First things first. I’m not a fan of harem anime, or stuff that is fan service heavy, such as ecchi anime. I’m a story guy. I need an anime to have a good story for it to hold my interest. Panty shots and bouncy boobs aren’t gonna keep me invested.
So, the question then arises, why am I making Shuffle, a harem anime with panty shots and bouncy boobs, one of my Monday Anime entries? Quite simply, because it actually has a story that is pretty damn good.
In the world of harem animes, things tend to get pretty similar between shows. There’s usually only two types of guys involved in the average harem series. The lecherous pervert, and the idiot nice guy. Neither of these appeal to me very much, simply because they aren’t realistic. The average person has more facets to their personality than a simple archetype allows.
Likewise, the story is usually pretty thin. A bunch of really good looking girls all fall in love with the protagonist for pretty thin reasons, if any actual reason is given at all. This leads to comedic encounters that are typically sexist as hell in some way or the other. What is usually lacking is any kind of story, beyond sexy hi-jinks ensuing in increasingly improbable and stupid ways.
Shuffle separates itself from the pack in both of these situations, and a number of others. All of which I’ll get to in a moment. First off, for those that haven’t seen the show, a brief recap.
Shuffle is set in a modern Japanese city, where a school, known as Verbena Academy, can be found. This is important, so remember it. Some years prior to the first episode, a gateway to other worlds was opened, specifically, the realm of the Gods, and the realm of the Demons. Now, all three worlds coexist, and many Gods and Demons have immigrated to the human world. Verbena Academy was set up specifically so Gods, Humans, and Demons could attend school together.
Told you it was important.
The series revolves around average student Rin, who lives with his childhood friend, Kaede, after her mother and his parents died in car accident. Kaede’s father is away on business a lot, and the two have developed a brother/sister relationship, leading to Rin taking a lot of things in his life for granted.
All of that gets turned upside down with the arrival of two new students, Sia and Nerina, who just so happen to be the Princesses of the Godly Realm and Demon Realm, respectively. Both have come to the Human world, and enrolled at Verbena Academy, specifically to pursue a romantic relationship with Rin. Which means that he suddenly finds himself in a position of possible becoming the King of of one of those Realms one day.
Things get even more complicated with the arrival of Primula, and Rin’s own growing affection for his long time friend, Asa, both of whom have feelings of their own where he is concerned. Somehow, Rin has to figure out what to do now that all these women are in his life.
The first thing that separates Shuffle from other harem animes is the total dedication it gives to the world setting. The presence of Gods and Demons living, and working, alongside humans is developed pretty well, and the show mentions a few times that this arrangement wasn’t reached easily. Verbena Academy is the first school to enroll students from three separate worlds, two of which have magic as their science. The larger ramifications of the three world system isn’t really explained, as it has little effect on the show, but the simple mention that it took a while for everything to settle down is the first hint that the world building was strongly in the writers minds.
Gods and Demons are everywhere, too, not just in the main cast. Secondary characters, and even background characters, can be seen being non-human. There’s a strong commitment by the show to develop an actual setting that feels both fantastical, and yet real.
The second thing that makes Shuffle different is series protagonist, Rin. Unlike the usual leads in a harem anime, Rin actually is a nice guy, who takes the feelings of the young women around him seriously, and tries his best to be thoughtful, considerate, and kind to each of them based on not just how they feel for him, but how he feels for them.
It’s one of the series strongest angles, as Rin goes through the process of getting to know the women as people, first and foremost. Out of respect for how they feel, he lets things develop, and builds actual relationships with them all as friends first, and follows his heart from there.
The biggest point in Rin’s favor is that he is neither a lech, or a kind idiot. He is aware that several very attractive women are interested in him, and there are times he struggles with that, but always chooses to pursue a friendship first, even when his libido wants something else. Neither is he a kind idiot. He is kind, but he’s no idiot. He’s well aware that each young woman’s feelings are, to her, genuine and real, and treats that with respect, something you don’t often see in harem animes.
More importantly, however, is how the show approaches the relationships between the women. Rather than cat fights, they all develop strong friendships as well, frequently supporting each other, and helping each other out. There is never any name calling or fights of any kind, as each of the women interested in Rin respects the feelings of the others, and is considerate towards that.
Yes, it’s a harem anime where everyone tries their best to handle the complicated situation like adults. It’s so crazy, it actually works.
Most notable is a scene in which Rin is visiting Asa’s home, and while waiting for her to change out of her school uniform, heads to use the bathroom. Upon opening the door, he catches Asa in the midst of pulling her underwear back up. Rather than the usual screaming and slapping, the two have an awkward conversation about the lock being broken on the bathroom door, and laugh about it after the fact.
This isn’t the only example of the characters actually acting their age, either. They are very late teens, with Rin being 17, Asa a year older, and most of the rest being in a similar age range. They are young adults, and despite the situation they are in, try their best to act it.
In fact, as it becomes apparent that Rin has feelings for one women in particular, the others go out of their way to support them, accepting Rin’s feelings as being legitimate, and being respectful of what he wants, just as he was of them.
Now, all of that isn’t to say the show is completely wonderful. There’s still an abundance of panty shots. Sometimes, for no reason at all, but sometimes, to actually set up later plot developments. For example, the tried and true, “running into each other causes guy to see girls panties” cliche happens when Rin and secondary character Mayumi have the collision.
