The Male Harem Lead as the Key Variable

Note on the poster: ▼ Show

Speaking of pervy teachers, our esteemed Academy Director Stripey made a strong claim that the male harem lead was the key variable in determining the success of a harem anime during the most recent Hontou Ni Staff Conference. This excerpt (skypecast, 1:22 min, 1.26 MB) was part of a discussion about Mizuho’s role as the harem lead for OtoBoku. Stripey posited that a clearly unworthy harem lead would impact unfavourably on the desirability of the harem females; a lousy male harem lead would overwhelm other variables such as basis of attraction, character design, quality of animation, voice acting and so on.

Preparation for HRM100 (Introduction to the Harem Genre) seminar presentation (700 words maximum): Attendees should consider the following questions but are not limited to them.

1. What is the key assumption underlying Gakuencho Stripey’s criteria for a successful harem anime?
2. What are the charateristics that a credible male harem lead should have?
3. Is the very concept of a credible male harem lead plausible?

The presentation should comparatively cite empirical examples from at least three harem animes, one which should be airing in this current season. Individual graduate teaching assistants may suggest other readings or particular case studies and they will inform their respective seminar groups.

Preliminary reading list (not exhaustive):

13 thoughts on “The Male Harem Lead as the Key Variable

  1. One example of a ‘bad’ harem lead overwhelming the desirability of a harem – Fate/Stay Night. Shirou was annoying enough that I didn’t care about the girls… and just wanted his ass dead. :P I find it CAN impact the enjoyment, especially if he’s a complete moron or otherwise makes the show unwatchable. One who does a good job of being a ‘harem’ lead is Mahoraba’s Shiratori, especially when dealing with Kozue. He’s fun to watch, and she plays off him well. Another recent example would be Kyon or maybe Yuuichi from KyoAni’s two most recent offerings; they’re not the usual ‘loser’ types and their sarcasm and the way they interact with the girls make the show much more entertaining and don’t distract for the girls’ moe or other factors.

    In my two examples, the harem leads share several characteristics:

    1) Not complete pushovers – yes, there are a lot of shows where the guy’s an utter loser and a wimp, mostly because they’re aiming for a section of the market that feels powerless (especially around women), but they’ve managed to make the wimpy harem lead so ‘wimpy’ that it’s no longer watchable. Magikano falls into this trap, almost, but Haruo has a quiet strength about him which comes out on odd occasions (and is explained differently in the manga, versus the anime), while Shirou falls into it almost completely, as Shirou spends most of the series complaining, getting hurt, or allowing others to get hurt because he feels it’s wrong to do something even when others are being hurt or killed… and seems to have a problem with self-defense as well, which makes him an utter doormat for just about any villain as well as his harem.

    2) A sense of wit – the harem lead is FUNNY. He’s entertaining, he’s engaging, and he’s not the standard ‘loveable loser’ as embodied by Keitaro of Love Hina. He engages in humor which isn’t JUST due to the physical slapstick antics which come into play when the tsunderreko member of his harem decides to do him harm, or a dojikko member screws up and manages to hurt him. Shiratori has flashes of inspiration when dealing with his ‘girls’, and Kyon (Haruhi) and Yuuichi (Kanon 2006) tend towards sarcasm or engaging in more than just complaining about their harems – they do things with them, rather than just ignore them, such as joke around with them (“I’m overriding your orders”, “Since you’re already in the bath…”), or otherwise work with them in a way that makes the story more ‘fun’.

    3) Empathy – one has to be able to empathize with the main character of a harem. That’s why most of them, at least up till the past year, were complete losers; the writers thought this was their target market… although they’ve been ignoring the fact that these losers (us) don’t want to see themselves portrayed as COMPLETE ones, such as the aforementioned Shirou Emiya… whose ‘development’ makes absolutely no sense given the way the plot went there. People want to be LIKE Kyon (sarcastic master of the harem), rather than be like Keitaro (punching bag). They can see themselves in his shoes, making similar wisecracks – they CAN’T see themselves being like Kira or Crybaby (Shinn Asuka), no matter how cute or psycho their harems are. It’s hard to empathize with someone who is godly piloting mecha yet has the emotional IQ of a stone and the stability of a manic-depressive on an unsteady diet of uppers and downers with no lithium to calm him down.

    I would say credible harem leads are plausible – I’ve named several examples above. Now… credible HAREMS, on the other hand… those are the sticking point – especially given the dynamics of a group of women. Most of them aren’t like Nerine or Asa in their outlook… and would either move on, or destroy the competition, or do something that would otherwise cause the harem situation to self-destruct rather quickly.

