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About the contributors:
Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN and the founder of Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist and manga enthusiast who is currently pursuing her PhD in sociology.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.
We've mentioned reverse harems before, but the more we talked about it amongst ourselves, the more we realized that there was a fuzzy line between what constituted a reverse harem, and what was just a love story with too many men. We think we've got it figured out now, but there are a few titles that are right on the border. What do you think, readers? Disagree with us? Head on over to the discussion forums, where we can continue the chat!
Next time, our guest will be Erica Friedman, manga publisher and the president of Yuricon.
|Bamboo: In the past, we've spent a hearty amount of time talking about harems, as well as harem tropes. We've also talked about some of the character archetypes in harem anime. But we've never really talked about reverse harems, so that will be our primary focus today. For those who aren't familiar with the term, a reverse harem is basically the opposite of a traditional one-male-several-females harem anime. Basically, there is one female, and a bevy of generally gorgeous men, and it's not uncommon for many of them to have a romantic interest in her. Can any of you admit to watching or enjoying reverse harem shows? Do you have any favorites?|
|Casey: Well, I haven't been watching any harem shows, but I have been reading Fushigi Yûgi Genbu Gaiden. I like it more than the original, actually, but that has more to do with the maturity of Watase Yuu's storytelling vis-a-vis the original than it does about its reverse harem characteristics.|
|Sara: Fushigi Yûgi is what comes to mind for me. I'm not sure what constitutes reverse harem per se, but lots of the examples that are coming to mind for me involve more of the classic romance love triangle than the outright gaggle of bishounen. Maybe I've been watching the wrong shows. I hear Miracle Train is a sight to behold. But yeah, Fushigi Yûgi. I was a big fan of Tamahome and Hotohori back in my teens.|
|Casey: Bamboo, you were a big fan of Fushigi Yûgi back in the day too, weren't you?|
|Bamboo: I was a huge Fushigi Yuugi fan. That show actually cemented my friendship with the gal whom I currently consider to be my best friend. We bonded over Watase Yuu's melodrama. I didn't really learn about "reverse harems" until much later. Recently, though, I've also really enjoyed The Wallflower and Ouran High School Host Club. And before that, Boys Over Flowers. I think the difference between Ouran and Fushigi Yuugi, though, is that Ouran knew it was a reverse harem. That was part of the joke. You had a throng of men who knew that their role in the anime was to be senselessly good-looking, so in that case, it might be closer to a parody of a reverse harem.|
|Sara: See, I thought about Boys Over Flowers too, but didn't know if that counts. What is the difference between reverse harem and normal shoujo romance?|
|Bamboo: You know, that's a good question. Sheer numbers, perhaps? A lot of shoujo romances have love triangles, like Peach Girl, but they seldom have a huge cast of male characters, who are not only there for the sole female character, but also to entice the female viewers. Casey, what do you think?|
|Casey: Well, I think harem stories are characterized by the size of the cast and, in the classic Fushigi Yûgi-esque mode, that large cast's singular fixation upon the heroine. You might have a female character who, serially, encounters a large number of guys, or a cast of male characters who are all involved with different people, but those wouldn't be harem stories. A harem implies a group of people who are somehow in an exclusive relationship with a single person, so that's what these stories are. Oh, and I almost forgot—I did recently watch Ristorante Paradiso, which is sort of a harem show.|
|Sara: I'd also venture to say that fixation seems to be key. If numbers were all that mattered, almost any shoujo cast with lots of pretty men would fall under the harem umbrella. I mean, look at the cast of Fruits Basket. It's filled to the brim with female fan fodder. And yet, the story and presentation is so heartfelt and delicate I'd hesitate to call it a reverse harem series.|
|Bamboo: Actually, speaking of Ristorante Paradiso, which I really enjoy, this brings to mind Sara's earlier question about Boys Over Flowers, and whether that really constitutes a reverse harem. But I'm tempted to say yes, just because with Boys Over Flowers, there is only one female protagonist. She is the only one whom all the attention is being diverted to, and even if not all the men have romantic inclinations towards her, I think it counts.|
|Casey: I was also thinking of Antique Bakery (both manga and anime), and in certain ways, it's constructed as a reverse harem where the reader is the heroine...|
|Bamboo: Antique Bakery? Don't the men have the hots for each other?|
|Casey: No, it was serialized in Wings, which kind of straddles this odd line between shoujo or josei. One of the men, Ono, is gay. But by the end none of the guys are in a relationship with each other, and they end up resolving to, as they say, do their best in their bakery service every day. The customers tended to be women, by the way.|
|Sara: Breaking-down-the-4th-wall harem. It's an interesting concept.|
Bamboo: I think it's difficult to neatly put a label on everything. Just because a series has a lot of beautiful men, doesn't necessarily make it a reverse harem. There are some fans who would argue that Fruits Basket is one, based on the male-to-female ratio, while others would vehemently deny it.
