How do you write romance and make it both affective and believable? The answers to this question are as numerable as there are romance-based manga. Our own Protonstorm, for example, rightly credits Kaguya-sama: Love is War’s willingness to evolve its structure and progress from a “romantic comedy” to a “comedic romance” as key to making the manga one of the best contemporary rom-coms. Kaguya-sama’s run is far from over, leaving much more room for further development and genre-bending; however, there exists another long-running series whose run recently concluded: Haruba Negi’s The Quintessential Quintuplets.
Planting itself firmly in the harem subgenre of romance manga, The Quintessential Quintuplets follows Fuutaro Uesugi, a poor but incredibly smart student who meets and begins tutoring five beautiful but woefully academically challenged quintuplets. Each of the five Nakano sisters – Ichika, Nino, Miku, Yotsuba, and Itsuki– have unique, arguably archetypal personalities and, like in all good harem series, come to develop feelings for Fuutaro. What sets The Quintessential Quintuplets apart from others of its kind, however, is how firmly it establishes itself as not only a harem series but one of the greatest of all time. Through a combination of genuine character growth, an understanding of how to craft a compelling, romance-driven narrative, and an honest self-awareness regarding its genre, The Quintessential Quintuplets asserts itself as a moving, funny, and wholly affecting series about how we learn, how we love, and how we change along the way.
Note: This article contains MAJOR spoilers for The Quintessential Quintuplets. Proceed at your own risk!
The Quintessential Quintuplets’ early chapters follow a well-trodden path. Fuutaro and the reader learn what makes each of the five quintuplets tick: Ichika is mature and has a penchant for acting; Nino is a blunt, tsundere-esque, but protective and popular girl; Miku is quiet, pessimistic, and obsessed with Sengoku-era warlords; Yotsuba is outgoing, athletic, and a little ditzy; and Itsuki is straight-laced and loves food. From a marketing standpoint, the manga’s success is evident right from its central five – each girl appeals to at least one type of reader, making for easy merchandising. However, where other harem series are content to merely place these characters into different, ecchi-lite scenarios, The Quintessential Quintuplets actively interrogates whom each of them is as a person without fully deconstructing its entire genre.
An early arc finds Fuutaro, the Nakano sisters, and their class on a camping trip, a typical setting for school-based manga. However, The Quintessential Quintuplets trades the usual shenanigans for an extended look at how the Quints reckons with their developing feelings for Fuutaro alongside the slow realization that their feelings are not individual – a theme that runs throughout the entire manga. Near the trip’s end, Ichika and Fuutaro are locked in a storage shed with no way out. As he wrestles with trying to escape, Ichika wrestles with how to reconcile her burgeoning acting career alongside her being a student. The storage shed and the camping trip become a crucible for Ichika to confront her internal conflicts and, ideally, come out the other side stronger. She admits to Fuutaro that she is considering leaving school, and though his reply highlights his worry about his tutoring salary, he remarks, “Well, there’s a 99% chance you’ll fail though. Even if you do, it’ll just make you stronger. And if it does go well, then great! You never know until you try.” Up until this point, Ichika has shown herself to be notably above the opinions of her sisters and Fuutaro, using her status as the “oldest” quintuplet as leverage. Later in the manga, however, she follows Fuutaro’s advice, mixing his tutoring with pursuing her acting career. In the last two chapters, we see that she has become a famous actress and, unlike the Ichika of early chapters, is both receptive to advice and more open about her feelings and emotions.
The Quintessential Quintuplets is remarkable because it ensures that every significant moment is followed by an equally impactful, necessary, and resonant aftermath. Moreover, the series recognizes that those aftermaths are as much micro as they are macro. And nowhere is this clearer than in Nino’s confession to Fuutaro.
In “The Last Exam” arc, after a series of events in which Fuutaro is no longer the Quints’ tutor and they now live in a regular (read: not boujee) apartment, Nino is at odds with her father. Maruo Nakano is a fascinating force within the manga – both a final hurdle for Fuutaro to overcome before he can marry one of the Quints and a representative of traditional, results-based ways of thinking that younger generations are slowly deconstructing. Nino’s confrontation with her father is emblematic of this conflict. All five of the sisters show marked improvements in their exam scores, which Nino voices by saying, “It feels like we’re all able to move forward a little.” Maruo rejects this statement: “Using an abstract phrase like ‘moving forward’ does not sound the least bit convincing.” The Quintessential Quintuplets is a manga about moving forward, about how we progress together and how that togetherness begets our growth. Before their argument can continue, Fuutaro rescues Nino on a motorcycle (long story), and as they ride away, Nino confesses her feelings for Fuutaro. Though the wind causes him to mishear her, Nino’s openness is indicative of her development up until this point. Where before she made her mark by berating and insulting her tutor at every chance she could, here she defends her sisters, herself, and Fuutaro and admits her feelings for him. It is a turning point for her character where, alongside her usual abrasive attitude, she now frequently flirts with and tries to woo our hapless protagonist. The Quintessential Quintuplets structures itself around these crucibles, these moments of profound change that affect our characters in meaningful ways without feeling unearned. Nino’s confession does not come out of thin air; one can trace her sideways glances, casual remarks, and flirts-as-insults before this point. And that is what makes the manga so remarkable: how it ties realizing one’s feelings for another into realizing one’s feelings towards oneself.
If genre deconstruction interrogates the persistent assumptions present in a genre of storytelling, then we can think of reconstruction as using those same observations to highlight the genre’s inherent strengths while also acknowledging and adapting to its challenged norms. The Quintessential Quintuplets is a reconstruction of the harem genre, coming to a poignant crescendo in the “The Last Festival” arc.
