Fanservice in Anime: Perception Versus Intent
Fanservice, or the addition of elements unnecessary to a story simply to appease fans, has always been a hotly debated topic in the anime community. More often than not, this phenomenon manifests itself in the form of the sexualization of characters (usually female) by using the metaphorical camera and framing of a shot to draw attention to and focus on such tasteless attractions as cleavage, underwear, skin, and more. Many anime use this tactic as a re-occurring trick to draw in their audience, using fanservice either as a supplement or a substitute for the plot of the show. In fact, this is exactly what fanservice is: a shortcut to engaging the audience and to keep them coming back for more.
Fanservice in the Modern Anime Industry
Unfortunately, in the modern anime industry, 4 out of 5 times a boob is just going to be there for the purpose of appeasing the fanbase. Anime is a very economically-minded medium, meaning that the primary goal of producing anime is to make a profit, and, like any such medium, its first and foremost priority is supplying its consumers with whatever it may be that they desire. And what much of the anime fanbase desires, to be honest, is boobs. Plenty of popular anime have proved time and again that the inclusion of fan pandering is a financially wise decision, with entire franchises such as Sword Art Online, Fairy Tail and Code Geass including more and more fan service over the course of their runs to keep fans engaged.
It’s hard to deny the results: these shows are all wildly successful and have managed to amass dedicated fanbases consisting of hundreds of thousands. It’s also hard to deny that this is a problem for the future of the medium: not only does it cast a shadow over anime’s reputation as a form of entertainment, but it suffocates the artist’s creative abilities by limiting what kind of stories they can create and what their tone and execution will be like. On top of this, because such an overwhelming majority of the anime consumer base is male, anime have an unfortunate tendency to objectify their female characters and turn them into sexy attractions. In a medium already already often lacking in strong or complex female characters, this blatant misogyny is just dragging it down even further.
Because of this, modern viewers of anime often come to view any and all sexual shot-framing or skimpy outfits as fanservice, and will often become annoyed or bothered when these characteristics appear within a show. Many popular shows are heavily criticized by the anime community simply because they focus too much on fanservice. Examples include anime such as No Game No Life and Akame Ga Kill, shows about fantasy worlds with magic powers and high-stakes battles that are loaded with fanservice to an unnecessary degree. Critics have often mentioned with distaste that in No Game No Life a twelve-year-old girl is introduced with a panty shot, and Akame Ga Kill is criticized for mixing something as lighthearted as fanservice with excessive amounts of violence and gore to the point where it feels offensively out of place, making a mockery of the supposedly dark and serious tone of the show by interrupting it with scantily-clad women. The consensus between many of the more critical anime voices around the internet is that neither of these shows had any need for fanservice: both of them had compelling fantasy-epic plot lines going for them, and the addition of fanservice messed with the tone, pacing and quality of those plots. What could have been a fun and endearing show about over-the-top magic games and puzzles became creepy and unapproachable by anyone who wasn’t interested in spending half of their time watching young girls get put in unrealistic compromising positions, and what could have been an interesting exploration of the struggle against corruption in government was turned into a tasteless killing spree.
In both of these instances, fanservice was included just because. There was no reason for it to be there, and it stuck out like a sore thumb. These reactions are only fueled by the fact that anime has developed a severe stigma in the West for being exactly that: mindless cartoons that substitute story for scantily-clad characters and their grotesque objectification. Due to this, many viewers hate to see any form of anything that resembles fan service in their anime, as they view it both as insulting to them (as it implies that they, as the viewer, are unable to engage with an intelligent story and need to be pandered to) and damaging to anime as a medium, as it only strengthens the argument that anime is all mindless, raunchy soft-core porn.
But are these sexual overtones always the result of shameless fan-pandering, or do the creators sometimes actually have something more in mind? Though there may be many shows for which this is not the case, that doesn’t mean that viewers should always assume that every anime is going to handle these elements in the same way or for the same reasons. What may at first glance appear to just be pandering may in fact have a more subtle reason behind it. In order to understand this better, let’s look at the purpose of elements that resemble fanservice in several widely popular yet vastly different franchises: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill La Kill, and the Monogatari Series. (Warning: while mostly free of spoilers, there is discussion of the details of some of the scenes in the first two seasons of Monogatari)
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Fanservice to Manipulate Tone
Let’s start with Evangelion. Neon Genesis Evangelion, often referred to simply as Evangelion, NGE or Eva is one of the most widely popular and controversial anime of all time. It first aired twenty years ago in 1995, created by then-industry-giant and still-existing studio Gainax and directed by the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Hideki Anno. Evangelion started out as a fairly typical monster-of-the-week style mecha show, using many of the customary tropes of the genre for the time, and then slowly evolved into something more as it became much more concerned with the details of the mental states of its characters and with the state of anime as a medium.
