Well, let us now take things from the origins of harem all the way to a modern example of the genre. Have today's harem mangaka learned anything from their predecessors, or have they only taken the concept to its extremes?
ROSARIO + VAMPIRE (Rozario to Banpaia), by Akehisa Ikeda. First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2008.
Tsukune Aono is a perfectly nice guy who also happens to be a completely hopeless student. He's managed to fail every high school entrance exam in the area, and now his only apparent option is the mysterious (and exam-free) Yokai Academy. He is soon dropped off at a desolate seashore where a dark manor looms over the scenery, and in turn soon collides with the adorable, attractive Moka. She's feeling dizzy and anemic, and Tsukune offers to help. Moka makes the most of his offer by supping a bit of his blood.
Yep, Moka is a vampire, and she's far from alone. It turns out the entire academy, student and staff alike, are populated by monsters of every shape and size who are there to learn how to adapt and live in a world of humans. Tsukune is understandably freaked out and wishes to leave, but Moka's newfound happiness at having a friend (not to mention a tasty blood source) makes him stay. Their friendship soon makes Tsukune the envy of the student body, and some try to use their supernatural powers to get Tsukune out of the way. In the middle of his struggle, Tsukune releases the seal on Moka's true personality and power, and this self will not tolerate any threat towards her best food source or her other self's happiness.
Rosario + Vampire can be incredibly formulaic at times, but there are enough little twists and turns to keep things from getting too dull, and the sweetness of the leads' relationship goes a long way towards redeeming this volume as a whole.
Honestly, I was very strongly reminded of Oh My Goddess while reading this, particularly in regards to the leads. Tsukune and Keiichi are practically peas on a pod, being good upstanding guys without a lot of brains or force of personality but a lot of loyalty to their friends. They are also both completely hopeless at romance - Tsukune is sadly one of those bumbling, spineless sort of harem leads who is too innocent to make the slightest move on a girl. Moka and Belldandy are rather similiar as well, as both are sweet, innocent, and friendly, although Moka is less of the motherly type and more of a child-like innocent. Of course, that's about where the similiarities end - after all, Belldandy didn't use Keiichi for her own personal juice box. Moka also has that seperate, more powerful personality to deal with, one that is only contained by her magical rosary. I do wish there was some clarification as to how this works - is this a case of a split personality? Is she possessed? Which Moka is the 'true' Moka, the sweetheart or the monster? Only future issues may tell.
The rest of the cast is one note, save for Kurumu, the second girl to join Tsukume's budding harem. She's a succubus who starts out as a manipulative young girl, one who consciously uses her body (and the power of fanservice) to enslave other. When this ultimately fails to ensnare Tsukume, she switches her strategy and starts behaving in a more girly-girl manner, in the hopes that this might work better on him.
The plot is very formulaic, but it's more along the vein of the 'monster of the week' formula than the standard harem formula. With each chapter, a new monster is introduced that threatens either Tsukune or Moka, said monster fights them, Tsukune releases the other Moka, who finishes off the monster and returns things to the status quo. It's a predictable structure, but not to the point where it makes the volume unpleasant to read.
Ultimately Rosario + Vampire may be kind of shallow and rather repetitious, but it's a light, breezy sort of series to read, aided by the sweetness of the relationship between the two leads.
The character designs are fairly simple, to the point where they start skirting the line of 'moeblob', or at least as much as a major shonen magazine will allow for that. Still, they are attractive...well, save for the heavies who are big and stereotypically brutish. Some of the monsters are kind of visually interesting, like the piranha-like mermaids, but sadly the main girls never get to be so ugly - their monster forms are barely different from their normal guises.
Interestingly, there's not a lot of fanservice here, and the vast majority comes from Kurumu. I actually kind of admire how Ikeda went out of his way to avoid fanservice from Moka through the use of shading and object placing. It's not done in a winking, obvious sort of way, and for someone who feared the worse after seeing this manga's animated counter part, it's a welcome sight (or lack of sight, one might say). The action is plainly drawn and mostly uses a lot of speed lines; this is not the series to read if you want some epic monster battles.
Rosario + Vampire's art is kind of plain overall, but it's not hard on the eyes and it avoids some of the trashier, fanservice-laden trappings of its brethren that works well with its light, innocent tone.
The only extras are a few omakes that are themselves just the setups to some really lame jokes.
This is a pleasant if plain and unchallenging sort of manga. That may sound like weak praise, but considing that most harems tend to be trashy and pandering, I'll happily take something that's actually kind of sweet and plain.
This series is published by Viz. All 10 volumes have been published, and all are currently in print.
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