I have spoken of fanservice in general and my personal take on it several times on my blog. The short version is that I’m all for it. Generally, I’m prone to speaking in favour of fanservice even in instances when it doesn’t particularly appeal to my personal tastes. Vive la difference and all that.

But lately, I’ve started to see another side of the issue I hadn’t considered before. That is the possibility that the inclusion of fanservice, particularly excessive fanservice, could in certain circumstances detract from the whole. What do I mean by that?

fujiko mine
I get easily confused

I have read many comments along the lines that fanservice makes anime unmarketable outside of Japan. I’m not yet convinced by that. Western media has long been very sexualized, although I will admit that North Americans have some really weird hang-ups about nudity. Still, I don’t necessarily think the, at times, raunchy side of anime is going to keep it off people’s watchlists. This may have been a lot truer in the days of network TV but in a post streaming world, the rules have changed. Besides the yearly 178% increase in the international consumption of legal anime (mostly in America) would seem to indicate that it’s a highly marketable product on the international market.

This said just because fanservice may not be hurting anime’s popularity, it could be hurting, for lack of a better term, its credibility. Let me give you an example. I was having a little anime chat with the lovely Lita a while ago and she was telling me about one of her favourite series: Witchblade. She loves this anime and talks about the interesting and well-crafted universe as well as the unusual focus on a strong and healthy mother-daughter relationship but she mentioned at least 3 times that the series was very heavy on fanservice, and she did so in an apologetic way. She capped off her sales pitch by saying that “if you can get past the fanservice” it’s a great show. (I have not seen the anime but if it’s anything like the old comics then yeah, there’s gonna be a lot of fanservice).

I’m not sure if Lita just thinks I’m a big prude (I really need to rebrand…) But at the time I was left with the impression that she was just going along with the sad general misconception that fanservice is just a negative in and of itself. To be clear, I do not think Lita believes that in the least, more that she believes the bias is so prevalent that she felt the need to defend a beloved series because of it.

I breathe rarified anime blogger air where a lot of the fans I interact with are fanservice aficionados. Some will watch series **only** on the merits of fanservice. There are blogs dedicated to exploring and sometimes imagining exclusively lesbian characters, or on praising the merits of the Ecchi genre. I have read more posts explaining why harems are the best than looking into the fascinating differences in cultural beliefs and understanding illustrated through slice of life anime. Or the fascinating potential predictions found in sci-fi and mecha anime… Basically, my first-hand experience leads me to think fans love and appreciate fanservice. But the fans I know do not necessarily reflect the majority. And even when they do appreciate it, they might still be subconsciously putting it in a specific category. Maybe not but the notion may be worth sparing a thought.

thinking anime


thinking hard!

I have noticed that people treat highly sexualized material differently. They apply different standards. Some people, I assume, are uncomfortable with sexuality just like I have issues enjoying stories depicting violence towards animals (even animated ones). That’s too bad. Even people that don’t have issues with this type of material will sometimes have these negative assumptions. Something like: the storyline and/or characters are probably not very good because it’s relying on being sexy. Or it can only be enjoyed if you find the characters attractive because it’s created for that reason only… Like I said, few if any anibloggers think that way but I have seen some comments along those lines for anything that could be taken as bl.

If this assumption exists in the minds of the general audience, then there’s a risk that anime will always be considered a type of lesser tier entertainment even as demand for it rises. A bit like reality tv for example.

Then there’s a more pragmatic issue. Creating anime is a balancing act. Generally, the fanservice you put in is taking the place of something else. Let me use Magical Girl Spec Ops Asuka as an example because it’s still pretty fresh in my mind.

Asuka is quite heavy on fanservice. That’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately, it’s very hit or miss fanservice. For instance, a lot of the *tragic past* scenes are sexualized and for me, the mix of depressing and sexy took away from both. I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to feel when a character I’ve gotten to know and even bond with a little is completely defeated clutching a dying friend while the camera is focusing straight down her cleavage. Sad for her? Aroused? I can pull of scared or tense and attracted at the same time, but empathy I feel for the character in that situation sort of pushes out the thoughts of objectifying her. As a result, the fanservice distracted from the emotional impact of the drama and the sadness of the scene took away from the sex appeal.



oh good, back to cleavage then!

