What makes good fanservice? No, this isn’t a lead-in to some kind of diatribe against ecchi, or a shakedown of what genres of anime fanservice “belongs” in, nor is it an incrimination of ecchi fans, a denouncement of sexuality in anime, or any of the other similar talking points that have seen resurgence amongst anime blogs lately.
It’s a serious question.
What makes good fanservice? What makes fanservice work?
In an era of debate and questioning of this medium we’ve come to love as anime fans, much of the conversation about fanservice is relegated to discussions of objectification or laments about fanservice “ruining” this anime or that, treating fanservice like a hanger-on to the medium. Within that paradigm, there’s been barely any room to talk about how to do fanservice well, at least not when it has to do with judging fanservice by its merits, rather than other standards.
The rush to demonize fanservice is indicative of a number of misunderstandings about anime, and the way the medium interacts with its domestic audience and vice versa. Indeed, much of the Western anime fandom’s criticisms come from very Americentric and Eurocentric perspectives, and a very traditionalist critical perspective.
Nuance is always valuable when examining new media, especially that from a different culture. Western anime critics, however, tend to approach anime with very traditional critical techniques, informed by literary critique but not necessarily tested for their pertinence to the medium. Thus, in this paradigm, where everything must serve the narrative and anything that doesn’t is superfluous and unnecessary, it’s easy to dismiss fanservice as “distracting” or “pandering.”
Couple this with a good decade and change of marketing touting anime as a more “mature” medium of animation (Compared to traditional Western cartoons) and a well-known high regard from the West for narrative-heavy anime such as Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, and Fullmetal Alchemist, and the outcry over fanservice is easy to understand.
It’s a dead-end discussion, however. We can write article after article on how fanservice objectifies this or distracts from that, or how it makes anime inaccessible to this group, but that’s all reactive. As much as we want to believe that things like the objectification narrative are discussions of fanservice’s affect on the medium, in reality they more resemble discussions of fanservice’s affect on the fandom.
To understand fanservice and truly answer the question of what makes fanservice work, it’s necessary to break things down to a structural level and work from there.
To “objectify” something, it first has to have not already started as an object. At a subconscious level, we tend to elevate fictional characters to a degree of “personhood” as we immerse ourselves within works of fiction. Part of what makes fiction work is that it can assume a degree if emotional investment on the part of the reader/viewer and use that to draw out a desired response. As such, characters are often designed to be endearing, lovable, relatable, charismatic, sexy, vile, corrupt, or any number of other characteristics, depending on how the creator wants the audience to react to them. At a basic level, characters exist to represent ideas. They are a tool, meant to be used. This isn’t to portray art or the characters therein in a bad way, but it’s important to start from the bottom. Otherwise, the discussion begins on already-false assumptions.
Every element is a tool, and fanservice is no different. Its usage, however, reaches outside the narrative-focused perspective of many critics, which is where much of the disconnect comes from.
Anime and its fandom share a very close relationship: Much closer than we’re used to with Western media. Japan’s semiannual fan-works convention Comic Market (“Comiket”) is a prime example of this. Two times each year, groups of creative fans get together to sell parody works (“doujinshi”) based on existing anime, manga, and game properties. Many of these works are very explicit and pornographic and, while Western fans might rightfully fear legal retribution for doing the same thing on a similar scale with Western media, there exist only a handful of known legal actions taken against doujinshi creators.
Japan’s manga industry and doujinshi community share a symbiotic relationship. The manga industry creates works for the doujinshi community to parody and the doujinshi community produces the next generation of mangaka, perpetuating the cycle. For this to occur, it’s necessary that anime, as a medium, invites fan interaction.
Episode 26 of Neon Genesis Evangelion contains a peculiar sequence in which the main character, Shinji Ikari, deep in the throes of a serious existential crisis, envisions a world much different from the one in which he exists, yet still containing the same people. This alternate reality takes the form of a lighthearted highschool romance comedy, much different from the dark, heavy robot anime he comes from.
From this simple four-and-a-half minute sequence, no less than three entire media series have spun off: The manga Angelic Days, the Shinji Ikari Raising Project game and manga, and the Girlfriend of Steel 2nd game.
This is the essence of fanservice. Anime is willing to momentarily subvert itself and break from its own narrative to interact with its fans, in the hopes that its fans will, in turn, interact with it. Flashes of nudity and glimpses of underwear are as much a tool as the very characters with which they occur.
What breaks immersion for the traditionally-trained critics of the West encourages immersion for Japanese otaku.
This is a powerful disconnect. Japanese fans and Western critics are looking in the same place for different things. Such deliberate breaks from narrative are anathema to Western anime critics who, trained to look for how every element serves the narrative, find such deviations jarring and out-of-place. Otaku, on the other hand, see such breaks from structure as an invitation to engage further, a reward for enjoying the series. It’s a service to the fans, a fan-service, with the hopes that the fans will service the show in return.
Alternatively, a series could be narrative-light by design, existing solely to deliver constant lighthearted enjoyment to the fans. These are your “fanservice anime:” Your High School DxDs, your Mayo Chikis, your Heaven’s Lost Propertys and your Cat Planet Cuties.
It’s critically important, however, not to dismiss fanservice as simply pure fan pandering for monetary gain, nor to assume that any pair of big boobs will captivate otaku. There’s an art and technique to fanservice that, much like its core purpose, is overlooked and dismissed in the clamour to downplay and vilify it. Poor character designs, bad animation, or a disjointed visual style that clashes with the show’s premise can all make for poor fanservice. These are your Divergence Eves and your Eikens, near-universally panned shows famous for poorly-executed fanservice.
But when the character designs are attractive, the animation is well-done, the scene is well-shot, and the artstyle is conducive to all that, that’s when you end up with the anime that’s still getting loads of fanart, even years later. The show knows its audience. It engages with them and encourages them to join in on the fun.