Good grief, it's a harem anime. I only realised belatedly... like, around ep.14. Until then, I'd thought it was just a romantic comedy. However it's also charming and funny, with features that raise it considerably above the genre norm. (That's only the anime, mind you. The manga sounds a good deal more formulaic.)
1. Our hero is Raku Ichijou, a regular high school student... well, apart from being the heir to a yakuza gangland empire. He's uninterested in the yakuza life, though, and just wants to be normal. Hmmm. Could he really have grown up in a brutal criminal environment like that with no effect on his personality? Apparently so! (There's one throwaway moment in ep.16 where he seems to be channelling his inner Tony Soprano, but otherwise he's a regular kid.) I'm not convinced, but then again I didn't like all that yakuza nonsense anyway and was happy to see it fade into the background early.
The reason it's in the story is to justify parents organising their children's love lives in a modern setting. Raku's got to pretend to be Chitoge's boyfriend (see below) or else two gangs will go to war. That's a gold-plated reason. If the alternative was a sea of blood, I too would pretend to be in love with whoever I was ordered to.
What's interesting about Raku, by harem standards, is that he's neither impartial nor blandly anonymous. He tells Chitoge to her face that he can't stand her and that she's an obnoxious pain in the neck. (She's as scathing right back, of course. That's the kind of relationship they have. The show wouldn't be half as funny if Raku and Chitoge didn't fight like cat and dog.) The girl he's hopelessly sweet on is Kosaki and he has no interest whatsoever in anyone else. He's a nice guy, but I was shocked to realise that this was a harem show partly because Raku's got far more personality than the genre norm and because his relationships with other characters tend to be anti-romantic.
As for the girls...
2. Chitoge Kirisaki is so obviously kind and conscientious underneath that it can feel contrived that she and Raku fight so much. She's violent, loud, insensitive and almost incapable of apologising, but so what? That's just her surface manner. Everything she does is generous and compassionate. (I particularly admired her in ep.9, when genre convention demands that she half-kill Raku for seeing her naked, yet she doesn't worry about that at all and instead busts a gut trying to help him out of a jam.)
She just seems to have a short fuse with Raku. She yells at him all the time and punches him. He calls her a gorilla and she calls him a bean sprout. However they also understand each other, both being the scions to gangland empires, and underneath they're both good people. There's no real reason why they shouldn't get along famously. What's more, they're being forced to spend most of their free time together, doing relationship stuff for the sake of their act and getting to know each other really well. Of course her feelings get complicated. It would have been surprising if they hadn't.
Of all the girls in this show, Chitoge and Kosaki are the First Two and the only ones with a realistic chance. Kosaki starts with a rock-crushing advantage, even if she doesn't know it. However she's also a passive and desperately timid character, whose only obstacle is herself. Will Kosaki ever get a grip? (Hint: no.) Watch twenty episodes of this show and find out! Chitoge, in contrast, is a far more dynamic character and her emotional conflicts give her more drama and character development. The show's more powerful when Chitoge's in the spotlight and it's hard to say that either she or Kosaki has a convincing edge over the other if you have even a little genre awareness.
3. Kosaki Onodera is the only girl whose background wouldn't interest the law-enforcement community. She's demure, self-effacing, beautifully polite and either "weak and boring" or "the only truly nice girl in the show", depending on which fans you're talking to. Notice, for instance, that she all but gets written out of the finale and instead has a scene of her own at the end after the action.
I like her. She's a lovely person. However her story arc is inherently static, despite occasional flashes of comparative boldness, and in storytelling terms that puts her at a disadvantage.
The first two-thirds of this show isn't harem, but instead an entertaining, inventive comedy about that core triangle. Even when Seishiro Tsugumi shows up, it didn't occur to me that the character could be interpreted as anything but a foil. She's a hitman sent to kill Raku, she guards Chitoge like a bulldog and she takes umbrage at being seen as feminine. When her tough-guy shell starts cracking, that's just high comedy. Meanwhile Chitoge at this stage would genuinely like to throw Raku out of a window, so the fake love-doviness is a hoot while Raku's attempts to clear up Kosaki's misunderstandings are clearly so doomed.
The supporting cast are fun too. Raku and Kosaku's respective best friends are particularly entertaining together and I'd have liked to see them get more screen time.
No, it's when Marika Tachibana eventually appears that the show tips its hand. She's focused on Raku like a laser-guided missile. She's been in love with him since she was five, despite not having seen him for ten years. She can be a bitch to anyone who's not Raku. In other words, she's contrived harem nonsense personified. That said, there's actually some interesting stuff going on with the character ("I hate long hair") and she's worth watching in her own right, but her appearance marks the point where the show officially becomes a cast of girls orbiting a boy. Even the title sequence changes to emphasise this.
There's also a childhood promise that reminded me of Love Hina, involving Raku and A Girl He Can't Remember. This works up to a point, but the longer it drags on, the less it seems to matter. It's also hard to believe in a father who decides that his five-year-old daughter's future husband is to be her five-year-old playmate... and immediately sets up an arranged marriage.
The show's refreshingly light on fanservice, but there's a beach episode (ep.19) and, oh my goodness, the bathhouse episode (ep.9). If the DVD version of the episode removes the censor steam etc. (which I hope it doesn't), then crumbs.
Oh, and it's animated by Studio Shaft. They haven't ramped the visuals up to overload levels (e.g. Mekakucity Actors, Monogatari), but that's still a plus point.
It's a good show. I enjoyed it and I'd recommend it, even to female anime fans. The characters are lots of fun, their situation is engaging and they made me laugh. It's clever, e.g. the Romeo and Juliet resonances in the school play at the end, as pointed out by Chitoge. There's also a second season and several OVA episodes. I'm looking forward to them.