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?
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.
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.
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!!!