[Editorial Tuesday] Anime Fanservice: Is it Exploitative?

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Ecchi fanservice is almost as controversial as it is prevalent. There exist a host of think-pieces on whether or not fanservice is nothing but harmless titillation or shameless and dangerous objectification. Recently the series Kill la Kill, had its fanservice become one of the most diverse topics in anime fandom. But Fanservice has no signs of staying, much to the delight of some, and every new season there is always a host of shows which will bear the ‘ecchi’ label, for an audience which view that label as a selling point.

Fanservice is not outright condemnable, but it is capable of crossing a moral line that, while varying from viewer to viewer, should give both production studio’s a reluctance to include such material and audiences a reluctance to watch and appreciate it. There are a host of factors that make specific instances of fanservice objectionable, transforming what are supposed to be characters into nothing beyond sex objects, which is neither good from a moral perspective nor an enticing way to approach erotic content. The aim of this piece is to analyze concepts and characteristics which bring fanservice along a sliding scale of erotic to objectifying, using specific series, and moments from them to elucidate my point.

Now in this approach to fanservice in which I am somewhat critical of it, I want to state clearly that I am not against fanservice shows totally. Furthermore, I am certainly not someone who, when a series is a ‘fanservice show’, will write that series off completely and not give it the time of day. Two of my favorite series from the previous anime season (as of writing this piece) were Monster Musume and Prison School, filled with ridiculous situations and fanservice. I even did a review of Monmusu (And gave it a pretty racy title, for what it’s worth) for this very website, and said a lot of pretty favorable things about it, including some of the ways in which it used its fanservice.

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Now before I get into different traits that make ecchi fanservice positive or negative, I want to start with one concept that I do not accept, why I do not accept it. The idea that, since fanservice concerns fictional characters, everything is fair game and that, by the sole merit of it being fictional, characters can be displayed in any manner without the license for anyone to give a moral critique. Fiction is significant because of its relationship with real life. Ghost in the Shell is significant because, though science-fiction, the search for and uncertainty with Identity and the concept of being mirrors that in the human experience.

Gurren Lagann is significant because, even though it goes to physically impossible realms, the idea of Spiral Power is a symbol for human development and an ethical call for people to always try their best, and reach new heights despite whatever obstacles face them. As such, how characters are portrayed in an effort to titillate the viewer has a bearing on how people think about sexuality, and the worth of other people. So for example, I would not say a violent snuff film is harmless because it is fiction, nor would I say that titillation based on a character being coerced or forced into sex is healthy.

Now keep in mind, these criteria are a sliding scale that varies from viewer to viewer. I would not say that fanservice needs to hit every single one of these criterion in order to be considered healthy, nor miss every single one in order to be considered objectionable. And again, this varies from viewer to viewer, even in the interpretation of whether or not one such criterion applies. Also, keep in mind that a show can have moments of fanservice that are quite positive and healthy and other moments which are objectifying.

Non-Diegetic Fanservice, Perspective and Visual Framing

Diegetic Fanservice is a term coined by Anime YouTuber and Blogger Digibro, who writes ‘Fanservice moments can be broken down into two large categories: diegetic and nondiegetic. Non-diegetic refers to fanservice that has nothing to do with the events that are actually going on in the story, and is solely experienced by the audience.’ Non-diegetic fanservice leaves a sour taste in the mouth because it frames fanservice in an act or perspective that the characters neither condone nor engage in in anyway.

Digi gives the example of a scene in the second season of Sword Art Online, where there’s a panning shot that looks over one of the female characters rear end. Non-diegetic fanservice is like the first person perspective of Makura no Danshi rupturing it’s way into a series where that perspective is not present to begin with. In my mind, non-diegetic fanservice both takes away from the narrative, takes away from the show as a piece of visual media and is objectification.

As to why it takes away from the narrative, it’s worth pointing out that in the first arc of the second season of Sword Art Online, it’s female lead, Sinon, has numerous panning shots which focus on her butt, during times where dialogue, often expository dialogue was being given. The story arc being what it is in that series, a high-stakes death game where the lives of characters at risk, are decidedly non-sexual, the narrative of which is meant to elicit the feelings of an edge of your seat, psychological thriller where characters we’re supposed to care about as human beings could very well die. That narrative, and also, the serious tone it needs, is completely broken when we see those shots.

