Harem manga has become the default format for modern-day romantic comedies, and love them or hate them they’re not going away any time soon. Taishi Tsutsui’s We Never Learn seemed like it was going to end up as a relatively successful and enjoyable but ultimately forgettable series until Tsutsui-sensei revealed the book would have five separate endings, a somewhat unique experiment. As much as this unusual approach made a lot of the fanbase happy and caused a detente in the waifu wars, it did not exactly go off without a hitch.
The first and most obvious problem is that one of of the endings feels more canonical than the others, specifically the first ending which focused on main character Nariyuki Yuiga’s childhood friend Uruka Takemoto. While each ending takes place in its own volume, Takemoto’s actually begins in the final few pages of Volume 16; this makes for a jarring disconnect if someone were to read the series up to the point where the endings diverge and then choose an ending to read. Takamoto’s ending is the only one that directly follows on from the rest of the series.
This problem is compounded by the fact that later endings, especially the one focused on fan-favorite Furuhashi Fumino, rewrite events much earlier in the series. Fumino’s ending turns the clock back all the way to Chapter 127, a full volume and a half before then series splits into alternate endings, and changes a major event. This makes the ending for the second-most popular girl feel even less canonical than the others.
Tsutsui-sensei has said that the audience can “take [the endings] as they choose” and that he had planned to do five endings since he started the series. In addition, the series’ epilogue, a special sixth route, shows all five of the girls getting flashes of memories of the five endings. He really wanted the audience to feel like all five endings have equal weight; the only problem is the comic itself doesn’t give them equal weight.
If I had to guess the reason why We Never Learn turned out this way, with five equal endings that don’t feel very equal, it’s because it’s never really been done in manga before. Visual novels tend to have multiple routes that lead to multiple endings, and Life with Archie had a lot of success with a story that showed Archie’s futures with Betty and Veronica, but it’s not something that’s really been done in manga, and editors are pretty conservative.
In the ’80s, it was unheard of to change the main character of a manga, so when Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure killed off Jonathan Joestar and shifted to the future and the story of his grandson Joseph Joestar, Hirohiko Araki made the two look nearly identical and differentiated them through their personalities. My best guess as to why We Never Learn feels like it builds to a single ending, and in the original Japanese even labels the other four endings as “If” endings, is because Tsutsui-sensei wasn’t sure he would be allowed to have multiple endings and had resolved himself to a single ending.
In the end, though, he did get his way. We Never Learn has five endings, and that accomplishment might cause a sea change for harem manga going forward.
Running mostly alongside We Never Learn in rival Weekly Shonen Magazine was Negi Haruba’s The Quintessential Quintuplets, a story about a high school boy hired to tutor five identical sisters, one of whom he was shown marrying in the manga’s opening pages. While both series were popular, reactions to the ending of The Quintessential Quintuplets were a lot less enthusiastic as the bride in the first chapter turned out to be neither the most popular nor the most obvious sister. Divergent endings would have helped that book a lot and made people much more accepting, I’m sure.
Of course, not every harem manga would benefit from multiple endings. Naoshi Komi’s Nisekoi ran in Shonen Jump before We Never Learn and there was never really any question about which of the girls in that comic Raku Ichijo would be with in the end. While Nisekoi did have a lot of problems towards the end of its run, they weren’t related to which girl Raku ended up with up but instead were caused by a weak story arc before the finale that went on much too long.
Despite the problems, I think that we have just seen what the future of harem rom-coms will look like — just like the harem genre itself was an evolutionary step from the love-triangle romcoms of the ’70s and ’80s like Maison Ikkoku and Kimagure Orange Road, I think the romcoms we see in the immediate future will copy the formula of We Never Learn and The Quintessential Quintuplets in putting all of the contenders on equal footing in the story. And it’s not too hard to believe that a decent number of them will extend their run and appease fans by having multiple endings.
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