Ai Yori Aoshi at 20: The harem anime that almost broke the mold

By: Anthony Gramuglia March 3, 20230 Comments
the female cast of Ai Yori Aoshi

Content Warning: abuse, classism, biphobia, gender essentialism

Spoilers for Ai Yori Aoshi

Audiences return to certain genres because they’re drawn to something familiar and consistent. When audiences pick up a harem manga, whether it’s a realistic rom-com or an isekai epic, they expect something that fits the mold: one protagonist, usually male, surrounded by several possible love interests. Usually, it’s well-telegraphed who the “winner” will be early on, but each character brings their own quirks to the table.

When Love Hina reigned as the most popular harem manga around, the anime adaptation of Ai Yori Aoshi debuted. The series, for many, was a breath of fresh air. There was only ever one core romance in the series. The “harem” is less a collection of potential romantic leads, and more of a found family who stumble into hijinks and melodrama.

Ai Yori Aoshi in many ways feels distinct from the tropes established in titles like Love Hina, despite being a contemporary of it. When revisiting it twenty years later, is this some diamond in the rough, or a relic of an era long past?

Aoi looking at Kaoru at sunset

The Love Story

The series focuses on the relationship between two characters: Kaoru and Aoi. Both came from wealthy families and were betrothed to one another from a young age. The marriage is broken off after Kaoru renounces his abusive family—though Aoi still longs for Kaoru. Their relationship must remain a secret, resulting in a living situation where Kaoru “works” for Aoi while secretly continuing their romance. Hijinks ensue.

One positive that leaps out immediately regarding Ai Yori Aoshi is how the central relationship is built on mutual trust and support. The dynamic between Aoi and Kaoru is never abusive or exploitative. The relationship isn’t flawless, but the two consistently listen and respond to one another with a sense of earnestness. It’s Kaoru’s support that helps Aoi confront her mother in the fourth episode of the series, and later her father at the end of the first season. In another scene, when Aoi goes to help Kaoru bathe, he lets his guard down, revealing scars left by familial abuse. Aoi responds by washing the scars in a tender, intimate scene. While other series might have used this bath scene as a chance for superficial titillation or comedy, here it serves to develop our characters, offering a chance for trauma recovery. 

All this begs the question: is Ai Yori Aoshi even a harem anime? Kaoru is surrounded by multiple possible love interests—women who join the household and who take great interest in Kaoru. Harem anime are generally structured to have a “winner”. Undeniably, that “winner,” from the moment the first episode starts, is Aoi. There’s no chance anyone else will end up with Kaoru, which subverts the typical question of the harem anime. It isn’t a matter of who Kaoru will end up with, but rather, who will realize Kaoru is already taken?

Kaoru and all the girls posed for a photo

All of the women living with Kaoru have a pre-established relationship prior to moving in with him at Aoi’s family’s summer home. Miyabi is Aoi’s caretaker, a cool and professional young woman who starts the series deeply resenting Kaoru; over the course of the series, she comes to understand Kaoru and actually supports him in confronting Aoi’s family when Aoi is whisked away by her father to fulfill the obligations of another arranged marriage. 

Aside from her, there’s Taeko Minazuki, a clumsy student who attends Kaoru’s university and starts working at the summer home as a caretaker; her cousin Chika; Kaoru’s childhood friend Mayu Miyuki; and Tina Foster, Kaoru’s friend from his adolescent and college years. Of all the girls in the home, Tina is the closest competition for Kaoru’s affection, though most of her feelings for him are veiled under the surface of comedic hijinks.

Unsurprising given the genre’s fondness for the “childhood friend” trope, Mayu is the other major character presented as a legitimate threat to Aoi and Kaoru’s relationship. She’s incredibly clingy to Kaoru in that very slapstick way that’s often present in harem comedies. 

Rather than being defined by squabbling for Kaoru’s affection, however, the group develops a mutually supportive found family dynamic. They squabble and tease amongst themselves, while also supporting one another through hardships. Each character grows and encourages growth by communicating and helping one another. This serves as one of Ai Yori Aoshi’s chief positive traits and what ultimately sets it apart from other iterations of this genre. The focus is not on romance, but about family—that, and how family can come into conflict with society.

