Good Harems vs. Bad Harems: Morality in Polyamorous Manga

The term “harem” gets thrown around often in anime and manga, but series considered to be part of the harem genre rarely feature actual polyamorous or polygamous relationships. Instead, the purpose of many of these series is pure, carnal power fantasy. However, I’ve noticed that a few series make a distinction being “good harems” and “bad harems.”

Case 1: Tales of Wedding Rings

For the most part, Tales of Wedding Rings is a fairly orthodox harem fantasy series about a boy who gets transported to another world and must wed powerful princesses across the land to defeat an evil entity revived. The girls are all beautiful in different ways, and unlike those works which tend towards having the hero choose a true partner, the implication is that none of the heroines mind a polygamous relationship. It’s no strings attached. Or is it?

More recent chapters have revealed an interesting wrinkle. The hero, Satou, is the new “Ring King,” and for most of the series, his predecessor has been spoken of as a legend savior. But one of his former wives reveals a dark secret: as he continued in his role as the first Ring King, his thirst for for power grew in more than one sense. Knowing that his might relied on his physical and emotional bonds with his wives, he began to abuse and even rape them. The wives endured all they could, but ultimately they worked together to take revenge and kill the Ring King.

Suddenly, a manga about an ideal male power fantasy, the harem of hot and powerful babes, carries a lesson that there’s a difference between genuine love and the desire for control and power that leads to abusive relationships. It’s not enough to have all the women, but to treat them with respect as well. Otherwise, the fate that the first Ring King brought upon himself through his violent behavior might very well befall Satou as well.

Case 2: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

The Gundam franchise traditionally doesn’t stray too far from heteronormative relationships, at best teasing about the prospect of other types of attraction and love through its characters. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is a major exception to this rule. Its romances feature homosexuality, major age gaps, and yes, actual harems.

The character Naze Turbine commands a ship piloted by his many wives. But while he might appear to be a dubious personality at first, his real goal in marrying so many women is to take them out of dangerous, dead-end situations. He makes them his wives so as to afford them the protection of his yakuza-esque organization, Teiwaz, and he provides training and education for them so they have the skills to survive in their own. He doesn’t even require his wives to actually sleep with him, so some are spouses in name only. Of course, he won’t refuse a physical relationship either, and has fathered many offspring as a result.

Like first Ring King in Tales of Wedding Rings, there is a character who represents the “bad harem” in Iron-Blooded Orphans: Jasley Donomikols. Another member of Teiwaz, he constantly tries to bribe Naze’s wives to his side with gifts of money and power with no success, failing to realize that what they value most in Naze is not riches but love and caring. Eventually, Jasley is murdered out of revenge by Naze’s wives.

Naze’s approach to love ends up influencing even the main love triangle of Iron-Blooded Orphans. At one point, Amida (Naze’s #1) says to a young Atra Mixta that a true man has enough love to go around, a lesson Atra takes to heart.

So What’s the Difference?

In both Tales of Wedding Rings and Iron-Blooded Orphans, a clear distinction is made between a healthy harem and an unhealthy one. The former is based on caring and generosity, while the latter is founded in greed, selfish desire, and the treatment of women like objects. Both the first Ring King and Jasley make this mistake, and end up paying the price for it.

This notion of the “selfless harem” is fairly idealistic and at odds with how harems are generally envisioned. Normally, they are wish fulfillment fantasy for boys and men filled with lust and eyes for many, or for those who don’t want to choose. Institutionalized polygamy (like the kind found among Fundamentalist Mormons) can become a dangerous source of power imbalances in communities, harming both men and women. The irony is that according to the series which champion selfless harems, they can only be truly obtained when one does not greedily desire for them, like some kind of Zen or Taoist riddle.

Four Kings Meet in a Room to Discuss the Meaning of a Punch Made out of Rocket

If you were to ask someone informed what the most influential giant robot series of all time were, they’d probably give the following answer: Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Isn’t it amazing then, when you realize that all four of these series have had recent revivals, as if the Forces of Anime have deemed this period of time to be the celebration of all things humanoid and mechanical?

Mazinger Z has the new Imagawa-directed Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-Hen, which takes elements of the entirety of Mazinger lore and its remakes (as well as much of Nagai’s works) and incorporates them into a single cohesive story that explores and brings to light the thematic elements which make Mazinger Z itself such a prominent part of anime’s history. As the first Super Robot to be piloted from within, and the first to declare its attacks with passionate yells, and then in 2009 to make such a show feel fresh and original, I think we’re all the better for knowing it exists.

