It’s Not Always About the Sex

The more things change, the more they stay the same. For as long as I can remember there has been a raging debate about how characters get frequently sexualized in anime. One side thinks the practice is getting old and when done excessively or gratuitously can take away from the experience of watching anime for various reasons, the other side argues that it’s an inherent part of the art and limiting it in any way would take away from the enjoyment of certain fans and amounts to censorship.

Haganai 2.jpg

I’m pretty sure she’s wearing a bikini top…

The debates rage on about underaged characters, unconcential events getting framed as funny or romantic and uncomfortable messaging while the flipside argues for freedom of speech (in anime… ), the lack of real impact of sexual content in media and the traditional importance of this type of content to the medium.

Sexy stuff is great isn’t it? It’s fun, and easy. It is the perfect fit for any form of entertainment! Because it’s super distracting. Your brain gets filled up with hormones and you can’t think of anything else. That’s probably why we always end up talking about the “sex” itself and arguing about the appropriateness of such scenes instead of just saying something like, it was boring, or creating a situation were a protagonist who is supposed to be likable and morally rigid turns into a sexual predator out of the blue for the sake of a joke disrupts that character’s evolution and goes against previously established traits muddying the narrative.

I’m sure it’s not the case for everyone but for a lot of fans I’ve spoken with, whenever they take issue with sexually explicit content, it’s not not about the sex. But it seems that as soon as we bring up anything even remotely sex adjencent, it sucks us in and that’s all people talk about.

I have a confusing relationship to the issue. By default, I’m fairly neutral. I consider explicit content to be neither a draw nor a detriment. But I have wondered why it annoys me and others so much in specific situations.

Let’s talk for a minute about Fire Force. The anime is not at all shy about using the female cast’s assets to draw the viewers. It’s had mixed results. Every single female character has at least at some point been heavily sexualized. The first ED had every episode ending on a close-up of sister’s behind clearly visible through clinging wet white dress. Hibana was basically a feisty SM fantasy who wore thight lowcut dresses to her work as a Fire Chief and although Maki fared better than most for a while she had to bend down whenever she was on camera so we could zoom in her cleavage and backside. And then of course there’s Tamaki who seems to be a basic collection of traditional fantasies.

 

Kusakabe.Shinra.

surprisingly, the fan art I found for the series was pretty tame so you get this masterpiece by Pixiv Id 15508529

The show has caught some flack for how it treats it’s female characters in general but that died down quickly and was never a huge issue. And then if course there was Tamaki.

Tamaki is the character that divided the fanbase and aggressively at that. The debates I saw quickly deteriorated into name shouting and snide insults so there wasn’t much information to get there. But in a show that unabashedly sexualized all its female characters why would that one make a difference?

One big factor I think may be agency and victimization. Most of the fanservice of other characters is incidental. A character bending down and we see all the cleavage, that sort of stuff. It’s not great but it’s presented as if the character doesn’t even notice. No harm no foul. Tamaki is often vocal, loud and apparently traumatized by her exposure (even if that gets continuously undermined by her own actions). This makes the sexualization seem more deliberate and preditory than it does with other characters even if she’s the only one we haven’t seen take a shower yet..??

This said, Hibana is deliberately sexualized in a way that’s openly acknowledged by the character herself, but she has agency. The sexualization is by the character’s own choice and doing. Once again fans either liked it or didn’t but no one got upset by it.

fire force 2

this turned into unrelated Fire Force fanart…sorry…(by Pixiv Id 42645557)

So maybe it’s about the implications of framing certain situations as acceptable or comical when they are not. That sounds possible. It might be the case for some people. Then again you have a character clearly disconnected from reality and his very serious symptoms are used exclusively as a running gag whithout any blowback, so I’m not sure viewers of the show are the pearl clutching moral police they are being made out to be.

I am not a big fan of Tamaki myself. Or rather of her characterization. I can only speak for myself but I can tell you, it has nothing to do with either sex or morality. For the record, I think garbage people or horrible situations are fine to portray in fiction. I may not personally enjoy watching it but it doesn’t make that fiction inherently bad or “wrong”. That’s not the issue with Fire Force at all.

