Before the illogically intense backlash for Ghostbusters, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Twilight, or even Titanic, there was an alternative universe, a bubble in which girl-pandering content didn’t immediately lead to constant harassment, criticism, or death threats to those who enjoyed it, simply for the reason that few boys in white suburbs actually knew what it was.
Reverse harem anime is the purest, distilled form of pandering to romance-starved young girls. Fushigi Yugi was the trailblazer.
Created in an era of Japanese economic collapse, which led to various media exploring complete, uninhibited escapism, Fushigi Yugi can be regarded as the first mainstream-in-America reverse harem shows, originally released in Japan in 1995. Few pieces of media are so lightning-focused on the desires of its audience. It was full of the type of gorgeous bishounen you’d draw as fan art (as in that one doodling scene from Turning Red). It was as perfectly crafted as a Barbie doll, with every subconscious desire slapped on the screen.
Today, we have Ouran High School Host Club, which is widely considered the gold standard of reverse harem. Today, we have dating sims and dozens of titles doing the same thing. In the late 90s and early 00s, the relatively small percentage of Americans it reached had seen nothing like this. It’s almost impossible to look upon this piece of media with anything but nostalgia. Within the then-insular world of anime, people could enjoy their deep subconscious desires uncritically.
As a geriatric millennial, I want to impart on younger readers that the experience of enjoying a show like this without requiring writing a public treaty to get the bullying and death threats to stop was a dark bliss akin to a void-touching enlightenment. It should be regarded with the same nostalgia goggles as playing “stiff-as-a-board” in your basement and falling asleep on a stuffed animal without a hint of shame or worry that you’d be shamed for it. At fourteen, no one was bullying or attacking my friends or me for liking this show. They were bullying me for liking anime in general, but not for being a girl who watched things clearly because she was a girl who craved romance. As long as people were fairly private with their fandom, they could be left alone.
Think of how intensely derided romance genre books are within literary circles. Think of how Twilight still makes incels’ hackles rise. Think of everyone complaining about rom-coms ad nauseam for the better part of five decades. Think of the whining about “ruining the franchise.” Think of the intense hatred spawned by anything remotely in the neighborhood of problematic romances.
Now imagine if it all went away – a puff of smoke.
Joyful escape. Bliss. Freedom.
A space in which women could express their dark fantasies while not taking it too seriously? It’s a joyful experience that everyone should have.
And, I should also mention, this show is vaguely queer. Bisexual emo culture was extremely derided publicly. Watching anime was uncool, but at least – at least – Nuriko wore dresses but had a flat chest. At least Hotohori was a literal bisexual king. At least Yui and Miaka made up. At least queerness wasn’t vilified in this fantasy realm. I’ll have more to say about that later. But lo, this piece of media is deeply problematic. Twilight has nothing on this.
Recently while covered in neon-blue Takis in a somnolent pandemic-spawned haze of depression, I decided to return to this piece of media that gave me such comfort, enjoyment, and – genuinely, this is cringe but accurate – inspiration. During the pandemic, I, like many others, revisited old media like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Fruits Basket, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Well, Fushigi Yugi was next on my list. My 15-year-old self obsessed with this show. I actually cosplayed Yui in an era in which cosplay was seen as extremely weird. This was my safe space.
Let’s dive in.
This show has everything! From terrible tropes to actually problematic stuff, I’ve ranked some of the worst aspects of this show.
I suppose I should include trigger warnings. Do you know how many trigger warnings this show would need, if it were published on Ao3? All of them. I will start with the normal stuff and work my way up. Also, there are spoilers galore.
The Dreaded Romance Triangle
Let’s start off with something vanilla. Edward and Jacob have nothing on Tamahome and Hotohori. Sometimes they try to murder each other on sight without much explanation. Meanwhile, we have a double whammy because both Yui and Miaka are battling for the love of Tamahome.
The Bland Main Character Who Everyone Is Attracted To
Miaka is earnest, self-sacrificing, and tends to bring people together. She’s so self-sacrificing that she puts herself in danger constantly and needs to be rescued. And yes, everyone likes her.
The Gluttonous Protagonist Who Never Gains Weight
I suppose as far as flaws go, it beats the clumsiness trope. My girl Miaka has more curves than Bunny from Sailor Moon, but not much. It’s probably all the walking. These characters walk as much as the hobbits in Lord of the Rings.
The Self-Sacrificing Protagonists Who Put the Party In Danger All the Time
If you do ever plan to watch this show, prepare to be infuriated by the constant self-sabotage of both Miaka and Tamahome trying to do what’s best for everyone without doing the completely logical, adult thing of communicating.
Awesome Magical Powers That Aren’t Used All That Much
While the Seiryuu seven (the villains) seem to use their powers effectively, the Suzaku seven (the good guys) hardly ever have a party dynamic that uses their painstakingly established powers. It’s eerily similar to all the buildup and lack of payoff in Breaking Dawn. More often the party is shoved to the sidelines to focus on the dramas of Miaka and Tamahome.
