[Fan vs Service] WorldEnd vs Hajime no Ippo

When I learned that this season’s new anime, WorldEnd (or SukaSuka), was based on a light novel about an adult man becoming a caretaker for a group of under-18 girls, I was understandably wary given anime’s less-than-glowing track record when handling age gaps and power dynamics. Fortunately, WorldEnd’s leading man, Willem, is (so far) completely uninterested in romancing the local teens. While 15-year-old Chtholly does have an obvious crush on him, Willem sees her and the rest of the girls as students, patients, or younger family members. He uses his power to help and guide, never to take advantage.

These are all good things, and a large part of why the pensive found-family story at the heart of WorldEnd has been so compelling to me. It’s also a large part of why a particular scene in Episode 2, “late autumn night’s dream,” stands out as so uncomfortable and out-of-place. Willem may not be a creeper, but some of the people creating him sure seem to be.

Spoiler(ish) Alert: General discussion of WorldEnd, Episode 2.

Willem looks after an ill Chtholly, sitting by her bedside with her patient chart as she pulls her sheets up to cover her chest. Subtitle: "I'm your caretaker. Let me show some concern."

Chtholly and the rest of the girls are “living weapons” sent out to periodically battle the “Beasts” that threaten their world. Shortly after Willem becomes their caretaker, Chtholly returns exhausted and feverish from a battle, so he settles her in the infirmary to look after her. Willem, who’s experienced with magical warfare, diagnoses her with “venenum poisoning” and gives her a deep-tissue massage to help her recover faster.

While you can definitely make the case that Willem is too forceful here and should have explained what he was doing before he started doing it, in broad strokes there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scene. Medical massages do exist, and they are beneficial. Willem is acting as her doctor and doing what’s best for his patient.

The problem is in the execution.

Chtholly framed suggestively, a high angle shot of her face down on her bed, blushing face pressed into her pillow with eyes squeezed shut and mouth slightly open.

The storyboards and voice acting go out of their way to frame this as a suggestive, sexual act, focusing on Chtholly’s flushed face, naked back and chest, curling toes, and breathy gasps. Given Willem’s position of power as her caretaker, the framing of this scene would be uncomfortable regardless of Chtholly’s reaction to it, but it’s made doubly troubling by the fact that it isn’t merely sexual, but also unwanted.

The camera makes it a point to angle the characters so that it looks like Willem is mounting her, putting him in a position of physical power with her frightened and helpless below him. And the final shot is of the Chtholly actually crying, her back arching as if something far more traumatizing than a medical massage is happening just off-screen.

Chtholly cries out from the massage, teary eyes closed, clutching her pillow as we see only Willem's hands on her naked back.

This type of suggestive framing, with its skewed power dynamics and heavy implications of assault, is disturbing as hell, but sadly not uncommon. This case strikes me as particularly egregious, though, because not only does it promote harmful (and all-too-prevalent) ideas about women and consent, it does so at the expense of its story, tone, and characters.

As I’m writing this, we’re four episodes into WorldEnd, and there’s nothing in Willem’s behavior to suggest he would ever molest or even flirt with any of these girls. He cares deeply for them, but there’s nothing sexual about it. If anything, the idea of a sexual relationship with them is so far from his mind that he doesn’t even realize his familial affection often flusters Chtholly (who does have that big ol’ crush on him, after all).

Willem hugs Chtholly tight while two of the other girls watch him. Subtitle: "Seriously, let me go already... My heart can't take any more!"

Furthermore, this scene in the original light novel is clinical and benign. It’s told from Willem’s perspective, but there’s little to no description of Chtholly herself; the prose doesn’t linger on the shape of her back or have Willem distracted by her suggestive moans. In fact, it primarily turns inward, fleshing out Willem’s backstory and throwing in some world-building about the concept of “venenum,” barely discussing the actual massage at all.

The narrative–both the original prose and the vast majority of the anime–wants us to see Willem as a therapist and teacher, not a love interest, and certainly not a sexual predator. The framing on this massage scene actively works against his character and is a disservice to the story’s gentle tone and ongoing themes about the bonds of family. If fanservice is gratuitous T&A that exists solely to titillate its audience, then this is fanservice in its purest and most distasteful form.

