If you haven’t gathered from what I’ve covered so far on Anime Monographia or peeked at my MAL, my anime tastes gravitate towards shonen (and card games). What can I say? I enjoy my action/adventure/giant explosions/intense mecha battle sequences/hardcore tirades(yelling matches) on friendship. I realize this is a fairly narrow range of anime that I end up following so every once in a while I try to watch something outside my comfort zone at least once a season. Winter 2014’s picks were Nisekoi and Sekai Seifuku, the former I unfortunately dropped after two episodes. Seifuku was an okay watch but the humor didn’t quite click with me as much as I hoped.
Given the not so hot results from last season, I approached this anime season with some degree of trepidation. I had to punch myself silly to avoid picking another shonen title (Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc V, Black Bullet, Knights of Sidonia were already in my line-up).
Finally, I ended up trying a show that wasn’t completely repulsive to my finicky tastes but was decidedly not your standard action/adventure/tournament-style anime.
Kamigami no Asobi. Or “Mischief of the Gods.” A reverse harem that I’m actually kind of digging right now.
Though I realize that I do ship characters automatically whenever I watch an anime that I actually get sucked into, I’m actually not a big proponent of romance as a genre. This probably partly comes from not watching very many romance-heavy shows to begin with but I’m a friendship kind of guy. To me, friendship is just a more versatile relationship to portray, whilst romance has pretty much been hackneyed into death and resurrected as a half-aware zombified pastiche of self-conscious meta jokes and trope-playing.
Now I’m hardly in the position to draw up some incredibly deep analysis on reverse-harem dynamics but Kamigami no Asobi has been a surprisingly palatable watch. It’s hardly original but sticks to the tried and true formula quite solidly. I couldn’t help but compare Kamigami to Ouran High School Host Club, a reverse-harem anime that I enjoy.
One thing I’ve noticed from my limited exposure to reverse-harem anime that a key component to a successful reverse-harem anime is having a successful protagonist. Or in particular, a LIKEABLE protagonist, which in most of these cases, is a female lead. Sure pretty boys are important as well but when it comes down to it, if your female lead isn’t likable (or at the very least, inoffensively bland), chances are the anime’s going to flop and die a sad, but sparkly! death.
By no means, is this an inclusive list. I am merely a young padawan in the ways of reverse harem, but here are seven elements critical to having a successful reverse-harem protagonist. And yes, there is nothing wrong with using Ouran’s Fujioka Haruhi as the golden standard for reverse harem protagonists. So let’s see how Kamigami’s heroine, Kusanagi Yui, measures up.
The successful reverse-harem protagonist…
1) …by virtue of her necessarily outsider status, offers a new perspective that is surprisingly well-grounded.
Like any OHSHC character, Haruhi is not without eccentricities, but she’s easily the most down-to-earth of the Host Club members. This is due largely to her unique status as the sole “commoner” studying in a school that caters to the ridiculous rich, famous and powerful. Her ordinariness in a world of excess makes her stand out, from the gender-ambiguous, factory-produced clothes that she wears while not at school to her practical outlook on life. Given her upbringing and independent streak, she’s blunt, works hard and doesn’t take guff from no one.
Kamigami similarly sets up Kusanagi Yui as the outsider in our merry band of friends. As the sole human representative, she obviously stands out in a school of gods (who are all incidentally male…*shrugs*)…convenient. Because of her mortal status, she offers a “unique” (that is to say, ungodly) perspective of humanity as something other than weak, prolific peons that are clearly incapable of doing anything worthwhile without divine assistance. While the gods later show that they’re decidedly less godly than one might presume (might be a side-effect of being forced into mortal shells as part of their human studies at school), Kusanagi Yui, like Haruhi is similarly down-to-earth. And quite optimistic.
2) …has little tolerance for melodramatic nonsense.
In line with groundedness is often a little to zero tolerance for melodrama. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our reverse-harem heroines are cold…but emotionally-wise they’re a lot less expressive. Doesn’t mean that they’re not emotionally vulnerable, they’re just better at dealing with it.
