Harem manga and anime are -- for better or worse -- some of the most popular titles in the industry today. However, the subgenre's rise to fame has been a long one. Series' like 1978's Urusei Yatsura and 1992's Tenchi Muyo! paved the way for contemporary hits like Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and High School DxD.
Another title that helped to establish harem anime is Oh My Goddess!. Originally a serialized manga, Oh My Goddess! ran from September 1988 to April 2014. The franchise spawned numerous anime shows and OVAs (released under the title Ah! My Goddess), a feature-length film and a novel. However, popular as this title is, does it still hold its ground when compared to other, more -- for lack of a better word -- bodacious titles?
On the surface, Oh My Goddess! appears to follow the same tropes and trends as most other harem titles. Morisato Keiichi -- the series' male lead -- is a woefully unlucky college sophomore. However, his luck turns around when he accidentally calls the Goddess Help Line and enters into a contract with Belldandy, who has been authorized to grant him a single wish. Believing one of his oddball upperclassmen is playing a prank on him, Morisato wishes for Belldandy to stay with him forever. Belldandy grants his wish, and the two must consequently remain together forever.
After leaving Morisato's male-only college dormitory for a recently vacated Buddhist temple, Belldandy's equally beautiful -- and indubitably quirky -- sisters Urd and Skuld join the duo. As is wont to happen in this sort of situation, a plethora of adventures and misunderstandings ensue while Morisato and Belldandy's relationship grows.
Despite surface appearances, Oh My Goddess! sets itself apart from other harem franchises. Most harem manga and anime take the usual themes -- romantic love, comedy, and sexual tension and misunderstanding -- and dial them up to their most outrageous iterations. Most -- if not all -- of the story arcs and significant developments involve the male lead either finding himself in a compromising romantic situation or having to navigate a comedy of often sexualized errors. Oh My Goddess! takes a different approach. Rather than rely upon tired, hyper-sexual gags or over-the-top, zany humor, Oh My Goddess! utilizes the fundamentals of storytelling, keeping the focus on the unconventional-yet-conventional relationship between Belldandy and Morisato.
Additionally, Oh My Goddess! features character designs that are simultaneously subdued but captivating. Most harem genre characters aren't exactly known for their subtlety. For example, the designs for the female leads in titles like High School DxD and How Not to Summon a Demon Lord involve impossibly curvaceous bodies and outfits featuring plunging necklines and barely-extant skirts. Oh My Goddess!'s leads are depicted much differently. Belldandy and her sister Skuld often wear long, flowing robes, or long-sleeved, fairly conservative human clothes.
One notable exception to this is Urd's clothing design -- with a top that would make DC's Power Girl blush -- but she's often depicted wearing other, much less revealing outfits. By incorporating designs that are more restrained, the female leads are free of hyper-sexualization and therefore treated as rightful stars of their own series (after all, the title is Oh My Goddess!, not Oh My Morisato!).
It's true that harem anime and manga have changed since Oh My Goddess!'s debut in 1988. However, the fundamentals of storytelling haven't changed much at all. Oh My Goddess! fully understands and operates according to those fundamentals. The franchise features crafted, interesting characters and delivers a compelling, accessible narrative that's simultaneously lighthearted, poignant and engaging.
While Oh My Goddess! lacks madcap, raunchy humor and female leads with wildly revealing outfits, it faithfully weaves a story that still resonates with today's audiences. As such, Oh My Goddess! -- though definitely different from more contemporary titles -- is more than capable of holding its own in the current fast-paced market.