So what does Evangelion have to do with fanservice? Well, Evangelion uses many shots and scenes, especially in its earlier episodes, that would at first glance be referred to as just that: fanservice. Moments like the dopey protagonist Shinji accidentally falling onto a naked Rei Ayanami and grabbing her boob or the feisty Asuka Langley lounging around in a low-hanging tank-top don’t really help to say anything about the psychology of these characters, and will instead appear to many viewers to be just a little bit of appeasement sprinkled in with the mechas.
However, this is not just pointless fluff to supplement the actual story. To get a better idea of what these scenes could be doing, we have to take a look at Evangelion as a whole and keep in mind what its major themes are. Evangelion is mainly concerned with depression and emotional isolation, but it’s also concerned with escapism (the practice of using a fictional reality to fulfill the needs one has in the real world) and the ways in which anime can be used as an unhealthy substitute for living one’s own life. The series makes this point by starting out using expected tropes in expected ways, such as the male teenage protagonist who, by circumstance, is the only one can save the world, or the emotionless doll character, Rei, or the aggressive girl who’s outward hostility is actually a reflection of her internal insecurities, Asuka (usually referred to in anime as a ‘tsundere’ archetype).
By introducing the expected characters and using them in the expected ways (at least for the time it was made), the creators of Evangelion lure the audience into a sense of security. This is anime: it has all the tropes and goofy moments the audience has come to expect, and it has the fanservice that comes with that. However, Hideko Anno was not interested in the pandering nature of anime. In fact, it was quite the opposite: Anno has stated on many occasions that he detests what the anime industry does and what the fanbase has become.
Evangelion is his answer to that. It takes all of the expected parts of anime and it slowly unveils them for what they really are, pulling back the curtain on the actual implications of characters like Asuka and Rei and the extremely disturbing behavior of turning them into sex icons. Evangelion uses fanservice intentionally to help create a world that looks, feels and smells, at first, exactly like the anime people are used to, so that it can undermine their expectations and increase the effectiveness of its points. The creators of Evangelion realized that fanservice had come to be more than just a tool of the anime industry; it had developed certain stigmas around it in the eyes of the viewer outside of what it literally was, and that by recognizing what those stigmas were fanservice could be implemented as a tool to manipulate the viewer’s impressions of the show.
Kill La Kill: Fanservice as Humor and Social Commentary
Creative intent behind fanservice isn’t limited to convoluted psychological horror thrillers and biting commentary aimed towards sections of the consumer base, though. On the other end of the spectrum we have a much more recent production, the first anime produced by the newly-formed Studio Trigger and perhaps the most widely-recognized anime of 2014, Kill La Kill. While Evangelion takes itself almost completely seriously, Kill La Kill is focused first and foremost on one thing: fun. At its heart, Kill La Kill is an over-the-top action-packed parody of many timeless elements of anime, including a high-school setting, random power-ups, lucrative boss fights, entirely unrealistic character designs and more yelling of nonsensical attack names and mid-fight spouting of ideals than one would think possible. Kill La Kill makes sure never to have a dull moment, advancing at a breakneck pace through its many phases. It moves quickly from quirky vignettes to a tournament showdown to a global-scare battle between secret organizations, and that’s not even the halfway point. And, amidst all of the shouting and plot twists, Kill La Kill dishes out plenty of people in absurdly skimpy and revealing outfits and butt shots framed at angles that would simply not be possible with a live-action camera.
So how is this not just fanservice? Well, in a couple ways. First of all, if you’ll remember, the definition of fanservice is an element of a show that is unnecessary to the goal of the show and is only there to appease fans. However, Kill La Kill is both a comedy and a parody: it makes fun of elements of other anime and uses them to enhance the show’s own humor. This can be seen in just how over-the-top Kill La Kill‘s fanservice is, with many would-be pandering shots being so ridiculous that they could hardly be counted as sexy. More than that though, the show draws attention to its own absurd outfits, with the protagonist Ryuko Matoi constantly complaining about how embarrassing and lewd they are and how they stupid it is that people would be able to get more powerful by wearing something so raunchy.
