A while back, when I was first getting back into watching anime and reading manga, I wrote a post talking about the romantic comedy genre, specifically, the harem style of story and my frustrations with it. They were the words of a person not yet versed in the tropes and archetypes that comes from well-worn genre.
That being said, I still feel like they’re words that come from an honest place. Now that time has passed and two of my favourite examples of the genre have ended, I thought I might return to the subject and do a follow-up to it. Bare in min though; I’m older, but non the wiser.
A main character with agency
One of my major problems with a lot of harem style romance manga are the main character and how they’re, oftentimes, hardly a character at all. They’re this vessel, filled with patience and infinite kindness, making absurd romantic gestures to anyone and everyone that gets close to them.
Which is fine and everything. The thing that really bugs me about them now is that they oftentimes don’t have an especially strong personality themselves, especially when compared to the girls who’re all in love with him. These guys are often hardworking and diligent. But other than that they’re doormats, going with the flow and getting roped along with every zany scheme going. They don’t seem like actual people.
A really good manga gives the main character as much character, personality and agency as any of the girls. They all have important choices to make in their own lives outside of which girl they’re going to pick. I feel like a lot of manga I read forego that aspect of the story to focus purely on the romance. Which is fine, but ends up feeling kind of shallow to me. It’s like this romance is happening in this little pocket universe where nothing else in the world is actually going on.
Which is why I feel like Futaro Uesugi The Quintessential Quintuplets should be the template for way more manga in the genre. The guy has arguably more personality than any of the girls throughout that story, which makes his final choice all the more dramatic for me. I just want the guy to feel like a real person, y’know. Not just some vessel for self insert.
The False Harem
I’ve used this term before on this blog, I’m not sure if it’s an existing concept that goes by a different name. But this is what I’ve been calling it. As you might guess, it’s the kind of harem manga where, while it is technically a harem, it’s super obvious who is going to get picked as the final girl right from the beginning.
I’m talking about manga like Gal Gohan, My Dress-up Darling or Dosanko Gyaru Is Mega Cute, where the story is set up like a harem, with multiple girls who’re in love with the main character. But anyone with half a brain can tell that the “main girl”, quite often the girl the manga itself is named after, is going to be the final girl in the end.
There’s revealing your hand early, and then there’s just adding a bunch of false drama to the romance story for the sake of dragging it out. Sometimes I’d be happier with a more grounded, normal romance if there wasn’t a ton of love triangle nonsense in there to mess everything up. (Although, there’s no lack of those out there either.) Which can make it all the more heart-breaking when a girl who you really like is introduced, and you know right from the start she’s doomed to fail.
The final example of which I listed at the top of this entry has a major problem with. Don’t make me cry bro. A harem is good when you’re left wondering who is going to get picked all the way to the end. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in bad feels.
Happily Ever After
Is it just me, or is a time skip to marriage the most frustrating thing about the ending of a harem romance manga? Almost all of these stories treat these stories as though getting your shit together, picking a girl and asking them out is the most important part of the relationship process. It just always assumed the pair, once together will live happily ever after.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not trying to be a pessimist by saying some percentage of high school relationships are doomed to failure, far from it. What I am saying is that the hard work of a relationship comes when you’re actually in the relationship. Some of these characters in these manga I’ve come to love are characters I’d like to see continue their lives once they get together.
See them endure the trials and hardships of actually being in a relationship with someone else and the growth that comes along with that. It’s just one more reason I love Kaguya-Sama: Love is War as much as I do. After Shinomiya and Shirogane admitted their feelings finally and actually got together, the series continued. Because Love is War and most of the battles are going to take place when you’re actually together.
There are so many of these stories I’d love to see actually continue for a while after the couple get together. But, in the end I guess that’s simply not the nature of the genre.
Developed Male side characters
It genuinely shocks me how many harem manga seem to exist in these little pocket universes where characters outside of the MC and his harem don’t seem to exist. It’s like how they’re always at school, but never in a lesson. The amount of manga I’ve read where the main character seemingly has no actual friends outside of the harem of women that gather around him.
I suppose this is a side entry along with the developed main character point, but it oftentimes feels like these characters don’t exist in a real world, where they have real friends they can talk with, get good/bad advice from and that there is still a world happening outside of the romance plot the story is focusing on.
I suppose I could expand this out to having a developed world outside of the romance plot altogether, having side characters with personalities and needs all their own who are not romantically interested in any of the main players in the little theatre going on around them. This one really does depend on the tone and approach to the manga itself though I suppose.
For the straight-up gag driven harems, the depth of the world building isn’t as important. But for the ones which seem to be taking themselves a little more seriously, it’d be nice if we could see the characters actually being people outside of them fawning over one another. A little depth to the world goes a long, long way.
Dragging it out
This is another point I stressed during the first time I wrote about the genre. and it’s certainly something that still frustrates me to this day. The number of romance manga I see online that are well over 100 chapters at this point and the main characters still haven’t got together winds me up no end.
Megumi Amano Is Full of Openings! is a manga that’s been running for nearly 250 chapters at this point and it baffles me how it hasn’t reached a conclusion yet. Obviously, it must be doing something right for it to have been going for as long as it has been, but there’s no doubt that the mangaka is adding elements to add to the length.
Somewhere around the early 200 chapter mark, the manga introduced another girl. A rival who created a love triangle between the main character and the main girl, and with the series going on for as long as it has with neither of the MCs actually doing anything their potential feeling for one another, seeing another, assertive character enter the fray made me actually root for her, considering she was more interesting in moving things along than the other characters had done in 200 chapters.
Obviously, that’s not where the story is going to go. But after a certain point, you have to be looking at diminishing returns right. I feel like endings in manga are a contentious subject at the best of times, seeing as very few of them seem to naturally end. But I really do think great stories need great endings, and it feels like many of these kinds of stories are doomed to spin their wheels forever. Or until they get cancelled and have to rush an ending out in short order.
I’ve read a lot of manga this year and am trying to ween myself off of it to find time to do other things. It’s nice to revisit these kinds of posts now that I’m more read/jaded with the entire medium. It’s also made me realise that in 2021, I think I need to take a break from anime/manga a little bit to focus on other things. Not cut out entirely mind you, just ease off it a little