Love Hina Ruined Harem Anime for a Decade

John Ohno on 2019-11-07

Periodic reminder that Ken Akamatsu, author of Love Hina, popularized (and maybe introduced) the trope of “what if we make the harem protagonist relatable by making him a sadsack who deserves violence against him not because of his actions — which are completely accidental — but because of some essential internal flaw that makes him useless”. This is an incredibly damaging trope, & seems to be based on a misunderstanding of Ataru’s role in Urusei Yatsura.

Like Ataru, Keitaro is cosmically unlucky & some people around him are annoyed by this. However, the women who like Ataru like him because something about him appeals to them (if shallowly), and they are annoyed with him because he is a shallow impulsive inconsiderate jerk.

Meanwhile, Keitaro’s harem accumulates around him because he’s the main character (or, in the rare instances when it’s explained in-story, because he showed a baseline of civil behavior — which, due to everything else he’s been doing, they shouldn’t accept). Multiple times an episode he gets punched into the sky for accidentally seeing someone who is walking around naked, & this is portrayed as a natural automatic reaction. Treating this as a natural & automatic reaction allows us to avoid the obvious conclusion: that, if these women believed (as they often claim) that Keitaro is a cunning pervert, they would not allow him to continue to stay at their residence, while if they did not believe that, then it would not be acceptable to hit him. Love Hina combines a weak excuse for domestic violence with a set of unbelievable deus-ex-machina coincidences and circumstances into a complex justification for a self-loathing author-insert to see nudity and get beaten up in a formulaic way without being morally in the wrong. It’s an extremely weak gag, a weak formula, and it encourages self-loathing otaku to imagine themselves in Keitaro’s place.

Because of Love Hina’s popularity, this formula made its way into almost all harem and harem-adjacent properties made after it, and it’s still common in isekai (which took up the role once straight harem shows started to die). It’s uncommon in the harem revival that is just now beginning, thank god.

There’s a lot to like about the harem genre outside of Love Hina and its lineage. You can wring a lot of drama out of basically well-meaning characters by using love triangles, since folks in the throes of limerence make poor decisions. Often, you’ll get harem protagonists who are a mix of positive and negative characteristics (which can be as gloriously dumb & shallow as Golden Boy, sure), & other times you get protagonists who are good people but whose social station or ideology causes problems. (This latter type can be seen in Ai Yori Aoshi, or, more comedically, in Yuuna & the Haunted Onsen, where the harem protagonist is basically also a shonen protagonist & his serious, hard-working, and helpful nature causes all his problems.)

The Love Hina strand of harem, on the other hand, is optimized for extremely shallow characterizations, extremely cheap gags, and a format where the tsundere character is always arguably in the wrong.

What is the harem genre at its best? A way to make character studies into dramatically compelling comedies of manners. What is the harem genre at its worst? A collection of stock characters molesting & committing domestic violence against each other to a laugh track.