Ithea teases Willem about "liking little girls"

So how could WorldEnd have done it better? Turns out it’s super easy. Just focus on the characters, the actual purpose of the massage (which, again, was to heal, not hurt or arouse), and keep the camera as distant and clinical as the original prose.

For an example of what this looks like, let’s crack open the anime vault and take a quick look at a scene from Episode 47 of the original Hajime no Ippo anime (2000-2002), a sports series about a young boxer. In a similar plot line, the teen protagonist, Ippo, is suffering from stiff muscles due to a rigorous training regimen. Enter Dr. Yamaguchi, an adult woman, to act as his therapist.

Dr. Yamaguchi greets a flustered Ippo with a hug

Ippo is clearly attracted to her in the same way that Chtholly is to Willem. There’s even a misunderstanding about why she wants him to lay down on a futon, complete with sexy saxophones and Ippo awkwardly lying on his back and telling her “he’s ready.” However, Dr. Yamaguchi (like Willem) has no interest in a teenager, so the scene is played for comedy as she laughs and immediately corrects him, explaining that she’s here to give him a massage.

Once she does, the moment ends. No more sexy saxophones or softly glowing frames, because that’s not what’s happening here and everyone knows it. The scene primarily uses either high-angle long shots so we can see both characters and the full massage, or close-ups on Ippo or Dr. Yamaguchi’s faces as they talk about conditioning and training. It’s comfortable and close, but by no means sexual. The audience sees and feels what the cast sees and feels, and as a result the overall tone and purpose of both the scene and the characters are preserved.

Dr. Yamaguchi gives Ippo a medical massage while he is fully clothed and in a neutral position on the futon

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about what constitutes “good” or “bad” fanservice (or even if such a divide exists at all), or about what separates gratuitous T&A from sexuality or nudity that serves a narrative purpose. There’s a lot of nuance to the conversation, particularly when it comes to navigating the divide between in-story context and out-of-story machinations.

That said, there’s nothing more frustrating to me than a series that betrays its own story and characters for the sake of the (often false) assumption that it’s giving the audience what it wants. It’s a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of fanservice, framing benign actions as suggestive ones so it can deny any wrongdoing from its characters while still steaming up the camera for its viewers. It’s hard to see this scene as anything but a crass marketing attempt, and one that plays on destructive power dynamics and assault metaphors to boot.

WorldEnd is still by-and-large a unique, charming series, and one that does some fascinating work in terms of reversing traditional gender roles (as it’s the father-figure who stays home waiting for the young women to return from battle). At its best, it blends hope and tragedy to create a poignant, emotionally fulfilling experience. I still like it, despite its occasionally leering camera. But with creepy, tonally dissonant framing like this, the anime staff sure is making it hard to fall in love with it.

This article was very much a team effort. Huge thanks to Frog-kun for checking how this scene read in the original light novel, as well as to Peter Fobian for pointing to that Hajime no Ippo episode as the perfect point of contrast.

 

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  • Rory More

    Man, when I heard the premise for this show I was gung ho supportive! I don’t think it’s that was being jaded to the potential horror it could be setting up but as an adult male who works with children, mostly girls, I was excited to see an anime where the premise followed so closely to me. Doubly so considering that I’m ace/aro, I rarely have anything to add to discussions on romance that often appear. Haha, sorry about that!

    This one however DOES strike a cord with me. Not only the stuff it does absolutely awesomely and true to the vocation (okay, I don’t train the young girls for battle but the rest is pretty much the same!) but also this one scene that agrivated me so much! I was hoping this could be the start of a whole “such relationships don’t need to be scary or sexual”. Even years into my job I sometimes have irrational panic stabs when I think about how easy it would be to be painted as some sort of creep, just because I’m male.

    Anyway, where I work there is a specific rule when it comes to touching a child. All the way up the arms? That’s fine, kids tend to love holding hands and if they are in distress a hand or two on their shoulders can ease a metaphorical weight and draw their attention to your eyes, creating a bubble of focus and understanding between you. Hugs are something you are supposed to avoid (doubly so if your a male employee. Aforementioned bias) and NEVER initiated. For reasons I could scream all day about and reasons I’m sure you already now, a child has to seek out that for it to even be boarderline acceptable.