I don’t like Tamaki’s characterization because I think it’s squandered potential. A character that could have been a very good foil and just interesting on their own has so far only been used either in service of the plot or of the visuals, whithout having been given enough time for development unlike other, similar characters.

I honestly have no issue if the production team chooses to make her a nudist for no reason and exclusively she her naked at all times but I personally would like to learn about her fears or dreams. Her motivations. Why she joined the Fire Force, what are her greatest fears. What type of person she is and how would she react faced with a tough decision. I can answer most of these questions for the majority of the recurring cast so it’s odd that I can’t about her. And that is in fact my personal issue with the character. It makes me feel like the writers didn’t want to complicate her with these.

I don’t know if the character is in fact completely fleshed out in the manga or maybe just later on in the series. And I’m really just using her as an example so it doesn’t matter. The idea is that some people may take issue with sexualized characters because of that sexualization itself or issues surrounding it but sometimes it’s completely unrelated, however as soon as we are discussing a sexualized character, that aspect seems to take over the conversation completely and everything else gets lost.

Let’s see if my comments section proves me wrong!

exhausted Rini

I’m a little scared

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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29 Responses

  1. First thank you for discussing this topic in a way that is not often done in the anime community. Second while I have not seen many of the anime referenced, I do share many of the sentiments. Now I’ve seen a lot of anime over the years and for the most part it doesn’t bother me. However when I look at fanservice, I like to see it not over used and potentially connected to the plot.

    Now don’t get me wrong Fairy Tail pretty much over does it on the fanservice, but I did like how it was used in the Wendy and Erza vs Irene fight. Wendy switches body’s with Irene and gropes her chest but at the same time is mentioning how heavy it is. Yes it’s fan service but it fits in with the scene.

    On the other hand the fan service in Strike Witches annoys me greatly, A because there was no reason for the whole no pants thing, and B it feels like it was stuck on just to apeal to a particular niche. Oh and C I hate it when the fan service is used on younger characters.

  2. Krystallina says:

    I haven’t seen Fire Force so I can’t comment on that show. But I do wonder sometimes that if the number of people that are drawn to a series because of fanservice or like ecchi elements are really more than the number that are rather down on it. Like, “Hey, I totally wasn’t going to watch/read this fantasy anime/manga, but now that I know the main female is going to trip and show off her panties once in a while, I’m all in!”

  3. I’ve blogged about this more than once.

    Nudity in anime can be used for ecchi or not. It can promote the plot, it can detract from the plot or it can just be background noise.

    Monogatari is full of nudity but a lot of it advanced the plot in very important ways.

    There were clear violations of Araragi’s sister that bothered me but the plot point was to show how abusive Araragi could be. But at the same time you could say it was there to draw in a certain psychographic market section. OTOH, the toothbrushing scene was utterly pornographic (and hilarious) even though no skin was exposed and it really was just him brushing her teeth.

    And there’s his running molestation joke routine with Hachikuji. He grabs her in mock molestation and she bites his finger almost off. Creepy – but the fact it repeats tells us a lot about Araragi.

    Hanekawa’s panty shot was the perfect example of a panty shot that was not just fan service. It told you volumes about her character. Many will see it as just another panty shot.

    Senjougahra’s nude scene was absolutely brilliant, a complete deconstruction of fanservice. She’s testing Araragi to see if he can be trusted before she lets down her armor. We find that he is intimidated by a woman his own age. Or, do we find he is developing respect for her? Or both?

    Early in the timeline when Araragi fights Kiss-Shot-Etc., his head is ripped from his body. Because he’s a vampire, he starts regenerating. The regenerated body is nude. Neither he nor Hanekawa nor anyone else present makes anything of it. Complete nudity in front of a girl who desires him and not a hint of fan service. (IMHO)

    Shinobu is the” loli” form taken by the vampire Kiss-Shot-Etc.She becomes the trope about the little girl who is ok to fantasize about because she is really an ancient uber-powerful vampire. Yet even when she is sharing bathtub with Araragi or he is shampooing her hair, the sexual tension is all in the mind of the viewer. Neither one shows the slightest sexual inclination to the other, not even when she starts to play mind games with him to get what she wants. Death at his hands.

