What is the best part of any story? Is it the action, the comedy, or the character building? For many people, the characters are what really pull you into a story. Many stories do a great job of building believable, likeable (or hateable), and most importantly, dynamic characters.
Harem is a classification of manga and anime that revolves around a central male character and their group of female companions. Typically, this leads to a love triangle (or square/pentagon/etc.), which often leaves people feeling like the women are more props than actual characters. This is sometimes true, but the opposite effect happens just as often. Here are two examples of harem manga that did it right and one that did it wrong.
“The Rising of the Shield Hero” is a manga about four people who are pulled into another world to save it. Each is praised as one of the Four Heroes representing Sword, Spear, Bow, and Shield. When they appear in the world, each character sees the world as a video game, full of level ups, stats, and even help menus. The catch here is that they all see it as a different game. The main character is the Shield Hero, Naofumi Iwatani. Wrongfully accused of a crime, Naofumi must find a way to become stronger in order to do his part to save this world.
During his adventure, Naofumi teams up with two people to help him become stronger. The first is a demi-human slave named Raphtalia. When you first meet her she is a quiet, timid girl who is afraid of everything. Throughout the story, however, she grows into a strong character in her own right. At the current point in the story she is a powerful swordswoman, and one of the only people that Iwatani trusts. This is shown in a rather “hit a nail on the head” kind of way, as she literally becomes older in appearance as she grows.
Later, he meets Firo who is a Philorial, similar to a Chocobo from the Final Fantasy series, except she can turn into a human form. Firo is your typical carefree, childlike character throughout the series. All she wants to do is play and pull carts (a Philorial’s favorite past time). When the time comes though, Firo doesn’t hesitate to jump into the thick of the action to protect everyone she cares about.
The manga plays at the love triangle aspect without ever actually going there. Firo views Naofumi as her father and gets overprotective on occasion, while Raphtalia and Naofumi hint at the possibility of having feelings for each other, but never act on it (at least so far). There is a constant growth in the relationships of all three characters and through the series they all grow a great deal.
Originally published by Media Factory as a light novel, it was then made into a graphic novel and also published by Media Factory. It was licensed and brought to America by One Peace Books.
“Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?” is another manga that takes place in a game world, though they aren’t in a game, it just has the same rules as one. With a “Dot Hack” kind of feel to it, this manga follows Bell Kranel as he adventures through the dungeon. Bell’s Goddess is a fledgling and Bell is the only member of her family. In order to get closer to another adventurer, Aizu, Bell attempts to get stronger and delve deeper into the dungeon. Through the course of the series he collects a few other adventurers to join their family.
Bell’s goddess, who is only named Kami, spends much of the series making advances on Bell, some of which aren’t noticed and others that are ignored. Bell on the other hand spends his time wishing for any other girl, Aizu in particular.
Shortly after the start of the story, Bell is saved by Aizu, who he immediately begins to fall in love with. Aizu is a strong player who has earned the title of Sword Princess. After going back into the dungeon to train the following day, it is revealed (though not to Bell) that he has acquired an ability that allows his growth to increase based on his feelings for her.
This manga is a great example of a negative portrayal of women in manga. Through the course of the show, every woman who has any significant interaction with Bell immediately falls desperately in love with him, except Aizu of course. While all of the female characters do have unique personalities, they all seem to want nothing but a man to take care of them.
Originally published in Young Gangan a publication put out by Square Enix. It was licensed for release in America by Yen Press.
Any list of harem manga, or of women in manga, would be lacking without this one. This manga is the epitome of what a harem manga could be, but flipped on its head. Haruhi is a young woman at a prestigious academy on a scholarship. Mistaken for a male student, Haruhi gets dragged into being a member of the host club after accidentally breaking a priceless vase. Shortly after, the rest of the host club finds out that Haruhi is actually a girl. While the head of the host club, Tamaki, does get a crush on Haruhi, the story mostly revolves around Haruhi’s budding friendship with each of the members.
Haruhi as a character grows constantly throughout the series and never spends her time pining after anyone. She is simultaneously the poorest person in the school, only there because of the scholarship, and the top of the class. She creates lasting relationships with the male characters without having to fall in love with them. Most importantly, she manages to be a part of a group without losing her sense of self or sacrificing her intelligence.
Originally published as a serialization in LaLa magazine, the American license was secured by Viz Media and published under their imprint, Shojo Beat.
While all of these are excellent series, the way in which they portray women varies greatly. This display is not solely seen in harem manga, but due to the nature of the genre, it is more prevalent. When all is said and done, most female characters are well-rounded and interesting, but a few still cling to the idea that women are arm candy, just being nice to look at but always in the background.
Featured image credit: Hakusensha