The show also featured several extended scenes of highly sexualized torture. One of the first instances targets one of Asuka’s close friends. And it’s more or less useless, narratively that is. Since there is a little memory-erasing trickery happening, the only actual payoff of this sequence is to have Asuka feel guilty (even more so), for putting her friends in danger. Even that is dampened when we find out it’s unrelated to her. Otherwise, there is no effect at all on the blissfully ignorant friend, the bad guys it serves to introduce are either dispatched in the episode or dropped from the show without resolution. Basically, the only reason to have this entire event is to add some graphic fanservice in.

Again this isn’t a bad thing in itself. The problem comes from the fact that Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is a show that suffers from not having enough time for proper worldbuilding and character development. So having most of an episode on an event that is immaterial to the plot feels like a huge waste. Chekhov would be very disappointed.

This is how I would have changed it, not that anyone asked. Have he torture happen offscreen and Asuka just learns about and is distraught. Moving it to her POV will allow us to bond more with her. Then the other girl with the big chest and obvious obsessive crush on her can drop by and comfort her with her body while reminiscing about old times. There, you have character development in the form of exploring one of the central relationships in the series and sharing some background on both. You have the opportunity for some establishing exposition so the plot doesn’t feel too strung together. And you can have some explicit fanservice and Yuri to boot. Where’s my Oscar?

I got sidetracked, I do that a lot. My point was that the fanservice in Asuka isn’t the problem but the way it’s integrated into the show doesn’t seem all that thought out. It’s not weaved into the story or used to enhance scenes. It just seems thrown in and occasionally wedged in, to meet a sexy quota. And when viewers think it’s at the expense of storytelling, then it can give the concept of fanservice as a whole, a bad reputation.

So what are my current views on fanservice? I still like it! But I think it’s important that it be given the same respect and held up to the same standards as any other element that goes into making a great anime. So I am going to try reviewing it as such in the future. Not just Gawesh them are great bitties… What can I say, I’m just classy that way. Now to watch a whole lot of fanservice. What? It’s research!!!

32 thoughts

  1. As always you are very good at making me think about my own beliefs on the subject.

    Just a few random thoughts. First, it’s funny that you mention Witchblade. The actual anime is way toned down from the original comic. The comic rose out of the late 80s early 90s idea that edgy = pushing everything to 110 percent.

    Here’s a picture demonstrating what I mean. https://i.pinimg.com/736x/dd/e3/25/dde325ca912c9fa77dcdf7511f0827f3–top-cow-comics-girls.jpg

    Like what you said, my biggest problem is when the fanservice feels like it’s unnecessary or just not part of the story. But even more, I wonder if the fanservice isn’t just for me. In particular, panty shots just seem bizarre to me. I don’t get what is attractive about underwear.

    Anywhats I said they were random thoughts.

    1. Yeah, Witchblade was never modest and anime is hardly the only medium with rampant fanservice

  2. Fanservice is a hell of a topic. I’ve changed my views on it a lot. When I was a teenager I thought the more fanservice a series had, the better it was. Don’t judge me, okay?

    Nowadays it varies. Sex sells, and anime and manga artists know this. A lot of these shows are aimed at teenagers (as well as older people) and it shows in the content. And when it’s done well it can add enormous value to the story. But when it’s done poorly it just makes you groan and want to stop watching. (a great example is last season’s Isekai Maou, which I think had a fun main character, but the fan service was just so awful that it was hard to watch sometimes)

    But in a show like Kill la Kill it is so integral to the plot that it would be a less good show if it had no fanservice. I think the issue for me personally is that I’ve seen fanservice ruin a show for me more often than I’ve seen it enhance a show. If it’s done well it doesn’t get in the way of the show though, and I think that’s what happens in a lot of cases.

    Good post on an interesting topic!