  2. The first two harem comedies I watched, back when I was just an otaku puppy, were “Hand Maid May” and “Love Hina”. I loved HMM and found LH to be a waste of time.

    And out of that experience I learned the primary thing that makes a harem comedy work for me: the male gets a grip. Sure, he’s going to get pushed around by the girls, but what’s important is that he not be hapless and helpless.

    Keitaro in Love Hina is the canonical example of what makes a harem comedy fail for me. The contrast to Kazuya in HMM couldn’t be more stark, because deep down Kazuya knows who he is, likes himself, and remains true to himself. He’s surrounded by chaos but never loses that essential core. Which was proved when Kasumi ran away during the typhoon: he loves her, and went after her, but when he found her he was patient and kind, even as the wind was rising.

    “Sister Princess” failed for me because the male protagonist was a helpless victim. “Hanaukyo Maid Team La Verite” worked for me because the male protagonist got a grip. And that’s turned out to be an invariant for me:

    A harem comedy works to the extent that its male protagonist gets a grip.

    (Of course, it’s also necessary for the male protagonist to be a fundamentally nice guy. I don’t want to watch an evil philanderer who takes advantage of the girls.)

  3. 1) If you want to make an Everyman, do it right!
    The male lead must be identifiable to the target audience. This is the whole point of using wimps isn’t it? That the harem lead is suppoed to embody the Everyman. The problem is that they go to extremes and make the Everyman into Ikari Shinji and that is where harem shows often fall down.

    The male lead must take the initiative now and then. If the whole point of the show is to pander to people with no lives, no spine and an active fantasy world, having the girls always being the movers and shakers probably just adds to the sense of helplessness. Sure it might be what some of them want but as Densha Otoko has shown, there is a market for the shy otaku working actively to get the girl.

    2) The male lead must give us a reason to cheer for him.
    Some may be blessed wit and some may be Kyon-sama but at the very least the harem lead has to be likable. An old example is Maison Ikkoku’s Godai Yuusaku (and his salaryman counterpart from Yume de Aetera). He knows the girl he wants, he pulls up his socks and tries to woo her to the best of his ability. The fact that Kyoko is the wishy-washy one just adds to our ability to empathize with him. Another is Manaka Junpei from the Ichigo 100% manga, while having a spine made of super-slinky at least has a dream that he’s shooting for and actively working for. The fact that each of the girls appeals to him in a different way and that they are largely part of the same ‘circle’ makes it more realistic that he really can’t choose one easily.

    Since they started working towards the lowest common denominator (is male, horny, still breathing) harem leads have degraded quite a fair bit. Ranma doesn’t *want* a harem, he wants a cure. Morisato Keiichi has his problems but ultimately he’s a nice guy, a decent student and passionate about his hobbies. That’s an Everyman that we can cheer for without feeling guilty. Mahoraba’s Shiratori is also such a case. We always knew he wants Kozue-chan and while also having Slinky Spine Syndrome, he is surprisingly firm on this (as well as other things, Ousama Gamu anyone?). He comes across as a genuinely nice guy rather than a fellow with no guts that gets pushed around all the time.

  4. Dunno if Godai qualifies for a harem lead – there’s only two girls involved. But if you want to talk ur-harem leads showing some competence and backbone, bring up Tenchi. Just goofy enough to identify with, but gets it together admirably. (Possibly too well to stay as a good harem lead, hm?)

    Personally, I feel “less is more” is definitely a guiding principle for harem leads. I was much happier with Ai Yori Aoshi when it was just a romantic story than I was when it was a harem show. Zero no Tsukaima is a bit closer to a “standard” harem, but it keeps it down to a dull roar, with only two realistic options. (Also qualifies excellently as a show where the male lead gets it together, for all of its other failings.)

    Look at the basic concept of a harem show. “Look at this male character… he is utterly unremarkable, just like you, the horny viewer. But he can be surrounded by cute girls who are attracted to him, for no reason other than his ability to be minimally nice and polite. YOU can be minimally nice and polite too!” It’s kind of a lowest common denominator of harem show fan – you don’t have to have any kind of special qualities to imagine yourself in this character’s position.

    But isn’t that insulting to the viewer? I mean, NOBODY thinks of themselves as that pathetic. Even the loneliest guys, on the inside, have some pride in themselves. So the key is to find a way to differentiate your character from “hopeless idiot” in a way that doesn’t alienate the viewer. You can’t make him punch through brick walls, because your viewer can’t do that, and if your harem lead can, you suddenly have an action show with lots of romantic interests and not a harem show at all. But there are traits that the harem lead can have which make him more likeable than a total loser, yet don’t cause the viewer to say “well, so much for me being like him!”

