We are all familiar with the harem genre - from Love Hina onwards it's one of the defining features of anime, for better or worse. From the tsundere to the yandere, by way of genki-girls and beyond, it's a perennial fixture whose light charts a course through many fundamental anime tropes. Easily overlooked past the vacant stares of bland self-insertion milquetoast main characters, though, is the "otome" or "maiden" genre - very much the "reverse-harem", where instead of having a male main character being cooed over by a gaggle of girls, we have a heroine meeting a phalanx of achingly handsome boys (usually with long fingers as well...) Otome works were the preserve of dating sims and other visual novels throughout the nineties (and, peculiarly enough, there were some parallel developments along these lines with the 1995 American FMV game McKenzie & Co, an otome dating sim in all but name) and heavily associated to shojo manga tropes, but in recent years otome games started breaking out of the PC ghetto. Otome manga and anime are becoming more frequent, and are developing into big business too - the anime version of Uta No Prince-sama sold over 20,000 copies a volume - numbers that most anime can only fantasise about. Last year Crunchyroll brought us La Storia Della Arcana Famiglia, and this summer made waves by exporting Kyoto Animation's controversial swimming anime Free!, one of the big talking points of the last season. Keen to roll on with this otome momentum, Crunchyroll has licensed another otome anime and it's hoping that the girls will be giddy again for Diabolik Lovers. Indeed, several of the cast are veterans of the otome circuit, with titles like Kuroneko's Basketball, Uta no Prince-Sama, Brothers Conflict and Free again in their resumes. Do bosoms quake with the heady passions of a ravishing bodice-ripper, or do we shrink into the crepe of a strait-laced spinster?
Diabolik Lovers is a relatively prompt adaptation, based off of a visual novel released for the PSP only last year. The studio responsible, Rejet, is a relatively new outfit whose first release was the groce'rs apostrophe'd Lucian Bee's in 2009, but it has been something of a mill steadily cranking out annual otome games with multiple expansions and fan discs. Despite Rejet's prolific output, Diabolik Lovers is really only their first title to get any attention outside of Japan through this anime adaptation by Zexcs.
Komori Yui is an ordinary girl living a conventional life at a convent boarding school, but one day she receives a phone call from her father, giving her a mysterious instruction to travel to a mansion in the countryside. Arriving at this large western-style place, Yui is gently baffled by the whole situation - her father gave her absolutely no explanation and she has no idea who lives here, who she's supposed to be meeting or what exactly her father even wants her to do when she gets there. Dropped off at the gates and thoroughly baffled, Yui tentatively creeps inside to find intimidating, inimical, shadowy halls - as quiet as the grave. Wandering around the sepulchral silence trying to find someone to introduce herself to, Yui finds a boy with an open shirt lying on a couch - at first she thinks that he's just asleep, but she starts to panic when his hand is as cold as ice and he has no pulse - and that's before his eyes flick open and he tries to bite her!
The intervention of another boy stops the attack and Yui, shocked and scarcely comprehending what just happened, follows him to the drawing room to find out just what's going on. She is introduced to six brothers - the bored Shu, the dignified Reiji, the swaggering Ayato (the boy that Yui met first), the creeping Kanato, the cocky Raito and the sullen Subaru - all of whom also seemed to be completely unaware of Yui's visit. Completely weirded out by these strange characters, their offputting demeanour (suddenly vanishing and appearing on other sides of the rooms, sniffing and licking her are a strange form of greeting!) and a situation she knows little about, Yui tries to excuse herself and leave - but is detained when Shu remembers receiving a call from a man saying that someone would be arriving to be the brothers' "sacrificial bride", that their guest was to be treated "with respect" - and also not killed!
The brothers all agree that Yui must have been the girl that the man was referring to. Natrually enough Yui doesn't find this terribly hospitable as she comes to realise that she has entered a nest of vampires. Yui tries to flee the mansion, only to find that all the windows and doors in the building are locked tight shut. After a desperate flight - the boys toying with her, appearing and disappearing to taunt her - she is run down and the boys cluster around to drink from her. As they close around, her mind is a whirl. What did her father mean by sending her here? Why are the pages of her diary turning blank? Can she get out? Does she want to get out?