    1. It’s ok, I was a teenager too! Fanservice seems to be tricky to integrate or maybe production teams aren’t treating as part of the story enough (like in Kill la Kill). I think than when it’s sort of separate from every other element, it can become very awkward and distracting and possibly worse of all, not sexy…

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s a weird double standard for how people react to fanservice in anime vs. sexualization in American/Western media. Anime will sometimes have more nudity or lewd outfits than even R-rated American shows, but you almost never see the characters have a full-on sex scene or even kiss. Meanwhile, tons of TV and movies here will show fairly explicit scenes of people hooking up, that go on like forever and don’t add to the story at all. And why is nudity such a sticking point for people anyway? It’s how all of us were born and it’s the most natural state of the human body. With this heat wave I’d be naked all the time if I could…

    I guess I don’t really have an issue with fanservice itself, as much as some of the tropes surrounding it (the “accidental pervert” and the “looks like a kid but actually a 1000 year old dragon goddess” have always felt super gross to me). I also think not everything needs to be sexualized to be fun. Like I’ve also gotten back into the Marvel fandom recently and one weird complaint I’ve seen people make recently is that the characters don’t have sex enough? Really? I would love to have a life where this is my biggest concern. Lol

  4. If I may…

    “Western media has long been very sexualized,”

    Maybe. but unlike Japan, we don’t sexualise 14-16 year-old girls by giving them huge boobs, shapely bodies, tiny underwear, short skirts, and rampant libidos. Despite 14 year old girls in our movies and TV being played by 18–21 year old actors, they are at least still presented as “normal” 14 year old girls as they are in cartoons..

    If anything this is my biggest gripe against fan service and I know this is an argument that has been long running between the west and Asia, with their stance being “it’s just drawings, it is not real”. Maybe it is but the intent is very real and not pleasant or palatable to our sensibilities.

    So, whilst this will remain a polarising issue among anime fans about whether fan service is harmless fun or outdated fantasy fulfilment for dirty old men and horny teens, it is easy to forget just what or who is being sexualised in anime and why that should be the talking point in my opinion, and why it can ruin or hamper one’s enjoyment of a show., more than dismissing it as just boobs and panties.

    Anyway, that is my two pence worth, I’ll crawl back into my little hole now. As you were. 🙂

    1. I’m not sure how many comic books you’ve read, and certainly the trends have changed but I use to have a huge stack of marvel comics with high school girls in skin-tight suits and huge boobs.

      I do think the sexualization in the west is often different. Now I wouldn’t compare anime to live-action. Thatms just too much of a different medium. JDramas would be a better fit and they tend to be very wholesome in general. I guess we could compare anime to Rick and Mortey or BoJack, Family Guy that sort of thing. Although all of them are primarily comedies so I guess they should be compared to shows like Gintama and Saiki K. I’m not sure I’ve watched enough adult western cartoons lately. Maybe you’re complaetely right

      1. Never was much of a comic book fan as a kid – comics, yes. The last (only?) Marvel I can recall reading was an Iron Man comic and I was probably 8 or 9, which, given I am an old git, this would have been when comic books were still innocent and kiddie friendly.

        I know they got a bit dark and more adult over the years so I’ll defer to your superior knowledge if they’ve become as tawdry as manga…

          1. Okay, interesting. Just checked that and Supergirl made her first appearance in 1958 and got her own comic in 1959, so if that image was from 1938 I think Seigel and Shuster would have been jailed in uptight America at time. 😛

            I’m guessing there is going to be some allowances for superheroes in skimpy outfits (though that one is pushing it a LOT) but how often do they get into sexual situations or be objectified like teen girls do in anime? How many guys get nosebleeds because they saw Supergirl’s panties?

            Anyway, this is a point we’ll never be able to conclude to any mutual satisfaction but I do think we can agree that anime is more lascivious than Marvel! 😉 😛

            1. I stand corrected you were reading comics way before 1958.
              The sexualization is different. That’s true. But I have seen a lot of americain media with fgirls in bikinis in unrelated commercials. Like selling burgers. Real alive girls, not images of girls. So I don’t think that there is no sexuallisation n americain media.
              But much worse, and I hope this is just an american trend and the europe is still immune to this, there is this horrible purity and shaming culture where girils’ purity is comodified. It’s terrifying. I’ll take a panty shot over insinuations that women should be jailed if they decide to have sex outside of marriage anytime.

            2. Oi, I’m not that old, you cheeky….! >:(

              Using women to sell products is as old as the hills (and older than me before you say it) but at least we are starting to change that in this post #MetToo world. Asia is still way behind on that where the movement doesn’t even exist, and that it is sad.

