Harem to anime is like experience points in modern games. Sure, it’s there, but you’re not exactly sure why it’s there sometimes. Did I really gain 50xp for placing down a command center?
Watching Maoyuu got me thinking about archaic the show seems… no, I’m not talking about the old timey setting where potatoes and compasses are considered modern marvels, but how painful the whole Hero/Demon King/Knight romance is. Watching the three of them (and also Merchant, Dragon King Daughter, and others), it’s like watching Tenchi Freaking Muyo with Demon Queen kinda like Ryoko and Knight kinda like Ayeka. (Would this make Little Sister Meido Sasami? I hope so.) The fact Hero is so afraid of touching anyone and how desperate the women are for his lovin’, it just seems so late 90s. Modern day harem antics have already evolved past this point– Oreimo, Monogatari, Kotoura-san, etc. show that, yes, we don’t need a man who is afraid of women to have a successful harem setup.
Tenchi Muyo Grade
Exactly as described above: harem setup only perpetuated because the main lead cannot make up his mind. He is either (a) afraid of pissing off the non-chosen girls (b) trying for a real harem end (c) gay (d) women = cooties (e) Tenchi Muyo. There are no other options. This harem setup was extremely popular in the 90s and early 00s with Mamotte Shugogetten, Evangelion, Ai Yori Aoshi, Steel Angel Kurumi, Sister Princess, Futakoi, and Nadesico (remember when Akito blew off Yurika just so he could marathon anime? Yeah…). Aa! Megami-sama started out this way but ended up going another direction in the 00s. There’s still dusting of Tenchi Muyo in more modern series like To Love Ru, Shana, Hayate, Onii-chan dakedo Ai sae Areba Kankeinai yo ne!, and Maoyuu.
Love Hina Grade
Like babies and puppies, the harem genre grows up. Just a little. Replacing a women-fearing loser male lead is the lecherous, perverted male lead as we arrive in the early 00s. Technically, we could call this the Ranma ½ Grade, but Love Hina is a bit cleaner example. There’s no genderbending, there’s no martial arts: Love Hina is all about Keitaro’s quest to be the world’s most misunderstood pervert. Another innovation: the harem becomes the story. Previously, harem was kinda tacked on, like the point of Tenchi Muyo wasn’t Tenchi finding a bride– it’s Tenchi saving the world. Love Hina? It’s all about Keitaro’s quixotic quest to find his promised girl. Aww. Ramune, Zero no Tsukaima, Amagami, Kimi Kiss, Kono Naka ni Hitori, Imouto ga Iru!, Sora no Otoshimono, Clannad, and Sword Art Online all fit this grade of harem antics.
Midori no Hibi Grade
When I think of the instant girlfriend genre, I think of Aa! Megami-sama where within the first chapter, K1 wishes for a girlfriend, and, viola! But that’s not the essence of this grade. This grade of harem antics is about an instant girlfriend, but then the couple revolves issues and conflict around them with their relationship as the strength. Then when I look at it that way, it has to be Midori no Hibi where Seiji and Midori overcome various issues and become closer as a result– that’s the hallmark: two people tossed into a relationship and then use it for strength. It also has just the right amount of ridiculousness to generate the instant girlfriend effect (Midori, well, being Seiji’s right hand). This grade has become a popular plot device as one could argue Maoyuu fits here someday (but that’s only if someone conquers poor Hero), Spice and Wolf, and Kotoura-san, Onegai Alien, Accel World (laugh), and Monogatari.
Conflict! The plot is driven by the conflict of the harem leads. There maybe harem options, but we all know who the end girl is going to be… don’t even think you’re fooling us for a second, Oreimo. Yes, it’s generally a mis-matched couple. Yes, it’s a very popular grade today. Yes, it may even result in a nice boat outcome. Other examples: Oreimo, OreShura, , Steins;Gate, Chu2, and Haruhi. (Yes, Haruhi came before Toradora, but Toradora is a more pure example of this grade as it is entirely about Taiga and Ryuji’s trials to come to terms with each other.)
Shows can have bits and parts of the various grades, but they generally fall heavily into one of the following tropes. It’s also not rare for a show to progress through various grades as it ages as Aa! Megami-sama is a great example in that it started out very Tenchi-like and then entered a long Midori period before finally settling in as a slice of life series that only has memories of being a harem series. Other series can randomly stumble into harem territory like the infamous Code Geass which had pieces of all of the above until we realized it’s truly a Toradora-type coupling between Suzaku and Lulu.
But I feel sometimes harem antics get shoehorned into shows that may not necessarily need it. For some shows, the harem antics come off as unnecessary as experience points in an RTS or a MOBA game. Like you can definitely feel the harem underbelly in Robotics;Notes, but does it really need it? And Oharuhi-sama forbid that Tamako Market is actually a harem anime for Dera…