    And there are plenty of other scenes. (Subaru Kanbaru comes to mind.)

    Fan service that advances the plot or tells us about a character doesn’t hurt an anime. Fan service that is just inserted as some kind of pointless eye candy really detracts from an anime. If you are really good at it, fan service stops being fan service at all. The scene becomes necessary.

  4. Dawnstorm says:

    It is sometimes confusing. Tamaki, though… The biggest problem is that they keep teasing her character, but are far to invested in keeping her as this teasable, protectable object of affection. One thing I consistently dislike with fanservice is humiliation, and that’s basically the concept of her character. Now, if they’d written her in as someone with a humilation-play fetish (and her lucky-lecher derives from that), then you might actually have an interesting character (albeit one that’s very hard to write; I probably wouldn’t attempt that with a writing crew, or only have one writer write her in such a case, to ensure subtle commitment). Imagine someone turned on by sexual embarrasment, and then embarrassed by that in a non-sexual manner, and then having to explaining the difference to someone close… My head’s spinning just a prospect of writing such a character. As it is, it’s difficult for me to see her as anything other than a fanservice character.

    Now that I’ve established that I don’t like humiliation fanservice, I’ll have to say that there are exceptions. Some are easier to parse than others. For example, when embarrassment is a stage in character growth, that can work. I wish I could think of an example, right now, but I can’t. Similarly, if I feel the show is on the character’s side, but still insists on humiliation running jokes, or even bakes it into the concept, there’s a chance that I can accept it. An example, would be Recently My Sister is Unusual (or similar name, I won’t bother googling), which is probably humiliation-fan-service: the show works if you identify with the main character and get turned on by being humiliated (in a playful context). I don’t recommend the show, generally, though.

    Sometimes, though, humiliation based fanservice doesn’t bother me, and I have no clue why. Given my usual reactions it should. I don’t have any examples at hand here, either. Sorry about that.( I’m less and less able to conjure up examples even for top ten lists or so. Not sure why. Getting old?)

    A lot depends on narrative, and it can get complex. For example, I’m coming off the latest episode of 22/7, and idol show where idols are recruited by a… sentient wall? By an idol-cult? The scariest thing about the show is that it’s probably not meant to be horror… In any case, this episode the girls were going for a swimsuit shoot to Okinawa. This is a fanservice episode in more than one way: The photoshoot itself is part of the idol-service. Then, it’s the mandatory swim-suit episode. Given that context, the camera was really tame and respectful. But the narrative… The creepiest thing I’ve seen all season. One of the girls spends nearly the entire episode sitting in a bus to embarrassed to wear the swimsuit for the shoot. And we divide the episode between her backstory and everyone else trying to either persuade her to join the shoot, or in one example to make up her mind. Note that the production team chose the swim-suit. The entire episode felt like a string of emotional blackmail, toxic peer pressure, and the backstory made things worse. That stylistically the show is one of the more respectful swim-suit episodes makes things actually worse, since I get the feeling they’re not just indulging in a fantasy, but they’re seriously not aware of how creepy this is. The thing is, this entire sequence might actually work as character development, but given that those girls have been scouted (and this one. like many others, had no interest in becoming an idol beforehand), and that she doesn’t even have a say in what sort of swim suit to wear, it’s very hard to see this as anything but “making the best of a difficult situation”, and we get an ending with lots of feel-good smiles, I… don’t feel so good.

    Point in case, it’s not always the fanservice. Everything here is core narrative, and the sexualisation has been downplayed as much as possible: there’s even been a scene where a photographer asked for a more sexy pose, and they complied in a very playful way (they chose to show us the right characters). I don’t remember if we got to see many of the photos; that part is already fading. I think so, and I think the photos were the most sexualised thing about the show. It’s not often the case, but sometimes the core narrative is – sexually – creepier than the actual service.

