Content Warning: objectification of women, nudity
Spoiler warning: In Another World With My Smart Phone (Season 1 finale), Tenchi Muyo Ryo-Ohki (season 5), Girlfriend, Girlfriend (season 2), Maoyu (ep. 7), Chainsaw Man (Quanxi’s arc)
Many of Anime Feminist’s articles are couched on the idea that a piece of media has somehow spoken to a writer in such a way that they felt an intimate relationship between it and their own identity. After all, part of the early appeal of anime and manga for foreign markets was the way it broached tropes and values missing from domestic mainstream storytelling.
Yet, it’s hard out here when you’re looking for something that fits exactly what you idealize for yourself or even have as a lived experience. Manga and anime, although relatable in many ways, are not “literally me fr fr.” To find something that so-perfectly encompasses every fiber of my being, but in anime, it would require me to essentially become the next Kizuna AI or something, but just not get into NFTs.
Still, it’s worth seeking what speaks to me in the media I consume and I usually must allow good to be a suitable substitution for perfection, and settle for aspects of what I wish to see reflected in media, rather than the whole package.
All of this to say, while I find aspects of myself in the media I consume, I often end up asking: “why couldn’t this be better?” And what I mean by that is: while I’m pleased to report that there is an unprecedented rise in representation for non-traditional, queer and polyamorous romance in Japanese anime and manga, I must regretfully report that we still have a ways to go before I get something that I truly want as a trans polyamorous pan and demisexual catgirl on the Internet.
That is to say, while it is heartening to see successful anime adaptations of landmark series such as Girlfriend, Girlfriend and The 100 Girlfriends Who Really, Really, Really, Really, Really Love You, we have a ways to go before reasonable representation of polyamory will likely show up in manga, or anime.
Polyamory, in essence, is the practice of having multiple romantic partners at the same time, defying typical social values that sexual and romantic relationships should be exclusive deals. The concept is certainly not new in the history of human civilization, but it’s one that has generally been used as a shoehorn to exhibit sexual dominance and machismo in modern times.
Going back to the myth that men who are promiscuous show more strength by some Darwinistic edge granted to them by copulating with as many women as possible, having a dude with multiple girls draped over him in anime is shorthand for “this guy’s at the top of his game.” It’s usually not pursued beyond surface level visual appeal and certainly not in any kind of deep emotionally intimate way.
Acting on that male power fantasy, however, are harem anime, a romantic-comedy genre that pits the most relatable average dude around with a group of women way too good for him. Harem shows operate somewhat similarly to that comedic conceptual cut-to of a man being smothered by women, but with the added reminder that monogamy is the norm, all to hinge a story on the simple question: they’re all hot, but which girl gets to be the lucky winner of his heart?
Sometimes the canon pairing is apparent, like Narusegawa and Keitaro in Love Hina or Chizuru and whatever that chud boy’s name is in Rent-A-Girlfriend, but the important defining factor in harem stories assume that our sack of potatoes will wind up with someone, and only one someone.
That rule, however, has somewhat started to fall away in recent years. Albeit, part of that is because of male wish fulfillment fantasies. Stories such as In Another World With My Smartphone explicitly tell the reader: why yes polygamy is quite explicitly legal in this fantasy world that is no longer beholden to conventional morality, so it’s okay for this uninspiring burlap sack to literally live out his fantasy of marrying half a dozen women. And unlike the olden days when the harem of women was literally just a prop for the men, these women actually even matter, perhaps even more so than the self-insert man-shaped cardboard cutout these shows are headlined by.
Worse yet, the rise of slavery isekai has also given way to an extreme opportunity for these kinds of shows where polyamory is endorsed simply because the lucky chud yeeted into another world finds out he can simply just buy women as his property and build his own family, like in Harem in the Labyrinth of Another World.
