Walk the Line?: The KeyAni Trifecta and the Genre Conventions of the Harem Show

Step one to successful blogging: nicely academic-sounding post titles.

I want to preface this by mentioning that this all comes out of a conversation I recently had with a fellow blogger, in which I stated that Air is interesting from a structural and thematic viewpoint, regardless of whether one thinks that the show itself is any good (I am of the opinion that it is somewhat good although certainly flawed). I compared it with its KeyAni stablemates in part to make my argument… only to realize that, actually, these KeyAni shows push the envelope a bit for ‘harem’ shows. If anything, its only Kanon that adheres fairly strictly to the conventions and expectations of the genre, although even it deviates in some ways, mainly in its approach to fanservice and the strong ambiguity of Yuuichi’s relationships with the various girls.

First off, lets talk about Air; I’ve previously written about it, pointing out that the show is ultimately about mother-daughter relationships (mother figure-daughter figure relationships if we really want to get technical, since in one case its a pair of sisters and another is an aunt and a niece). Air is really a harem only in the loosest sense, in that there are a few female protagonists and only one guy, and the guy helps them with their problems. Even here, though, Yukito isn’t wholly necessary, as demonstrated by the fact that Air removes him completely from the narrative in its final arc, letting Misuzu and Haruko finally work out their issues on their own.

There’s also the fact that Air TV doesn’t have any overt romance, and that even the implied romance so slightly so that one can easily dismiss it or not notice it at all. The movie makes it explicit at least in the former lives of the characters, and makes a stronger case for it in the present, but the TV series has no interest in doing so.

However, I still think that the matter of the mother-daughter relationships is what makes Air interesting at a remove – it isn’t exactly what one thinks of when they think harem material (well, unless we’re talking hentai OVAs). It also isn’t what people generally think of when they think of Air, either, actually, as Clannad is the KeyAni title known for its focus on familial relations and family as a concept. But where Clannad handles Tomoya’s daddy’s issues, here it is squarely focused on mothers – even Yukito’s mother gets a tiny bit of play in the storyline, albeit entirely off-screen. Yukito’s mother is the only reason he ends up meeting any of the girls in the story at all, as he has hit the road in the wake of her death, searching for a ‘girl in the sky’ she used to tell him stories about… and there’s an implication that he and his mother had a complicated and not entirely harmonious relationship as well, much like Kano, Minagi, and Misuzu (I’ll point out that Kano and her elder sister do get along quite well, they just have some issues relating to Kano being the reincarnation of a woman who killed herself to save her child several centuries prior).

Having mentioned Clannad, it seems best to touch on it next. Clannad hews more closely to the genre than does Air, although it deviates quite a bit as well. Having Tomoya actually end up with one of the girls is a development that in more recent harem shows makes it noteworthy, as more and more shows seem to opt instead for no resolution. However, what really marks it as different is that Clannad actually dares to go into what happens after Tomoya and Nagisa start to date. How many harem shows bother with that?

We all know what comes next, of course – Nagisa eventually dies in childbirth. And yet the show keeps going, which brings it into even further deviation, as the romance element is completely excised from the story. We can view this as a cop-out on the part of the creators, though, as it prevents Nagisa from being ‘corrupted’ by the natural viscisitudes of conjugal life. Yeah, yeah, she’s been pregnant and had a child, but by removing her from the storyline, the staff no longer has to fret about having to continue the contrived set-up of Nagisa and Tomoya’s life at home, which is to say, they hold hands and blush a lot and make uguu faces but don’t kiss or have sexytimes. While a portion of the audience clearly prefers this sort of relationship between the two, there’s also a significant portion of the audience which was becoming increasingly irritated by the unreality of the entire thing. Killing Nagisa off essentially satisfies both, since the staff no longer has to worry about the matter of the couple living together.

But, anyway, shifting the focus of the show onto Tomoya and his daughter Ushio is an interesting turn of events for a harem show, and if the storyline of the show hadn’t been so widely known beforehand, it probably would’ve come as a surprising turn of events as well for the audience.

I’ll also note, though, that Clannad’s harem elements largely felt shoehorned in. In particular, I recall a scene in the first season involving all the girls and Tomoya sitting at a table. The girls are being competitive about him, and it feels weird and out of left field. While the Fujibayashi girls have been very clearly developed as having crushes on Tomoya, neither Kotomi nor Tomoyo have displayed any romantic affections toward Tomoya. It just felt like they jammed this scene in only to expand Tomoya’s harem, and it really doesn’t work, its too abrupt. Awkward, too, were the times in Clannad and ~After Story~ when the show tries to paint Tomoya as some kind of lolicon, only so that they can fetishize his friend Sunohara’s younger sister Mei. It feels really weird to have a previously upstanding and sympathetic character suddenly start getting turned on by little girl calling him ‘onii-chan’.