A Gifted Child-Like Man and a Tall Guy
There’s often a child-like guy and a tall guy in each one of these reverse harem shows, who are shoved to the sidelines. Chiriko and Mitsukake get very little screen-time and deaths early on. They both have useful skills and powers that don’t often get used. You don’t really have time to attach to either emotionally.
Lying to Get Girls to Hate Each Other
Convincing women to hate each other is a classic symptom of the #patriarchy. But at least Yui and Miaka’s feud is not seen as a good thing.
Yui is the ultimate frenemy, who later becomes a full-on enemy.
Being Defended From Sexual Assault
This happens many, many times in this show. In fact, there’s a girl-is-saved-from-bad-men scene in the first episode. I remember the flack that Twilight got for it happening once in the first movie. This happens so many times in this series, it’s actually kind of funny.
Sexual Assault for Plot Reasons
This happens all the damn time. This includes a detailed, awful instance involving the main antagonist (episodes 35-36).
Sexual Assault Leading to Villainy
Yui hating Miaka for being raped by men and abandoned is… interesting.
Sex as a Weapon
Especially later on in the series, both protagonists and villains are told with a surprising frequency that sex can help to steal a person’s “life force.”
Evil, Undeveloped Female Villain
Soi, one of the villains, often is all about exchanging “life force” with the evil characters and stealing it from the good guys.
Purity Culture Nonsense
The priestesses must remain virgins in order to summon the gods, and remaining so is important to their goals and the plot. This show is, shall we say, confused as far as what it wants to say about female sexuality.
An Abusive Boyfriend Via Magic
The entire end of season one involves Tamahome’s personality changing due to an evil pill, essentially, but what occurs is reminiscent of Angel’s behavior in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite it being magically summoned, the abuse is a little too similar to real life, a little too intense, and the victim is a little too understanding/forgiving. Miaka being subjected to it, crying, and trying to love him anyway isn’t a great message, even if it’s outside of Tamahome’s control.
Or Just an Abusive Boyfriend In General
Tamahome is on occasion still pretty harsh with her verbally after that, criticizing Miaka, stonewalling, and rejecting her consistently for the drama.
I’ve discovered that, yes, in fact, I will die angry about Nuriko.
So Nuriko is the show’s gay/trans-coded character. For most of the show, her pronouns are she/her, and she is explicitly attracted to Hotohori, the emperor. She has a flat chest, is absurdly strong, and extremely feminine. Her jokes, also, weren’t purely based in homophobia, like in contemporary shows like Magic User’s Club (1999) or even in later shows like Ouran High School Host Club. For queer-content-starved kids of the early 00s, Nuriko was exceptional.
How do you destroy a queer character? Pathologize, conform, kill – Nuriko got all three.
It’s only in season two that Nuriko starts to drop hints that they’re potentially attracted to Miaka. Nuriko’s backstory is then revealed in episode 30, involving his sister Korin, and why he took on being perceived as a woman, hence the pathology. The next three episodes do not get better. As she is, literally, dying, Nuriko envisions life as a modern Japanese salary man, driving Miaka in fancy cars and buying her nice clothes, hence the conformity.
The character dies in episode 33. She is posthumously referred to with he/him pronouns for the rest of the show. Hotohori, the emperor that Nuriko pined after, got a straight cis version of Nuriko as a wife.
Amiboshi and Suboshi are twins who are on the villain’s side (Seiryuu) who kiss in a later episode. Sure, it was to transfer a forgetfulness potion, but come on.
Later on after Nuriko’s death, Nakago, the main villain, kisses Tamahome, essentially vilifying homosexuality. He also licks him. I don’t know.
The Shockingly Bloody Ending
Man, a lot of these characters die in the last few episodes. At one point, the show shifts towards more of a shounen anime, with big deaths and a lot of punching. In the final few episodes, the only ones in the main party who are left are Tamahome, Tatsuki, and Chichiri. These deaths are oddly brutal, but the switch in tone toward darker themes doesn’t make the ending of the show any less anti-climactic. In the end, many of these cool characters are forgotten for the sake of continuing the Miaka and Tamahome romance in the real world.
But my walk of shame does nothing.
Am I self-flagellating because I’ve witnessed all this intense bile against the fans of less-offensive, female-pandering material? Do we actually need to do this?
While this show was much more problematic than Twilight, it made room to explore dark things that girls don’t often have the opportunity to: learning to not blame yourself after a sexual assault, listening and communicating with friends even when they have difficult things to say, standing up for yourself even while being self-sacrificing, and learning that you’re worthy of love.
Was this show a net good? Probably not. Was it, for me? Yes. Do we need to back off when teenage girls like terrible trash? Yes.
Chichiri is best boy.