Content Warning: Physical abuse, intimate partner abuse
Everyone agrees that when a woman is beaten by a man — especially if that man is her partner — that he is at fault. Why, then, do people respond to the opposite with laughter rather than horror? Domestic abuse is a serious issue, but many don’t take the abuse men face all that seriously. When societal discussions about domestic abuse occur, it usually focuses on men as the aggressor. However, women are just as capable of inflicting physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse on men. The abuse women can inflict on their partners is a topic taken seriously by intersectional feminist discourse, but often dismissed and even normalized in mainstream media. In anime, this was especially prominent in the world of harem anime. The wildly popular 2000s series Love Hina is a useful emblem of this, as it showcases normalized abuse directed by women toward its male protagonist. This normalization has a dangerous impact, not only on its direct audience, but also on correlating media.
When women hurt men in media or abuse their partners, it is often seen as justified. Women slapping men is a staple of comedy that dates back decades. Obviously, many 20th century works existed in a different context. Men abusing women was also normalized. The slap, in context, feels like the only way women can exert themselves in a world where a man could violently beat them with no repercussions, either from the law or their peers. However, media would carry on the aforementioned trope even as society moved toward penalizing abusive men for their aggressive, damaging actions.
It only seems natural that, in the increasingly exaggerated medium of animation, that slaps on the face escalates into being thrown through walls, violent bearings, and being called a pervert for simply opening up the wrong door by accident.
Anime has an uncomfortable history with domestic abuse against men, but few are as infamous in this regard as Love Hina. The series centers on a dweeby young adult named Keitaro, who, after failing to get into Tokyo University, ends up running Hinata House — a boarding home for various girls that Keitaro’s grandmother founded. Each of the girls fall into familiar stock characters. There’s Naru, a tsundere who might be more similar to Keitaro than she initially indicates; Mitsune, a trickster layabout; Shinobu, a shy and quiet preteen girl with traditionally feminine interests; Motoko, a martial-arts enthusiast with very traditional beliefs; and Kaolla Su, an energetic foreign girl of color whose eccentricities skate by on the fact that she’s from a fictional country. Later, a sixth girl, Mutsumi, is introduced.
What follows is a harem narrative focused on Keitaro gradually earning the trust of the various girls living at Hinata House while becoming a stronger, more confident person. In theory, this concept isn’t too terrible; but in practice, Love Hina undercuts its own message by including some really damaging tropes. The girls are brutal to Keitaro, and Love Hina conflates women abusing men with comedy, resulting in the anime normalizing said abuse.
Takahashi Rumiko helped popularize this trope in Urusei Yatsura, a sci-fi sitcom manga centered on sex and situational comedy. Ataru accidentally ends up on the receiving end of the alien Lum’s eternal love after accidentally proposing to her. Ataru is a lech, and, as a means to condition Ataru out of being actively perverted, Lum shocks Ataru when he leers at other women. In this case, Ataru is being punished for what is perceived as misbehavior. Lum is not human, while Ataru is being perverse. The reader can justify Lum’s actions while laughing at Ataru being punished for his perverse behavior–like the cathartic slapping of earlier media, it was a fictionalized way to see a woman “get back” at men prone to sexual harassment, which they likely wouldn’t have the freedom to do in their real life. It is easy to find comedy in what amounts to abuse because Ataru “deserves it” for his misbehavior.
The exaggerated violence and over-the-top emotions proved incredibly popular with audiences. Takahashi would later reuse this trope in Ranma ½ and Inuyasha. However, one key difference between Love Hina’s later utilization of abuse and Takahashi’s is that in Takahashi’s series, both male and female parties take what they dish out. While the men get smacked around or thrown through walls, the female characters take just as much abuse. On top of that, the characters who take the abuse are often physically able to roll with the punches.
Ranma ½ featured violence being committed between very physical martial artists. Both Ranma and Akane enjoy expressing themselves through violence. Despite an initial tendency to jump to conclusions, Akane gradually became less and less violent toward Ranma as the series progressed. Inuyasha, on the other hand, offers its human heroine Kagome a means of control over the half-demon Inuyasha, making him “sit” whenever he acts disagreeable–a tool that’s first introduced to level their power imbalance, because of Inuyasha’s hostility toward her when they first met and much greater physical strength as a half-demon. It is only as their relationship develops that she grows to trust him. Also, Inuyasha is a demon who can recover from being impaled, much less forced to sit.
Many anime would copy Takahashi’s incorporation of comedic violence, but a trend became apparent fast: power imbalance. The violence committed against the male character would often become increasingly brutal and inflicted on more vulnerable men over misunderstandings. Ranma is a martial artist who engages in over-the-top fights. What would happen if Akane beat up, say, a physically unfit nerd who just accidentally upset Akane rather than do something bad? What if Ataru wasn’t being actively lecherous, but, rather, only perceived as such?
In almost every episode or manga chapter for Love Hina, especially near the start of the series, Keitaro finds himself stumbling into one of the girls bathing, in the process of undressing, or into some suggestive situation. These moments are often accidental. Keitaro either opened the wrong door, ran in to check on some disturbance, or maybe tripped and fell on someone. He is often not at fault, but his actions angered or upset one of the girls — often, Naru. As a result, Naru — or sometimes Motoko — violently beats Keitaro. This is supposed to be the height of comedy.
