I thought I knew what I was getting into when I saw the cover art for Free!, given that it features an assortment of scantily clad young men standing very close to one another, abs on display like muffins in a bakery. I soon discovered that was only the start of the fanservice, as I found myself on a wild emotional ride that convinced me that when it comes to creating fanservice for girls, it’s not simply a matter of reversing panty flashes into brief glimpses of, well, briefs. Watching Free! with my husband, sister, and niece showed me that this show’s effort to appeal to the ladies led to an audience performance far deeper than the shallow side of the swimming pool.
Here at AniFem we talk a lot about fanservice—no surprise, given how predominant and normalized the sexualization of (mostly female) characters is in the industry. But it’s far from a cut-and-dried issue: a boobs ‘n’ butts show about adults isn’t the same as panty shots of a 13-year-old which, in turn, isn’t the same as fetishizing helplessness. And all of that can make it difficult to suss out grey zones like bawdy comedy or actual sex-positive content grounded in character agency. It’s easy to make a checklist and call it a day, and while everyone has their own line in the sand, those grey zones are worth exploring.
Another day, another display of questionable judgement from an anime or manga company’s marketing department. Today’s dubious decision comes from Funimation, which we’ve talked about before.
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.
Tamotsu is looking for a rare figurine in Akihabara when a girl holding a baseball bat falls out of the sky. She begins fighting maids and monsters, which Tamotsu assumes is street theatre until the same girl shows up in the figurine store he is in and attacks a girl he is talking to. Could it have something to do with the Akihabara urban legend of the Bugged Ones, shadow creatures that infect and take over humans? Oh yes, and there’s a prologue in which both Tamotsu and the baseball bat girl are facing down a group of women in maid outfits, who Tamotsu disarms by tearing all their clothes away. Only they’re not women, or even human! And yanking off their clothes is (probably) the only way to defeat them (I guess)! So there is no reason to feel uncomfortable watching embarrassed women try to cover themselves up after some guy heroically rips their clothes off for the good of humanity! This is a show that made me remember I had an open bottle of wine in my fridge. Silver linings.
There’s a misconception that feminists believe any and all fan service is always bad. But in this feminist’s opinion, fan service goes wrong when it interrupts the mood of the show. Take Keijo!!!!!!!!, my guilty pleasure of this anime season, in which girls don skimpy swimsuits, study “asstronomy,” and use their ample buttocks to knock each other out. I love comedies and over-the-top action, and I knew instantly that I’d find this entire premise hilarious. I love that Keijo!!!!!!!! knows itself. It knows exactly why we’re watching and doesn’t try to be anything else. Sometimes fan service, defined here as the act of giving the fans exactly what they want, hits the mark. Keijo!!!!!!!! is one of those instances, dishing out exactly what it promised. The same goes for Free!, which advertises—and delivers—on plenty of male skin. And for an example of how fan service isn’t always sexual, let’s bring up a truly wild mecha anime, GaoGaiGar, which is undeniably gratuitous with its slick giant robot battles and rewarding explosions. Fan service can be exciting, sexy, fun, or all three—when it’s implemented well. I recently enjoyed Monster Musume, the unlikely and over-the-top tale of an everyman who is compelled to care for a menagerie of mythical half-women who are all crazy for him. It was a comedy, and often a surprisingly sexy one. Yes, I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to watch a snake girl try on lingerie or meet a dominatrix spider lady, but nobody is going to go into Monster Musume without getting exactly what the show’s premise implies. Meanwhile, I was extremely put off by certain parts of God Eater. This video game series turned anime is known for its unusual, beastial enemy designs, its post-apocalyptic futurescape, and its stunning, almost painterly art. So I was extremely bothered by the anime’s constant visual focus on some female characters’ breasts. Major Amamiya is portrayed in the games and parts of the show as a competent leader and combatant, but we see more of her breasts than her face. I’m not saying that strong women can’t be sexy, but it seems as if the show is undercutting itself, leaving me pondering its jarring camera angles instead of immersing myself in its story. “Wait, didn’t you just say you liked Monster Musume, which was full of boobs?” Yes, but have we considered that there’s a time and a place for boobs, and a serious war drama isn’t it? When I use the term “fan service” in a derogatory way, it’s not because I hate fan service, far from it! It’s because