Content warning: discussions of rape, sexual assault, and slavery
What’s it about? When high-schooler Kaga Michio wakes up in a new fantasy world, he’s shocked: after all, it’s a big difference from his aimless life back in his home world. Now, however, Michio’s got cheat powers, ones that will be instrumental as he becomes an adventurer, earns some coin, and even starts to collect his own giggling gaggle of gorgeous girls to form that thing that all men crave: his own personal harem!
Harem in the Labyrinth of Another World is… curious with its premiere: never have I been hit by the one-two punch of gore and arousal. It’s revolutionary in an industry where no one’s dared to ask, “How can we push the limits of 2D sexiness? Have we thought of blood with a brothel chaser?”
And if it actually leaned into that, maybe I’d have a different opinion than where I sit now with this premiere: I might have ultimately come down on the side of “Well, this is what it is, someone will enjoy it, have at it reader” or something like that. Yet that’s just the icing on the multi-layered cake that is episode 1, “Encounter,” a premiere that, at best, is bland as a communion wafer, and at its worst, gives two thumbs up to sexual slavery.
At base, Harem is much in the veins of Konosuba, The Rising of the Shield Hero, and Re:Zero: a young Japanese man gets isekai’d to another world of pseudo-European origins, can see the UI thanks to his inexplicable, presumably god-given gifts, has built-in latent Awesomeness in his bones, and… yeah, that’s kind of the foundation here. Harem isn’t remixing things or even iterating on established tropes. In fact, the only thing that maybe makes Harem stand out is what gets done to bring in the titular harem aspects.
That’s right, it’s everybody’s favorite trope: anime slavery~!
This factors in pretty prominently in episode 1 because our hero Michio buys himself a slave rather readily, though he does offer up a bit of shock just to make it clear that this goes against his expected norms. Still, Michio doesn’t hesitate to consider all the things he can do with a slave, namely sex, sex, sex, and more sex. And while it does come across as Michio seeking any form of company because he’s effectively stranded in a completely different world with no one at his side, the fact remains that the dynamic established as an enslaver from another world and an enslaved, second-class humanoid is… clear, troubling, and flat-out disgusting.
My guy also checks for three things: the loyalty of a slave, the dedication of a slave, and the fuckability of said slave and risk of STIs. It’s gross, it’s demeaning, and it firmly establishes the fact that Michio is going to be a “good” enslaver.. You know, the kind who dotes on his hot demi-human as he sexually assaults them because there is absolutely no consent when you own another life.
In terms of animation, Harem in the Labyrinth of Another World is perfectly fine: it doesn’t look great but it also doesn’t have the muddiness that cheaper productions fall into. The colors are rather diluted, which lends to its “grittier” story, though I’d argue that rather than being gritty, this is just kind of a “what you see is what you get” story pulling on the massive amount of tropes that have formed modern isekai into what it is.
And truth be told, I’m not sure “gritty” is an accurate word to use here because outside of the sexual slavery, this is a light-hearted show: I think for me, it’s hard to seeing this as being anything but gritty when enslaving a human is the focal point of the premiere. It’s impossible to separate this weird teenage sex pest from any potential narrative the story may develop. Michio could turn into the best human being on earth, but it would be impossible to reckon that with the fact that he has a slave.
It’s also hard to reckon with anything that could be done to make Michio a better character because the kid is mad horny in a most uncomfortable way. The moment he finds out about brothels, my guy is envision titties: tig ‘ol bitties and actual vulvas that I assumed aired on TV seeing as this anime has an uncensored version. And let me tell you, this anime is filled with girls with some real dobonhonkeros: massive dohoonkabhankoloos, even. Big ‘ol tonhongerekoogers, even. Hungolomghnonoloughongous, in some cases because that’s the level of sex in this show, especially when it comes to Roxanne, the slave in question who gets all manner of cheesecake shots. They’re mostly censored by these hilariously giant, triangular caution signs that provided the only smile
In many ways, I felt like I was being punk’d by this premiere: it’s so blatantly a sexual romp with the addendum of “but with slavery” that I thought maybe this was joke. And yet there twelve volumes of source material (the light novel) with an additional eight volume manga: both are on-going too. Curiously marketed as shounen –which like, what the fuck Japan– this series is going strong, whether I like it or not. And I’ll admit that I don’t like it, nor do I get it.
That said, even an anime that’s not to my own tastes has neat elements: in Harem of the Labyrinth, that takes place with a bit of how they play with tension. Even though this isekai telegraphs the fact that there is no return quite openly, I found that it really did use its non-diegetic BGM and Michio’s genuine shock to heighten the fact that this is his new reality. The emotional trauma that comes from isekai is ripe to be explored here… when Michiio’s not truth to get with his dog-girl slave.
What I think will be harder to swallow is this on-going trend of slavery. And while I think many people might say, “Well, it’s different in Japan!” I’d like to remind you that if you’re of Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Ainu, Buraku, or Ryukyu heritage, to name a few of the peoples brutalized by Japan when there were formally an empire, it was a mere seventy-five years ago–and definitely within living memory for those enslaved and abused by Japan in the first half of the 20th century, especially when it comes to sexual slavery. It’s not different there, at least in the sense that slavery is wrong: that’s no longer an excuse in an era where there’s people And perhaps, it’s never been a good enough excuse anyway.
Ultimately, there’s no reason for a slavery narrative: it’s gauche, cheap, and is never explored in a way that actually deconstructs slavery as a concept and as an economic choice. There’s no questioning the system or ethics, which like… maybe I’m wrong to expect that from a bargain bin isekai, but I also know that there’s series in Japan that do explore serious topics mindfully. Instead, sexual slavery, specifically, is presented as reasonable and “sexy”, a vehicle for characters who are “the good isekai-ers” to prove that by rescuing someone from the fetters of being enslaved, they’re actually kind and would never, ever do slavery in their homelands. Rather than just writing in a character that willing joins up with Michio and maybe developes a deeper relationship that turns romantic and sexual, episode 1 establishes this uncomfortable dynamic in the pantheon of “explicitly female slave gets tethered to a guy who’s almost always destined to marry her, isn’t that cute?” without questioning it.
It’s romantic in the way that history has romanticized Sally Hemmings, forgetting that she was not President Jefferson’s lover, but a viciously raped woman that he owned. (That is to say, it’s horrific and disgusting.)
Like I said, there’s no consent when you own another sapient being. While the show may be more than willing to ship Michio and Roxanne (our enslaved girl) I’m not, and I encourage people who watch this show to consider why this has become such a sensual phenomenon over the years in a world where Black and Brown bodies absolutely are still owned.
I think that if you’re going to watch this, watch it: don’t try to justify your reasons or try to worm around it. Just watch the show. That said, I don’t know how many watchlists this will land on because other than everything above, Harem in the Labyrinth is tepid, a middling anime in a season where your time could, and should, be spent elsewhere.