              I think you’ll find much of Europe is very laid back when it comes to sex (I’m sure you know all about Amsterdam). We Brits are somewhere in the middle – we like to keep to private yet we had Page 3 girls for 40 years in our daily newspapers – whilst Muslim countries are extremely strict about it. The US is a huge anomaly – it has its own legal porn industry, exploits women in advertising, makes films and TV shows in which everyone sleeps with everyone else, yet implodes at the sight of a boob! 😮

            3. I lived in Europe for a long time and I was born there but the latest political leanings make me tink public opinion may have changed a bit in the last decade or so.

              Yeah, there is very unhealthy notions of sexuality and sensuality in both US and Canadian media. Although we tend to be a bitmore relaxed as well. It’s been legal for women to be topless for a llittle while and you see it frequently enough. Sort of gets you use to seeing breasts without feinting. Women have yet to use the priviledge in winter time for some reason…

  5. I agree and have little to add. Any element can feel misplaced and that includes fanservice.

    There’s something like meta-expectation, too, though. For example, when I started out watching anime as it aired (around 2010) panty shots were very common; in harem shows you’d get them practically everytime a girl went up the stairs. They were casual and brief, or embarrassing moments. They’ve become far less common. I never really liked them, but my auto-filter took care of them. Due to disuse, that aspect of the filter doesn’t work as well as it used to, so when I re-watch shows I liked back then, I notice them far more than I probably did back then, and they kick me out of the moment. I keep thinking “I don’t remember it being that bad.” Basically, I think you can get used to fanservice to an extent that you lose a sense of what would turn off someone new to anime, even if you were that guy back then. Your sense of scale shifts without you noticing. So warning people of fanservice sort of does serve a purpose, depending on who you’re used to recommending shows to.

    That goes for anime aesthetic, too. Many people, especially ones who don’t usually watch anime, care about the characters’ ages, and with anime character designs often going into the cutesy direction, even grown ups can look underage. Pretty much all harem characters, for example, are underage. Many shounen fighter characters are. It’s something very easy for me to forget, since anime characters live in a sort of “ageless zone” for me. Many anime teens don’t feel like teens the way real-life teens would, but due to the cutesy style that’s not common for people who don’t watch anime much. I’d be curious to know if there really is a difference in how anime fans and non-fans interpret character designs. Not sure.

    1. You know, that happens to me as well. I rewatch a show and think wow, they really poured it on thick, why did I love this so much?

  6. I’ve kind of been thinking about the topic of fan service a lot lately. Don’t know why……..? But; I’ve never really seen it as a problem- I just saw it as a “thing that happens a lot.” It happens and the story moves on.
    That said; I HAVE kind of started to see it as a problem in “Edens Zero.” It’s not the service itself- just how often it happens. Mashima finds a way to make Rebecca loose her clothes at least once an arc- be it just her panties when she’s wearing a skirt, or her shirt being ripped, or just her whole wardrobe coming off.
    And I mean…….”Sex Sells.” These series are made to make money- these characters are first and foremost MERCHANDISE. And these creators do what they have to to sell that merch. Some are very sparring; some don’t do it at all; and some go overboard with it. And some still make it an important part of the story- which is pretty clever whenever I see it.
    I think that using it in places that aren’t story critical(aside from the aforementioned “Fan service stories”) allows them to work. But……..maybe Rebecca DOESN’T need to be naked all the time?
    Though I agree with you; it’s not a problem when done properly. And it shouldn’t be treated as something that “harms” a story completely.

    1. The characters are merchandise, you are completely right. I think there’s an unspoken rule that good fiction is suppose to make us forget that instead of enforcing it. Like weMre suppose to think the characters are people and care about what happens to them.

      1. And I mean……..it’s good to care about the characters- Rebecca IS a rather well written female lead. But don’t forget that these series cost money to make. And they’re going to make money SOMEHOW.

    1. I wouldn’t say unscathed… There was some looking away from the screen and skipping over some parts

  7. Yes! I loved Kill la kill. It never took anything too seriously and it had fun making fun of itself. That series seemed to love teasing every anime trope; fanservice, gratuitous violence, bikini armor that some how protected the whole body, that was a great series!

