Something that bothers me in a lot of my anime lately is how often I have to sit through poorly-executed, romantic subplots. El-Hazard was a pretty darn good isekai anime, but its ambitions to also be a romcom fell utterly flat for me. A shame, because A LOT of the anime’s runtime is wasted on romance.
Focus is put on series’ protagonist Makoto, who steadily accrues a harem around himself during his adventures. He reunites with his childhood friend Nanami, he draws the affection of the fire saga Shayla, and he’s frequently preyed upon by the attendant Alielle. The sequel adds the water sage Qawoor to the harem proceedings and there’s a spoiler-heavy addition later down the line as well.
Harems are not unusual in isekai anime today, but the one in El-Hazard was exceptionally boring; even in the day and age where it first came out. So much effort is put into developing this harem, yet it never actually goes anywhere interesting. It’s just a growing cast of girls whose entire raison d’être is to constantly beg Makoto-kun for the slightest shimmer of attention.
I am not exaggerating when I say that. Characters are introduced who initially appear quite interesting. Then they fall for Makoto after the slightest act of kindness on his part and immediately devote their very being to him. Shayla is a big deal in the political landscape of El-Hazard, but then she falls in love and becomes little more than an irrational tag-along. You can literally see spaces in the anime’s plot where Shayla could have played a big role, where she is absent solely because of reasons relating to Makoto.
Even if you happen to like the idea of a male character being followed around and admired by all these hot girls, you’ll get tired of it after the twentieth shouting contest. The harem comes to entirely define the character dynamics of everybody involved. Meaning the girls constantly get into heated arguments over who is Makoto’s real girlfriend. It’s just constant shouting and feuding, which quickly drained any appreciation I had for these characters.
Not to mention: all of this is for a guy whose romantic dialogue is 50% confused reaction noises and 25% “I don’t understand”. He has a charisma on par with the ogres from the Warcraft mythos.
It’s so boring to sit through and, to be frank, a total waste of time. It has nothing original or engaging to offer, so it’s just a detriment to the story whenever it comes up. So why have it?
A major cause for this problem is that authors seem convinced that if a story has romance in it, then that romance must be a conflict. Therefore it must either be a story about characters trying to get in a relationship or that relationship being tested, usually the former. This makes a harem easy, because you can just endlessly perpetuate the conflict until your story is over. When things threaten to get stale, just toss in another character!
I personally think El-Hazard could’ve been more interesting if, say, Makoto and Nanami were already in a relationship from the start. They end up in wildly different places after being isekai’ed, unsure of what happened to the other or if they are even both around. Trying to get back together could then become a driving motivation for the two of them. It’s still a conflict, but it’s something else for a change. A story like that would better play to the strengths of the isekai genre and could also be used to make the characters more emotional.
Isekai anime are exceptionally prone to featuring harems. Potentially because the idea of having a loyal band of women catering to your every beck and call fits very well with the wish-fulfillment fantasy inherent to isekai stories. However, even within the isekai genre there are examples of romance being handled in more interesting ways. Mon Colle Knights had its protagonists in a relationship from the start and leaned on that for emotional moments and comedy. Even Sword Art Online, the punching bag of the isekai genre, made a solid decision when it committed to the Kirito x Asuna relationship established in season 1.
Hell, El-Hazard shows that it can do better through its side-characters. Mr. Fujisawa ends up in a budding relationship with the water sage Miz. She is head-over-heels for him and tries very hard to catch his attention, but Fujisawa is a free-spirited, kinda-selfish guy. He is hesitant to let himself be tied down by a woman, but you get to see the two of them grow closer together over the course of the story, with their relationship hitting major milestones at several points.
I initially felt like a Miz x Fujisawa had a boomer-y “wife bad” feel to it at first, but I gained a lot of appreciation for its as their romance developed. It’s so well handled and engaging to watch that it makes me question even more why Makoto’s romance, as the story’s protagonist, is just a stagnant harem.