But while even Haruhi is not wholly indifferent to the waves of melodrama that spew from the orifices of the Host Club members, Yui’s lack of melodrama seems to go to a farther extreme than Haruhi’s. I mean, check out her reaction (or rather lack of) when she gets zapped to another dimension. She takes it all in stride. Even when you have gods pining away from their respective homes, homesickness has got nothing on her. In fact, she’s so calm it’s a little unsettling. But plotwise, it’s convenient because we get more focus on the harem character development.
3) …has at best, a very likeable personality and at worst, a deliberately inoffensive one.
In short having a douche-y protagonist is a surefire to kill a reverse-harem. I mean, I know this is anime but even anime has limits. And apparently it’s beyond healthy imagination to believe that a jerk can be a bishonen magnet. Be rest assured that while your reverse-harem protagonist may be as bland as artificially flavored vanilla, she will rarely be a terrible human being.
Besides OHSHC’s metacommentary on liking characters (they are a host club) and Haruhi portrayed as easily being someone with “natural talent” for a host, we don’t really need much narrative shoving to like Haruhi. She’s so darn cute and earnest it’s disarming–and while she might have been coerced into the host club to work off an insanely huge debt, she, like the rest of the host club members, actually cares for the clients they serve.
It was hard for me to pin down what made Kusanagi Yui so likable. After some thinking and a comment made by Frog-kun made me realize that Yui wasn’t so much as likable as she was deliberately bland. And by bland, I’m referring to the fact that she has no distinguishing quirks. She’s friendly, works hard, and cares about the well-being of others. Not that these traits are bad per se–they’re, in fact, good traits to have, the characteristics you typically see in decent folks. And that’s part of the problem. Yui doesn’t have much that sets her apart from the hundreds of nice, hardworking girls out there.
Part of the reason for her blandness may lie in the direction of the the narrative’s objective–the real main characters are the gods as they’re the ones with the lessons to learn about humanity. In this way, Yui’s not terribly different from Thoth and the other teachers at the school–a student she might be, she’s really there to help the gods learn empathy and all that feel-good tips about humanity, so our primary concern and interest is in the character development of the gods themselves. That doesn’t mean we should ignore Yui’s character development entirely, but as our interest is focused elsewhere, Yui taking a backseat in development doesn’t bother us as much. Why? Because frankly, without any visible or mentioned emotional baggage, she’s comparatively less compelling. Personally, I think this is sloppy storytelling since I usually place the protagonist’s character development high on my list but from a crafting standpoint, I kind of accept it.
4) …is a mixture of competence and damsel-in-distress, preferably with more of the former and less of the latter.
Haruhi’s got nerves of steel and can perform amazing feats, including the oh-so esoteric art of preparing instant coffee. Jokes aside, because she’s portrayed as such a confident, competent person, it’s easy to forget the show satirizes this independence but making us aware of her limitations as a girl. In the beach episodes (the real beach one, not the indoor one), there are two moments that the story shoves in our faces that 1) Haruhi, despite her gender fluidity, is actually a girl; 2) as a girl, she’s subject to the societal and biological limitations of being female in society.
The first moment comes from the beach episode where Haruhi valiantly tells off two stereotypically lecherous older guys from two female classmates, conveniently forgetting that while she might look like a guy, she’s not built like one.
The second moment comes from a follow-up “educational moment” when Kyouya pins her down on his bed to “enlighten” her on her vulnerability and the danger of forgetting her weaknesses as a girl.
In Yui’s case, she’s doubly vulnerable. Not only is she the only girl (of importance), she’s the only human there. And her classmates are gods. Never mind that they’ve got power limiters on them (which have been shown repeatedly to not actually work), they’re still pretty dangerous. In fact, one of them’s even got the power to attract anyone who claps eyes on him. And guess which poor girl he’s got his eyes on?
It’s harsh to pick on Yui for her weakness but at least the show portrays her as competent, if not anyone astounding. She’s, much to our relief, not an airhead; she’s good with her hands, is a natural leader and a cool-headed thinker.
She’s also not half bad with a sword, a weapon that’s long been monopolized by the guys. Props for not giving the girl a stereotypically feminine hobby. Since the show keeps referring back to her hobby with a sword, something that she treats with self-deprecation, it’s a skill that might come in handy later in the series.
5) …is empathetic and offers nuggets of wisdom in the form of common sense.