It's hard to talk about Diabolik Lovers without bringing up Fifty Shades of Gray, which brought the dubious pleasures of whips and chains into the kitchens and sitting rooms of family homes up and down the country. Diabolik Lovers does seem to have a similar character - in the rarefied atmosphere and opulent environment of an upper-class setting, the hapless Yui ("little bitch", Raito coos endearingly) is quite literally abused - repeatedly told that she's a possession, forced down and bitten by the boys who want to enjoy her sweet-tasting blood, half-drowned in the swimming pool, used as a prize in contests between the brothers, and jerked along with the occasional moment of tenderness. There's no physical bondage - a collar isn't fixed around Yui's neck - but she is constantly mentally browbeaten to a state of meek submission. With the sense of breathless constricted exhilaration that comes from the dizzying loss of inhibition when someone else pushes past your own hesitation and insecurity and takes charge of the relationship, Diabolik Lovers is a show that lets girls excite their light-BDSM rape fantasies. Vampire lovers are also well-served- it's always a little clumsy in live action as the actors have to rub their chin against some skin and then have the camera cut to fix on the bite make-up, but here in animation there's no shrinking away from delicate fangs sinking into soft necks and the stimulating slips and slurps of fluid transfer. There's nothing conventionally sexual about the show - the characters including Yui dress quite modestly, there's not the slightest suggestion of nudity and even when Yui falls into a bath she and the character who's already in there are both fully clothed - but it is geared towards kinks.
There is some artistry to the show as well. Even though it's a horror anime the setting is quite clean, bright and colourful and even the darker scenes (such as in the half-lit swimming pool) have a rich swelling purple and delicate aquamarine light highlighting them. A particular point of interest are the characters' eyes - these have interesting patterned irises which make good use of the "big eyed" anime stereotype to give the designs distinction. The architecture of the mansion is pretty generic, but well-drawn. The music is also very strong and I'm fond of the opening theme which, although it's perhaps ordinarily a "Halloween" style, does work in an accomplished way with a few spooky acapella trills in the lyrics too. Yui's nervousness and anxiety is conveyed very well in her expressions and body language, capable of distinguishing such things from the similar but appreciably different states of confusion and fear. Also - while admittedly this might sound like something of a back-handed compliment - it's good that episodes are also only half-length, clocking in at fifteen minutes includes openings and endings; this means they are not protracted and that Yui's travails don't outstay their welcome, not having time to sour and become wearing.
You do hit your feet against the furniture when stumbling around in the dark though, and the night-time adventures of Diabolik Lovers are no exception. Naturally enough, if you're not excited by being taken and ravished, the show will hold little appeal for you. Tired anime tropes also creep into the setting like rising damp - even though Yui is a prisoner in the mansion, she is still expected to attend Night School with the brothers, for instance. These school scenes are utter nonsense and don't even have the kooky appearance of other monsters (even something as lightweight and tawdry as the Rosario + Vampire anime managed that!) to enliven them, and just seem to be a consequence of the writers being incapable of comprehending anything outside of their scripted formulae. The mystery as to why Yui is at the mansion also has little progress to being solved at this stage of the anime, and has just consisted of Yui staring glumly at her magically empty diary - admittedly it's early days yet, but there will need to be more to string this together as the series progresses, and the lack of time in the half-length episodes may start to work against the show here. The characters only appear to have one over-riding character trait outside of Ayato, who seems to be the "main route" here, although admittedly there hasn't been the time to show off everyone and Diabolik Lovers show seems to be taking the approach of showcasing one character per episode.
As a visual novel adaptation there's also negligible action in the show and really, even though Yui is getting constantly molested, it still all seems rather... well, despite everything, tame. Yui's bitten and slapped around a bit but Diabolik Lovers shies away from really degrading stuff. For instance, the third episode climaxes with a game of darts (no, really. Yes, I guffawed too) to decide who gets to nibble on Yui that night. Not magic darts, not darts with flaming arrows, just regular pub darts on a cork dartboard (Please tell me there was a Jim Bowen cameo? - Ed). As well as exposing Diabolik Lovers' visually dull visual novel background, it shows a lack of imagination - if they wanted to be really cruel they could have used Yui herself as the dartboard, with whoever gets one in her chest "winning her heart" like Cupid. If you're going to do this sort of thing you may as well go all the way - a horror show does need some proper ghoulishness to truly establish itself and create a sense of threat in the situation - and Diabolik Lovers may yet fall between two stools, turning off both the people horrified by this sort of relationship, and those who want to see it fully realised.
Diabolik Lovers is technically well put together for what it is. It can never receive full marks because a show like this can't have universal all-audiences appeal, but even within fans of the horror-romance category itself it does make mis-steps with some silliness in the setting and a sense of a half-hearted reluctance to commit fully to the premise. The half-length episode length means that you can give it a curious look, though, peering through the crack at the door to some weird sight within.
You can currently watch Diabolik Lovers in streaming form on Crunchyroll.