At first glance, Negi Haruba’s The Quintessential Quintuplets carries the earmarks of pretty much every other harem series. Guy finds himself unexpectedly entangled with multiple girls, each with a unique look and personality that someone in the audience will like. Each maintains a certain amount of unresolved romance with said guy and rivalry with each other, while he does pretty much nothing about it.
Fortunately, Haruba’s manga—and the anime that came from it—have differences where it counts. First, our guy isn’t nearly as useless as others in his situation tend to be, though he is oblivious for a while. Second, rivalry between the girls has been replaced with character development and understanding. And, most importantly of all, our hero will marry one of these girls. We even see the bride at the altar in the first episode. But, owing to the fact that the girls in the running are identical quintuplets, we have no idea which one she is.
Our protagonist is Futarou Uesugi, a brilliant but poor high schooler looking after his devoted little sister and irresponsible dad. As the show begins, Futarou is given a promising opportunity: get paid handsomely to tutor the five daughters of the wealthy Nakano family, all of whom are doing terribly in school. But the quintuplets—big-sisterly Ichika, aggressive Nino, shy Miku, energetic Yotsuba, and strict Itsuki—have differing opinions on whether this should even be the case. The first half of the 12-episode season is spent winning over the Nakanos to the idea of improving their grades, but there’s always an undercurrent of something more…again, in varying degrees.
The show’s central love story eventually spins out from a few rounds of pranks, identity switching, and the occasional harem-anime antics. But Futarou isn’t especially fixated on those. His obliviousness to his status as a love interest comes from his hyperfocus: initially on making money, then on genuinely caring for all the Nakanos and wanting them to succeed. Because there’s another thing we can read between the lines early on: each of them is exceptional in a different area, from athletics to a genuine love of studying history. They all have it in them to succeed in any way they want, provided they want to.
The Quintessential Quintuplets initially presents itself as a sweet love story with a simple but intriguing mystery: which sister will win Futaro’s heart? But that question relies on answering a second one first: who are these girls, really? The Nakanos consider themselves five-fifths of a whole—great for report-card loopholes, less great regarding questions of identity. The sisters become a perfect backdrop for examinations of who we are versus what we become: five literally identical girls who developed in different ways, with different talents and goals.
They’re not the only ones who get life lessons, though—Futarou may fancy himself their teacher, but he has plenty to learn, as well. Later episodes see his initial My Fair Lady-esque treatment of the Nakanos becoming a problem. The cynical strictness still sort of flies when their relationship is purely teacher/student, but that line is eventually blurred. In due course, Futarou has to deal with the fact that his attitudes can and do hurt others, and he begins to change.
While themes of identity and ambition are threaded through the whole series, it’s definitely not always that deep. There’s simple mistaken identity thanks to wigs and hair accessories. There’s the obligatory “Test of Courage” on a school trip. There’s people waking up in each other’s beds, walking in on each other in the bath, all the things you’d expect out of your rom-com anime. It’s not consistently heavy, and even its heavy moments are more like a weighted blanket than an anvil.
Don’t expect to discover the true identity of the future Mrs. Uesugi in this season, though—the first season of The Quintessential Quintuplets ran as the manga was still being released, and the answer was still unknown. Now, though, the manga is complete, and its fans know which Nakano sister is all dolled up at the altar. Anime viewers can look forward to a second season in the near future, when the series’ big question may finally be tackled onscreen.
The Quintessential Quintuplets is surprisingly sweet and uplifting. It’s not a story about a guy choosing the best out of five sisters, but about six people becoming their best independent selves. It’s also gorgeous to look at, especially as the first season closes. Even if harem shows aren’t your thing, give this one a chance.