    It’s also really hard to talk about, since so much of our reactions depend on what we perceive as frame and what as picture. Different viewers might be seeing completely different shows. And most of this process is pre-conscious: we might literally not be seeing the same show.

    • Irina says:

      It is complex but we talk about character development often and all forms of it are to some extent dependent on perception.
      If Tamaki had a fetish that would already have been some decent character establishment for her. I would be all for that.
      I dislike helplessness fanservice myself. Reducing what the narrative tells us are capable efficient characters to seemingly powerless morons for the sake of manufactured vulnerability just annoys me.
      That idol show sounds like some deep fridge horror. Freezer horror?

      • Dawnstorm says:

        @22/7: I’m waiting for the Wall to kill off some worried parents who get in the way. It won’t happen. The show doesn’t know it’s horror. I kid you not.

  5. Maica says:

    It is a complicated issue…
    It also makes an anime less likely for me to lend out anime to my friends who are minors, or even to some friends who are not.

    For me, anime seems a lot more deliberate than a live-action film. The medium requires deliberate thought for every single frame. So for me, I try to really pay attention. It is kind of like watching a murder mystery- every frame is supposed to mean something.

    So, it is annoying when things are thrown in for no apparent reason. I think every one hates wasting their time. When a murder mystery (or any show) puts a lot of emphasis that means nothing, or is actually just one big filler, there is a mega sense of disappointment and even betrayal.

    This is one of the reasons why I can get even more upset when it is present in anime.

    To rewind a bit, at one time, the only anime on television was “adult” anime only presented in the wee hours of the morning. As a kid, eagerly rising at two a.m. to consume Twillight Zone reruns (revealing my childhood here), it was super disappointing and a mega turn-off when these shows were on instead.

    Thanks to this intro of anime, I thought all anime equated hentai. It wasn’t until a friend of mine introduced me to Naruto and Ghost in The Shell years later, that I realized that there was a whole world of incredible anime that I had missed.

    When blurps like this appears in an anime I am watching for no reason whatsoever, it is difficult for me not to get upset. I wonder whether it is really going to be worth giving my time and attention.. or if I should be reaching for something else.

    • Irina says:

      That’s an excellent point. The ressources needed to put these scenes in anime are much greater so there’s more of a compromise to make

  6. I think you nailed it.

    If I turn off my moral filters and turn on my writer filter (which is redundant, by the way), anything that moves the story forward is “good.” Anything that hurts the story is “bad.” That’s why one of my favorite characters is Shunma Suruga from Re:CREATORS. She told her creation, Blitz Talker, that she’d do anything to him, even horribly kill his own daughter, if it helped story.

    She told him to his face.

    As he was pointed a loaded gun at forehead.

    That’s dedication to a story. But Tamaki? Just as you said, her fanservice moments utterly destroyed the scenes they were in. It’s hard to overstate just how disruptive those moments were to episode 9, and I’m saying that as a fan of the series!

    Great example with Hibana, too.

    • Irina says:

      And it’s a shame we don’t turn on our writer filters more. I think it would be more constructive in the context of anime

  7. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    I still stand by my initial reaction to Tamaki’s introduction in episode 3: what I saw, as a law enforcement officer, was clearly an incident of sexual assault:
    [https://anotheranimereview.com/2019/07/30/fire-force-episode-3-did-we-really-need-to-watch-a-sexual-assault/]

    That said, I think that the entire question of sexualization as presented in this post can be neatly–if somewhat crassly–addressed by these lines from the song “Screwed” by Janelle Monae:

    “See, if everything is sex
    Except sex, which is power
    You know power is just sex
    You screw me and I’ll screw you too
    Everything is sex
    Except sex, which is power
    You know power is just sex
    Now ask yourself who’s screwing you”

    (My apologies if this offends, but I thought it quite aptly fit the discussion.)

    • Irina says:

      You also think that as soon as a sexual element is present in an issue, even if it’s only tangentially related (or not at all) it tends to overwhelm the conversation? That was the point I was trying to make but I’m not sure it got across

      • David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

        i think that relies primarily upon 2 factors: (1) the type and intensity of the sexual element and (2) the maturity of the conversationalists. It needn’t hijack the issue unless its own gravity demands it (see below).

