If you look it up on Wikipedia, there is a list of harem manga and anime. It is a massive list. And while, at a cursory glance, I am fairly certain not every title included actually is a harem anime, I can also see that, massive at it is, it still does not contain all of them. There are more. And that’s not even beginning to go into all the harem-themed books that Western authors have been pumping out lately.
Why are there so many harem-themed titles? I mean… whyyyyy?!
Well, the most dull and obvious answer is that, like isekai anime and overpowered protagonists, the authors behind them simply called on the trope in the hopes of making their work more popular and therefore more profitable. Anything that is successful even once will get copy-catted within an inch of its life, and that’s just to start with.
Dragonball Z is successful? Suddenly everyone gets super-powerful and strong, a Superman among their peers.
EscaFlowne becomes a classic? Now everyone’s getting whisked away to other worlds full of fantasy.
Tenchi Muyo had us riveted with all the girls surrounding the protagonist? Bring on the harems, harems, and more harems!
Seriously, it’s ridiculous! And it’s no coincidence that all three of these tropes are so often included in the same anime nowadays. Along with beach-themed episodes, provocative fan service, innocent guys getting beaten by wrathful girls, tsundere girls, and so much more. Every trope and every cliche gets done to death because it worked at least one time before.
However, that begs the question… why did it work at least once before?
What was the appeal of the harem before they were so popular, and what keeps them popular now?
The crudest and, I think, most mistaken answer is that boys want lots of sex with lots of girls. I think there’s more to it.
I say “mistaken,” but I must admit there is a certain amount of truth to it. The urge to propagate is deeply ingrained within our species. Many of our motivations can be traced back to that primal drive. Since time immemorial, a man or woman’s success has been defined in relation to the quality of their mates, and we humans tend to easily confuse quality with quantity.
That said, I say again, there’s something more to it. There is something more at work here, to make anime harems so popular and prevalent.
Is it simply for the drama? Girls getting into cat fights over the same guy? The question of who the guy will choose? Well, that might account for some of it, but there is an overwhelming percentage of harem anime which end without that decision ever being made. Heck, there are several titles I can think where the girls pretty much agree to be a harem forever so they can all have their guy and nobody gets hurt. So, clearly it’s not the drama of the question of who wins the protagonist in the end.
Maybe it’s simply the overwhelming saturation of any given title with pretty faces. I mean, let’s face it, men are very visual creatures. Put more eye candy in an anime, and more guys will be interested in seeing it. The same holds true for girls with their reverse-harems as well. The first thing anyone will notice about any given member of the opposite sex is how pretty they are, and cinema in general is all about using that to make a quick buck. But, if that were it, then there’d never be a harem anime that failed. So, not that, either.
Let’s take a step back. Start from the beginning again. Let’s ask what a harem is, how it operates, and how it is presented.
A harem is generally defined as when the lead protagonist has three or more of the opposite sex surrounding them, specifically with a romantic and/or sexual interest. Which makes Tenchi Muyo’s status as one of the first harem anime rather ironic, since it featured more of a love triangle than an actual harem, but, well, Tenchi was surrounded by pretty girls with varying degrees of interest in him. Some harem members can have surprisingly platonic relationships with the lead until suddenly something happens in a particular moment, and a connection is made.
Most harems consist of girls surrounding a guy, but there are a number of reverse-harems as well, with multiple guys surrounding a girl. The relationships among these harem members can vary a bit, being friends, rivals, allies, and enemies all within the same breath. Their relationship with the lead can also vary wildly, including childhood friends, foreign beauties, betrothed strangers, classmates, friends, and other peers, and the never-to-be-forgotten antagonistic friends who secretly love them, and stalkers who are so crazed they are practically murderous. Oh, and relatives. Which is always disturbing to see.
The contrast between the harem members and the harem lead can be interesting to behold, as are the differences between male and female-centric harems. Though this is not universal, the overwhelming trend has become that a male harem lead will be largely a dull, bland, self-insert character. This, while the females around him are usually fully-developed characters with a wide range of skills and personality types. Yet the girls will all fall for the guy based on his display of some very basic, decent behaviors.