Aoi thinking of herself and Kaoru

Fighting Against the System… but Not Really

The primary conflict of Ai Yori Aoshi comes from societal expectations and capitalism. For the characters’ immensely rich families, news of their daughter marrying the disinherited heir of the Hanabishi family would result in scandal. This adds a forbidden romance element to the central relationship that’s played for both intimate emotional drama and comedic hijinks.

However, this puts the series into a difficult space. Despite underpinning much of the conflict, the show never confronts the systems at play that restrict Aoi and Kaoru. Rather, it only addresses the specific circumstances impacting the couple and the singular actors who can impede or support their relationship. Aoi and Kaoru appeal to Aoi’s parents. They never attempt in the anime to, say, reshape how the greater world sees their affection. 

Kaoru is directly traumatized by his family. His mother is forced to leave, and Kaoru is then left at the mercy of his grandfather’s physical abuse—justified in the name of grooming him as a successor. It’s understandable that, for the sake of his mental health, he wants nothing to do with his family. The anime allows him that distance and does not force a resolution, which is a refreshing—maybe even somewhat revolutionary—take on the expectations of lineage and family tradition in and of itself. 

Aoi hands Kaoru a drink

Aoi, on the other hand, is a far more conservative figure. She dresses in traditional Japanese clothing, is unfamiliar with modern technology, and seems to embody the qualities of the “Yamato Nadeshiko”. She’s poised, delicate, kind, generous, and, arguably most noteworthy of all, faithful.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being delicate, kind, generous, or faithful. However, when Aoi is presented as the perfect, ideal romantic option implicitly because she is all of these things, it does read as somewhat pandering to an idealized womanhood that many can’t or might not want to live up to. The fact that Tina Foster is situated as a foil to Aoi—loud, brash, and vulgar—only makes the traits the show considers acceptable in a woman more apparent.

Aoi’s relationship with Kaoru can be somewhat troubling. Early on in the series, Aoi reveals she remembers literally all of Kaoru’s childhood favorite foods, before listing her wants for Kaoru: to basically serve him. To cook, clean, and pamper him. Kaoru and Aoi’s relationship develops further beyond this early conversation, but it undeniably presents Aoi as a nurturing figure: arguably, one defined by her “ideal” traits over being a realistic character. The situation is so incredibly unrealistic that Kaoru initially thinks that, when learning Aoi wants to marry him, that it’s a ploy by the rest of the Hanabishi family to lure him back to them.

Kaoru rests his head in Aoi's lap

Aoi starts the series by running off to Tokyo against her family’s wishes just to reunite with her betrothed Kaoru, despite only having met as children. This reads as more than a little disturbing, considering the intensity of Aoi’s love for someone she only knew as a kid. However, this passion does help push Aoi to develop more as a young woman, becoming less demure and more self-determined as the show progresses.

Despite being immensely passionate about Kaoru and defying the traditional system to be with him, Aoi and Kaoru never fight to change the systems they’re living within. Aoi and Kaoru do end up marrying at the end of the manga, but only after Aoi renounces her inheritance to her family. This also requires Kaoru to speak to his old family, which sparks up this convoluted plot involving Kaoru’s half-brother trying to marry Aoi in order to gain control of Aoi’s family fortune. While they manage to find happiness in spite of their situations, they never fight to change the greater context of their conservative family structures, choosing instead to find happiness in spite of it. 

While this is a little more realistic than, say, smashing the confines of conservative capitalism and oppressive tradition with the power of love, it does relay a disheartening core message: there’s no changing old generational thought. The best hope one can have is to start fresh. Even then, that “fresh start” still requires Aoi to embody the passive, supportive wife figure of those generations the couple is supposedly leaving behind. 

This isn’t inherently bad, but it does showcase the struggles Ai Yori Aoshi has at balancing critique of traditional, conservative business/family values and these two characters trying to live their lives. It isn’t anti-establishment, but rather taking a safe, liberal approach that might appeal to audiences who appreciate the more realistic external conflict whilst also enjoying the kind of neat, romantic happy ending they expect from the genre. 

photo of Kaoru and Tina

Let’s Talk About Tina Foster

Of all the elements that have aged poorly about Ai Yori Aoshi, Tina Foster is probably the most immediately apparent. Tina is the first person outside of Aoi and Kaoru’s family drama to move in with them, sparking the harem element of the series.