        As for Tamaki’s situation, it demanded discussion because of the manner in which it objectified and dehumanized her, making her nothing more than a cypher and victim. Her character personified the whole “it’s the victim’s own fault” mentality, and it is unconscionable to allow such filth as that attitude to go unchallenged.

  8. Pinkie says:

    Being in the Greysexual/Ace spectrum myself I do not really take offence if a show lingers on fanservice. A panty shot or something usually just goes by me unnoticed. An anime character doesnt get me excited about sex and I do not really get aroused by a fictional girl. I am drawn in by a person ..if at all given on how well I can talk and connect with them..a girl who fan girls with me about pokemon or another anime I really like is much more attractive than someone with a D cup.. let alone a drawn body.

    Seeing a character bend over and a shot lingering on her panties is wasted time for me. Yet I do not mind it much more than a static shot of the moon..or some grass in the wind.
    When a show makes fan-service an element of signigicance however I just get bored. The show is filled with empty time. So I found High School of the Dead very boring for example. There is one episode where the teacher is like showering or somethign.. that is like staring at a black screen or screen transition for me.. empty. So when the show does it a lot.. I just see a show of 20 minutes that only gives me .. 12 miinutes of joy and 8 minutes of nothing. I tend to just drop them.

    I do think it becomes an issue when sexuality is used as a sales-tool. Kill la Kill I loved because the sexualisation.. fitted the tone of the story, it’s established as the tone of the world so I can just look at it from a neutral stance. If a show tries to be dark and gritty but needs to attract more viewers getting two tones. I do not like it if characters are used only for sexualisation as they become throw away characters for me. Characters like Tamaki annoy me as they are time wasters. I do not think what happens to her is funny, nor am I into it.. so all I can do is feel bad for characters like her. It’s the only aspect of her I can kind of relate too. In fact I do believe that even fictional characters.. no matter what kind should at least have some dignity not even a fictional character should just exist for cheap pleasures. It feels dishonest to those characters.

    I do not think there is anything inherantly wrong with fanservice but I I do dislike a show for it .. simply because it takes time from the content I do like. I am glad people can enjoy it but I will sometimes be a bit upset that a show I could have liked decided to waste to much of it’s runtime on that. As long as it’s at least a constant in the show I can drop it or watchig it while knowing this to avoid annoyance. If it’s inconsistantly done to get more views it makes me really cringe though.

  9. K.A.L.T says:

    Honestly, as someone who binges anime as if there’s no tomorrow, I’ve grown pretty immune to all the fanservice that anime generously dishes out most of the time. To me, if it’s fiction, I can pretty much dismiss anything. (at the start I always felt uncomfortable though, oh… my innocence where has it gone??) I couldn’t care less about all the sexualisation that goes on cause it’s just a joke and an “anime thing” at this point. I’m the type of anime watcher that takes in everything I like about an anime and ignore the rest. That’s how I always end up watching anime series even if people say they are bad. (my cousin always tells me I should stop watching every anime that comes out even if they are trash and start looking for better more worthwhile anime lol… but I can enjoy just about any anime to a certain extent (I think idk, sorry for brackets in brackets))

    However, it is a problem for me when I find this really interesting anime that I want to share with my friends to introduce them to anime… but it has certain fanservice scenes that those unfamiliar with anime would feel uncomfortable about. No non-ecchi series actually needs fanservice to survive. Or at least, that’s how I feel. To me, it’s just kind of there but doesn’t provide anything other than the slight worry that my parents would come into my room as the beach/onsen/shower (or whatever fanservice) scene is playing.

    I enjoy anime for the stories they tell, the settings they take place in and the characters we learn more about as they go through their own journey of life. If I was watching an anime for fanservice I might as well go and watch hentai.

