There is an overarching plot, which is actually quite interesting and even culturally revealing, which by itself deserves a higher rating than the plot rating given below, but that will be explained in the course of the review.
The male lead, Hanabishi Karou, at first seems to be the typical everyman character found in virtually every seinen romance, a fairly happy go lucky college junior who lives in a modest student flat. The female lead, Sakuraba Aoi, arrives in Tokyo by bullet train in traditional Japanese dress--a violet iromuji, an obi with her family crest, zori and tabi on her feet--looking for her betrothed with only an address on a worn scrap of paper to guide her.
The overarching plot winds together arranged marriages, romantic love, the remnants of feudal Japan that survive among the wealthier industrial families, and the rebellion of youth. The first few episodes, and the last few, in which this plot dominates are really wonderful and worth watching. Unfortunately, most of the episodes degenerate into an uninspired harem romance.
If you've never seen a harem romance--young man beset by too many women--before, you'll probably find the whole series enjoyable, but the cast of women is not so engaging as that in either Love Hina or Tenchi Muyo (the two series with harem romance plots previously reviewed on this site). The only really interesting female characters are Aoi and her tutor who doubles as a household manager for the Sakuraba clan.
Of course, after a chance meeting and some misadventures, Aoi discovers that the young man who fixed her zori in the train station is none other than her beloved Karou, whom she has not seen since their childhood (maybe age 4 by the flashbacks), but has dreamed of marrying, and indeed been raised to marry, ever since. Suddenly Karou, who has never had a serious girlfriend before, has a fiancee intent on being his wife in full traditional style.
After a few marvelous episodes that should make Westerners rethink the idea that arranged marriages and romantic love are incompatible, even as Aoi is obliged to pursue her romantic love for Karou engenderd by the marriage arrangment, by rebelling against her family's calling off the marriage, a series of plot devices, some credible, most not, end up with the young couple living in a manor house with four other women.
The final episodes are again marvelous, especially the final denoument to the main plot--marvelous and very Japanese. The middle seven or so episodes just drag the series down for any viewer who has seen a better harem romance.
One feature of the series makes it more worthwhile for new anime viewers than my ratings suggest: the use of honorifics, an aspect of Japanese culture which often mystifies Westerners, is integral to the plot, so much so that the exporter wisely included them in the subtitles (in contrast to, say 'Washu-chan' being Englished as 'little Washu' in the Tenchi Muyo subtitles): Karou is always Karou-sama to Aoi, while he is Karou-kun to Aoi's tutor throughout most of the series; Aoi is Aoi-chan to Karou, but Aoi-san to her tutor; and so forth. Indeed of all the anime series I have seen to date, Ai Yori Aoshi gives the best sense of how place and class function in Japan.
Parental warnings on this one: brief nudity, and plenty of sexual innuendo.
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