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Moreover, we should be conscious that when discussing anime, live-action films, video game cut scenes or any other film, the way in which images are framed, how characters are placed and the settings and objects they are placed with, should tell us something, reinforce or play into the overall narrative. This type of fanservice does nothing to achieve that, much to the contrary; it takes away from this consistency. This is why it takes away from the series as a piece of visual media, it feels alien, and immersion breaking, and it’s readily apparent that it was included for no other reason than to titillate the audience.

A great example of where this is avoided is in the 12th episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, in a scene where Misato Katsuragi is clipping on her Bra. This scene follows a lengthy flashback sequence showing a traumatic event from Misato’s past, and the focus of the shot is displaying a scar on her body that originates from that event. We follow this shot with an image of Misato looking into a mirror, then a close up shot of Misato with a pensive look on her face.

Looking at a reflection is generally used to denote introspection in visual media, and the next shot of object which is specifically tied to that event ties this into what this scene is about. This shot is Misato viewing her own body, the scar on it, and how the events continue to affect her to this day. As the viewer looks at her body, so does Misato herself. To place it in philosophical language, she is not just an object which is seen, but in the context of a narrative, is a subject which is seeing herself.

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This contrast is key, because even though the scene in Misato is of merely her in her underwear, it’s less of an infringement of the shots of a fully-clothed Sinon in SAO. Misato is in a state of undress but it shows us a moment of reflective authenticity that she has in the narrative the same time the viewer has in viewing the narrative. Her semi-nakedness is meant to reflect on the fact that we see an emotional part of her that is laid bare before us that would otherwise not be public. The shot of Sinon is totally outside of her thoughts as a character and actions as a character, it has nothing to do with the story, the imagery or her feelings. Moreover, it is drawn in a way there that is heavily suggestive of physical features that are designed specifically to attract a male-audience.

Objectification and Agency

One of the aspects which makes fanservice is much more palatable is the willingness of the character, male or female, to enter into the act which the viewer and the creators view as ‘fanservice’ and how this willingness comes about. This is not ‘Non-diegetic’ because the character pursues this sort of action, hopefully in conjunction with the motivation, characterization, and the state of their in-universe relationships at the time. Now, even this has an element of controversy, because much of anime is made by and for men, often the choices of female characters come from a male-mindset, which may pay less attention and fidelity to their female characters as their male characters as a result of an often unconscious bias.

I think the proper way to answer this tension would be to have the industry focus on more gender inclusivity in directorial positions. However, there are many examples where I feel a series or film coming from a male creator had an example of a female character that felt fully realized, and less objectified than those coming from a female creator. For example, comparing the Work of Hayao Miyazaki, who routinely placed strong female characters in his work, to that of the series Gangsta. which was penned by a female Mangaka with the pen name of Kohske. Overall, I don’t feel like the ideal of a female character having her own sexual agency is totally undercut by coming from a mostly male production staff.

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Scenes where fanservice revolves around a character acting out of their own free will contribute to a sense of their own agency, while scenes where their will is not considered, contribute to their image as a sex object. One of the examples of this is another scene from Sword Art Online, this time in its first season. In the scene, Asuna, a woman, who’s in a romantic relationship with Kirito, a male character, begins to undress in front of him. In this scene, Asuna is, of her own will, trying to elicit a sexual response from a man she’s attracted to.

Moreover, this takes place in the context of a relationship that both characters undertake where we have concrete and believable reasons why they are attracted to each other, which stem from their own independent facets of characterization and motivation. This feels like a perfectly normal situation, whose place in the narrative is not first to titillate, but to show how an aspect of their relationship as characters is developing.

Another great example of a way this is used in a more subtle fashion is in the series Shirobako, where Aoi Miyamori heads to the home office of her colleague, Misato Segawa. They work for an animation studio; they talk some business and Segawa remarks that her shoulders are stiff and stretches out a little. The next frame shows, Segawa’s breasts at the bottom of the shot with Miyamori looking at them with a blush and sense of awe. When Segawa says the comment about her shoulders being stiff, Miyamori, looking at her breasts, remarks with a sly look on her face that ‘it must be rough.’ This is subtle humor that, while it may titillate a male audience, feels like a natural part of a conversation between two professional female characters.

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Juxtaposed to this are the numerous examples of fanservice, again in the first season of Sword Art Online, this time in the Alfheim Online (ALO) arc, where there is sexual fanservice of Asuna in situations where she is basically being sexually assaulted. I don’t have to go at length as to why this is pretty distasteful, offensive and downright hurtful to those who have been in situations of Assault. It’s not a sexy thing, and it’s not something where someone being forced into a sexual situation, without their consent and totally against their will, should be made in a situation to titillate anyone. I was pretty happy when one of the most common criticisms of this arc was the objectification of Asuna in such a way.