Meanwhile, in the reverse-harem, the female lead will still be a strong, respectable, fully-functioning character in her own right, but this time the boys surrounding her will also be proper characters, fully-developed and diverse. And rich, typically. Very rich. So very rich!
Why the differences? Well, now, that, I can explain quite simply!
In short: nobody knows what attracts a girl, but everybody knows what attracts a guy.
Seducing a guy is like flipping a switch. Seducing a girl makes the operation of a space shuttle look simple and straightforward by comparison.
Seducing a girl involves a bazillion different things. It takes a lot of work!
To seduce a guy, a girl just has to show off the goods.
And this is very well known, and shown in our stories.
I recall one scene from a TV show where two women suddenly realized that they were competing for the same man, and what did they do? Just pose a bit, let down the hair, take off the jacket, jerk the shirt to emphasize the curve of their breasts, that sort of thing.
More pointedly, there’s an anime, fairly popular, called Jobless Reincarnation. It’s an isekai, with a somewhat overpowered protagonist, and a developing harem. (Sound familiar?) The male lead’s first time with a girl is when the girl simply dresses skimpily and whispers in his ear. Even more, however, is when a man, the protagonist’s father, was seduced by the maid. How? She left the door open a crack while she bathed herself, letting him see. And thus, it was done.
King David of the Old Testament wasn’t even seduced, but desired a woman after he saw her bathing. And that was it.
Now, I’m going to quickly add here, this assumes the male lead is the sort to be seduced. There are plenty of times where the seductress might make a little headway, but ultimately the man refuses. (and discovers that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned)
But when the man is seduced, it tends to be done very simply. It’s pretty much, “I am female and willing.”
What that means for harem anime is this:
Nobody really knows why a girl will choose a guy, let alone why several girls will choose one guy, so it is impossible to craft a realistic male lead. Thus, they don’t even try. The result: bland, self-insert protagonists.
But all a guy looks for at first is a girl. As long as “girl” applies to the character, they are free to be and do anything else, almost without limit. And since the guy would normally have to choose between these girls (in real life, that is), the harem girls can be very different from one another.
The same applies to reverse-harems. The girl can be whoever or whatever she might be, and it’s easy to believe that multiple guys will want her, because she meets the most basic criteria: she’s a girl. And if one guy has good taste in girls, then so can others.
And for the girl, whose criteria are inherently mysterious, to choose between these men, that is when they need to stand out and be distinct from each other in some way. They can no longer be bland self-inserts. They must shine in order to get the girl to choose them! Though, a whole lot of money tends to be quite helpful in giving any guy a chance with a girl, and so, to give everyone in the reverse-harem an equal chance, they must all be super rich!
To pause and emphasize the subject of cash, I want to make it clear that I don’t think women are all gold-diggers. Rather, I think women are trained to look at how well a man can provide for them and take that into consideration of his worth to her.
This, too, goes back to the Stone Age. The better hunter could bring in more food and thus provide more for his woman and children. This wasn’t a matter of comfort. It was a matter of survival for her and her offspring. The man’s success at the hunt was reflected in the fact that he had a woman, or perhaps several women, to make babies with. He had proven himself, and so he was able to pass on his DNA.
Eventually, humans, social creatures that we are, figured out how to work together better to survive. We started exchanging goods and services, and tasks became divided among those who could do them best. The best hunters hunted, and others made or fixed tools, built better dwellings, raised crops, etc. Those who were able to gain more in this trading were able to provide better, and, thus, having proven himself, a man was able to gain a more desirable mate, and pass on his DNA.
Then we started using money, for a variety of reasons. It became a placeholder for the value of whatever goods or services a man produced. To have more money was the same as to have more resources, and more flexibility in exchanging those resources for whatever was wanted. Luxury became a thing. Fine clothes became a thing. Jewelry became a thing. Money was the new proof of a man’s hunting prowess, aka, his ability to provide. And thus, the rich man became desirable for his wealth. His worth was easily proven, and he could pass on his DNA.