Gundam received a new series set in our timeline (AD) in the form of Gundam 00, as well as a return to the Universal Century timeline that few expected after all these years in the form of Gundam Unicorn and Ring of Gundam. There’s also the massive celebration of its 30th anniversary in real life, which includes life-size Gundams, weddings on life-size Gundams, and musical concerts. Whichevery way you prefer your Gundam, whether you’re an old-school curmudgeon or someone who came in from Wing or SEED, there’s a message for you, and that message is “Gundam is Amazing!”

Macross Frontier meanwhile celebrated the franchise’s 25th anniversary. Unlike Gundam, Macross doesn’t just get animated series updates every year, so to have a full series emerge and capture much of the energy of the original Macross while still being true to its current era of anime made Frontier a joy to follow. The most interesting departures, so to speak, were the extremely current-era character designs (in contrast with the classic 80’s Mikimoto ones), and the ways in which the concept of  the “pop idol” has morphed over the course of two or three decades.

Evangelion is in the process of having its story entirely re-animated and retold in a series of movies which seek to do more than just cash in on an already perpetually marketable franchise, though that’s not to say that they don’t do so at all, and instead also transform the story in dramatic ways, from adding entirely new characters to subtle changes in the characters’ personalities and actions, everything is moving towards the idea that things will Not Be the Same. It’s also the newest series of the bunch, and thus the “freshest” in the public consciousness.

What’s also interesting about this is that when you step back and look, you’ll see that each of these series has influenced the one after it in very powerful ways, whether indirectly or otherwise. Mazinger Z set the stage for the super robot formula, which led to a young Tomino Yoshiyuki working on super robot series, then getting tired of them, eventually leading to Gundam, the first series to really push the idea of giant robots as tools, and to advance the concept of a war with no real winners that existed in series such as Daimos and Zambot 3. Macross is an evolution of this “real robot” concept thanks to a staff that fell in love with Gundam years ago, and now includes real-world vehicles transforming directly into robots, a much greater emphasis on character relationships, and an optimistic spin with the idea that the power of songs can influence two warring cultures and bring them closer to one another. Evangelion’s director Anno Hideaki worked on Macross, and the influence of both it and Gundam and even Mazinger Z permeate throughout its episodes and general design. The “Monster of the Week” formula made popular by Mazinger Z finds its revival in the form of the mysterious “Angels” in Evangelion, but the story and the monsters are merely part of a philosophical backdrop. Characters are entirely the focus of the series, and these children are so intrinsically flawed that some do not enjoy them as characters.

And now it’s like all of these series are sitting in the same room, feeling the weight of their years of fame, and standing shoulder to shoulder, eager to see what happens next in the world of giant robot anime. And then sitting in the same room is Tetsujin 28, which nods its head in approval.

Are giant robots still capable of capturing imagination and transforming world-views after all this time? I think so, and I think it’s happening as you read this.

Best Anime Characters of 2008

Once again, there’s only two categories. I would include a “BEST DEATH” category but I’d feel bad accidentally spoiling events from anime in such a dramatic fashion. So without further ado, I present…

THE BEST ANIME CHARACTERS OF 2008

BEST MALE CHARACTER**

Graham Aker (Mobile Suit Gundam 00)

It’s not easy being a rival character, and it’s even less easy when you’re in a Gundam series. Despite the odds, Graham Aker exemplifies the best in rivalry in a way that is rarely seen in anime.

Graham isn’t some rebel who can’t be contained, or a neutral figure with ulterior motives. He’s no Char Aznable, but that shouldn’t be held against him. He’s loyal to his allies, respectful to his enemies, and approaches every situation with unmatched fervor and determination. His skills as a pilot make him one of the most significant threats on the battlefield. Even when he’s severely outmatched on a technological level, Graham can never be counted out. He’s a rival character who actually has the  potential at all times to end the life of a main character without any convenient plot devices to cheapen his victories. Graham Aker has presence unlike any other.

Graham Aker is a thinking man’s beast. He’s passionate, but doesn’t let passion blind him from the truth. In the end, Graham’s most important trait is that he is simply unafraid to be himself, though he may change his name and then make everyone call him by said name. That’s just Graham Aker, baby.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Sheryl Nome (Macross Frontier)

2008 was rife with good female characters, and unlike last year it was very difficult to choose just one. The more I thought about it though, the more I leaned towards Sheryl Nome.