I am critiquing the creator’s understanding of what type of content actual serves fans of a show. When the girls of Keijo!!!!!!!! flaunt their considerable assets, it’s totally in line with the story. But when an otherwise serious show suddenly points the camera at a female character’s panties, it’s saying several unfortunate things: The creators have no confidence in their product. It reeks of self-doubt on the storyteller’s part. “Don’t like our storyline? Let’s toss in some skin just in case.” The creators don’t know why we’re watching, and are hoping to compensate for that with unasked-for sex appeal, ultra-violence, etc. It’s tone-deaf. In the case of female skin, the creators may believe that this is the only way to make women interesting. “She’s a magic-wielding soldier from the future, but if you still think that’s boring, take a look at her boobs.” Imagine you’re watching Dragon Ball Z. Goku is launching into his Kamehameha attack and the camera goes closer, closer… until it lines right up at his crotch. To me, that would say “Fans, we realize this is a real yawn, so let’s throw in some sex appeal to spice things up.” This would be ridiculous because it would intentionally pull viewers out of the story. It would be ridiculous because Dragon Ball Z already HAS fan service—depicting the craziest attacks possible. Adding gratuitous sexuality on top of that would just take away from that. Fan service can often be the product of sloppy storytelling: give the fans what they think they want in order to compensate against larger issues. Not all fan service is bad. But the fan service that works for one show isn’t going to serve the fans of another. If I turn on Gundam, I want to see some robot explosions, complete with twisted metal carnage. And if I turn on Keijo!!!!!!!! and don’t see a “Butt Guillotine,” I’m going to be disappointed. Giving fans what they want is awesome. The problem is creators often don’t know what that is. This may seem like a surprising proposal from a Monster Musume fan, but it’s time for anime to stop relying on fan service as an all-purpose Band-Aid. It simply doesn’t work in every show. For me, the shower scenes in Izetta the Last Witch feel as out of place as if the characters in Yuri!!! On Ice punctuated their skating routines with Michael Bay style explosions. For fan service to be successful, it has to align with the audience’s expectations. What is a show advertising in its promos, its opening credits, its first episode? Did we come to the show for a space opera and get butts instead? Did we come for butts and get a straight-laced period drama? Part of the reason AniFem exists is because there’s very little you can do to verify the absence of fan service other than watch the show, so some of the reviews here attempt to remedy that by warning fans in advance. That shouldn’t have to be the case! Certain art styles and storytelling cues should be enough to let us know who a show is for, and who is going to be completely put off by surprise fanservice. Of course, this means admitting that not every anime show has something for everyone—and being OK with that. I’d rather see shows go all out to please their intended audiences than dilute themselves …
(I need to work on catchier titles.) Many of you are here because of an interview I had with Cecilia D’Anastasio, published on Kotaku earlier this week. Cecilia did an amazing job. I had expected a gentle, softball interview from a fellow feminist anime writer, really more of a cosy chat… but – while being perfectly lovely throughout – she showed up with challenging questions ready to push me from vague diplomacy into proper answers, and it was hard. That she’s ended up with an interview that so many commenters have told me satisfied doubts they went in with is a testament to Cecilia’s skill. There are a few points I think have been misconstrued by readers which I would like to clarify and a couple of points I’d like to expand on though.
Characterization, sexuality, and objectification are extremely dense subjects and the source of a great deal of debate in modern media. This is especially true in regards to female characters designed and directed to appeal to the heterosexual male audience. There is a lot to unpack in these discussions, including whether a character is being sexualized or owning their sexuality and if these subjects fall under artistic licence or if they should be open to criticism. Rather than tackle the immense subject of characterization as a whole, my objective is to focus on one aspect of the portrayal of female characters in isolation: how camera and context can be used to sexualize or objectify a character in just about every conceivable situation. This is commonly referred to, but is just a smaller portion, of Laura Mulvey’s concept of male gaze. To tease out the sometimes minute differences that can result in either a neutral or sexualized portrayal, I’ll be comparing series with similar character designs and themes and their use of perspective and context to portray their female characters.