And so it has been ever since. In every market, there is a woman looking at various goods and evaluating it by all sorts of criteria of what it could be used for, how it would look, how their status can be shown with it, and more. And in every market, alongside that woman, is a man asking, “What does it cost?”
That, right there, is one of the most profound differences between men and women, generally speaking: women have a thousand criteria for everything, men have one. Or maybe two.
This, too, goes back to our days as cavemen. Men were the ones going out to risk their lives to get food, and the slightest mistake could be deadly. So men had to be very simple and direct. They could only afford to worry about what might be lost in exchange for any particular gain. In short, the cold logic of a cost-benefit analysis came to dominate the male psyche.
Men judge things for functionality and cost. We do not “shop” for clothes, we find three pairs of pants in the right size that don’t look horrible, and we are done. We do “shop” for tools, because the cost and functionality of these tools are practical, logical concerns. The best day ever is when we find something that serves well, for a long time, for a screaming low price.
And so it is with how men look at women. Men know what they want, because we have very simple, straightforward, logical wants, and all that is left to consider is how much we can get for as low a price as possible.
Women do not make this easy. And, really, they shouldn’t make it easy. The price of a woman’s attention, affection, loyalty, and so on, should not be a low one. Every man knows this. Every man knows that something worth having is worth paying a great deal for. The high-quality woman is worth everything we can do and be and give and feel.
…but sometimes we really wish it were easier!
Women are hard. Women are difficult. And, most frustrating, women are chaos.
Ancient cultures have depicted women as being intrinsically linked with chaos, danger, and mystery. And why not?
They make decisions based on emotion instead of logic.
Their mood, and therefore their decisions, cannot be predicted.
They can be perfectly mild and sweet, yet also so ruthless and conniving that they make the greatest generals and tyrants look timid by comparison.
They spend fortunes to look pretty, despite already being pretty, yet they don’t realize that they’re pretty.
Oh, and they can evaluate men based on ten thousand unknowable criteria, find a man who somehow meets all of them, and still say, “No.”
This man is tall, strong, and handsome, and she says, “No.”
This man is suave, charming, and intelligent, and she says, “No.”
This man is be rich, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, the one thing everyone knows can give him a chance… and she says, “No.”
This man is tall, strong, handsome, rich, sensitive, intelligent, charming, and the Emperor of the Entire Universe! …and she says, “No.”
With one word, a woman can take everything a man has done explicitly to be accepted by her, and make it all worthless. And we can’t guess which women will do that, or why!
It doesn’t help us when the woman in question plays games, as women are infamous for doing. She says, “no,” but means, “yes.” She says, “go ahead,” but means, “don’t you dare.” She says, “I don’t like you, you are not getting any,” but means, “I am madly in love with you, take me, take me now.”
Oversimplified, I know, but my point is that men don’t do that. We don’t comprehend it. The only man who says things he doesn’t mean is a liar. Women play hard to get, but when men act like they don’t care, it really does mean that they don’t care. Compared to that, women are confusing, indecipherable messes which no man will ever truly understand. It is impossible.
And then there is the Nagging Wife. That’s where the man can do everything a woman wants, and still be be found wanting. He goes to work at a job he hates, earns the money that keeps the family fed, clothed, and sheltered, and when he gets home, the wife is there, ready and waiting to rag on him. As if he hasn’t paid enough to be with this woman, pouring time, effort, money, and affection into her and his children. The cost mounts, little by little, every day he has to put up with that, all while the return on his investment seems to be diminishing. No more sex, no more love, no more appreciation, no more validation, no more peace and quiet, no more of any of the things which men need to be satisfied. He did everything right and got this woman to be his, and still it’s not enough to keep her happy.
Which, ultimately, is what a man wants: to be good enough for a woman.
But the woman is chaos, coming with a price that no one can truly guess in advance.
Thus the fantasy of having it easy… of paying a low, low price for something great, or perhaps even getting it for free.