The comedy of Love Hina hyper-fixates on the girls of Hinata House abusing Keitaro relentlessly. They exercise physical, verbal, and psychological abuse on a regular basis. The main individual behind the abuse is Naru, the tsundere love interest in the series who ends up ultimately being Keitaro’s true love. Naru has moments of genuine empathy and understanding, even towards Keitaro. She demonstrates kindness to her fellow housemates. However, these moments of empathy only bring into further contrast her moments of irrational violent rage whenever Keitaro stumbles into an uncomfortable situation or when she suspects Keitaro of acting perversely.
Keitaro as a character has little agency when invading the privacy of women. This is by design, of course. Ken Akamatsu, creator of Love Hina, built scenarios where Keitaro is blameless for seeing women, unlike, say, Ataru from Urusei Yatsura. The difference is, however, that because Keitaro is framed as innocent, the manga also removes Keitaro’s agency as a character. That means he is blameless for invading these girls’ privacy. Unlike many an “accidental pervert” character, he isn’t secretly overjoyed that he’s walked in on his tenants naked–he always seems genuinely baffled or apologetic.
By making him ostensibly victimless, however, the audience is primed to side with Keitaro whenever something bad happens to him. He becomes a victimless voyeur, one who is excused from all crime as a result by design. It becomes “okay” for Keitaro to invade others’ privacy in the audience’s eyes. It often comes across as the ladies of Hinata House’s fault for entering into situations where Keitaro can invade their privacy. Akamatsu leads the audience to blame the victims of voyeurism for the voyeurism. This uncomfortable development becomes all the more problematic when you consider how the members of Hinata House react.
In Love Hina, Naru is very much a tsundere, similar to Akane from Ranma ½. What makes Naru stand out when compared to previous tsundere characters, however, is how the text frames Naru’s actions. When Naru attacks Keitaro, he’s always demonstrated as a physically weaker everyman. Naru’s rage is always disproportionate and always played for laughs. She constantly berates Keitaro for situations outside of his control.
Her claims are justified because the other members of Hinata House either never question her or they partake in the abuse. If anything, they side with Naru. Motoko, especially in the manga, violently berates Keitaro, sometimes incorporating brutal violence reserved only for an experienced fighter, not an unarmed, virtually harmless man. In the first volume of the manga, Motoko almost kills Keitaro in a duel for a perceived slight. This is played for laughs.
The result of the other girls taking Naru’s side is essentially gaslighting. They perpetuate an idea of Keitaro as an incurable pervert. Even the passive Shinobu feeds into this perspective by never overtly opposing Naru during these abusive periods, just shrinking into the background. They laugh when Naru beats Keitaro. Whenever Keitaro stumbles into another girl’s privacy, they use this as a chance to further perpetuate the lie that Keitaro is an active pervert, rather than a blameless puppet that is led to exploitative sexual scenes. Neither party is necessarily at fault for these contrived situations, yet they blame Keitaro all the same. Shows like Love Hina don’t do anything to address the initial problem of women being sexually harassed that the “comedy abuse” trope originally rose to create catharsis from. They just shift blame and create new victims while still creating fanservice out of invading women’s privacy.
All of this violence is framed as comical. The abuse is turned into slapstick humor, a common form of physical comedy that features cartoonish, often physics-defying violence. Physical injury stemming from slapstick violence is less severe or deadly than the consequences would be in reality. When Looney Tunes characters get shot or thrown off cliffs, they come back as though nothing had ever happened. At worst, they turn into an accordian. However, in a more grounded setting, slapstick physics downplay any parallels to real life domestic violence. Without Keitaro bouncing off the walls like a rubber ball or flying high into the sky whenever Naru hits him, every “slapstick” scene would play as purely horrific. There is a danger when one applies the rules of slapstick comedy to domestic abuse. Walking in on your tenants isn’t okay, but neither is hitting someone for making an honest mistake.
This is made all the worse by how Love Hina indicates that Keitaro’s abuse is ultimately good for him. In Love Hina, this abuse is justified not only by the other characters but by the narrative itself, showing that Keitaro grows as a character as a result of his abuse. He’s shown to be more mature, to help the girls — his abusers — with their problems, all while entering into sexually charged hijinks. Especially in the case of Naru, who Keitaro ultimately ends up in a relationship with, the abuse becomes almost a slapstick punctuation for stages in their relationship. This continues even as they enter into a full-fledged relationship, showing that the abuse never ends and is just a normal component of their love.
The abuse is seen as a net positive. Which is actually kind of horrifying.
It is unlikely that someone watching Love Hina would develop abusive tendencies as a direct result. However, the violence on-screen will normalize violence off-screen. If you’re shown how violence against men isn’t a big deal, it will begin to influence your worldview. This might result in someone exposed to this messaging not taking a man seriously when he discloses that he’s been abused by his female partner.
To an extent, there are several modern characters who are uncomfortably mean to their partners. While she does become considerably kinder as the series progresses, Nagatoro in Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro initially comes across as an abusive bully. Ironically, however, Nagatoro’s relationship with her senpai is far healthier than Naru’s relationship with Keitaro. However, it does contribute to the same overall messaging to its audience: bullying is normal and can even be a sign of affection, especially if it’s a girl bullying a boy.
Even when compared to Nagatoro, however, Love Hina really comes across poorly. Nagatoro, at the very least, shows the bullying Nagatoro mature and become less violent as the series progresses, with the bullying progressing into light-hearted, almost consensual teasing. At no point does Nagatoro beat senpai through a wall. All of this creates an environment where its audience is conditioned to laugh at men being abused. The question remains if they carry that lesson into their daily lives, and, if so, how it colors their interactions with the men around them who very well might be suffering in silence. If those silent men spoke out, would any of the listeners, conditioned to laugh, take them seriously?