But polyamory in reality is far more different than what’s depicted in these shows and good examples are far and few between. So many of them wind up being similar to Smartphone where one extremely normal dude attracts a mess of great women. Such was the case of Tenchi Muyo Ryo-Ohki, which for the longest time baited fans to debate the age old question:
Rei or Asuka Ryoko or Ayeka, only to have Kajishima waltz in with a fifth OVA 30 years on from the start of the series to tell everyone, “Tenchi gets to marry everyone, including the spaceship cat-bunny girl because space royalty doesn’t care about monogamy.”
While a solar system of women orbiting one dick is certainly a valid type of polyamorous relationship, it’s hardly the end-all. And, to be frank, the shows that employ this structure all continue to feed a male power fantasy first and a real functioning polycule second. And speaking just from my personal perspective here as a girl who is gay, I just wish that some of the girls at least kiss each other once in a while and not be so married to focusing all their affection on the one dude to rule them all.
Girlfriend, Girlfriend and 100 Girlfriends do not escape from this trapping either, but their part in the oeuvre of openly polyamorous love-coms contain a slightly different boon compared to many other popular works in that they take place in modern Japan. Thus, that convenient excuse of “when in Rome” used in so many Isekai no longer applies and the story must reasonably confront the fact that Naoya and Rentaro’s endeavor to simultaneously date more than one woman in life goes against the grain of what society expects of them.
Existing in what is supposed to be “the real world” and following societal conventions, both shows refer to the relationships by the commonly known term “futamata” or “two-timing,” which is a distinct word choice rooted in doing something underhanded while other terms like “fukusurenai” (multiple lovers) or even just “polyamory” are nowhere to be found. So it’s worth noting that even as Rentaro asked Hakari and Karane to go out with him at the same time and as Naoya asked Saki to let him date Nagisa, the two boys characterized their relationships as a “two-timing” one even as they both sought explicit consent for it.
The concept of multiple lovers is thus portrayed as an oddity that breaks social convention and both Naoya and Rentaro must defend or “prove” to the women in their lives that their affection is true. Their love seems to focus more on being a faithful and good boyfriend despite dating multiple women more than anything.
Real polyamorous relationships are, by comparison, far less grand or of such a high concept. Usually, you’re just a group of people who have different romantic connections among each other. No one should have to “prove” they love a partner, nor should people be put on the spot for being “loved more” than another. Jealousy can certainly happen, but as Rentaro put it so eloquently: “it’s not that you’ll be sharing the spoils from the same old oil field. It’s that (meeting a new partner) has unearthed a whole new, untapped reserve!” It’s just multiple people doing what normally would be done between just two people.
With how bizarre 100 Girlfriends is, however, it’s hardly fair to actually dissect the show on whether it is a sensible portrayal of polyamory. Even I, a self-proclaimed Casanova, can only boast that our polycule is 7 people (with an extended metamour network of like 20 people in all, but I really don’t know anymore) and I realistically don’t even have time to talk to certain partners for days at a time (weeks even — I’m sorry Lillian, I love you, let’s do something for Christmas).
More down to earth, however, is Girlfriend Girlfriend and even then, much of the show’s drama hinges on guilt. Naoya cannot choose between Nagisa and Saki, so he pledges to prove he can make them both happy at the same time. Nagisa also expresses her guilt over violating Saki’s monogamous relationship to inject herself in Naoya’s life. Even Saki’s best friend Shino works to support her best friend “win” against Nagisa while trying to bury her own underlying frustration of unrequited feelings for Naoya.
The kids are generally messy, and that drama is what propels these romantic comedies and dramas.
Thus, while Girlfriend Girlfriend and 100 Girlfriends both depict polyamory and are wildly entertaining, it’s hardly a sensible approach to polyamory. Girlfriend Girlfriend’s second season focuses on how Rika and Shino have moved into Naoya’s home to join the polycule with the explicit intent to split Naoya up and become monogamous. I literally had a girlfriend like that and, let me tell you, we did not last two months.
And going beyond even commonly known translated properties, that frustration continues in other romance dramas that feature polyamory such as Hare-Kon (Harem Marriage) by Non, which once again suffers from a dick-singularity and a cast of sister wives who start out wanting to stab each other in the back married to a guy who’s more asshole than cheek.