Sheryl is attractive in a way that harkens back to 1980s anime series while still possessing a modern 2000s flair. She’s confident yet vulnerable, going from being on top of the world to carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and along the way all you want to do is cheer her on and be her support. But she doesn’t need your support, because she’s Sheryl Nome and nothing short of death will stop her from moving forward. Even when she’s hit rock bottom nothing can ever truly dampen her spirit.

There are some disagreements among the anime community in regards to recent anime and its treatment of female characters. Sheryl Nome is a compromise between these schools of thought. Actually, “compromise” is a misleading word, as there are no concessions made with her character. She has all of the strengths with none of the drawbacks. Sheryl Nome shows everyone, old and new, fan and detractor, what it means to be a strong character where strength does not preclude vulnerability or vice versa.

Final Word

Picking the “best” characters is never easy, and in the end, the concept of “best” as used in this sense is just an illusion. These aren’t even my favorite characters of the year, but I felt they had much more of an impact on anime as a whole, in addition to being characters I’m very fond of. It’s also pure coincidence that both Graham and Sheryl are from Gundam and Macross respectively, two of the biggest franchises in anime that are also giant robot series. Or perhaps not, seeing as both series dared to do more with its characters than anyone expected.

**What this actually means is, “Best Male Anime Character of 2008 who is not Kenshiro or Raoh”

All Mannequin All the Time

Well maybe not that much, but I’ve really been enjoying the increased presence of the best female character in Gundam 00. A capable captain without any sort of unusual personality flaws or traumatic past (as far as I know), it’s like a hot drink on a cold day.

I don’t know why she’s become a more important to Gundam 00, but it’s really great seeing a character I like go from being a fairly minor character to being one that’s prominently featured in practically every episode. Maybe there were some polls and Sunrise found out that Kati Mannequin has an awesome fanbase. Or maybe they wanted to feature her voice actor more. Whatever the reason, I am reaping the benefits.

Also, that A-Laws uniform with hairbun does terrible things to me.

Are We All Watching the Same Gundam 00?

As I look at the praise and criticism Gundam 00 has received, I get the strange impression that everyone is watching a different show despite what the title screen says.

With a show like Code Geass, which has tons of people who love it, tons of people who hate it, and a whole lot of others in the middle who watch it for various reasons, I can look at all the comments and ratings it gets and believe that everyone was watching the same show. I cannot say the same of Gundam 00 and at times it baffles me just how much the contradicting opinions regarding Gundam 00 simply make no sense when you put them all together.

I know people’s preference in anime can differ tremendously, but that’s not the problem I’m having here. You can have two people eat the same food and one will like it and the other will hate it. But with Gundam 00, it’s like two get the same food, and then one person claims he ate an octopus while the other person claims he drank a firetruck.

What is it about Gundam 00 that causes this seeming dimensional rift in how people see it? Is it the character designs? Is it the bad taste Destiny left in people’s mouths (where everyone can agree they drank firetrucks)? Do people simply have different values for what they expect out of a Gundam series and our various biases warp the image of what’s there into something our brains can process?

俺はコンラン。

I see through your plot, GUNDAM 00!!!

Oh, you are one clever series, Gundam 00, almost too clever.

Season 1 was all set-up, wasn’t it? “Oh,” you might say, “but shouldn’t the first season be set-up for the second season?” And you’d be right. But this isn’t just set-up, it’s a set-up.

Much like Celestial Being, Gundam 00’s first season had an ulterior motive, one that is given away by the fact that the first season takes place five years before the second season.

Yes, the true goal of Gundam 00 is to trick its younger audience into watching a Gundam series with a cast composed not of teenagers but fully-grown 20-something year olds.

The end-times are upon us. Let us welcome our well-past-puberty saviors.

TWO roads converged in a yellow wood: Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Season 1

The first half of Gundam 00 has concluded, and in the show’s desire to stand on its own two feet despite its Gundam name it embodies the spirit and messages behind the original Mobile Suit Gundam far more than any other alternate universe Gundam series. Every Gundam series involves war (or at least a substitute for war on an Earth surrounded by energy ropes), and every series shows how fighting affects various people, but none since the original Gundam and Zeta Gundam have put the emphasis on how it affects everyone. More importantly, it’s easy to care about how war affects everyone on both personal and universal levels, and this is really a testament to how effective Gundam 00 has been.