    Nobody wants to imagine themselves as a passive participant in their own story… which is why the appeal of a harem lead is greatly increased when he “gets it together” and takes the reins of his own story. Even LH headed there, though not in the anime; Keitaro the excavator was a much more appealing character than Keitaro the human punching bag. Furthermore, the ability to “get it together” is a trait that people like to think they possess themselves, which enhances the ability to empathize with the character’s position. “I could get it together too” is the key message. It’s a way to distinguish the lead from a hapless blob, in a way that doesn’t alienate the viewer.

    This is why wit is such an effective addition to the arsenal of the harem lead. It’s another quality that people almost universally fancy that they have, even if they in fact don’t. Nobody thinks they aren’t funny! And yet, the addition of wit doesn’t make the harem situation more complicated; you don’t have to be special so long as you can wisecrack a little about the situation. Take Kyon here. In many ways, he’s more passive than even Keitaro – he goes along with the flow, with only token protest, and doesn’t actually DO much throughout the series… saving that one scene, naturally. ;p But the viewer is extremely able to empathize with Kyon, because we have access to his internal monologues, and they turn him from a totally passive character into a dynamic one.

    (It doesn’t hurt that being a little bit mean actually lines up quite well with observational experience, which is to say that the nice guy rarely gets the girl in real life…)

    I’ll give Shirou a pass, mainly because Fate/Stay is an amalgam of a bunch of different stories and his character turns into a lowest-common-denominator because the mashed-up plot won’t work if he’s not. Same with Shiki in Tsukihime. Man, Type-Moon… ah well, the translation patch for the Tsukihime game was just completed, so perhaps I’ll try it out, see if he’s differentiated sufficiently on the various story paths.

    Another example of show-gone-wrong is Maburaho. Main character is so passive that it kills the show (and the women too over-aggressive to be attractive, frankly.)

    What about the polar opposite? Sousuke from FMP is not a harem lead, despite being surrounded by a few cute girls. Why not? The viewer can’t identify with him. He is, on the one hand, skilled in many ways the viewer is not (and his character relies on those skills; Sousuke without his military training is a very different character, whereas taking Shirou’s magic from him would leave him basically the same.) On the other hand, the viewer is radically superior to him in social abilities. It’s excellent from terms of a comedy, because it sets up the “oh look, Sousuke did something dumb again!” situation, but it kills the harem element. Nobody watches FMP because the cute girls are attracted to Sousuke!

    Hopefully we’ll see less and less of the harem show. Haruhi is a very good example of this – you have a show with a “harem lead” and cute girls, but very little of what goes on can be classed as “harem hijinks”. The show goes where it’s going to go regardless, and if occasionally Kyon has a cute moment with someone, the payoff is much greater for the relatively subtle way the show goes about it.

  5. Actually… F/SN was primarily the Fate storyline, for all the promises they made of an original ending – at least KANON is taking several elements of various storylines, which is making it a fun ride even for people who know how the visual novel’s plots go. This means that there’s little character development on Shirou’s side as it is (he only really picked up in Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel)… but then they gutted him of any other development, on top of removing all of the h-game elements. Shiki Tohno in Tsukihime was superior to Shirou in this – he actually was assertive and didn’t waste a lot of time on waffling.

    Maburaho’s definitely one of those ‘plots gone wrong’ – they should’ve left it at the very middle of the series, instead of going hyper-possessive Yuuna. The two you’d have EXPECTED to get possessive didn’t, and Yuuna did… to the point where she was almost as unattractive to me as the main idiot was.

    Sousuke could be seen, at least in some senses, as a harem lead – but the show really isn’t a harem show, so I wouldn’t say it should be counted in that camp. Gundam SEED and SEED Destiny weren’t really harem shows either, despite having elements of them (two or three girls after the same guy), but they were like Sousuke in many ways – godly at piloting, but worse than Keitaro when it came to dealing with other human beings.

    Still, with luck, harems will become less and less prevalent, at least for the next few years – they’ve oversaturated the market… and being blunt, most of them weren’t worth viewing – see Soul Link and F/SN for two examples of this from the last season.