Tina is not a badly written character. She’s a confident jokester, but also easily frightened by thunder storms. She can live on her own, yet also holds onto her found family. She’s energetic and rambunctious in contrast to Aoi’s conservative timidity, but she’s not mean-spirited. If anything, she’s very kind and generous, growing to almost mentor younger characters like Chika as the series progresses into its second season. She does genuinely love her fellow housemates… but that affection is also a problem for her character.

Tina’s introduction episode establishes the American as a predatory bisexual. It’s not a new trope by any means and feeds on anxieties that bisexuals are always thinking, on some level, about having sex with their friends. Anime like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and My Hero Academia showcase bisexual characters (the titular Haruhi or Toga) as treating others like play things for personal gratification

On one hand, no one in the show criticizes Tina for her interest in both men and women, which is a positive. On the other hand, her taking advantage of the women around her by fondling them is never really critiqued, either. She just does it less as the show progresses and she develops a found-family dynamic with her peers. Much more concerning is the running gag involving Tina offering other characters a liquor that is effectively a roofie.

Tina and her knock out liquor

This leads to the second season, Enishi. It is in the finale to Enishi that Tina’s character, depending on how you read the situation, is either presented as incredibly devious or incredibly wholesome. This makes discussing Tina’s role as a predatory bisexual very, very complicated, because to boil her character down to this trope is at once problematic and indicative of the greater struggle Ai Yori Aoshi has in balancing popular anime tropes with telling a meaningful story.

The whole of the second season of Ai Yori Aoshi builds to Tina having to leave the family. While everyone else is under the impression her departure is temporary, Tina secretly understands that it’s a permanent goodbye—or at least supposed to be. It is revealed in a monologue to a sleeping Kaoru that Tina has always loved him, but also understands that he loves Aoi. Despite that, she dearly loves both of them and wants the best for them.

She also kisses Kaoru while he’s sleeping before leaving.

This moment is simultaneously tender and fraught: this is technically assault given that a sleeping person can’t give consent, and it serves as a continuation of the “roofie” jokes mentioned above. But the kiss isn’t sexualized; instead, it’s framed as a loving moment that shows Tina letting go of her crush. Like much of the show, it’s a sweet, sincere moment somewhat undermined by the previous use of sometimes tired, sometimes harmful established tropes.

the female cast of Ai Yori Aoshi

Is Ai Yori Aoshi Worth Revisiting?

Twenty years later, Ai Yori Aoshi surprises.

I admit, when writing this reflection, I expected to dislike Ai Yori Aoshi far more than I ended up doing. I remembered the predatory bisexual stereotypes and Aoi being a little too obsessed with Kaoru, and thought that these elements would have gotten more unbearable on rewatch. But the opposite was true.

If you can get past the first five episodes of Ai Yori Aoshi, the series settles into a comforting found family story that’s honestly very heartwarming. Harem anime usually functions as wish fulfillment for a presumed audience of heterosexual teen boys, allowing them to fantasize about being with any number of idealized women. Ai Yori Aoshi still does that, but it also addresses a different need: the desire for a loving family.

Moreso now as an adult than as a teen, watching Ai Yori Aoshi leaves me feeling a sense of warmth and comfort. It’s not a great series and it has shortcomings, but—and this might be controversial—I believe the positives do outweigh the negatives.

That said, arguably because Ai Yori Aoshi is far less fraught than its contemporaries, Aoi and Kaoru’s romance has fallen somewhat into obscurity in the decades since its debut. The male-centric harem genre rewards shows for being sexually exploitative, as seen by the recent success of Rent-A-Girlfriend and the long-lasting success of Love Hina

Though there are other, far more emotional harem anime that came after—like Clannad and its heartbreaking follow-up Clannad: After Story—the warmth of Ai Yori Aoshi still stands out to someone hoping for something a little more wholesome, balanced, and fulfilling in the harem genre. In the growing well of harem and fanservice-centric anime, Ai Yori Aoshi’s different approach to the genre stands out in its own way, and it deserves re-evaluation after all this time.

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