2020 isn’t most cheerful year so far. Thankfully, I have a particularly cheerful and uplifting pick for Meganime lovers of harem ecchi romantic comedy! Since premiering in 2008, To Love-Ru has become one of the canonical greats of harem anime. That predates the anime for my earlier genre favorite, High School DxD, by four years, though their runs overlapped for a few years; in viewing, I couldn’t help contrasting the two, and weighing which series is the true “harem king”. Both have a very vanilla, friendly tone that I love, and impressive amounts of nudity that ditto, but looking a little beyond that aresome essential differences.
First thing’s first: what does To Love-Ru mean? It’s more opaque than High School DxD’s allusion to bust size. In Japanese, the full title is To LOVEる -とらぶる-, rendered To LOVEru -trouble- in English. The joke is that, transliterated into Japanese, the English words ”to love” + “ru” reads “toraburu”, or trouble, denoting the hijinks common to harem anime. The title also sounds cutely close to “to love you”, and in the anime there are a few references to the series name.
High schooler Rito Yuuki has had a crush on Haruna Sairenji since middle school, when she was the only student to believe in his innocence when falsely accused of destroying a school flowerbed. Rito in fact likes caring for plants, an interest that pops up from time to time in the series. At first Rito‘s a none-too-typical harem protagonist, with fiery red hair and a passion for soccer more to be expected in a shonen main character; as the series continues though its clear he’s dropped soccer, and his hair even shades closer to the de rigeur brown. As for his crush, he’s irresolute and taciturn; when he does build up the courage to confess to Sairenji, something always gets in his way. But he starts playing the game of love a few bases in when a naked girl teleports directly into his bathtub, his hands on her breasts!
You have to love harem anime. It turns out she’s Lala Satalin Deviluke, an alien princess on the run from a meeting with marriage candidates. Fortunately, the hands-on-tits gesture is an engagement custom, which even her father, King of Deviluke and ruler of a vast outer space domain, must respect, though he will test Rito in time to assure he’s a worthy heir. Lala moves in with Rito, and Rito’s younger sister Mikan readily accepts the extraterrestrial boarder; soon, Lala begins migrating naked to Rito’s bed at night, and enrolls in his high school. Lala’s beauty excites the jealousy of school queen Tenjoin Saki, while her contacts with visiting extraterrestrials send school nurse Mikado Ryoko, assassin Konjiki no Yami (Golden Darkness), and others into Rito’s orbit.
Soon it gets to be a large group of friends, mostly female. Rito remains timid, but his proneness to accidental perversion approaches a superpower, and invites the ire of disciplinary committee head Yui Kotegawa, who shouts “Shameless!” so often she’s later nicknamed Shameless-senpai; Yui becomes a love interest. Meanwhile, the always cheerful Lala befriends Rito’s original crush Sairenji, and his shameless accidents end up bringing him closer to his beloved than he ever would of his own volition. Yet one young lady who’s often around Rito is (thankfully) not part of the harem. Celine, an alien plant that grows into a toddler girl, is never really introduced in the anime, but just shows up; she‘s a little reminder of Rito’s penchant for gardening. Celine is sometimes the proxy child in the girls’ fantasies.
The circle of friends isn’t initially meant to the characters to be a harem, with Rito merely weighing his feelings for his fiancée and his original crush. The action for the first season of 26 episodes, and the first OVA of 6 episodes, gets very wacky and revolves around extraterrestrial hijinks and gadgets made by the bubbly yet inventive Lala, with many plots not based on the original manga. That changes somewhat with the second broadcast season Motto To Love-Ru—the series director changes—and moreso after the arrival of Lala’s younger twin sisters, Momo and Nana. At first secondary characters, in the third broadcast season of 12 episodes, To Love-Ru: Darkness, and its OVA of 6, Momo becomes the primary female. See, she’s fallen for Rito too, but doesn’t think she has a chance versus Lala and Sairenji—unless, as is usual for Devilukean rulers, he has a harem! She begins replacing Lala as the one who slips into Rito’s bed at night, not so much to make gains only for herself as to make him a “carnivorous” man with an appetite for a harem. For her, Rito’s accidental perversion is to be encouraged, the hope that he won’t be able to stop himself. The action then rarely strays far from home, school, and community, with a more total focus on ecchi.
Here the series reaches its apogee; it’s as harem-y as they get. The opening song is lovely: “Please believe in me/ Because I’ll lead you to paradise/ Jump into the garden of love/ Let’s dream the best of dreams together”. Trust the harem plan she’s making for you! What happier lyrics have been sung? And, the amount of nudity comes to exceed High School DxD. Yet unlike that show‘s lead Issei, energetically seeking to be harem king, Rito is indecisive, and often debates Momo on the ethics of a harem. While charming, it can make the harem seem misdirected at the one uninterested man. The anime shows the downside of harems, too: besides Lala’s brother Zastin, whom Tenjoin likes, almost all the girls at school and beyond like Rito, and all the other guys can only grit their teeth; an exception is Rito’s pal Saruyama Kenichi, who falls for Rito when one of Lala’s inventions transforms him into a busty girl. Have to feel for everyone else.
As the name implies, To Love-Ru: Darkness focuses on Golden Darkness... sometimes. A loner, despite her stated intent to kill Rito she clearly feels something for him too; after Rito buys her taiyaki, it becomes her staple food. To Love-Ru: Darkness, To Love-Ru: Darkness 2nd (14 episodes), and its OVA (the last 4 episodes) explore her expectedly dark past, and we meet those important to her, but even here the anime rarely strays from service. That wouldn’t be a problem, were there romantic development to match the disrobing.
In the end, I think this can only be runner up in harem ecchi romantic comedy... although in so good a genre, THAT is no mean title.