I’ve watched many harems, and what I’ve noticed throughout all the good, the bad, the great and the bleh, is that at their heart. Harems are absurdist comedies. That the very idea of having one guy surrounded by a bunch of girls who all want to ride his dick is absurd. That the humor comes from the girls bouncing off each other as they try to get closer to said main character. Some shows may have action, or other plot elements, even lots of fanservice, but the very central concept is that absurdity. Take that away, try to play things seriously and you end up with either a frustrating mess ala Domestic Girlfriend, or a blood-filled massacre like School Days. It is why something like the latter is so effective, because it shows you what happens when a harem attempts to work in real life.
I say all of this, because I believe understanding what a harem anime is, and what to expect is important for enjoying them. And there is no better example than the show we are discussing today. After the cut let’s take a dive into the first season of Infinite Stratos
I love this show.
I love this show so fucking much.
That maybe surprising to you, as Stratos is widely considered to be a sub-par harem anime, containing what others (and myself) have also said is the worst male harem lead of all time. In many ways that could be true, but upon watching this series again (the first for the blog) and knowing what it is, accepting what it isn’t, I was able to focus on what works and fall in love with the series all over again. There are several reasons for that, the first of which is that Stratos follows the Another World with my Smartphone principle of presenting the plot right up front and letting you get on the bus or not. In a world littered with mechanical robot suits aptly called a Infinite Stratos (IS), the balance of power is maintained through a rigid control system, a handful of suits per country. However when Ichika Orimura, a man, is discovered to be able to pilot an IS, he is throw into the IS academy, the lone guy among a sea of women. There are a bunch of mecha fights, but also oodles of comedy as the main girls fight over Ichika.
Now your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy this, but as someone who loves the absurd nature of harem shows, the differing personalities of the girls bashing up against each other. I was absolutely floored by how well everything worked. Stratos is like a petrie dish of overall harem tropes and ideas, removed enough from the ecchi side of the genre, to let the bare bones of what a harem is to stand up on its own. Each of the girls contains a character trait that makes them stand out and apart, and each of them have their own chemistry with Ichika that makes you want to route for them. Whether it is capital ‘T’ tsundere Houki Shinonono, the haughty and arrogant Cecilia Alcott, the actual best girl Charlotte Dunois, the Blitzkrieg in a bathing suit Laura Bodewig, or the fanged and fierce Rin Huang. Each of the ladies has something for everyone, and the near shared amount of screen time and focus makes it so each of them gets their moments.
It is also helped, that Stratos has an absolutely stellar, and I mean STELLAR dub. I know some people will make light of the English voice actors going full force with the accents for some of the characters, that it might be over the top. But it is absolutely vital to enjoying the series. The accents makes the comedy land so well, and gives the characters personality and soul where they may not have had any. It is one area that the dub has over the original Japanese, where you have to really understand the different dialects of Japan to get what they are trying to do. For the English, as cringe as some may find it, you can’t deny that the actors aren’t going full force into it. Monica Rial makes Houki’s abrasive personality work, Shannon Emerick brings everything she can to Charlotte, and Brittney Karbowski in particular absolutely vanishes into the role of Cecilia, showing off the incredible range she has as an actress. Then of course there is Josh Grelle, probably THE harem lead of the early 2010s who slides into the role of Ichika with mastery. It’s not his most memorable role, but he makes it look almost too easy.
But the brilliance is not limited to just the harem antics. Because when it needs to be, Stratos is also a damn good and entertaining action series. The mechs are all unique with their own tools and powers and the fighting is paced extremely well, with a sense of weight behind every shot or sword wing. What was most surprising though was the use of 3D animation. Watching this show in 2021, eight years since it’s debut, I was amazed at how well it uses it. It is a light touch, mixing the drawn animation for the characters, with the 3D rigging for the mech suits and only used in quick cuts or moments where your eye is focused on the action and not on the characters. For a style that has a shoddy track record on its best day, and is still, ten years later, trying to establish itself, Stratos very light-handed approach is only a benefit for the series, and I’m shocked it wasn’t see as an example of how to do it right.
Of course, not everything is sunshine and rainbows for Stratos. Despite my love for the show, I do have some foibles, mostly on the character front. Main girl Houki ends up being the worst kind of Tsundere, a bundle of anger and frustrations that comes off more annoying than endearing. Some lip-service is paid to the fact that she may have a inferiority complex, but it is not examined enough to make it work. Rin suffers greatly from the “too many girls” problem and could have easily been merged into the others. Then of course there is Ichika. I have said many times that I believe he is the worst harem protagonist of the genre, and I stand by that, an ignorantly stupid asshole who couldn’t realize the girls liked him if they wrote it in the sky. Upon reflection it isn’t as bad as I recall, but I do wish, when shows like High School DxD or Date A Live give their male leads something to chew on that Ichika had SOMETHING going for him.
Infinite Stratos is, hand on my heart, absolutely fantastic. If you know what it is, go into the series with the proper mindset, and let yourself enjoy the ride, you’ll find one of the best basic harems out there. A story with great humor, fun characters, a dub that enhances the world, and action that is probably way better than a show like this deserves. Going back after almost five years, I didn’t know what I would get out of Stratos, and I was floored by how much it pulled me in, and the smile it left on my face. It doesn’t set the bar like High School DxD, have the ecchi or fanservice of its hornier sister Hybrid x Heart, or the surprisingly level of competence of Date A Live, but Infinite Stratos is a rock-solid entry into the harem genre, and deserves a second look for anyone who may have dismissed it before. Give it a shot if you so choose, you may be surprised.