B Gata H Kei has certainly been a ride so far - I had this theory building up for episodes 1-3 that under its absurd premise the show was best classified as a “monogamous harem” - the sort of harem characterized by Love Hina, Ai Yori Aoshi and the like - which has been somewhat on the decline in recent years.
The cast of girls in a monogamous harem are there primarily, if not purely, to give the viewer something nice to look at while the self-insert protagonist and the Designated Ladyfriend beat around the bushes of a chaste puppy love. These shows made it as explicit as possible from episode 1 which girl the boy would get in the end, and any sexual tension with the other characters was incidental or played for laughs.
The “monogamous” harem was succeeded by the modern harem: in some cases there may be a loose understanding of who the “chosen girl” is, such as Nagi in Kannagi, but it has become much more popular not to give away the plot so readily. This manifests in shows such as Akane-iro ni Somaru Saka, which builds up two or more threads of romantic tension but ends the show before the protagonist comes to a decision.
In a reasonable number of examples this amplifies the show’s drama by generating an actual conflict between the characters, but in almost all cases of a harem show going this route, the primary usefulness is the increased plausibility of a sequel, or a fear on the writers’ part to offend those parts of the viewership who prefer any girls aside from the lead. This becomes especially popular in visual novel adaptations, many of which were written based on the explicit understanding that the audience was given their own choice of which girl won in the end. This fear of commitment on the writers’ part can be seen in many “monogamous harems” as well; the difference is the degree of evasion of closure, as well as the degree to which the viewer knows which girl will win.
What intrigued me about B Gata H Kei was the sheer directness it showed in its signaling of Yamada and Kosuda as the clear designated couple, to a degree reminiscent of Love Hina and the like - ignoring for a moment the show’s tagline and ostensible premise, the first episode played out exactly like the introduction of a chaste harem of the Ah! My Goddess! variety. Episode 1 prepared, and episodes 2 and 3 expanded on, Yamada’s incorrigible timidity.
The art style also seems to evoke a just-slightly-aged aesthetic: the thought sequences are as bright and exaggerated as contemporary shows, but the downplayed and subtle character designs evoke a just-gone era of Love Hinas and Narue No Sekais. The OP, as detailed by 2D Teleidoscope, evokes a distinctly nostalgic tone, as does the ED. The sum of all this seems to indicate that, contrary to some critics’ surmising, this isn’t the latest step forward in moe anime’s misogynistic lumbering gait, but rather an appeal to the audience’s memories of yesterweek.
But, to carry this train of thought further, nostalgia almost always indicates a longing for earlier, more innocent times. In the context of a show appealing to the viewer’s nostalgia for monogamous harems, what moral is it trying to relay? The implication would seem to be that from the writers’ perspective, the monogamous harem was a more innocent depiction of budding romance. And, for all of their dirty humor and titillating fanservice, monogamous harems depict a view of relationships which is extremely compatible with socially conservative, heterosexual-normative ideas: one man and one woman, paired up by whatever hand of fate you’re fond of, both exhibiting to a T their societal gender norms.
However, episode 4 marked a serious departure, and I think foreshadowed the show’s larger intent not just to present short-range nostalgia aesthetically, but to comment on it in a contemporary context. This episode broke all of the rules - an intentional, intimate kiss before the end of the first cours, again intentional and consensual groping between the two, here played not for laughs but as a distinctly intimate moment. One of the defining criteria of a chaste harem is, well, the chasteness - it would be difficult now, even by sex comedy standards, to expect anyone to believe seriously that Yamada and Kosuda are still at a will-they-or-won’t-they level of relationship.
Moreover, as much as she attempts to contain herself in her set, submissive gender role - waiting to be asked out, going to absurd lengths to force Kosuda to be the one to take the intiiative - her cover slips with extreme regularity. Yamada is, explicitly to the audience and fairly obviously to the show’s characters, the driving force in their relationship’s acceleration. As much as she depends on others (importantly, always girls) to direct her, she’s as “in control” of the relationship as either of the two could be, in a clear and overt sense.
Again setting aside the “100 fuck buddies” plot contrivance the way one takes for granted the “get laid pact” at the beginning of an American Pie-like comedy, Yamada is, if probably not a direct challenge to gender roles, at least an attempt to depict modern fluctuations thereof. (cf. 2D Teleidoscope again)
The show will certainly find plenty of (impossibly shameless) ways to make the tension last, but it’s made a bold move early on to distance itself from being simply another tease of a puppy love harem.