  6. Well, I guess it is up to me to explore the basics and start of the Harem Genre: Urusei Yatsura.

    Here we have the unique Moroboshi Ataru as the Harem Lead. He is someone that possess infinite Hit Points ( or Life points ), and still holds the record for the most lustful charater in entertainment history. The humor about him is seemingly of low-brow physical type, and most of the girls would love to erase his existence forever. This is the superficial aspect of Urusei Yatsura.

    If you see Urusei Yatsura for 2nd time and bother to check on some of the terminology and parodies used, you will discover much deeper universe. Rumiko has cleverly mixed in word plays, parodies, and high-brow comedies you understand only if you bother to dwell on the flow of the whole episode. Deeper still is her exploration of passions that lies close to a person’s soul. The ‘horror’ episodes are funny initially, but if you let your thoughts linger on them, you might find much deeper horror than you have seen else where. Rumiko has talent for telling a terrifying story as if it is a comedy. All Characters have their own internal struggles that is comically depicted, yet, when you think about it, those struggles are frequently found within people around us. Finally, and of importance in this post, Ataru occasionally display acts of kindness and selflessness that makes us reconsider his character.

    Unlike his heirs, the ‘loser’ harem lead, which was first glorified by Kasuka Kyousuke in Kimagure Orange Road, Ataru is always the one who takes initiative: majority of events were direct consequence of his campaign of bedding thousand women. He leaves no one in doubts of his thoughts and intentions. He will be rude and selfish if anyone hinders his acts of the moment. If his character appeared today, he will be regarded as a ‘Anti-’ Harem Lead. Yet, he is the one who made the word Harem popular in Anime world, in fact the first and perhaps one of the very few who said that word openly in Anime. In a sense, he is so despicable, that you actually begin to admire him for it. It is at such moment, Rumiko lands the knockout punch; Ataru showing tender feelings for Lum.

    Polls conducted on the fans has majority of top 10 anime episode being the one where Ataru displays his good side. Some even go as far as saying Ataru is the character who started the tsunderekko fetish, for those fleeting moments of kindness made lasting impression on the viewers. But, we cannot ignore his dark side, for it is impossible to ignore. People still enjoyed the whole series, enough for it to last 218 episodes, 7 movies, 10 OVA, and countless doujinshi. Yet, it is hard to find the like of him in any lead characters these days, despite the fact that Ataru is someone anybody can be, if they are willing to stoop that low and endure all that humiliation.

    His ‘Harem’ is the most unrealistic of them all, with most members gladly inflicting bodily harms of most imaginative kinds to him. Because of that, his harem maybe the most diverse one ever. Still, it is hard to forget his proclamation ‘ How can I forget?! ‘ while clutching fallen Lum’s horns in his hand. I don’t remember seeing such a passion and fury from a harem lead recently. It is possible that this passion and fury has burned into consciousness of anime community to the degree, that they are afraid of using similar formula fearing waves of jeers at being unoriginal.

    Ataru shows that there is still much left to be explored in the Harem genre which solidified to present form by Kimagure Orange Road. Kimagure Orange Road is the template on which four basic tenet of harem anime was formed on: loser ( kyousuke ), tsundere ( Ayukawa Madoka ), loli ( Hikaru ), and possible lesbians ( various character, Akane in the manga ). Although it had great, perhaps revolutionary, music and OP/ED videos, this is a series I distaste and blame for many of the wrongs in today’s anime. I leave it up to more unbiased person to analyze this hateful milestone, more thoroughly.

  7. errata: change — template on which four basic tenet of harem anime was formed — to template on which four of the basic tenets of today’s harem anime was formed

  8. As long as we’re talking Takahashi and harem comedies, someone ought to mention “Ranma 1/2″.

    “Urusei Yatsura” was an acquired taste for me, but I liked “Ranma 1/2″ instantly. The male lead is a competent, confident, and capable martial artist, and over the course of the series he ends up with all sorts of hot young women after him–most of whom are martial artists in their own right. (I prefer Ukyou, myself….)

    At his core, Ranma is fundamentally a “nice guy”. His curse doesn’t seem to bother any of his suitors even if they know about it; the man who is in love with Ranma’s “girl side” doesn’t know that Ranma-kun and Ranma-chan are one and the same, and doesn’t seem interested in learning the truth (the phrase “willful blindness” comes to mind…). Besides the core four women (Akane, Shampoo, Kodachi, and Ukyou; I call them the “Bride Brigade”) there are other one-shot and two-shot characters–fiancees and suitors–who show up throughout the series.

