I had a really hard time coming up with a title fr this one. For a while there it was going to be called “Non-sexy fan service” but I think that sounded a bit off.
I was watching an OVA the other day (for Aoharu of all things) and it really got me thinking about fan service and the role it plays in anime and mostly in the perception of anime fans. Now fan service actually means “material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience.“, at least according to wiki. Basically any element in an anime that is primarily there to make viewers happy rather than to advance the plot, character development or bolster production.
There are tons of different types of fan service and some of them aren’t even visual, yet I only ever seem to hear fans talk about the sexy stuff. To the point that when I mention fan service in a non-sexual context, I usually have to explain it. It’s a bit odd, no?
I often see people say things along the line of: the sexual elements of fan service don’t bother me but when they interfere with the story it can become a drawback. I get it and entirely agree. But in that case, all other sorts of fan service can also be detrimental to the plot.
One of the most common examples I can think of (we see it a lot in western media and in OVAs) is bringing back popular characters. A story has an arc or even just a random one-shot episode, often towards the end of a series, and the creators decide to shoehorn little parts for some (if not all) of the past notable characters. Those characters don’t really have a role to play in that episode or arc. They sometimes have to create some huge convoluted story to even get them in the action in the first place. But now that they’re there, they take time away from everything else and frequently ruin the flow as the series seems intent on making sure we don’t forget they’re there.
I’m sure you’ve all seen this happen at least once. Just like any fan service, it can be done well. I’m a sucker for a surprise appearance from my fave so I know this works! But it also has the potential to ruin an episode and ironically make the characters in question lose popularity with fans. This is a blatant and intrusive form of fan service but I rarely see it mentioned as such. More often we tend to talk about how pacing is off or blame it on “filler”.
Not necessarily sexual fan service includes stuff like long paining glamour shots of mechas. I guess I can see how that can be sexy, never mind. Overextending battle scenes or games in Sports! anime, to show off elaborate and impressive animation is another. Honestly, there is no narrative advantage in having the fight last 5 episodes, from a story standpoint, we can just be told about the results but it looks cool! and anime is a visual medium. Looking cool is a big part of the attraction. In case anyone thinks I have an issue with this, I do not. I enjoy this type of fan service as long as it doesn’t get completely tedious.
A very popular bit of visual fan service, that’s often sexual but not always and I think may actually be more common in games, is costumes. Whether actual cosplay with ridiculously out of place outfits or just putting a character that has a set costume they wear all the time in something different, it’s pretty much always something done just for the fans. I’m not sure why we love to see imaginary people wearing different clothes but we just do. At least I do. Have a character that’s always in their school uniform wear loose street clothes and all a sudden, I’m super interested. Does it change anything at all? Nope, pure fan service.
The more debatable parts of fan service are the character archetype and personality traits. Now I almost never see people talk about this and when they do, it often gets into debates. I’m going to very carefully avoid giving any examples so that my point doesn’t get lost. If we consider that a character having giant breasts that are mostly exposed as a part of their design to be fan service, can we likewise consider certain personality traits traditionally thought of as desirable by specific demographics to also be fan service?
There are certain personality archetypes that always show up in certain shows or specific genres but are otherwise rather rare. It’s also undeniable that there are personality traits that are generally considered more attractive or appealing. Having a character act in a certain way can incite the same type of reaction in the audience as having them look a certain way would. So far, I don’t think anything here is particularly controversial. The problem is in noticing it at all, especially if it’s not sexual.
When female characters act completely helpless despite at least nominally having a role in the story that would have required them to be highly skilled, it’s pretty obvious. When normally stern male characters melt at the sight of a cat and suddenly there are random cats every other episode, it’s pretty obvious as well. But what about having characters act a bit more youthfully than their age would dictate.
I’m not talking about infantilizing characters here, but for example, making fully grown men and women still react completely embarrassed and shocked at the idea of anything even mildly sexual. Or having them get very emotional or very shy with little external motivation to do so. Like teenagers can get when their neurochemistry goes a bit haywire on them. This is a great way to make your characters more like your target audience and theoretically make them more relatable when you can’t cast actual teens, but it can occasionally come off as weird. Why are so many anime adults sooooo immature even when they are otherwise capable and responsible? You can tell the same story with calm even-tempered and generally unbothered characters, but hey, what fun would that be?
The thing is, fiction is dramatized by nature. It’s reality boosted to 11. That’s part of the deal. So it would make sense for people to also act a bit more intensely than people usually do. As such it can be difficult to parse what’s been added for dramatic flair and what is really primarily meant to just give your audience a little thrill.
There is one last point I would like to make. Because of the history of the term and how it’s been the core of so many contentious debates, fan service as a concept has gotten just a bit of an unfavourable reputation. I don’t happen to agree with that. Like any other parts of anime and fiction in general, it can be done well or badly and when it’s done badly it sucks. However, at the core, adding an element in your story to please your audience doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Making the audience happy is in itself one of the goals of entertainment. I wouldn’t go as far as the fan service IS the message or anything but it’s an important and viable tool in crafting an anime, or a manga or pretty much any form of entertainment.
Do you notice non-sexual fan service? Do you have any issues with it? Have you seen instances where it’s been a drawback? Do you have a favourite type of fan service (don’t make me regret asking)?