Have you ever heard of the “harem” genre of manga and anime? These stories typically feature an average male protagonist surrounded by a group of women all trying to make him theirs. Since the protagonist is usually meant to be projected onto by the male audience, he rarely has any special powers or characteristics. These kinds of stories are, of course, fantasies for the audience. But what if I told you that the core of the harem genre actually has nothing to do with sex? What if I told you that the basis of the genre is actually the basis of stories we would never think of as being a part of it? What if I told you that Forrest Gump is a harem anime?
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A Brief History of Harem Manga
The word “harem” comes from the Muslim Harem (حريم, ḥarīm), the space where female relatives and workers were kept in seclusion in the home. Western Orientalist fantasy depicted it as a fabulous place of male sexual desire where the beautiful and young concubines of the Islamic upper class lived, and the English word “harem” became synonymous with “multiple wives.” It was then transliterated into Japanese as ハーレム (haremu) and came to describe a manga genre focused on the relationship between one male protagonist and multiple female characters (ハーレムもの, “harem tale.”)
In almost every shounen harem (and in shounen mangas in general) the male protagonist is a dumb but wholesome and honest guy. This is how the protagonist of Tomo Hanama’s light-novel-turned-shounen-harem Kawaikereba Hentai demo Suki ni Natte Kuremasuka? describes himself (in the Dumpster Fire Scans fan-translation): “I have average grades, I’m not good at sports and can’t do anything special.”
The protagonist is the “mask” of the reader, so he doesn’t have to be highly characterized, nor he should have peculiar skills that could alienate the average Japanese high school boy. The shounen protagonist must represent the majority, and very few mangas break this rule. Even when the protagonist has distinctive traits, like the smart and good looking protagonists of Hazuki Takeoka and Tiv’s Masamune-kun’s Revenge and Negi Haruba’s The Quintessential Quintuplets, he is usually described as “average” and “with no merits.”
My Name is Forrest
Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump is the story of a less than average heterosexual man as well: like the protagonist of a shounen harem, Gump is a naive character with no special merits but good intentions. It can be argued that Gump is an outsider, but this is either played for laughs or easily forgotten in the development of the movie, totally focused on creating a new shared memory of post-war American history through a white and male point of view. The result is a conservative wet dream: “sluts” are slut-shamed and die because they are sluts, Black Panthers are parodized, Black history is erased and one of the main “antagonists” (the boyfriend of Gump’s love interest) is the head of a Students for a Democratic Society chapter, while the free market (and Apple shares) makes the protagonist rich.
Forrest Gump tells us that difficulties are faults of individuals and can be solved by individuals, that abuse is not systemic and that everyone can become a hero and be successful in america. Newt Gingrich, future Republican Speaker of the House, called the movie “a reaffirmation that the counterculture destroys human beings and basic values,” while Jennifer Hyland Wang wrote that “ultimately, the film reasserts the invincibility of white males through the survival of its main character.”
Forrest Gump even features a typical “female childhood friend” who acts as the final prize for the protagonist, as seen in various shounen mangas and, above all, in shounen harem like Ken Akamatsu’s Love Hina. Of course, that alone wouldn’t be enough to make Forrest Gump a shounen harem, but the movie shares a critical element with this genre: even though Gump is not a high-school boy surrounded by multiple female characters, he is going to put a positive spin on everyone he meets.
Touched by a Protagonist
This is the true core of harem stories: they are not stories about having lots of sex, they are stories about changing women’s lives and becoming the center of their universe. For example, at the beginning of Nisio Isin’s Monogatari light novels the “hero’s journey” of the protagonist looks already completed, and each story arc revolves around him aiding a different female character. Tatsuya Egawa’s seinen harem Golden Boy tells the story of a young man wandering around Japan and revolutionizing the lives of the female characters he meets.
Harem visual novels like Princess Evangile are an extreme instance: during the game players can choose which one of the female characters they want to date, unlocking different “routes,” the subplots of that specific female character, and her story ending. While the protagonist here has no evolution, he gets to know the female characters and changes their lives, helping them to overcome difficulties and to finally “find themselves.”
And since the ending of each female character can only be reached by dating her and choosing her over the other suitors, these girls can only grow if dated by the male protagonist — if they are blessed by his touch. They have no ending, no growth, without the male protagonist. It’s something very common in video games, where it feels like the destiny of every single villager in every single village is in the hands of the player, but in these games the protagonists generally have this responsibility because of their status, their special power, or their affiliation. In the harem fantasy, protagonists have this responsibility simply because they are heterosexual and male.
The Meaning of Gump
This is far from being a complete, accurate and serious analysis of the shounen harem genre. In some of these stories the male protagonist grows up while changing the life of the supporting characters. In the Persona video game series, which is heavily influenced by visual novels and dating sims, the default protagonist is a young male without any characterization. He grows during the game, making friends and dating the supporting characters, who in turn evolve thanks to him. Other action-oriented shounen harem (many of them have a fantasy setting) may work slightly differently because of the violent conflicts they describe, while harem mangas like the seinen Monster Musume may not have any significant character development at all.
Forrest Gump is not actually a harem story, but it’s built on the same principles and with the same conservative and reactionary goals. Both celebrate and reaffirm the centrality of powerful men and the glorious history of the society they created. In other words, it doesn’t matter that Forrest Gump isn’t literally surrounded by beautiful women vying for his attention — the whole world is his harem.