Keitaro Urashima

The conversation around representation is often a thing that involves talking about the very real ways in which the people who see themselves unrepresented in media, or only ever represented in a negative way, can have negative consequences, even to the extent of them inducing PTSD experiences in particularly long-exposure. The way that trans people, people of colour (and we’re going to go in on that when it comes to anime some day), ace people, and – you know, everyone outside of the rudimentary accepted dominant hierarchy get to be represented. But there’s another element of representation where the stories you absorb can often give you a symbiotic relationship to an image of who you are and who you can be, and this can show up in the way that a lot of guys, particularly guys in my general category of unremarkable basic dudes who like anime and felt lonely in their teenage years, thought that being a creepy drip was, y’know, understandable.

And there’s no patient zero here, this is all fluid exchanges of the gas that is culture, I’m not trying to pretend that this is one person’s fault, but there was definitely a person who I think I can point to as a very reasonable exemplar of a trend that kicked off and is still showing up in anime culture to this very day.

I refer to the crappy mediocre dude that is Keitaro Urashima.

I’ve been thinking about Love Hina a lot recently, for some reason. I once mentioned this venerable procession in the ecosystem of the harem anime genre when I talked about Tenchi Muyo, the first anime Star Wars, But Only Kinda.

Don’t worry, I’m not doing a story pile on Love Hina. That’s a big ask and it would require me to rewatch Love Hina and then reread the manga (which is honestly, pretty better). Plus, looking at Love Hina as a whole is challenging in its own way what with the weird racism and the awful characteristics of the women in the series and also the way that the story bifurcates and the whole characteristics of the world itself rather than just focusing on Keitaro and the kind of dude he chooses to be, or rather, doesn’t choose to be.

If you’re not familiar, Keitaro is the protagonist of the early 00s harem anime, Love Hina, remarkable mostly in that it was successful and seemingly set up a trope style for romantic anime of its genre since then. If you’re mad about Rent-A-Girlfriend right now, I think you can trace the genealogy of that now to the soggy, pathetic wet babyman shoes of Keitaro Urashima, even if we know a lot less about how much wanking Keitaro does.

Keitaro, at the start of the series, is described as a ronin, a term used for a university student who isn’t in university, someone who failed their first entrance exams. In Keitaro’s case, he failed his first entrance exam and his second entrance exam, all while aiming for the most prestigious university in Tokyo, the University of Tokyo (Tokyo daigaku, abbreviated todai in venacular). His parents decide that two years of trying to get into a university and pointedly not having a job sucks, so they kick him out and direct him to go spend time with his grandmother, who has a job for him. She takes him on as the caretaker for an apartment building she owns, where he needs to ‘maintain’ the building (but also, pointedly, not manage it, that’s done by his cousin-aunt (it’s weird, don’t worry about it (oh no we’re in multiple parenthesis help this is going to look antisemetic if I end it badly)) Haruka (phew)). Now he’s in charge of ‘caretaking’ for this building in which a bunch of girls aged 14 to 19 live, and he’s told what to do, in terms of repairing things, all while he continues his studies in an attempt to get into Todai.

This job is pretty wild when you consider that in addition to being a full time live-in job that gives him a place to live and food to eat while he studies, and is also in a super sweet Onsen but also puts him in the immediate proximity of a gaggle of extremely attractive girls he is ostensibly likely to wind up in a relationship with, as long as he can spend some time interrupting the way he keeps winding up touching them inappropriately accidentally. And I mean that, this is a universe bent around a corkscrew shape to ensure that if somehow Keitaro can grab a boob when he’s trying to interact with literally anything else then yes, that boy is going to wind up grabbing a boob. This challenge gets made more complicated when some of the characters are too young to have meaningfully large boobs for the grabbing but they find other ways for him to sexually harrass the children (but accidentally). Then they hit him and that’s all okay.

See, back when he was a little babby kid, a girl and he promised each other they’d get into Todai together and fall in love and be happy forever after (or whatever), and that promise is why he’s trying so hard to get into this university. This moment is super important to the telling of the story, because this moment is also the first time and last time in the entire narrative of Love Hina in which Keitaro Urashima commits to a course of action rather than falling dick-first into every single other part of his life at the behest of other people who are sick and tired of seeing him being a big pathetic slop who suffers so much and struggles to contend with a reality that is handing him his life on a platter.

This guy gave me and so many dudes like me so many bad ideas about how to be a dude. If you look at the show and disengage from the framing of the comedy beats, where Keitaro is hilariously and comically unlucky (something I’ve been thinking about for other reasons lately), and you start thinking about how life is like for the girls living in this house, where you can just randomly get your tit honked or your towel dropped by a schlubby guy that the show somehow describes at first as unattractive and then eventually as ‘quite handsome actually,’ who got the job because he’s the failgrandson of the building’s owner and the cousin-nephew of the manager and he’s kind of useless at doing the things that constitute his job.

Keitaro spends a lot of time feeling bad about his life, about how terrible and pathetic his life is because That Feel When No GF, and how hard it was to pursue his goal of getting into uni to re-meet with his promise girl. This is the fundamental dramatic arc of this series: Ya Boy, Keitaro, as he tries to find love, and the way that non-stop coincidence follows this boy around. For example, did you know that the girl of his promise might be one of the girls at the apartment complex? And how then another girl who might also be the promise girl stumbles in and finds him and she just happens to be like the other one but really nice as opposed to really PRONE TO RESPONDING BADLY TO HAVING HER TITS RANDOMLY GRABBED?

You need to understand just how common the gimmick of ‘Keitaro gets hit for doing something perverted that isn’t his fault’ in this series. Like, if you were in this universe and didn’t see the buildup and you kept seeing this dude winding up in these situations, you wouldn’t fucking believe him anyway.

What this meant is that there’s this whole story about a lonely boy who is doing his best and isn’t hot and doesn’t have any natural advantages as he responds to a non-stop barrage of abuse from an unreasonable world that will hurt him so much for no good reason. It’s also the story about a cute boy who never explains himself or acts to prevent and protect himself from the appearance of problems and literally failed his way into a full-time job with extremely nondemanding requirements and eventually through sheer engine of coincidence winds up finding true love and also having five different girls of a variety of types crushing on him.

It is a pitiful story, where Keitaro benefits from overwhelming privilege and support, and it, I think, taught a lot of people in that era that the way you made a likable boy character in a romantic story was to make someone wretched so the audience could not possibly be anything but sympathetic to them. You don’t need a drive or an interest or a focus or things you care about or do with your free time, you don’t need to have things you like to do. What matters is being sad about being lonely and you can build the scenario out from that.

Going back and looking at anime I watched before Love Hina came out, and then the anime that came out afterwards I’m kind of shocked to see how many of those earlier anime are full of characters who have like, really notable opinions and preferences? They are people who are trying to do things, not just having things happen to them. And that can be a problem when you start to think of these characters as not just characters but also the kinds of things that say, isolated people think of as a template for how to be. Keitaro, if you fell into this emotional groove at the wrong time, told a lot of guys a really awful way to be a guy.

That’s not what I wanted to talk about though.

Did you know that Love Hina is set in the same universe as Negima? Like the last trailing part of the Love Hina story, after we grapple with the whole adopted-sister incest angle oh yeah that’s a thing too, it’s weird, don’t worry about it, not doing parenthesis joke again, it comes up that yeah, this is a universe with weird stuff in it. Keitaro is able to take the galactic beatings because he’s probably an immortal.

Weird, huh?

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