    Like Steven, for me, “Love Hina” was ruined by Keitaro. All the girls are fine, but Keitaro’s consistent “punching bag” nature just ruined the series for me. Naru-chan was too violent and he was too much of a doormat; and the general harem comedy trope of “everything is [the male lead's] fault” was taken to excess. Naru’s willingness to beat the ever-loving [feces] out of Keitaro every time she saw him doing something she didn’t like–and his continuous acceptance of this–was just a total turn-off.

    And the same is true of “Urusei Yatsura”. It’s true that Ataru is a jerk, but he was frequently punished (severely) for things he had not done; after a while the audience tires of seeing the same result and it becomes too predictable. “Oh oh, he saw that girl’s panties; now he’s in for it!” Repetition is important to comedy, but excessive repetition becomes predictable, and predictability can be the death of comedy. Repeated viewings of UY will reveal the deeper elements, and one can even come to admire Ataru for his good qualities.

    The fundamental characteristic of a male lead in a harem comedy is that he has to be likable, and the viewer must be able to empathize with him on some level. Even Ataru is likeable; he may be an unreconstructed lecher but he has confidence, determination, and–in the end–understands where his affections truly lie. Keitaro is an unreconstructed wimp; his only saving grace is that he’s a nice guy…but he takes it to the extreme; Keitaro is TOO nice for his own good.

  9. I would just like to point out that two other “decent” anime male leads are the ones from Canvas 2 and the very recent Gift! They both don’t fall under the “punching bag” category. Canvas 2′s male lead is like a very watered down version of Kyon (not necessarily a bad thing) and the Gift lead is just wacky.

  10. Hiroki’s sudden betrayal ruined Canvas 2 for me. It is hard to impartially analyze an anime you don’t like so I will say only one thing about Hiroki. To this date, Hiroki is one of a very few characters in harem genre, that did not give proper closure to an intimate relationship before totally abandoning it and fly to another relationship. Most Harem male leads are decent enough to tell one girl ‘ I’m sorry’ before saying ‘I love you’ to another girl; not Hiroki. Even Moroboshi Ataru would try to properly say farewell when he considers leaving a girl for another; How low can you get if you are lower that Ataru?

  11. correction: Change ‘How low can you get if you are lower that Ataru?’
    to ‘ How low are you if you are lower than the Ataru?’

  12. Hmmm…Harem eh?

    Well, I will start with mentioning the male leads I like then say my reasons.

    Like: Yoshitaka(Yeah, I know), Kyon and Yukito.


    1.Honesty: A male lead is supposed to be honest, even to the core, like Yoshitaka. I mean, that is like the basic needs of a guy. If I were sarrounded by all those girs, including the loli, my urgess can never be settled easily, yet I don’t over do it, lest I end up with nothing. Yoshitaka shows this quite clearly. Kyon kept his urges in his mind but at least he thought them. Yukito was honest with his feelings in that he kept persuing for that dream(girl) so much so that he turned down Misuzu’s advances(Arienaiiiiii) I gave him high tens for that.

    2. Funny: OMG!! Where do I even begin. I don’t know if it has to do with the voice actors but these three guys made me crack ribs. Yoshitaka was ‘completely’ funny, in his actions and speech. I keep going back to that show just to hear his voice. Kyon, well, I won’t say much about him, I think everyone knows. Yukito wasn’t as funny as the rest but I found his character where it should be funny, quite likeable even if I never cracked up like I did with the other two.

    3. Kewl?!: Well, they don’t pull UBW(I am talking about you Gar) but they are most definitely not wimps. They have talents. I am jealous of Yoshitaka’s talents of Otaku-ness. Kyon had the widest dictionary of jokes. Yukito made me go Ahhh(Drool) for him. He was cool looking and I love him in Eternal Fighter Zero too.

    Well, that’s why I even watch the shows that don’t have yuri in them.

    The only reason that I don’t watch harem that aren’t thise mentioned above, is because of the female leads actually. I hated love hina for Naru’s character. I don’t hate Shuffle but the only reason I have Kaede and Sia arcs of eps on my HDD is becuase I don’t like Asa. I didn’t like Shana’s behaviour either.

    The only character that is supposed to be jealous are Kaede and Anthy, the others, DIE.!!!


  13. wontaek, you are right, Hiroki *did* let us down towards the end of the series. We all agree that the ending was messed up and it was sad for Hiroki to do what he did to Kiri. However, going by several hours worth of watching Hiroki, he did have a personality which differs from the usual harem lead and he certainly wasn’t the wimp.

    The last few episodes *do* leave a *huge* stain on Hiroki as a character, but I will still remember him as a male lead who actually had a personality, career, talent and ambition.

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