The mountains which are home to samurai apprentice Yoichi Karasuma, leading a disciplined coexistence with the beasts of the forest, by pure instinct place this setting in the past. But when his father, who can’t instruct him any further in his swordplay, sends him down to the city to learn through experience, instead it’s suggested that ancient history and the modern day could always have been side by side, each unknown to the other. This image and all of its possibilities are staggered by the sight of Ibuki Ikaruga, one of the four sisters that make up the titular harem, pouring water over herself and posing for the viewer. And so, the hope for an inspired twist on time travel is set aside as you brace yourself for more of the usual.
His home hidden beyond the city skyline as he sets out to join the Ukiha Divine Wind Style Swordplay school run by the Ikarugas, Yoichi shrugs off the enlightened aura he exuded as he practiced with his bokken between the trees, as though some forest enchantment lost its hold on him when he left. With no clothes other than his traditional garb, and his clumsily subtitled olde-worlde speech patterns, he’s reduced to an excuse for strings of slapstick and sight gags, with no understanding of common courtesy or personal space, especially when within reach of boob. To begin with, some well-timed comic interactions with his new neighbours and surroundings, accompanied by blasts of freestyle brass from the score, call the bizarre humour of Gintama to mind. But their already weak momentum sputters out into the occasional chucklesome moment, swamped by accidental groping and walk-ins.
The Ikaruga sisters being constrained by their separate fetish compartments – the tsundere, the shy and studious girl with glasses, the mother figure and the requirement of moe all present – harms their otherwise likeable characters, making them obliged to service Yoichi and his presumed audience by extension. It’s only when they step out of their pre-defined boxes, or characterise themselves through their relationship with each other, that we can enjoy some personality from them for a few moments before they revert to factory settings. Even the assassins sent to dispose of Yoichi by a masked adversary, who lies in wait for the sisters’ most vulnerable moment, can’t help but be charmed by a perplexing hidden quality of the samurai’s droning friendliness.
As the big bad removes his mask and reveals his petty jealousies, the most promising character is left out on a limb, still mourning his unrequited love for Ibuki. Ryo Washizu, who begins to learn that keeping up his tough guy credibility is insignificant, compared to his new found friendship with the eldest Ikaruga sister, could have been the key to refreshing Samurai Harem. Wassan’s struggle with the archaic ideals of masculinity, even with the small space it’s given, has a far sharper edge than Yoichi’s monotonous plight to be liked by everyone, his father’s instructions for him to train in a new environment apparently forgotten as soon as he set foot on asphalt.