Kamigami is chockfull of cheesy moments but Hades’ episode is a cheesy one that works. You have Hades, your resident gloomy god who’s perfectly miserable because he brings misfortune to those around him. Throw in Yui, who offers him a more optimistic way of looking at things, and you have the god of the underworld actually breaking into a rare smile. It’s moments like this that show that your reverse-harem protagonist doesn’t need awesome powers or charisma or esoteric wisdom to solve problems. Sometimes, it’s all about attitude.
As clueless as Haruhi is, she’s very observant of other people’s intentions. Not that Tamaki or the host club members are hard to read (with the exception of Kyouya) but she reads more deeply into their actions than they realize. It’s a beautiful thing to see how everyone from the stuffed-animal loving Honey to the rebellious twins warm up to her. Not just because she’s nice but because she understands them and knows exactly what to say.
6) …oblivious to romantic advances because there’s more to life than just hooking up.
It’s kind of mind-boggling for me to wrap my head around the fact that as deeply as Haruhi understands her friends, she is utterly oblivious to their romantic advances. Granted Tamaki’s giving mixed signals with his weird “father-daughter” schtick but seeing how everyone else realized his not-so-platonic feelings for our heroine, you’d think she’d catch one of those hints. But her obliviousness is part of her charm and it’s far more fun for us to watch Haruhi and co blunder their way towards confession (a confession that the anime leaves unfulfilled but the manga actually resolves). Love comes in many forms and OHSHC does an excellent job of acknowledging all of them.
Unlike Haruhi, Yui’s not exactly oblivious. She’s a tad naive but realizing that a certain light god’s got his eye on her isn’t completely out of her reach. But the point is that she’s not interested. Much to every god’s displeasure, she’s friend-zoning everyone. Why the lack of interest? Well, I guess the writers have to give the gods some motivation for being an object of interest, and playing hard to get is a way of getting there.
We get the impression that all the main gods (Apollon, Takeru, Tsukito, Baldr, Hades, and Loki) are romantically interested, a conclusion that’s pretty much confirmed in the latest episode, where the guys actually fight for the right to “marry” Cinderella (Yui). Amidst the hjinks and ensuing chaos, the contest (eerily reminiscent of the Helen of Troy tale) comes to a stuttering anticlimactic halt when the Cinderella glass shoe breaks.
7) …challenges or subverts gender stereotyping in some way.
No one does this better than OHSHC. Most reverse harems tend to play the gender stereotyping straight, resulting in submissive, uninteresting characters. Haruhi is far from submissive and its her fiery spirit, dry humor, and bluntness that charm us.
Kamigami, unfortunately, doesn’t entirely escape the stereotyping, but it does try. The latest episode does offer some hope in its almost farcical commentary of the submissive female through its comical performance of Cinderella. Rather than having Cinderella get “rescued,” Cinderella gets to watch with a horrified expression as our godly “princes” sabotage each other’s attempts to “claim” her. Gods might fall over head of heels for Yui, who represents the ideal girl, but given the way things are going, they’re not going to get much further than that. And that’s perfectly okay, it’s not as if she needs a guy anyway.
Kamigami no Asobi‘s Kusanagi Yui, though definitely a step-up from your typical otome, reverse harem protagonist, falls short of the golden standard that is Fujioka Haruhi from Ouran. Not that Yui’s a terrible character, per se, she’s just far less compelling in comparison. And for the purposes of the plot, that’s acceptable. Kamigami no Asobi is a story about the gods learning how to be human and so they’re the ones with the interesting backgrounds and flaws. I’m interested to see what direction the plot will take. Given the heavy-handed bit of in media res action they threw us in the first episode, the peace they’ve established isn’t going to last. Which means Yui might actually get to do something other than offer kind words or good advice.
In any case, Kamigami’s reminded me of why I liked Ouran High School Host Club in the first place, which just goes to show that a story doesn’t need giant robots or ridiculously long side commentary on card games to be riveting. I might pick up another reverse-harem show if only for the sake of fleshing out my exposure of reverse-harem protagonists and thus testing the validity of my observations here. Of course, it may be too high of a hope to wish that the next one will be as good as Ouran but at least this one wasn’t a waste of time and even got a few appreciative laughs from me.
Who’s YOUR favorite reverse harem protagonist?