  10. It’s certainly a complicated topic, isn’t it? For me, I’m not opposed to fan service existing. I’m not an ecchi fan, but fan service in general doesn’t have to be a bad thing. For example, I love Black Lagoon, and I doubt anyone will be daft enough to say that’s an entirely clean series.
    I do kinda fit into the camp of it taking away form the experience at times though. Mostly because I get frustrated when I see a great idea or concept, but find it overwhelmed by masses of fan service. Such as Seven Mortal Sins; I really liked the concept but thought that it got lost behind walls of bounciness. That being said, sometimes it doesn’t really make a difference. For example, I found plenty to enjoy with Keijo, despite the series having some non-fan service related problems.
    I do take issue with the underage and lack of consent scenes, depending on execution. Part of it is likely an over-protective nature tying into being a parent. That makes it difficult to stomach sexualization of underage characters and certain taboos being presented at all for me personally. There are legal issues there too. In the UK, you can be arrested for having hentai of underage characters, for example. As such, I expect that some series will either never get a release in the UK or see modifications to make it through censors. Whether people agree with it or not, the law is the law, after all.
    Lack of consent really depends on framing for me. Like, if it’s a bad guy assaulting someone, I’ll be more forgiving than if a good guy does. At the end of the day, atrocities should appear in fiction as it helps bring them to the forefront and does start discussions.
    With Tamaki…I liked her in principal. I thought her design was cool, and she had potential. The problem for me was that every time it looked like we’d get some growth for her, we ended up with fan service instead. If they’d switched out even half the lucky lecher lure scenes for brief nods to her past or current goals, she would have felt far more complete as a character. It just felt like a trade-off to me.
    That all being said, I don’t object to people being fans of things I’m not. A lot of this stuff has a market, and that’s fine. Like, the fan service argument I see a lot is that if you aren’t bothered by x in anime/like anime y that’s full x, then you must instantly like x in real life. That has always confused me. I think the big one was Eromanga Sensei. It’s popular, and personally, I thought it had a lot going for it. Was I uncomfortable with certain aspects? Absolutely, but I’m not going to assume that fans are automatically into underage girls and step-sibling relations.
    So yeah, fan service is fine. Not always my thing, but it’s fine.
    That was way longer a comment than I intended :s

    • Hello fellow Black Lagoon fan.
      Complicated indeed. You propose a lot of solid points that I agree with as well and have also thought about at length.
      I was unaware of the legal issues surrounding hentai in the UK. I can’t help but think of the differences in cultures and how, say Japan, figured out a loop hole in its own legal system concerning explicit material during the 19th century with The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife woodblock print.
      The differentiation between fiction and non fiction is key. Like you referred, the admiration of such work is, in my view as well, just fine so long as it remains fictitious if not harmless.

      • And hello to you fellow Balck Lagoon fan 🙂

        Aye, it doesn’t come up often, but hentai has featured in a few cases in the UK. It IS treated as less erious than actual photos, but the key in law is intent to arouse by using a legally underage character. The law I think even states that realism no longer figures in it either. I THINK it has only come up so far when the person involved also had video/photos of real victims too though.

        The Fisherman’s Wife one is interesting. I suspect it would be fine in the UK in the same way as paintings about Leda and the Swan fall under ‘classic art’. It’s like, I think there’s a loophole around fantasy creatures too.

        Exactly. I’m sure there is some crossover where fans of one thing may engage in the acts in real life, but the vast majority just enjoy the art medium. Throwing out accussations is ridiculous. I won’t judge people isntantly for liking them, but I do expect them to not judge me for feeling uncomfortable with the same titles too.

      • Irina says:

        I also agree. It wasn’t the topic I was going for but I think my post ended up confusing

    • Irina says:

      Great comment. My problem with fanservice discussion is that they always seen to get reduced to sexualization. Like you I thought the problem with Tamaki wasn’t the sexualization but the lack of development but people always assume that the fanservice question takes over everything else.

      • Thank you. I wonder if part of it is that it’s the most divisive part of the conversation. I think most people can agree, or at least understand, points on character development etc. When fan service wanders in though, it’s divisive enough to draw attention due to that conflict. It’s like a discussion black hole.

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