Ryuko is very aware of what she’s wearing, and she’s rightfully embarrassed by it. In fact, her frustration over her outfit and her reluctance to put it on are actually a barrier she’s forced to overcome in the plot. In Kill La Kill, bouncing boobs and exposed midriffs aren’t there to pander, they’re there because it’s funny how much these things appear in anime and Kill La Kill likes things that are funny. Just like everything else in Kill La Kill, the fanservice is over-the-top because Kill La Kill is trying to be as over-the-top as possible.
Kill La Kill goes beyond just being excessive with its showing of skin, though. It wants to make sure that it is clear that there is a line between using fanservice for the purpose of parody ad humor, and using that as an excuse to include it. Most of the main characters in Kill La Kill are female, but there are definitely a good number of supporting male characters in the show, and Kill La Kill uses these characters to remind us that fanservice should be a two-way street. A big part of the problem with fanservice is when it becomes something that’s exclusive to women and therefore takes on a sexist tone in addition to already being unnecessary. However, in Kill La Kill all fanservice is created equal, and men like Ira Gamagoori (the school’s resident BDSM expert) and Aikuro Mikisugi get plenty of time to shine as well. Mikisugi’s organization, “Nudist Beach”, causes his character to essentially revolve around the idea of stripping.
Because of this, Kill La Kill sets itself apart from countless other shows by demonstrating that it really is in it for the laughs, and not for the skin. This is not something exclusive to Kill La Kill nowadays either: relatively recent anime such as Free! and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure have plenty of male fanservice, though for entirely different reasons. While Jojo is much like Kill La Kill in that it is more interested in the humor that can arise from scantily clad men striking sexy poses, Free! is legitimately interested in just taking male fanservice seriously. Both shows, however, represent a new type of anime in which the amount of male fanservice in a show outweighs or even totally eclipses the amount of female fanservice, a change that helps to undermine some of the long-cultivated sexism of fanservice in anime whether it is being used in more intentional ways or not.
In addition to rising above the sexism of pandering, Kill La Kill uses fanservice to help articulate the dynamics of its story. Although always prioritizing its sense of fun, Kill La Kill is also interested in a discussion of conformity in modern society and they way that people are ushered into roles and ranks, represented in the show by the clothes that they wear.In the show, clothing is a metaphor for a sort of social contract, bonds that keep people in a social hierarchy which decides their value as people based on their rank in that society. In other words, the clothes you wear in Kill La Kill determine your worth as a person. Kill La Kill and its protagonist Ryuko Matoi have a bone to pick with this idea, however, and the portrayal of people getting naked or wearing skimpy outfits that are totally unacceptable is a way of showing that those people are taking back their own individuality and no longer allowing their predetermined roles in society to define them. In this way, Kill La Kill manages to turn fanservice not only into something that’s actually funny but also into a symbol to help demonstrate its themes.
Despite being nearly polar opposites, what Kill La Kill and Evangelion have in common is that they both use preconceptions of fanservice already established by the industry in order to lend a different meaning to these scenes. Kill La Kill and Evangelion work in a lot of ways because the audience has already been exposed to fanservice before and has certain preconceived notions about it, whether those notions be exploited for the sake of social commentary or for humor. Is that all that can be done with fanservice, though? The Monogatari Series insists that the answer is no, that you don’t need to have any prior experience with fanservice or with anime in order to use fanservice elements that carry weight in the story.
Monogatari: Fanservice to Tell a Story
The Monogatari Series (or just Monogatari) started in 2009 when the studio Shaft began adapting Nisio Isin’s light novels into the first season, Bakemonogatari. This was followed shortly by Nisemonogatari and then Monogatari Second Season, and since then the series has only continued to grow and is still airing even today, with the latest season Owarimonogatari currently chugging along. Monogatari is one of the most complex anime out there: its strikingly unique art style has been used in more clever ways than can be counted to help tell a winding tale of broken and insecure youths as they struggle against their vague insecurities and internal contradictions. It’s always been a subtle show, with many of the more important details being hidden between flashy displays of wordplay and sharply-written banter, and one of its more pronounced subtleties is the way in which it uses fanservice both for the traditional purposes but also to reveal many of the more unspoken thoughts, feelings and relationships of the characters.
