There are whole genres of anime aimed at basement-dwelling loser fanboys who can only dream about getting a girlfriend. These panderings to sad male fantasy can even be classified: (a) the Harem anime, e.g. Tenchi Muyo
, (b) the Magical Girlfriend anime, e.g. Oh My Goddess
, (c) creepy shit that might be technically illegal but hey, this is Japan, etc. So far, so disturbing. More surprisingly perhaps, many of these shows are genuinely worth your time. The human urge they're tapping into is romance. (Fanservice is also liable to be there, but fanservice gets everywhere.) At their best, these shows can be heartwarming and sweet, although after a while it becomes harder to ignore these genres' more contrived cliches.
Ai Yori Aoshi is TWO kinds of sad male fantasy: (1) the Compliant Fantasy Girlfriend who appears from nowhere and adores our hero unconditionally, and (2) the community of gorgeous busty girls who hang out with him and all fancy him. The weird thing is that these genres almost cancel each other out. The central relationship is so solid and unshakeable that it's almost bittersweet when Maya, Tina, Taeko or Chika prove to have feelings for Kaoru. Their chances are zero. Having such romances so completely ruled out, the first genre trumping the second, gives the show an oddly mature emotional flavour. You'll still roll your eyes at semi-regular intervals, though.
Personally I think it's a lovely show, but confused and misunderstood. To enjoy it fully, you've got to be aware of all the different incompatible things it's doing.
There's a theme. Ai Yori Aoshi is about families, broken and otherwise. Almost all of the cast had unfortunate childhoods, so over the course of the show they heal emotional wounds with mutual support and coming together as a new family. This causes storytelling oddities like Episode 24, where the episode keeps running for another ten minutes after the Kaoru-Aoi love story's completed, because there's also a family story to tell.
They're mostly "poor little rich kids", materially provided for but neglected (or worse) by wealthy parents. This might put off some viewers, but I thought 'twas a story worth telling. Japan has many such oddities, e.g. fathers barely spending two consecutive minutes with their families for forty years, or "latchkey children". One might wonder if that's a contributory factor in the phenomenon of enjo kosai.
That's a rich mix of ingredients, but it's been shoved together with carefree abandon. Heartwarming romance sits alongside heavy fanservice. The first couple of episodes focus intensely on Aoi and Kaoru, then suddenly the show turns on a sixpence and gives us Big-Boobed Wackiness with the introduction of Taeko (sweet but gullible bimbo) and Tina Foster (brash breast-groping American). Panty shots! Bouncing boobs with comedy sound effects! This seems to have bewildered reviewers, who haven't noticed how things eventually settle down as the storytelling becomes more character-based. Harem shows usually bring together their casts quickly, the sooner to proceed with the wackiness, but you'll have to wait for episode 16 of 24 to meet everyone from the title sequence.
Even the Aoi-Kaoru relationship isn't what you'd expect. She thinks they're engaged, thanks to a family agreement that was decided when they were five. (Yes, that's right.) However he's currently studying at university, hasn't seen Aoi in years and wouldn't know her if she passed him in the street. One day she comes to Tokyo for the first time in her life and throws herself at him.
This girl might make Western feminists burst a blood vessel. She just wants to be Kaoru's perfect wife, cooking, cleaning and basically being a subservient doormat. So far so Japanese, but it's not that simple. Aoi's upbringing left her almost incapable of independent life. She's never travelled or been to college. She can't even understand Tokyo's subway. She's trained herself to excel at wifely duties, but there's a slightly damaged person under that demure facade. Her disconnection from the rest of the world is symbolised by the image of her lost in modern Tokyo wearing traditional wafuku with those two-toe slippers. For a while I even thought it was the full battle dress, i.e. kimono, but it's just yukata.
Meanwhile Kaoru's upbringing was even worse. He'd sooner dump Aoi on the street than even talk about going home.
This show isn't about the guessing game of who chooses whom. Kaoru and Aoi obviously belong together; the charm lies in watching it happen. They're gentle people to whom you wish every happiness, though you might strain your brain trying to accommodate Aoi's worldview. She travelled to Tokyo to meet her "husband" without contacting him or even knowing what he looked like, and she's clearly prepared to carry out every wifely duty. Yes, including that. She's a sweet girl but you can't help worrying about her. She spent years obsessing about the idealised Kaoru in her head. Fortunately the flesh-and-blood version is a nice chap too, but she didn't know that.
This show is darker and more interesting than it thinks it is. Wacky fanservice comedy is probably the loser in the battle of the genres, despite some good laughs and rather impressive fanservice along the way. It's no classic, but it's gentle and compelling with a likeable cast. Worth a look.