If you think about traditional harem anime, not all of the women are interested in the male. Look at Love Hina. Really only Naru has a romantic interest in Keitaro, although she'd never admit to it. Yet that's very much a classic harem show. Or older staples like Tenchi or Oh My Goddess!, in which there is one love interest, but multiple women.
|Casey: I actually think Antique Bakery is an interesting case because its resolution are the characters all committing to a life of service, basically, while swearing each other off. Most stories don't end this way. Fruits Basket is very harem-esque to me, though, because Tohru becomes the affective lynchpin in the lives of all the Sohmas. You always know a harem show when you find that the members of the harem all believe the hero/heroine to be the transformative figure in their lives.|
|Sara: I'm thinking back to our last discussion. Casey's thought makes me wonder if any manga/anime series featuring lots of pretty men, in which the viewer takes on the voyeuristic P.O.V., sort of gives off a reverse harem vibe. But that would sort of be like calling Azumanga Daioh harem without the men. It's an interesting thought, but I may just be overthinking this.|
Bamboo: I don't think you can quite say that. A harem has to have a central character, a protagonist. You wouldn't say that Azumanga Daioh is a harem anymore than you would say Big Windup! is a reverse harem. The spectator isn't actually in the story. The characters don't realize that he or she is even there.
Now, contrast this to, say, a visual novel, in which the player/spectator is obviously a component of the show. Then that changes things. In the case of Antique Bakery, you could almost call that a reverse harem because essentially, it boils down to the four men + one female customer-- even if the customers are always changing. It's about them pleasing one Customer.
|Sara: Right, I meant to say that calling Azumanga Daioh a harem would be strange. I just worded it strangely. That brings up a good point, though. Do either of you know if they have visual novels for women in Japan?|
|Casey: There are definitely games for women, but I'm not sure if they'd be classified as visual novels per se. Angelique is the famous harem game that has had lots of franchise spinoffs. La Corda d'Oro, too.|
|Bamboo: Yeah, I imagine there are a few titles out there, although I'm not familiar with any of them, as they never see the light of day in the US. But you know what, when I was at AX last year, one of the eroge booths had USB automatic masturbators for women, so I imagine they can use them for something...|
|Sara: I remember a scene in Ouran in which the French girl, Renge, was playing what looked like a dating sim for girls at one point.|
|Bamboo: Has anyone seen Miracle Train?|
|Sara: Your review of it is the most I've seen. Which means I'll be avoiding it.|
|Bamboo: That's one of the most recent shamelessly reverse harem shows that's come out. And that's one of those shows in which there isn't one central female protagonist—but there is the central female Customer. Although—as I say this, it makes me wonder if that can even count as a reverse harem. You wouldn't say that a show about a maid cafe is a harem show, would you? You'd call it a maid fetish show. So I suppose Miracle Train is a butler show, and Antique Bakery is a ... bakery fetish show? *laugh* Now I'm stumbling over labels and definitions.|
|Sara: Saiyuki is a Chinese fable fetish show.|
|Casey: Well, you know, Customer shows are newer than Harem shows. Maybe at some point they realized that cutting out the Miakas of the J-pop culture world was a good idea..|
|Bamboo: Is that a genre unto itself? Customer shows? Because now that you mention it, they're gaining in popularity. And rather than projecting yourself into the story as Miaka, you can have a den of hot men be at your beck and call. It's like the anime equivalent of a butler cafe.|
|Casey: Why don't we declare it a new genre here and now?|
|Bamboo: I'm game. Let's do it. From now on, Customer shows are the new big thing.|
|Sara: Well, here's where focusing too much on labeling can become a little overzealous. Let's just call it female eye-candy.|
|Bamboo: Well hey now, female eye-candy is too vague.|
|Sara: Do we need to micro-label everything, though? We have sub-genres of genres and at some point I feel like it sucks away some of the enjoyment as a fan, trying to figure out where to categorize everything.|
|Casey: Well, you have to admit calling these things Customer shows serves a signifying purpose. I'm willing to bet that most anime fans would have a sense of what you were talking about just from the phrase itself.|
|Bamboo: When it comes to genres, I think labels are sometimes useful. Saying something is a fanservice show could be anything from Gundam to Magikano. That's why you need to describe what kind of fanservice it is. Even live-action movies sub-categorize. My Netflix recommendations recently told me I might enjoy other "Understated drug dramas."|
|Sara: But see, that is ridiculous. And I don't want us to sound ridiculous.|
|Bamboo: It's a way of telling people what they should be able to expect from a title without having seen it first.|
|Sara: I understand that, but harping on the specificity of genre can also be harmful.|
|Bamboo: I don't think it's ridiculous. Both vampire movies and zombie movies fall under the Horror umbrella, but they are very different. Customer shows serve a purpose—it is a horde of men serving a female customer. That's the show. That's the entire point of the show.|
|Casey: There are probably already fans of these Customer shows. In the way that there are SF fans or BL fans. The pleasure is in knowing what you are going to get beforehand.|
Bamboo: And surely, surely there are women out there who are thinking, "I wonder if there are other shows about a group of hot guys serving female customers.”