I digress, though.

Looping back to Kanon, its the one of the three that stays most within the lines of the genre. Even here, though, there is some straying from the formula. For one thing, Kanon is free of visual fanservice; there are no panty-shots, no crotch-shots, no boob-shots. There is a lone naked shot, but it doesn’t even reach the naked Barbie doll level, opting more in favor of naked Stacey doll (does Stacey even exist any more? I was going to go with Skipper, but then I recalled that her anatomy’s gotten more boobtacular in the past ten years). Its a bit startling to notice, since we’ve gotten so used to harems being ultra-ecchi.

Kanon also has the ambiguity of relationships at work, as I mentioned previously, wherein Yuuichi only ends up being romantically involved with one girl, and only one girl explicitly has romantic feelings for him. The others you can certainly interpret as feeling romantically toward him, but it isn’t necessary to do so, and I think in some of the cases to do so is to force it. Of course, it helps that one of his would-be haremettes is actually a fox (four-legged, not two-legged) and another comes ready-made to slash with her close female friend.

Even with these differences, though, its easy to see that Clannad and Air vary much, much more from the typical harem formula than does Kanon.¬†Ironically, though, I liked Kanon the best and think it was also the best adaptation of the stable. Clannad is easily the worst, given how poorly paced it was (of course, only having 22 episodes was probably part of the problem). To be perfectly honest, the crap pacing for Clannad is why it doesn’t bother me too much that KyoAni is not adapting Little Busters (and I’m also glad P.A. Works isn’t doing it either, as that studio hasn’t produced anything that inclines me toward thinking they have a propensity for making good shows).

I’m looking forward to Little Busters, now, and its entirely possible that I’ll have to update this post once its wrapped up its airing – while I know the bare bones of the story, it isn’t enough to draw conclusions from it. It has the most involved story of the Sad Girls in the Seasonally-Appropriate Noun games from Key, although any of you who chafed at the supernatural elements of Clannad are probably going to be irritated. Hopefully we get an air date (hurr hurr air hurrrr) on it soon.

I’ll leave off with a nice picture of the aforementioned Kanon girl and her ready-made-to-slash-with friend.

Clearly the best couple in the show.

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12 Responses to Walk the Line?: The KeyAni Trifecta and the Genre Conventions of the Harem Show

  1. sorrowkun says:

    make uguu faces

    I lol’d.

    I have nothing to add. Everything in this post is completely right. This is a big part of the reason why I’ve previously thought that categorizing the Key-KyoAni shows as harems was either naive, or required a convenient change in the definition of “harem”. This was a time when there weren’t any really good harem shows, and Kannagi and Bakemonogatari kinda changed that. But both those shows fit into the harem genre without the need to make drastic changes to what we mean by “harem”. That just isn’t really the case for the Key shows.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Since you mentioned the ‘make uguu faces’, I feel like mentioning that I was one of those folks really annoyed with the portrayal of Nagisa and Tomoya’s relationship in ~After Story~, because I do like them as a couple; essentially, they help fill the holes in each other (Tomoya helps Nagisa finally connect with her peers, whereas Nagisa helps Tomoya finally feel like he’s part of a family). They’re shyness around each other is cute and makes sense initially, but, hot damn, dude, she’s pregnant! Stop pussyfooting around about it, sheesh!

      But, yes, the Key games rendered into shows don’t really work as harems in the ‘traditional’ sense… its particularly noticeable with Clannad when KyoAni tried to jam it in toward the end, as I said in the post.

  2. Katherine says:

    Mai and Sayuri! I salute you, for they are one of my earliest ships. Clannad also has a blink and you’ll miss it yuri pairing- that girl who was protective of her female sempai for…uh, some reason. They’re shown holding hands in After Story’s ED (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qItUsvC-eoI), and they’re shown living together at the end. (3:45 in this vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2iWhGUDqk4&feature=related) I don’t remember their names, but I still say they’re a couple. lol I find it kind of interesting that, minor as they were when they appeared earlier in the series, they were included in that final montage.

    My favorite of the KeyAni trifecta is Clannad (mostly for After Story), but I like all of them. They’re all tear-jerkers in a good way.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      I love, love, love Mai and Sayuri as a couple; it makes much more sense to me than pairing Mai with Yuuichi. Overall, I think that Mai is honestly kind of dull as a character, but I found her relationship with Sayuri redeeming for her, even if Sayuri’s backstory was the more interesting of the two.

  3. crazydave says:

    Not really relevant but the best part of Clannad was the Rainbow Jam of Death + Sanae’s bread scene.

