Fun fact: I know a guy in real life who is basically a harem lead character. For reasons which continue to baffle me to this day, he is insanely popular with girls despite putting zero effort into talking to them and having the emotional radar of a sack of potatoes.
Perhaps because of this, I see the harem genre a bit differently from other people. While the lead character is obviously meant to be as bland as possible so you can project yourself onto him, sometimes I get dejavu instead. It makes me quite nostalgic about my high school days. Instead of coming across as escapist drivel like it’s probably meant to, it ends up being scarily true to life at points. Unfortunately, I was not the one in possession of a harem. I was merely the dashingly attractive, intelligent, godly, only-slightly-perverted best friend.
So let me tell you a story about me and this friend of mine. Let’s call him Ichika, since I’ve been rewatching Infinite Stratos lately.
I should start off by saying how our lives were not like anime. This was most of our high school existence. Actually, it was nothing like anime at all, but shhhh that would kill the story. For a start, there was no nudity or pantsu involved for the entire duration. There was also a distinct lack of variety in Ichika’s harem. There was no childhood friend, no hot nurse, no shrine maiden, not even a robot chick. It basically consisted of the same girl with different names and faces.
“That’s boring,” you might say. But if you had a bunch of girls hanging around you who wanted to date you, would you really care? These were nice girls too, mostly the nerdy ones. My friend Ichika seemed to satisfy a deep need in academically inclined females to have a male of approximately equal intelligence to talk to. Never mind that I was the top student in the school. Ichika’s skinniness, his brown hair and total lack of distinguishing facial features set many girls’ hearts and ovaries alight, and soon they were making friends with me so they could make friends with him.
You might assume I was jealous from this. But to be honest, I could understand it somewhat. I’m not ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to admit that, for all his generic characteristics, Ichika was a Pretty Boy. Girls are shallow creatures at heart. His personality, though… I failed to see how a girl could stand his company. He was – pardon my French – a bloody pain in the arse.
You see, my good friend Ichika was one of those annoying and frustrating individuals who constantly complained about being misunderstood and how he didn’t have any friends despite being surrounded by people. He was completely and utterly dense about relationships. If you told him that you considered him a friend he would either pretend he didn’t hear you or think you were mistaken.
He was like goddamn Kodaka!
Since I had known him for years, I understood that about him, though. He was afraid of emotional commitment because he had such a deep-running inferiority complex. He hated this idea of anyone thinking of him as special – he always referred to himself as a bland and boring person – and so he refused to acknowledge his harem. All we ever talked about was philosophy, religion and science. He hated small talk, especially petty gossip, and so he liked me because I disliked that kind of stuff too. We never discussed girls together. He never picked up on their intentions at all.
But his obliviousness went deeper than that. He wasn’t just dense about love – he was terrible at reading atmosphere or picking up on what people were feeling in general. If I went up to him one day with a frumpy frown on my face, he would not even ask me why I was upset. Or if he did, it would only be as an aside. For all his good intentions, he was a very insensitive person.
We were friends for a reason, though, and that reason was that we both considered ourselves social outcasts. Just as I understood that there was more to him than what met the eye, he wasn’t put off by my quirks either. We were interested in the same abstract ideas and geeky hobbies. I hung out and played video games at his house. We were best friends in everything but name, and slowly but surely, his lack of open regard for me started to frustrate me.
It all came to a head one day when I asked him straight out, “Do you consider me a friend or not?” and he said, “No, you’re my acquaintance.” So I punched him in the face and called him a bastard.
He was stunned but he soon retaliated. It escalated quickly from there. I always thought he was as harmless as a fly, but it turns out he could throw a mean punch too. Soon enough, we were having a full-on brawl that had to be broken up by the teachers. We didn’t talk for a month after that.
I did a lot of thinking during this time. I was shaken at myself, you see. I’d never gotten so worked up over something so seemingly inconsequential. My motives baffled me. I’d never realised how important his friendship was to me. I felt as if we were closer fighting than we had ever been before then, skipping around the important things.
I understood how he wanted to distance himself from me and from other people. He was scared of being hurt. But we had hurt each other then, and I think he knew as well as I did that he couldn’t avoid the pains of friendship. He could not hide behind his ignorance forever.
The next time I saw him, we didn’t say much. We sort of just nodded at each other and we just resumed things from there, as if nothing had ever happened. We never had a real conversation about it. But he was warmer to me from then on. I don’t think it was ever swept under the carpet. In our final year of high school, he became more confident; he even started to open up to his haremettes. (I think he even picked up more of them as time went along.)
These days, he’s doing fine. We’re not as physically close as we once were, but when we talk, it doesn’t matter if days or months have passed. We’re friends, and that’s something he admits to me now. I don’t think he picked anyone from his harem, though. Fair enough – there was no Best Girl in it.
On retrospect, it’s not a surprise that I only really came to like the harem genre after I left high school. Up until then, it all just seemed like a waste of time to me. Now I see it in a different light. Whenever I watch a harem, especially one of the more generic ones, I can’t help but see a part of my friend in that. I respond to harem male leads with more empathy than I would ever have previously. I can understand their self-loathing and indecisiveness. The portrayals are shallow, but the core is very human.
…And that’s the end of the story. You probably went into this expecting a story about a harem romance. Instead you got a tale of friendship. I’m terribly sorry. But hey, it’s a nice change from the usual harem stories that you get, right?