    Which is why that scene in particular vexed me so. It was pushed on Ctholly with no reasoning and while she was in a perfectly good state to speak and talk to ask about and then consent to or deny it should she rather just feel sore in the morning. Frankly I’d never dream of offering such a thing but if we look at it from a “medical service” perspective instead, that scene still goofed it up!

    I’ve managed to just accept that the scene happened and wasnt intended for me. I wish with all my heart that it never existed because it almost felt like a personal betrayal. Since then and before it’s been riddled with moments I’ve been slapping my leg as I recounted where the exact same thing happened to me. In particular the “but not marry you” part had me in stitches because it’s happened enough where I could see myself having to add that clause.

    Anyway, if you’d like tales from the day I’d be happy to share! I don’t see it being relevant outside of this anime discussion and I so rarely have anything of substance to add :3

  • Rory More

    Heya, welcome to Anifem XD

  • smashman42

    That scene was totally jarring and out of place for me too.

    I kind of wish they did a dual perspective thing where Chtholly thought of it as sexual because of her crush and they’d framed it like that for shots of her blushing & facial expressions – then zoom out to Willem just doing his job like meh.

    I liked the first Fan vs Service piece on Black Lagoon vs TTGL, showing these comparisons is great so I’d love to see more.

  • Lebdawho

    #1 -> This is a great article and I really appreciated the key visuals to match the discussion.

    #2 -> I also like how you also accidentally had a small history lesson in the article. While fanservice has been around in anime for decades, the type and prevalence has drastically increased in the last 20 years. I can remember when I first got into anime seeing those fanservice moments and either just brushing them off or laughing at them because the pace in which they popped up was no where near as accelerated as modern anime. Nowadays I am either cringing or letting out a long suffering sign when they pop up.

  • 0utf0xZer0

    I also thought that this scene was jarring and needed fixing when I watched episode 2, but as someone who actually does loves cutesy and comedic fanservice to a degree, I feel nipping the misunderstanding in the bud early on like the Hajime no Ippo scene would waste the scene’s potential.

    The “fix” I came up (prior to reading this article, actually) with was to have him explain up front what he was going to do, and for a very embarrassed Chtholly to agree. Follow by scenes of her clearly – from the audience POV – trying to hide the fact she finds the massage both arousing and embarrassing. Willem would realize she was embarrassed but not the implications (because I actually do like my tropes and am going to follow some of them).

    So basically, I guess I’m fine with Chtholly getting something out of an innocence massage as long as Willem is being proper and respecting her boundaries. Others may have different ideas – to the extent I’m a feminist when it comes to media, it’s because my brain hates intellectual incoherence and basically won’t let me ignore when my tastes in entertainment and progressive political views don’t mesh well (which is frequently). Naturally this tends to lead to me being more concerned with curbing certain excesses than promoting a stronger feminist approach.

  • Lebdawho

    So, I just wanted to add something to this discussion. After reading this article, I’ve been much more aware and even more impressed with the lack of overt fanservice in Haikyuu. I’m currently rewatching the whole series (I just love it so much) and there are specific scenes of Hitoka crawling to pick something off the floor where her ass was NOT the main point of the shot. This is the 3rd time I’ve rewatched Haikyuu and I never really noticed the scene before, nor had I noticed how it totally sidestepped a moment full of fanservice potential.

    There was also the scene where the 2 female managers were changing in a locker room where one changes her shirt so nonchalantly and while her bra is showing, it is not sexy nor is it the focal point of the moment. I

    There are other feminist issues with Haikyuu (like speaking parts of female characters), but I was really pleased when I made the mental connection that fanservice is not something a viewer really has to worry about.

    • Caitlin

      On the other hand, when I watched Haikyuu, I found quite a few mildly fan servicey shots. Nothing terrible, but occasionally the camera lingering on Shimizu’sass

      • Lebdawho

        The first season was pretty bad in how they portrayed Shimizu as an object and not a person, but I don’t remember seeing those moments this last rewatch. I’ll look for them next time. I totally know I’ll be rewatching it again. lol

        • Caitlin

          I remember a few with Ryu’s sister – she was the main source in season 2 iirc