In Monogatari, fanservice elements are never just what immediately meets the eye. Perhaps the first thing you notice while watching the series is that the it chooses the ways its shots are set up extremely carefully. The colors, angle, intensity, and background of a frame all say just as much about what’s going on as the actual dialogue spoken does. This applies to the show’s fanservice elements as well, with every such moment being portrayed in absurdly specific ways in order to help draw the audience’s attention to what’s really going on.
For example, in the second episode of Bakemonogatari the heroine of the series Hitagi Senjougahara begins changing in front of the protagonist Koyomi Araragi for seemingly no reason at all. In fact, contrary to what she’s doing, Senjougahara is relentlessly sending cold verbal attacks at Araragi the entire time, maintaining a condescending attitude towards him with both her voice and her face. However, although the dialogue in the show may not explain it, the way that Senjougahara is portrayed makes it clear that she’s interested in Araragi and that despite what she’s saying she’s actually trying to get his attention. This is shown by the fact that Senjougahara is deliberately posing, as well as the glossy and idealistic way that the scene is drawn and the slow pacing of the scene due to Senjougahara taking her time trying to make Araragi interested in her. She wants his attention, but she’s too afraid to put herself out there and open up to him emotionally so she does it physically in the hopes that she can draw him in.
The series does much more with fanservice than just show who’s attracted to who though. For instance, early on in Nisemonogatari, Araragi and the vampire Shinobu seek to reconcile after both holding grudges against each other in the past. The scene takes place in the elaborate Araragi family bathroom with the two characters casually bathing together as the talk for the first time in a long while. In this instance, the characters involved share a fate: the two of them live and die together, and as such they are completely naked to each other. The usual masks and superficial elements of social interactions do not apply to them; they are completely emotionally open and honest with one another, and they acknowledge and allow this to be the case. While neither of them explicitly state this, the show demonstrates this by having them comfortably take a bath together, their easygoing conversation despite their nudity showing that these characters share an abnormal closeness and that they aren’t limited by the same boundaries as they are with the other people in their lives.
This idea is paralleled by Araragi’s relationship with his junior Suruga Kanbaru, a girl who constantly uses her own nudity to make Araragi uncomfortable and disturbed. Araragi’s consistent blunt rejection of Kanbaru’s frankness shows that he is not willing to open up to her in the same way he does with Shinobu. Whereas he doesn’t bat an eye at the notion of sitting naked in a tub with Shinobu, he finds himself reverting to condemnations of indecency when Kanbaru is involved, flatly refusing the openness that she constantly places in front of him. Yes, these characters are naked, but the implications of that are more than just fanservice. Monogatari wants us to see what the characters themselves are unwilling to say: the truths that only their actions show.
Even now, Monogatari continues to find new and creative ways to use fanservice elements to help tell its story. Whether it be demonstrating the change in the relationship between two characters, amplifying the absurdity of uncomfortable nature of a scene, or simply letting us know that one of the characters is horny, the varied and unique ways in which Monogatari shapes fanservice into something of substance are constantly impressive.
Towards the Future of Fanservice
So is a boob always just a boob? By now it should be clear that the answer is a resounding “no”. There are many shows like the ones mentioned above that manage to take the established formulas of anime and alter them in ways that lend tried and true techniques a new angle of meaning. Viewers have to keep this in mind when watching any anime: while it may be tempting to jump to the conclusion that anything resembling fanservice is just there to appease the audience and ensure that profit is made, this way of thinking can often shut out the possibility of seeing what the show is actually doing. Yes, there are a very high percentage of shows that use fanservice shamelessly, but there are also those that use fanservice elements in clever ways and it would truly be a shame for this to be overlooked. The more recognition shows like Kill La Kill and Monogatari get for the way they handle these elements, the more likely we are to see more shows like them that take time to think and plan how to incorporate them into the greater mission of the story. The possibilities are endless, as they usually are with a medium such as anime, and with the immense number of shows being produced each year and the fact that no one has greater control over what gets made than the consumer, it would be a shame to let those possibilities go to waste.
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