Chicks on Anime

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, R. Sevakis, Sep 2nd 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Robin is an illustrator, and also the creator of Anime News Nina.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.


Bamboo: Welcome everyone, to the second installment of Chicks on Anime. This week, we're joined by Robin Sevakis, who will be joining our regular column now that she's finished moving across the country. Robin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself first?
Robin: Sure thing. Well, I am currently an illustrator working in the casual game industry. I'm also the creator and author of the webcomic, “Anime News Nina,” and as that comic probably insinuates, I've been a life-long devotee of anime and geek culture.
Casey: Robin, could you explain what “casual” games are?
Robin: Casual games are basically simple games that reach a broader audience than your typical videogame. These include online games like the kind you see on Yahoo and MSN, and also downloadable puzzle games, such as Peggle, Mahjong, and hidden-object type games.
Bamboo: Ah, okay. So let's jump straight into the topic this week, which is harem titles. Before we get started, I want to ask everyone their over-arching impression of harem anime and manga.
Sara: The phrase “harem anime” by itself kind of elicits a knee-jerk response of disgust from me, but when I sit down and look at the titles themselves, there are a lot of things I like. I love Tenchi, for instance. I think it's just like any other genre, with both good and bad titles. It's just that the bad tends to be so overwhelmingly bad that it's affected my overall impression.
Casey: Neutral, really. I neither especially loathe nor love the genre, generally speaking. There are a few harem titles, such as Oh! My Goddess, that I have enjoyed, but most don't leave much of an impression.
Robin: I feel like harem anime began as sort of a fun, fantasy idea, but now it has gotten rather stale. There are some enjoyable titles out there, but these days I mostly avoid the genre, as it's simply too predictable.
Bamboo: I agree with all three of you, for the most part. There are a lot of harem titles that I think are pretty fun, and I have quite a weak spot for some of the more dramatic ones like Kanon and Air. They're a little ridiculous, but I think they're well written and fun to watch. But, just like there are bad mecha shows and bad action shows, I think there are definitely bad harem shows—both in the storytelling, and in some of the premises.

What was your first exposure to harem shows?

Casey: I don't recall if I've ever watched harem anime series, but among the first manga I ever read was Oh! My Goddess, which I believe might be one of the earliest examples of the genre. I also watched bits of Fushigi Yugi—a male harem show—with an anime club many years ago, if that counts.
Bamboo: It totally counts, but I think reverse harem shows are a whole topic unto itself.
Sara: My first harem series was the original Tenchi OVA, although I was young enough at the time that the whole “harem” aspect kind of flew above my head and I spent the entire time thinking about how cool cabbits are.

Robin: I guess the first harem, or harem-esque shows I saw were Tenchi and the original Ah! My Goddess! OAV. To be honest, I don't think I ever saw any Tenchi anime to completion. Oh, does Ranma count?
Bamboo: It ought to. Some of Takahashi's series dealt with female competition for a man, which brings up an interesting point, because she's a female creator. Which, really, could be its own topic, but it does bring to light something interesting about harem shows. It's not always written by men, as some would think, and certainly, sells well to all consumers, not just men. Actually, Robin, you mentioned that harem anime began as a fun fantasy. Do you think that's changed at all?
Robin: No, and I think for the most part, the genre continues to be wish fulfillment-type fantasy, which there's really nothing wrong with, unless that's all there is to it. I felt like Ranma had some brilliant moments and very unique characters, as opposed to many of the harem anime you see today where the cast is completely made of cardboard archetypes.
Sara: Yeah, I agree. And I think whether or not a harem series works at reaching larger audiences hinges a lot on the strength of its premise and the personality of the characters. Ranma's a great example of that, and so is Tenchi. Characters like Washu and Ryoko aren't memorable because of their sex appeal, necessarily, but because of their rich, memorable personalities. The endearing quirks of all the Tenchi girls made Tenchi himself seem totally bland and kind of lame in comparison.