  4. @fkeroge says:

    Mai and Sayuri! ^///^

    Anyway, I think the concept of “family” is present in all of KeyAni works (in Little Busters and Tomoyo After as well). It’s something that Jun Maeda is really good at. There were quite a few hints of it in Kanon, such as the story of Sayuri and her brother. Air had more filial drama in the form of Misuzu and Haruko, and Clannad is practically about family in all its forms. It wasn’t as pronounced in the Clannad anime as it was in the original VN, but all of the characters’ stories are deeply connected to the concept of family, be it Fuuko, Tomoyo, Kotomi or Sunohara.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Hmm, thinking on it, one can see a bit of the family theme in Kanon as well, although its certainly less obvious than in either Air or Clannad. That the set-up with Yuuichi, Nayuki, and Nayuki’s mum isn’t examined very much does indicate to me that with Kanon it just wasn’t as big of a concern for the staff. Now, this may be related to the fact that Kanon was the earliest of these games, and so that angle wasn’t as much on the radar as it would later be for the folks at Key.

  5. alsozara says:

    When you say the worst was Clannad, I assume you are talking about the first series. Even if you are excluding ~After Story~ from that, I find calling it poorly paced pretty perplexing. I’d have trouble picking a single episode which could be taken out without serious detriment to the plot or character development. If you’re saying it was too compressed then, well, I’d still find that pretty perplexing.

    Anyway, enjoyed the post very much. Much love for the Key/KyoAni shows. Clannad made me not only rethink my opinion on the importance of family, but also the potential of visual novels as an artistic medium.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Uh, the first season of Clannad had awful pacing; it lingered for a VERY long time on Fuuko and Koyomi, which in turn meant that Kyou and Tomoyo’s storylines were complete rush jobs. Hell, even Nagisa’s portion got a bit rushed, considering that she’s the lead heroine in the piece. If Clannad was going to spend as much time as it did on Koyomi and Fuuko (who, by the way, are also the least valid as haremettes of the girls in the cast), then the episode count should’ve been higher so that similar time could’ve been spent on developing the other girls’ storylines.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, though. Clannad does seem to have prompted a lot of folks to re-consider their notions of what constitutes family, so whether it was ‘good’ as a piece of entertainment or not is a bit moot in the grand scheme, if you ask me.

      • alsozara says:

        I see. With that cleared up, allow me to make my case. Sorry, this will probably be pretty mammoth. Also, not trying to proselytise or anything, just think it’s an interesting discussion.

        Firstly, I’ve never played the original visual novel, nor am I likely to at any point, so I can’t speak in regards to how faithful an adaptation Clannad is. Kyou and Tomoyo’s arcs may well have been comparatively compressed, but this doesn’t really bother me for a number of reasons.

        Firstly, I don’t think fidelity is the most important factor in the quality of an adaptation. I think a lot of KyoAni’s brilliance in their various adaptation efforts is their willingness to take creative liberties to make the subject material better suit the media it is being adapted to.

        Secondly, I always felt that the true heart of Clannad’s story wasn’t the romance, or the dfiferent paths, but Family, the duality of hope and despair, and perhaps most of all, Tomoya’s character development. I always saw the girls’ different arcs as mostly tools to these ends. Now it’s been a while since I last watched Clannad, but for memory Tomoya’s character growth was damn well paced, showing steady development, and giving minor epiphany moments at key (pun intended) intervals.

        Now, again, my only knowledge of Kyou and Tomoyo’s arcs are the OVAs, but it seems to me that the fact that Koyomi and Fuuko were the least valid as haramettes is exactly why their arcs should logically get the most time, especially in consideration of Nagisa being the true lead. As far as I could tell from the OVAs, Kyou and Tomoyo’s arcs were the most romance focused, and hence the least relevant in this case. Fuuko and Koyomi’s arcs seemed to have more meet in them, especially as potential sparks for more growth in Tomoya and Nagisa’s relationship.

        Talking about Nagisa, you say she could have had more episodes devoted to her. Well, her relationship with Tomoya did pretty much frame every other arc, so I’d say that makes up for it personally.

        It’s already a pretty long story. Any more episodes and I believe it would have felt too dragged out. I also think that, for the reasons outlined above, any more time spent on Tomoyo and Kyou would have drawn focus away from the true heart of the series.

        Besides all this, I also have issues with treating the first series and ~After Story~ as separate entities, since they’re both adapted from the same visual novel it seems like a false split. Also, I don’t think either was designed to stand up without the other. The first series would be pretty shallow and and leave a lot of important loose ends without ~After Story~, and ~After Story~ would carry half the emotional weight without all the set up from the first series.

        Anyway, rant over for now. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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