First off, Mayumi isn’t one of Rin’s love interests, but more importantly, he doesn’t freak out or have a nosebleed or anything. His reaction is pretty much just to say, yeah, it isn’t like I haven’t seen panties before. Which is true, as he got drug along on a lingerie buying trip in an earlier episode. Mayumi later comments that Rin isn’t the kind of guy she’d be into anyway, but when he tracks her down later that same day to return her wallet, which she dropped when they bumped into each other, she realizes what all the other girls see in him. That his kindness really is his defining trait, rather than just an aspect of who he is. While she doesn’t fall in love with him, she does respect him more, and begins to be more supportive with his various struggles.
This is a good example of taking a cliched event, and doing something useful with it, as it lets the viewer see Rin through the perspective of someone that isn’t in love with him, helping to give more context as to why so many girls are. When a harem anime goes that extra mile, it’s rare, and meaningful.
The same episode that deals with Mayumi, also takes the time to flesh out one of the background characters, the gangs home room teach, Ms. Nadeshiko, who is mostly known for being a blunt, tough teacher unafraid to hand out punishments for not paying attention in class. While her moment in the sun is brief, it shows us a confident, self possessed women that doesn’t take shit from anyone.
Ms. N is tall, and very busty, by the by, so rather than doing something comedic, the writers take the time to show the kind of daily misogyny she deals with, and how she deals with it. In the same segment, we see her giving advice to one of her students that wants to be one of the popular girls. Ms. N’s advice basically comes down to, fuck being popular, it only brings weirdos and jerks your way. Be yourself, and a guy who respects you, and cares for you, for who you are, will find you.
Yes, moral lessons from a harem anime. This thing just keeps getting crazier.
Still, the panty shots are a little overdone, and there is brief, situational nudity, which the show likely could have done without. Granted, it is situational, meaning it all happens when a person would normally be nude anyway, so I give them points for not having the female characters be nude for just any reason, like is often the case. Also, the series is based on a rather mature visual novel, so it isn’t surprising that there’d be at least some of these things. Overall, they are fairly forgettable, and don’t detract from the story too much.
Another weak area for the series is in the handling of some of the characters backstory. While most of them are pretty solid, Sia and Nerine’s end up being way too similar, and since Nerine’s is revealed first, Sia’s loses much of the impact it may have had. The resolution to their character arcs is radically different, however, so it isn’t all bad, but it is a weakness in an otherwise well crafted group of characters.
Kaede’s backstory takes a turn to the horrific in a lot of ways, and touches on a lot of elements, such as post traumatic stress, emotional trauma, and mental illness. Most of the time we spend with Kaede sees her doing all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and whatever else she can to make Rin happy. To his credit, he is never shown being comfortable with that, but doesn’t know how to deal with the situation, due to the very traumatic shared history the two have.
Primula’s backstory and character arc resolution is a bit too dues ex, rather than logical, as is Asa’s, the second faring even worse for being tied to the series finale in a way that was rather lackluster, if somewhat emotionally satisfying.
Backstories aside, the characters are written very well, with each being well defined and different from the other. Sia is brash and reckless, while Nerine is shy and studious. Kaede is smart and talented, if damaged, while Primula is initially very withdrawn emotionally. Asa is vibrant and cheerful, where Mayumi overzealous and gossipy.
Even the more secondary characters are well defined, such as Asa’s best friend Kareha, a God who gets lost in daydreams at the very mention of romance, usually with a bright glow and sparkles to go with it. The Kings of both the Godly and Demon Realm make frequent appearances, and are solid characters as well, shown as being close friends who frequently challenge each other in all manner of ways, more for fun than anything. While usually the main comic relief, both characters have a serious side, and are two of the strongest adult figures in the series.
The animation is overall, pretty strong, though since the series came out in 2005, it does show its age at times. The backgrounds are still the strongest feature, however, with each one being very rich and beautifully detailed. The biggest weakness of the character designs is primarily with the hair. All the women seem to have a very similar hair style, and the animation work done on it does date the show pretty badly. Otherwise, its usually solid, if not exceptional. The camera work makes up for a lot of this, with angles being used to good effect, especially in the more dramatic moments.
The real star of the show, however, is the music. With a very catchy opening and ending theme song, and background music that is memorable, the soundtrack is extremely well done. It elevates an already out of the box series to a greater height, and is one I’d personally love to own.
Shuffle did get an English dub from Funimation, and as usual for them, its pretty solid, featuring an A list cast of voice actors, such as Carrie Savage, Jerry Jewell, Monica Rial, Cherami Leigh, Brittney Karbowski, Caitlin Glass, Jami Marchi, and my personal favorite, Colleen Clinkenbeard. Also present are Todd Haberkorn, Vic Mignogna, Luci Christian, and Critical Role’s Travis Willingham. Basically, it’s a who’s who of anime voice actors, with pretty much every name being a recognizable star for anime fans.
Ultimately, Shuffle is a harem anime that is very aware that it is a harem anime, and tries to bring something different to the table. It spends much of its time looking at ways to be respectful of others feelings, understanding of what they need in life, and values friendship over romance at every turn. It openly address the misogyny inherent in the genre, and encourages the idea that guys and gals can be friends, even if one of them had or has feelings for the other, pretty adamantly stating that without friendship, those feelings can’t ever really go anywhere anyway.
Despite its own weaknesses, Shuffle does manage to deliver a harem anime that is more respectful than the usual to pretty much everyone, and makes that respect the core of the story it tells. Say what you want, but that’s something the harem genre could do with more of.