At first glance, Ristorante Paradiso and After the Rain bear remarkable similarities. Both are anime adaptations of manga series written by women that center around a May-September romance. Both star a young woman and a middle-aged divorcee. Both even feature characters who work at a restaurant together! So why does Ristorante Paradiso leave me with the warm fuzzies, while After the Rain just leaves me feeling vaguely skeevy?
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.
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.
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.