When I first saw Gundam 00, I was a little worried about it. It had all the right pieces, but it would be so, so very easy to play them wrong, to create the ugliest chess match in existence. But it didn’t. Gundam 00 has defied the odds, and it manages this by wielding the most powerful but most easily abused and corrupted piece of all: Death.

Watching the final episode and seeing roughly half of Celestial Being die in a battle they could not win, it was a bit of a shock. For one thing, with Nena Trinity still out there it would be natural to assume that something would come in and save the day. Turns out, nothing did, except for the power and resolve of the pilots and crew. This applies to not just Celestial Being but also the side of the allied nations as well. Looking even further back, with the death of Louise’s parents, the death of Graham Acre’s friends and co-pilots, and even the death of Lockon Stratos and so many others, death has immediate and long-lasting impacts on both the viewer and the characters. In other words, in Gundam 00 death is significant. Compare this to SEED, Wing, X, or even 08th MS Team, and the approach to death is drastically different. The deaths are not telegraphed from episodes away, nor are they quick changes to the plot in order to get a cheap pop or to try and produce drama. The characters are already dramatic, which is why their deaths inherently produce drama, not the other way around.

Gundam 00 is at its halfway point, and though I know better to jump the gun (I said that there was no way Gundam SEED Destiny could fail prior to it airing), I dare to call Gundam 00 the second best alternate universe series after Turn-A Gundam. I like SEED characters more, and I like pretty much all of Gundam, but 00 planned and executed so superbly, from its plot to its characters to even its mecha and fight scenes, that there’s no denying that it has just been a Good Series.

Surprising to me was how well the main pilots turned out, despite the risk of being generic angsty bishounen. The Gundam Meisters can be easily misconstrued as generic, but peeling back the layers shows a great deal of depth and personality. Setsuna F. Seiei is most surprising of all, as I like him as the protagonist quite a bit. He’s not an innocent kid who happened upon a Gundam, he’s a boy who grew up with war. He killed his own parents as part of a religious crusade. But despite being drenched in the blood of warfare of his own volition, of being a person who only knows how to fight and destroy, Setsuna is the most emotional of all. He is a blind boy desperately trying to find his way through the world with his own two hands because they are the only things he has ever truly known.

Unlike so many series in the Gundam franchise, Gundam 00 does not concern itself with homages or references or trying to maintain Continuity like it’s more important than the message itself. And that message? War affects everyone.

The fact that Gundam 00 is willing to kill and maim its comic relief says it all. Seeing Patrick Colasour (peace be with him) (edit: almost) dying in a violent flash of white, I can think of nothing closer to the excitement of watching a Gundam series. I expect everyone to die, and I expect no one to die, and this has left me in the best kind of suspense I could hope for.

The Theatrical Nature of Anime

American movies and television in general involve very little soliloquy as one would see in theater. I’ve been told before that if a movie or television series has a person talking to himself that it’s not considered good. After all, movies and television aren’t theater, right? Also, internal monologues used as voice overs are apparently a no-no as well.

With this in mind, I watched Gundam 00 Episode 24, and watched as Setsuna F. Seiei spoke to himself, alone in a room, for about five minutes. And I liked it that way.

I’ve known for a long time that when comparing anime to American entertainment, there are some things which are very different. I’ve thought of plenty of possibilities: plot, character archetypes, story progression, even simply visual aesthetics, but upon seeing Setsuna speak to himself, I came to realize that perhaps anime relates more closely not to television or film, but to theater.

I suspect that it may partially have to do with anime often times being an adaption of manga works, where still images and word bubbles work together to provide greater amounts of information, where internal monologue or long exposition are almost necessary to truly get what’s going on with a character, perhaps due to manga’s relationship to written text.

Another similarity I see involves the criticism of the Sunrise-style 52 episode shows which take 13 episodes to develop into their true plot. The criticism leveled at this method is that it takes too long to get anywhere, which I think may say more about attention span of viewers than anything else. This reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays which can go on for 3-4 hours in one sitting. And yes, I have found myself dozing off during them as well, despite the fact that I didn’t necessarily find them boring. Count me among the guilty.

I realize that I like the theatrics of anime, be they melodramatic 70s shoujo or a more down to earth style of storytelling such as in Honey and Clover. Not that I don’t like other forms and methods of storytelling, even the American style, but  I really wouldn’t have it any other way.