I tried so hard, and got so far. But in the end, it didn’t really matter.
We all long for a harem. Men, women, children. The young and the old. We form societies in which the purpose is to allow for harems. Religions that purport the inner desires justified by divine social order. Philosophical restructure of social order that recognizes the good things harem can bring to humanity.
The reality is today, harems have fallen out. It is the subject of mockery and hatred. Something innocent and tender, that young children dream of, has become excuse for sexual abuse, emotional harm, and physical trauma. The spirit of harem broken on the rock of commoditizing people’s fantasy and in term twisted into cheap print matter and late-night animation. Yet in disillusionment, people are still slaves to their dreams and fantasies. People pay to see harems. To experience harems. To relive them vicariously from one franchise to another. The weather is nice, the girls/boys are fine, it’s just as you like it. They pay for their fantasies. The commoditization continues–a vicious cycle.
Has the harem changed so far from what it used to be, as some elusive ideal to some concrete representation on ink or on the tube? Maybe. Invariably differences and space to innovate and differentiate occurs. The protagonist-focused narrative, for example, is a key distinction in our selection of harem-like traits–but is it even necessary? Isn’t that just a by-product of limitations in storytelling? A real harem may be seen as several girls on one guy, or several guys on one girl, but it doesn’t have to be. The harem itself is an organization where everyone plays a role. You just can’t have a harem with the same kind of people; diversity is important, for example. And just like solar systems, you can have harems with a bunch of girls over two guys, for example. Perhaps another key distinction we forget about harem as a result of the limitation on narrative is exactly, the alternate perspective. A romantic harem is still a romance story with more than one party doing their thing. While it is important to tell a story involving empathy of the protagonist to another–we all need to do this in real life–the story is a lot more complex than that. Very few harem anime goes beyond merely telling the story from the characters’ perspectives, for instance.
What is a harem is a question that will have different answers depending on who you ask, and in the end I don’t believe it’s important to answer that question. It’s probably more important to understand what makes a harem attractive and how to make use of those elements. It’s easy to see the sensual/pornographic element of a harem and it’s no surprise many anime capitalize on that aspect. But there is a lot more than that. The relationship is easily the second tier, but even then a relational web alone isn’t enough….or is it? Character driven versus story driven? Or both? How about external factors? Tension? Acting? Dialogue and mood? Not only I don’t know if they matter as elements that makes a harem desirable, I don’t know if they are a part of a harem fantasy or just something else extra.
In some ways I am thankful of the harem concept because it put a name and face to something rather elusive. It has always been there as well as the despised pandering that goes on. Maybe it can all be solved simply by stopping just that.