The most notable aspect of the school festival arc is how Negi divides the festival day itself into a series of non-linear, character-focused mini-arcs. The festival is shown from each of the Nakano sister’s perspectives, and it is up to the reader to piece together the timeline of events. However, unlike past arcs that adopted a similar structure, each of the five perspectives are not directly in service of the Quints – they revolve around Fuutaro. The tutor-turned-begrudging-harem-king has had notable development up until this point, acknowledging his affection for the girls and his want to see their best interests addressed; yet, it is here where he sets a goal for himself: after acknowledging that he has feelings for all five, he will choose one at the end of the three-day festival. What ensues is less a battle and more a series of goodbyes as each of the Quints spend time alone with Fuutaro, each mini-arc ending with a kiss. Though the arcs between Nino’s confession and here range in quality, they retrospectively reveal themselves as in service of, like Fuutaro’s relationships with each of the sisters, a culmination of moments small and grand alike.
At the end of the festival, the five girls wait in separate rooms as Fuutaro makes his choice.
After 112 chapters, Fuutaro’s feelings are revealed to be for Yotsuba. “The Last Festival” arc, much like the school trip for Ichika and Nino’s confrontation with her father, is a crucible for Fuutaro to confront himself and reckon with his relationship with the Nakano sisters. In a series that, up until this point, established itself as firmly a well-written harem series, here it directly confronts the noncommittal nature of that subgenre’s protagonists through, by his own doing, forcing Fuutaro to make a choice. This dismantling of romantically neutered relationships prevalent in long-running harem series is done by emphasizing the protagonist’s empathy, development, and positionality. Moreover, it is The Quintessential Quintuplets reckoning with itself, understanding that, by its very nature, it is a series that cannot continue forever. Everyone will graduate high school, someone will confess, and four hearts will be broken. The latter two of those three notions occur within this arc, and Fuutaro understands this. By entering the infirmary and choosing Yotsuba, he fundamentally changes his relationship with the other four sisters. Though the timeskip in the last two chapters shows that things have returned to the relative status quo, this school festival arc remains in the minds of readers and the characters alike. It is the defining arc of the series, the climax the entire work has been building up to, and though some readers online were dissatisfied with various aspects of it, it stands among the most satisfying climaxes I’ve ever read (and, no, it’s not just because Yotsuba is my favourite Quint).
“Your sisters are all amazing people. And I love them all,” Fuutaro confesses to Yotsuba, “I’m proud about being a tutor for all five of you, but if it weren’t for you, I would’ve stumbled even more than I did… Whenever those moments come, Yotstuba, I would love it if you stayed by my side.” In his confession, Fuutaro defines not just what love is, but what relationships are. We lean on one another; we cannot go through our lives alone. Our crucibles are each other; they create the changes that make who we were into who we are. At its core, The Quintessential Quintuplets is a story about how we grow alongside each other. It uses tutoring as the initial symbol for this – the girls learning and improving their test scores coincides with their always already changing relationships with each other, with Fuutaro, and with themselves. As Yotsuba accepts Fuutaro’s love, we come to understand that this is not the ending of something but the beginning of something grander.
The remaining chapters involve Yotsuba settling her lingering feelings with her other Quints, and them, in return, reconciling with their unrequited love for Fuutaro. These final chapters are a coda that asks readers, too, to consider their relationships with these fictional characters. Ostensibly, The Quintessential Quintuplets’ final chapters directly confront the ever-lingering question of if romance-driven works are worth reading once you know who “wins.” Through Yotsuba’s somber, yet tender exchanges with each of her sisters, the manga definitively answers “yes.” None of the six primary characters of The Quintessential Quintuplets are the same character as when the story began, and that in itself makes the work worth reading. We become privy to a coalescence of love as relationship-building and love as self-love. Though these final chapters are, ironically, somewhat rushed – another few chapters detailing the gang’s last days in high school would probably benefit the overall series – the quickened pace also reflects the reader’s implicit wish to finally, after all this time, see the wedding come into fruition.
The wedding is two chapters long, concluding the manga. After one final “Quintuplets Game” in which Fuutaro must identify each of the five identically dressed sisters, the manga concludes with Itsuki, Miku, Ichika, and Nino asserting to the newlyweds that all six of them will be going on their honeymoon together. The Nakano sisters begin arguing about where to go, which triggers a flashback for Fuutaro, a memory in high school when the five girls were similarly arguing about where to go on their graduation trip. The manga ends on this parallel, five years apart and still very much the same. Some core part of who we are remains no matter what happens. It’s why the Quints open the manga by bickering and end it much the same, why Fuutaro’s exasperated face adorns the second-to-last panel. Except, where his high-school self sported a frown, he now dons a smile.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Quintessential Quintuplets’ ending is a curiously quiet affair, the denouement to 122 chapters of growth, change, and self-reconciliation. As much as the manga is about how we grow together and grow into ourselves, its final panels assert the beauty of the status quo. Nothing stays the same. But nothing changes, either. It is a paradox, and The Quintessential Quintuplets realizes this. Despite its missteps, rarely is there a work that so dramatically affects me that it puts all other works of its kind to shame. What started as a fairly typical harem rom-com evolved into a remarkable examination of its genre by playing itself entirely straight while still exploring the realistic flaws, concerns, and difficulties of personal growth characters in such a predicament would face. By wholly enveloping itself within the parameters of a harem romance series, The Quintessential Quintuplets stands out from its ilk. It exemplifies how a work does not have to be incendiary to confront its genre; sometimes, you just need to be genuine to become quintessential.
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