Scenes of ‘Forced’ content and sexual assault or even rape, rank among the most objectionable displays of fanservice in anime. Whether or not they happen to a man or women, they should never be played off in a way where they are explicitly drawn or designed to titillate a viewing audience. This should be obvious as to why, however, it’s worth stating that a large parts of it tie into a break of immersion with the narrative. Looking at the example given in SAO, the scenes in which Asuna is assaulted are also meant to make us think of her Assaulter as evil, and worth total contempt, and they achieve that at the least. But it feels completely cheap and underhanded, when we are supposed to hate a character for their assault yet somehow also be turned on by the act of them assaulting someone else. They’re two completely clashing concepts.

Anime made by and for Men/What do we find sexually attractive in each Gender?

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There are those today who would posit that structural inequalities between genders are a thing of the past and that all of this attention on fanservice is just another way to unfairly judge male desire and sexuality. While I do not think it’s inherently bad for a man to draw woman in a way that is made to attract a male audience. After all, there are series that cater to an audience of women, often with scantily- clad men meant to titillate a female audience. However, I want to make the claim the bodily attributes for which Men are sexualized are often less objectifying than the attributes for which Women are sexualized.

In the Series Free!, the story focuses on a high-school swim team. It’s commonly understood in the Anime community that Free! is a sort of fanservice show for girls. This is evidenced for the fact that there are a number of shots focusing in on scantily clad males (They are swimmers after all) with their musculature as the point of detail on their bodies. But men’s muscles are not solely viewed as a sex-object. Muscles are often used as a symbol of man’s strength and agency, which are some of the characteristics for which men are commonly sexualized in visual media. They’re a symbol men have of their own power, ability and often, hard-work and self-improvement. They carry significance that goes before being a sex object for another gender.

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As opposed to this, the most common aspect that a woman character is sexualized for is the size of her bust and the shape of her rear-end. The way in which they signal attractiveness is not the same way in which muscles signal attractiveness for those attracted to men. When we see the ‘T and A’ factor, we don’t see it in a way that signals about the character in any other way than them being a sex-object. This creates a discrepancy where what we sexualize males for are simultaneously symbols for men to themselves, and to other men, of their own power and ability, where women are sexualized only by physical attributes which are supposed to make those attracted to women, specifically men, titillated. Men are sexualized by their own activity, agency, and commitment to self-betterment through a physique showing off a great deal of muscle and little body-fat. Women are sexualized by a body which is seen by others and deemed to be attractive by ‘T and A’, which is irrespective of their own strength.
This is not to say that a woman could not look at her own body and find her breasts sexy, or an object of self-confidence. Men often find this sexiness in their own musculature as well. Rather that the features for which we sexualize the image of a male, give it something beyond an image that is praised merely for being ‘sexy’, it has merits of its own that simple ‘T and A’ often do not.

In conclusion, whether fanservice is morally objectionable or not often relies to its specific placement in the narrative, and visual imagery of a series or film. Shows which feel out of place are often immersion breaking and do not function well as either erotica or story-telling. To continue, the more control or agency that a character has in a situation where fanservice is depicted, the better, with the worst offenses often revolving around situations where a character is in a ‘forced’ situation, such as during a sexual assault. Finally, while there all aspects of fanservice I think are totally defensible, I think that the focus on ‘T and A’ in female fanservice, leads to a discrepancy in which women are made into objects, and men are viewed as ‘sexy’ for ways which directly tie into their own agency.
In writing this piece I became very aware that covering every single aspect of fanservice, specifically what criterion make it objectionable or defendable, was impossible in such a short form, when this article in itself almost comes up on 10 pages, double-spaced. A book, written in academic fashion, would be probably what’s needed to do this subject true justice. However, I hope you enjoyed this piece and appreciate my arguments, even if you disagree. I’d love and appreciate constructive criticism of this article in the comments section, and I hope we can have a productive, respectful and illuminating conversation!


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CJL

Writer

Author: CJL

Long Islander who loves anime. Interested in politics, philosophy and also a huge fan of sports and video games. Just about any series can get me going if it’s done well. From cute girls doing cute things shows, to gritty-action or space-opera or mecha series. Comment on my articles, let’s get a conversation going.

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