Back in 1997, visual novel producer Leaf released their third visual novel series, To Heart. The title proved to be extremely popular, and two years later on April 2, 1999, the To Heart anime adaptation was aired on Japanese TV. This was the beginning of a brand new genre in anime: the school harem.
While there were already plenty of love triangles in anime, To Heart was the first to introduce 11 different girls in a school setting with which the main character could end up with. The sheer number of girls vying for one guy’s affection and the fact that it all takes place in school was what led to the term “school harem”. The golden age of school harems can be considered as the years from 1999 to the mid-00’s, and ended at the start of the moe boom. Popular school harems include To Heart, To Heart 2, Kanon, Da Capo, Shuffle, and Clannad.
All school harems are presented in a round-robin format with the main character spending some time with each of the girls before moving on. Each girl usually gets a 1-2 episode arc with the main character depending on how long the series is. In that time, he will learn about each of the girls’ pasts and their current problems. By the end of each arc, the main character will have solved the girl’s problems and moves on. The last girl that the main character gets to is usually the one he picks as his lover. The only instances where this is not true is if he picks no one (known as a ‘bad end’), he picks all of them (known as a ‘harem end’), or if everyone dies in a bloody mess (known as ‘nice boat’). The last two possibilities hardly ever happen.
It’s not only the female:male ratio that defines the school harem, but the type of girls that make up the harem. To Heart could be considered a model for all school harems to come since its cast covers all of the basic character types. Below is a list of the most commonly found members of school harems.
The Childhood Friend
She is usually the first girl to be introduced in the series and is initially the closest girl to the main character. Examples include Akari from To Heart, Nayuki from Kanon, and Kaede from Shuffle. They are always cute and friendly towards the main character but don’t usually break the “just friends” barrier. The childhood friend is not often picked in the end.
Female Best Friend
If the main character has a childhood friend, there’s a good chance that she has a loud and out-going best friend that secretly likes him. Examples include Shiho from To Heart and Asa from Shuffle. The female best friend usually breaks up awkward silences between other characters and is always seen with a smile on her face except during her arc.
Shy Lonely Girl
The shy lonely girl is present in every school harem that I can think of. Like her title suggests, she is timid and does not have many friends either because of her personality or an ability that she possesses. Examples include Serika and Kotone from To Heart and Primula from Shuffle. This type may be combined with another type such as the tomboy (ie: Mai from Kanon), adding to the loneliness aspect. Abilities that cause them to become isolated can range from psychic powers (Kotone), powerful magic (Primula), seeing ghosts (Mai), or just plain being really smart (Kotomi from Clannad).
There is often one female character which is younger or appears younger than the rest of the harem, this is the lolita or loli. Examples include Rio from To Heart, Makoto from Kanon, and Primula from Shuffle. One of the interesting things to note is that the loli may just appear/act childlike but in fact be the same age or older than the main character. The loli is not likely to be chosen by the main character.
The tomboy is pretty straightforward – a girl that acts more masculine than feminine. Examples include Aoi from To Heart, Mai from Kanon, and Tomoyo from Clannad. Tomboys do have a feminine side though, which usually doesn’t show through until their arc. During and after their arc, tomboys exhibit more feminine traits compared to the beginning of the series. They almost always excel at some type of sport.
The Unique One
Almost every school harem has one character which doesn’t fit into the typical harem cast. She helps make the title different from all the rest and sometimes ends up being chosen. Examples include Multi (a robot) from To Heart, Ayu (a ghost-type thing) from Kanon, and Erika (a non-biting vampire) from Fortune Arterial.
Male Best Friend
Surprisingly, despite being known for their 1 male, many females formula, many school harems actually have a second male character: the main character’s best friend. Examples include Masashi from To Heart, Itsuki from Shuffle, and Youhei from Clannad. They never get any of the main harem girls and are mainly present to provide advice and support for the main character. They are also sometimes used as comic relief.
There are a number of other character types present in school harem anime, but I think the above list covers the big ones that are present in almost all series. The above mentioned character types may also exhibit any of the known deres, such as Kaede from Shuffle, who is considered yandere. By combining different roles with the dere personalities, you end up with the vast array of harem characters that you see now. If you have any questions about school harems, feel free to ask in the comments.
This post is part of the Guide to Anime project. For more guides on various topics related to anime, check out the project page.