  8. I agree that it depends on the tone and the appropriateness of the fanservice when viewed in context. When used poorly, it annoys me. I prefer series that don’t try to have it both ways by putting fanservice into tense or dramatic situations. Even that can work if done correctly, but I think only if the entire show is built around it (I’m specifically thinking Keijo!!!!!!!! here, which I’m in the middle of right now — it’s ridiculous but I think it works.)

    As far as the artistic credibility of anime as the general public considers it, this might be irresponsible of me to say, but I don’t care about that. Granted, I’m not the one trying to sell licensing rights or anything, so that’s easy for me to say. But I don’t want to see anime “cleaned up” to match western tastes. There are plenty of great, clean series like that anyway for people to check out, but I’m afraid of the moral righteousness brigade (especially here in the US; we’re bad about this) going on campaigns to try to turn the medium into something that it isn’t. Maybe that’s just paranoia, but I’ve seen too much of such talk to dismiss it.

  9. That’s my main beef with when fan service shows up is tone and setting. What’s the overall message or vibe of the scene/episode/series as a whole?

    I thoroughly enjoyed Interspecies Reviewers, but was bored and frequently very uncomfortable with the fan service in A Certain Magical Index. Intensity of the ecchi had nothing to do with it, but tonal dissonance: the main plot of Index presents itself as serious, intense, and something you should emotionally invest and immerse yourself in. But when you get presented with the eighth scene of the protagonist walking in on a naked middle schooler, it’s hard to do that (not to mention that particular fan service was repetitive).

    How seriously am I supposed to believe the characters vs. accept the nonsense and roll with it? Panty and Stocking doesn’t present itself as having deep emotional character development, just pure crass nonsense and I love it. For me, the fan service in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord was hard to deal with because there was a main story going on that made me want to feel something for the characters and immerse myself, but then at the same time several characters followed porn logic of sexual obliviousness and pure fantasy. If it was only the latter, it’d be easier to enjoy.

    TLDR: I agree, it should be treated as any other aspect of an anime – does it add or detract from overall enjoyment?

    1. Exactly. Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard to give any fair criticism as there are some fans that will assume you hate all fan service as soon as you criticise any of it

  10. First of all, thanks for the article!

    I must say I find your opinions on fanservice quite refreshing, considering all the bashing it gets. That episode about Witchblade is quite telling, and I would agree that Lita’s words were probably due to the sad general misconceptions about fanservice. However, if I had been in Lita’s shoes, I would have challenged this misconception and said proudly that yes, for you guys out there that enjoy fanservice, this series has it too. An alternative option would have been to just don’t mention it at all. I don’t think talking about fanservice ashamedly helps clearing the misconceptions and the fandom as a whole.

    As for Magical Girl Spec Ops Asuka, I personally don’t find the example you mentioned to be an issue with fanservice, but rather with *bad* fanservice. Fanservice can be done badly, and it can ruin or distract from important plot points, like in your example. But this is an issue with all things done badly; I don’t see a reason to single out bad fanservice as an issue that needs more attention than the rest of badly-made things than can equally ruin a scene or series. I do realize that you might actually agree with me on this, since you say yourself in the article that the fanservice could have been implemented better. I guess my point is, if that example is just to point out that “bad things are bad”, what’s the reason for bringing it up?

    I hope I managed to get my point across without sounding too confrontational; not always easy in textual form lol. Keep up the good work, this is certainly an interesting topic to write about!

    1. I used the example, as I stated to say that the fanservice itself wasn’t the issue but that when fanservice is implemented haphazardly into a narrative, it blurs the lines of what exactly is creating the dissonance. The sexualization itself or the lack of cohesion. Which can contribute to the misconceptions among viewers. As such fanservice should be treated both with the same respect we giveother elements and also the same scrutiny. At least in my opinion.

  11. I think Asuka is one of those instance where I’ve found it intrusive. I love fan-service, but it felt out of place there. As you say, it just wasn’t integrated that well. They tried to add it to scenes that were fairly dark and thoughtful. It could have been a really interesting series if they’d found the balance. As it was, ended up feeling kind of average.

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