Now, I have to admit something. I think this makes me a hypocrite, but I vastly prefer reverse harem shows to harem shows. I don't know if I can even use the obvious "because I'm a female" excuse. I think the shows are held to different standards. Sometimes harem shows can be a little degrading to women. Is there a reverse harem parallel? Are the shows ever degrading to men?
|Casey: Degrading depictions of men and degrading pictures of women are not equivalent.|
|Bamboo: Oh... dressing the men up in women's clothes. I guess that's a common theme that's degrading. But it's not the same as, "Cook for me!!!! and beg for my love!"|
|Sara: Well, this is where I have beef with the labels. Because "Reverse harem" can mean a number of things, and I don't like relying on a single phrase to describe a whole bunch of shows. The storytelling is pretty varied from title to title.|
|Casey: Some of my favorite shounen manga, GTO and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei are of the teacher/harem subgenre. (Sorry Sara!) I like both of them more than I like Fushigi Yûgi: Genbu Kaiden.|
|Sara: See, I never would have pictured Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei as a harem title.|
|Casey: The teacher-plus-mostly female students manga seem very harem-ish to me. GTO, Negima, etc.|
|Bamboo: I don't think GTO counts, because there are also a ton of male students. Negima is different.|
|Casey: *laugh* Well, maybe GTO stars a character who aspires to be the star of a harem manga.|
|Sara: Going back to the point about degradation, I think there is a definitely a difference between the harem shows for guys and the ones for women. A lot of the conflict in romance shows for women, harem or not, is about emotional weakness and trouble that every person goes through in a tumultuous relationship. There aren't really episodes all about guys learning how to... I don't even know. Change tires? Things we'd think of in terms of men impressing women. Not like the "I must learn to cook! I must learn to sew!" It just seems a little more genuine than that.|
|Bamboo: I guess ultimately the protagonist wants different things. "Protect me! Listen to my stories! Be my friend!" versus "Cook for me! Clean my house! Take off your shirt!" But maybe guys who watch reverse harems think the same things. Like, "I can't believe she's making him sit there all night while she cries on his shoulder!"|
|Sara: *laugh* Right. "I can't believe she's expecting him to listen to him without putting out!" But I know there are lots of guys who really enjoy reverse harem shows. I think there's crossover appeal. Just like there are moe shows that have lots of appeal for girls.|
|Bamboo: I rather love the very idea of female fantasies versus male fantasies. It makes me chuckle, sometimes. "Oh boy, I hope all these women take off their shirts, then make out with each other, while they feed me steak!" versus "I can't wait for them to bring me breakfast in bed, and then cuddle with me while I talk about school." I love it.|
|Sara: I love how "I want to be surrounded by a slew of men who are all vaguely attracted to each other!" seems to be a thing.|
|Bamboo: Right? I guess that makes them less sexually threatening or something.|
|Sara: Do you think this whole new "customer" trend may have something to do with the rise in popularity of host clubs in Japan? It's kind of a similar concept. I'll pay money and pretend that all these hot guys care about my feelings and fantasies.|
|Bamboo: I think so, yeah. Except in the anime, you don't 'have to pay these guys. They're all just dying to bake you the best non-fat cupcake ever. Or give you directions to Shinjuku.|