One might simply conclude that the problem is based on shonen or seinen properties—that the lead is typically male and, again, meant to play to male power fantasies. But looking to shoujo and josei titles, there are few examples and, even then, that might be a whole different can of worms for another day.
A female-led title I can think of, and one that is sapphic to boot, is Canno’s Goukaku no Tame no! Yasashii Sankakukei Nyumon (An Introduction to Easy Triangle Relationships) which comes close to being perfect, but suffers from being all about the drama of forming a threesome relationship, which leaves little time to explore what a polycule actually does once they’re actually holding each other’s hands.
The fact of the matter is, with polyamory being so different from the norm, most romances cannot escape sensationalizing it or teasing at the taboo. We seldom see what we see at the tail end of Intro to Triangle Relationships, and even if we do, it’s not for long. Even in yuri series like Moshi Koi ga Mietanara (If I Could See Love) or Kashimashi, the possibility of polyamory is strongly signaled or even teased at, but the story eventually concludes with a “true love” that wins out.
Ironically, in that respect, In Another World With My Cellphone really did do a decent job depicting a polycule that just works, albeit part of it is all due to stressing that Touya’s just such a swell guy with the coolest cellphone. At the end of the day, his family is a functional polycule because the story is more about him getting into silly little isekai adventures rather than the emotional investment he must make in maintaining a relationship with half a dozen women. Just the same How Not to Summon a Demon Lord also has a functional polycule where Rem, Shera and Diablo love and trust each other and, in later volumes particularly, the story is built on conflicts derived from high fantasy antics about corrupt churches or something rather than whether Diablo likes catgirls or elves more.
While I initially derided the fantasy genre as an easy out to avoid asking questions on morality, fantasy stories also just have other things going on for the characters and the romantic relationships of the hero is sometimes secondary to what’s going on. So ironically, there is an opportunity to depict stable polycules in a fantasy setting because the story can easily be about so many other things (not that non-fantasy stories can’t do this either).
Thus, I have to admit, perhaps the best instance of polyamory I’ve ever seen in anime turns out to be from Maoyu, depicting the Hero’s relationship with the Demon Lord and Knight. I say this because, while there is some drama between the Demon Lord and Knight as they initially vie for the Hero’s affection, they settle on a plan to share. And more importantly, the story goes beyond their interpersonal relationships and develops all three characters in their own right.
A relationship, ultimately, is a coupling of people who are attracted to each other, but that alone does not create compelling characters nor does it create a story. Maoyu depicts a somewhat complicated friendship and romance among three people who are more than just their relationship to the Hero. The Demon Lord or the Crimson Scholar is the architect of the central story. The Knight, meanwhile, is her own political force as a member of the church and a former member of the Hero’s party. What’s more, the two women endeavor to be friends despite their complicated feelings of sharing the Hero and have their own amiable relationship in addition to being metamours.
All of that creates a rich romantic relationship that is central to Maoyu’s story, but is hardly sensationalized or used as a wedge to introduce conflict into the story. Instead it creates loving and caring human moments in an otherwise politics heavy show.
I yearn for such stories that show stable relationships as a matter of fact and part of a larger world or story. And even then I wish there was something more than Maoyu, because again—let me reiterate—we have a ways to go before I get something that I truly want as a trans polyamorous pan and demisexual catgirl on the Internet.
Sure Maoyu is good, but when are we going to get something gay? Or at the very least, can we have something where it’s not just one guy and multiple women? And when will we just let the gal pals do their thing AND be in a relationship. I’ve Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level comes close, I guess, but it’s never full on romance. And then Saki in Girlfriend Girlfriend spends half the time lusting over the other girls as much as Naoya. Just let her be canonically bisexual already. Goddamn, is it so much to ask for a story where a bunch of girls just kiss each other without shame? Where is-
Pack it up folks, mission accomp-
Wait, what do you mean they get killed off? Fujimoto, you wound me. How dare you? Why do you do this to me? These girls are literally me fr fr.
Guess it’s back to the drawing board for me.