Instead of being the man who somehow, magically, meets all the criteria to get a girl through hard work and such, and then continuing to keep the girl through ever more hard work, the dream is to simply get the girl, and then it’s done.
It’s why the Disney Prince saving the Disney Princess, as well as the fairy tales such is descended from, has always been so popular. The guy slays the dragon, or the wizard, or whatever the evil enemy is, thus proving his worth, just like the hunters of old. And he gets the girl. Easy.
It’s why we have the Born Sexy Yesterday trope. Where the guy comes upon a beautiful girl who has no previous experience with the world, no bad history with ex-boyfriends, and none of society’s programming about what criteria she should look for in a man. He behaves decently, protects her as any man should, and introduces her to common things that would fail to impress any other woman but are wonders in her eyes. He doesn’t have to try with her. He just behaves like himself and, voila, her gets the girl. Easy.
There are dozens of examples of that to cite from movies, but anime has done it, too, as with Melfina in Outlaw Star and Chii in Chobits.
And then there’s the Manic Pixie Girl. This is a girl who absolutely exemplifies how chaotic women are, and the difficulties involved in putting up with them, but they aren’t difficult to get. I can point to the titular characters of Don’t Mess With Me Miss Nagatoro and Teasing Master Takagi-san as anime versions of this. Neither of them is really easy to put up with, as they tend to dominate over their boyfriends in almost every instance. But they are easy to get and to keep. Their the one’s who make the decision first, and they go to great lengths to occupy much of the space in their boy’s life, until the boy eventually comes around, wakes up, smells the roses, and starts actually dating them. The boy didn’t have to go out of his way or do anything impressive, just be there, be themselves, and be decent. Easy.
And that, I think, is what all the harems are really about: the fantasy of getting girls easily.
More specifically, of being found worthy. Easily.
I recall a scene from an old movie, some fifty or sixty years old, I think. I haven’t seen the movie itself, but I found this on YouTube, and it’s stayed with me ever since. It features three young men who are apparently dissatisfied with the society around them, and they’re going about doing the wrong things to try and change it quickly (I presume). There are two older men talking to them, trying to guide them. They point out several facts, trying to encourage the younger generation to keep trying, but to also remember how far humanity has already come. Above all, they need to learn to have patience.
That bit about patience is the where the clip ends, talking about how young people don’t seem to have it. Indeed, the very same advancements which improved the world seem practically designed to discourage that particular virtue. They can press a button on a microwave, and have instant food. Or swipe a card, and instant money. They have it so easy, getting things so quickly, that they haven’t learned to wait and do things the hard way.
And that movie was made before the internet. Before Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon. Before social media and dating sites. Before swipe left or swipe right.
So many things have gotten so much easier, but dealing with people will never be easy. That includes romance. It can’t be easy for a guy to get a girl, and perhaps it shouldn’t be easy, ever.
That said, from what I understand, things seem to actually be getting harder between the sexes, on both sides of the Pacific. Ever increasing demands from ever angrier women who are becoming ever harder to marry and yet simultaneously easier to get for one-night stands – see above regarding chaos – while men are ever more vilified and disparaged when all they want is to be good enough, and all the benefits of family and children are derided as a whole… well, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that our cultures are becoming saturated with romantic despair.
People, male and female, are getting lazy and afraid, awkward in social situations, and completely self-centered. We want to have everything. We want all the best and we want it now. And we want to have it for free, because we don’t know how to pay the right price for love.
Thus, we are drowning in harems.
Because humanity is screaming for something that many have forgotten, and many have never learned, how to get. All we know is it’s hard.
As a poor man dreams of easy riches, and a starving man dreams of cheap feasts, and a man in the desert dreams of falling into an oasis, so does a romantically frustrated man in a romantically frustrated culture dream of easily proving his worth to a woman.
And if a man is going to dream about one woman easily finding him worthy… well, then he will dream about several.
So, there’s the drama, the pretty faces, the potential for sex… and especially the dream of being found worthy without having to kill yourself for it.
That is why there are so many harems.