CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of a massage scene that heavily implies assault.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.