is still an innocent protagonist along the lines of Negi Springfield from Negima. It is Makoto’s two-faced dichotomy and his active deception of the girls he pursues that makes him such an unlikable character.
Makoto’s situation is different from heroes who sleep with multiple women such as Golgo 13 or even Minase from Bible Black because they do not hide this facet of their personality. Characters such as those are sexual dynamos who act as they truly are and accept responsibility for their actions, something Makoto never manages to do.
Makoto eventually finds his extensive harem crumbling, with girls blocking his phone number and refusing all contact. In this situation, where Makoto basically manipulated countless girls into having sex with him by being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, h reacts poorly to the sudden change in his daily life, from constant sex to no sex whatsoever. However, the thoughts that spring to Makoto’s mind are all along the lines of, “Why did this happen to me?” and “I don’t deserve this!” With this mindset, where no matter what he does or which people he hurts he still considers himself the “nice guy,” he completely alienates the male viewers who might be supporting him otherwise.
No matter how the real world is, an Arms’ Length Harem must have a male protagonist who is essentially pure of heart, even if his libido rages with the power of a million exploding suns. While the girls are important for any harem, it is actually the main character that is necessary in order to keep the harem in its ideal state. What can be said about this mindset, then? Is it just a symptom of otaku being unable to handle women in real life? I would not simply say “yes” to that. What I think is important in this subject is that there are certain contradictions which cannot be reconciled because they violate how the target male viewer perceives himself and others. This viewer, whether he truly exists or not or is simply a fabricated “ideal viewer” by the show itself, sees himself as a person who would not betray his responsibilities. However, if responsibility can be avoided then there is no need to take it.