Casey: I'm not sure, actually, whether readers are supposed to identify with the protagonist or feel superior to him. Perhaps it's a case by case sort of thing. But regardless, the fantasy—and, yes, I do agree that harem shows are all about fantasy—is different, depending. On one hand, the fantasy is being a total chick magnet, even though you're just a normal guy. But on the other, it's a voyeuristic fantasy, where the pleasure is watching all those girls go.
Bamboo: To me, it's not so much the fantasy of being a chick magnet that bothers me—that itself is fine. You see that in plenty of shows and movies. I dig harem shows where the male protagonist is just some normal dude. It's often the female characters that can make or break a show for me. I have a bevy of harem shows that I secretly like, because I feel like the women aren't trying too hard. What ends up getting my goat are the shows where they end up jumping through ridiculous hoops that I don't think are necessary. Cooking contests? Fashion shows? What this tells me is that all these women have to offer is their domestic prowess. Why do you think the writers "go there?"
Casey: Well, I'm not necessarily certain that all these women have to offer is "domestic prowess." Look at how many are super-powered in some way; there's a lot of overlap with the magical girlfriend genre. Perhaps I'm just sheltered, but I haven't seen any cases of slavishly servile harems. If anything, I think cooking competitions and the like are "necessary" to mitigate the total awesomeness of these women in comparison to the protagonist. Also, contest subplots may be becoming more common because more anime these days are based off of dating sims. Perhaps Robin can confirm or deny, but a lot of these competitions feel like a game within a game to me.
Bamboo: Well, one example is Shuffle!, where one of the girls proclaims, "Taking care of you is all I live for." Another characters spends days trying to figure out how to make an omelet just so she can try to take care of him. In Magikano, the girls come out in skimpy outfits in front of a school to have a fashion show, so that they can lure the man with their bodies. If they were so super-powered, or so awesome compared to the male—why bother? Why not just attract him with their brains or their love of life? Why not basketball?
Sara: Yeah, that stuff definitely bothers me, too. And not just that the nature of the competitions tends to be so domestic, necessarily, but why are the women always vying for the men? I mean, if they're so amazing, why aren't the guys doing anything to impress them back?

Robin: I think that is where you have to question the writers a bit. The writers, the audience, or even how does the writer perceive their audience?
Casey: The obvious answer would be, of course, that this is Japan. And gender inequality is still a huge issue. Japan's far right doesn't think women should be allowed to vote. But I think the tension between voyeuristic pleasure and the wish-fulfillment shows in cases like these. What fun is having a simpering, good for nothing weakling at your beck and call? Wouldn't you rather she could, oh, fly? But then, if she's so powerful, then why is she giving you the time of day? There has to be assurance somewhere.
Bamboo: So you think it's more about male chest-pounding than truly being offensive to women?
Sara: It's interesting you use “chest-pounding,” because the masculinity in these harem shows is so often manifested in servility of the women, rather than the macho-ness of the male protagonist. In this way the show appeals average male fan without berating them with masculine stereotypes. Like “Hey, the guy in this show is just like you, and hey! Look at all the girls drooling for him!” Unfortunately, female viewers like ourselves are inevitably isolated if the show hinges on this wish-fulfillment scenario rather than memorable characters.

Robin: Really these examples are why I generally avoid the genre altogether these days. Personally I feel like there is no character to identify with. The protagonist is usually a bland loser and all the women are these completely unrealistic caricatures of what I suppose someone's "perfect" girl is.
Casey: Well, I'm sure it could be argued that the ideal woman in Japan is servile. So servility is one part of being "perfect." Perhaps many Japanese women would agree on some level or another. On the other hand, it might also be argued that the extreme servility of some of the characters assuages male anxiety about feminism. So, yeah. I don't think harem shows are in conversation with women like us. They're in conversation with ideologies of masculinity and femininity.
Robin: We're obviously not the target audience in the first place...
Casey: I meant that I don't think they're about real women at all.
Bamboo: I just wish there was a little more... progressiveness in harem anime. I don't care of five women are living in the same house as a guy, but I don't want them to be climbing all over him. I want them to be working on their careers, or out playing softball with their friends or something. I want them to be studying for exams. If they have to compete, can't they go to a shooting range or something? Can't they see whose stock portfolios are the highest at the end of the fiscal quarter? Why cooking? Why cleaning?
Robin: I think it would be interesting to see a harem anime that could still be about attractive women all in love with one guy, but with more realistic, flawed women. Would it still sell in Japan?
Sara: I don't like how so often in harem anime “flawed” seems to be equated with “nuanced and realistic.”

Bamboo: What do you mean by flawed women? What would your perfect character be like?
Robin: By flawed, I meant that the women would be a little more three-dimensional instead of just being these perfect beacons of moe helplessness or "I'll take care of you forever" angelicness. I know some shows will give a girl a tragic past , but it's often just a vehicle to make them more sympathetic and moe. Really, as you put it earlier, it'd be nice if these girls had lives- friends, careers, and dreams other than making omelettes or whatever.
Casey: I'm not sure if such a thing would work with anime, Robin, which has to be more commercial. But I'm sure there would be some sort of market for it in manga. Nariko Enomoto serialized a manga called Sentiment no Kisetsu (Seasons of Sentiment) in Big Comic Spirits, a magazine for guys. It took every porn trope out there—the slut girl, getting the teacher, etc.—and told it from the female's perspective. It was very controversial and, to be honest, hard to read. But I think it was popular.
Bamboo: Can you give us a quick rundown of what the female perspective was in the series? I'm not quite sure I follow.
Casey: Like, for example, "getting it on with the teacher," told primarily from the female teacher's perspective, not the male student's.
Bamboo: I think something that catches me about the harem stereotype, also, is that it almost seems to be in direct contradiction to the American method of attracting men. Women here are taught to play hard to get. They're taught to not chase men, because the men will get bored and run away, etc. In harem shows, the women are throwing themselves on the men, almost begging to be taken in by him. I think it's a reflection of the male himself. The women who need to play hard to get—the man is usually portrayed in films as the cool quarterback who can have whomever he wants, but ends up going for the weird girl who won't give him the time of day.

In harem shows, the man is... almost pathetic, really. He gets stepped on my women, he's pretty nerdy, he's very doting, and he's the opposite of "the asshole" that Western women are said to be attracted to. And I wonder if that feeds into the harem woman.

Casey: I'm not convinced that what you're seeing, Bamboo, is a function purely of harem shows. Pretty much every school romance shoujo manga I've read, it seems, involves some girl desperate to get a seemingly uninterested guy. Although of course in shoujo the guy is super-cool, there is definitely a cultural norm that demands that the girl make the first move.
Robin: I think the difference is interesting, and as Casey said, it definitely seems to be rooted in culture. I mean, just look at the Japanese take on Valentine's Day. In America, it's the guys who are always pressured to give gifts to girls, while in Japan it's the other way around.
Sara: There's a stigma out there—and I'm not sure exactly how true it is, since I've never experienced it firsthand—that Japanese women love Western men, largely due to the massive efforts of pursuit they dish out as opposed to Japanese men. A lot of girls seem like they're just not used to all that attention.

Bamboo: Alright, I think we've got enough to start some discussion in the boards. I want to thank everyone for joining in our chat today! Now, for the ridiculous topic of the week—imagine you're creating a harem show. What's your ultimate contest? Robin, you first.
Casey: Our answer can't be X-rated, can it?
Bamboo: It totally can be.
Robin: How about an all-out decathalon? XD I guess that could be an athletic-themed harem show. Oh, sword dueling!! Yes! I'm all for anything with swords, so that's my final answer.
Sara: I think some kind of elaborate smack-talk contest would kick ass. You never see that kind of thing in anime so it would be so jarring and hilarious. Like, there could be gangtsa talk vs. Shakespearean “Thou scurvy-faced wench!”-type stuff.

Casey: Apologies, gals, but my mind went straight, no stopovers, down into the gutter. For me, the "ultimate" harem show contest would be to see which girl could get our poor schmuck to orgasm the quickest—without touching him! PG-13-rated version would be fastest nosebleed.
Bamboo: Here's my ultimate contest. I think the girls would have to embark on a quest to gather the spirits of dead presidents. Then they could summon these dead presidents to fight on their behalves in huge stadiums. Whoever's standing gets the man. It'd be like a tournament show + a harem show + US history, all in one!
Robin: Garfield, I choose you! Ohh he got shot...
Bamboo: Garfield? I'd choose Andrew Jackson. I just pity the girl who gets stuck with someone lame, like Harrison.
Robin: Who was the president who died after getting pnemonia from giving too long of an inauguration speech? That'd be the biggest fail.
Bamboo: Harrison.
Sara: But maybe the girl stuck with someone like Zachary Taylor will learn to overcome her own personal weaknesses and take down all the FDRs and Lincolns against all odds! “You may have died from eating milk and cherries, Zachary Taylor, but together we can be the best!”

Casey: How about Japanese prime ministers? Koizumi's hairdo has got to be good for one round.
Bamboo: Koizumi had amazing hair. Very anime.
Sara: Very big.

Robin: Agreed!
Casey: It was in honor of his Elvis fandom.
Bamboo: What, really?
Casey: Yeah. Last I heard.
Bamboo: His hair is pretty good. Like that guy from Iron Chef.
Robin: Chairman Kaga? Look, we've gone back to cooking contests. Full circle!
Bamboo: Anyway, thanks to everyone for doing the column this week. In a few weeks, we'll have a first guest! And next week: moe!

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