Fanservice done right

Now here’s a subject that I really care about. Probably way too much. I’ve featured a few pieces from other writers around the communities here on WordPress on just this issue in my end-of-month posts, but I sometimes disagree with their opinions even when I feel they make some good points or interesting arguments.

So it’s time for me to put out my own dumb take on fanservice and on the broader subject of sexual content in games and anime and related works. It’s one that I’m sure won’t surprise anyone at all, since I’ve already written about it in the context of law and popular culture a few times, and also considering a few of the works I’ve reviewed in glowing terms here. Even so, I think this is a matter worth bringing up and looking into more closely, since it’s such a constantly controversial one on social media in anime and game circles. As usual, if others won’t shut up about it, then neither will I (though I hope I can at least make real arguments to support my views, unlike some of the kneejerk reaction types we see.)

Also, the usual disclaimer: this post deals in part with sexual content, don’t read if you’re not into that, etc. You know the deal.

If you’re thinking “oh, another excuse for AK to post a bunch of half-dressed catgirls again” well, maybe it’s partly that, but that’s not the main point here.

First: what is the controversy here that people are talking about? Fanservice has been present in anime, comics, games, and related media both western and eastern for decades. Defining it is a bit difficult, though, because people disagree on the boundaries of fanservice, drawing their own borders according to their own reasoning. According to the top-rated definition on the esteemed reference Urban Dictionary, “fan service refers to scenes designed to excite or titillate the viewer. This can include scantily-clad outfits, cleavage shots, panty shots, nude scenes… if it has little plot-redeeming value, but makes the viewer sit up and take notice, it’s probably fan service in one form or another.”

The author of that definition also notes that a broader definition might include gratuitous action, explosions, and other types of non-sexual fan-pleasing scenes, but I’m only concerned with the narrower definition here, since that’s what most people seem to refer to (and complain about) when they use the term.

I won’t deny that there’s a whole hell of a lot of sexual content out there. It’s an old maxim that sex sells — that’s been true for thousands of years, probably ever since someone in Uruk decided to start a peepshow for guys drunk on that ancient beer with the grain floating in it.1

There was fanservice even back in Babylonian times.

But there’s an important distinction to be made here. I believe a necessary part of this concept of fanservice is that it’s gratuitous, that it’s added into an existing work that would have been complete and whole without it. Above I’ve posted a screenshot from the first episode of last year’s Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia, an anime series that undoubtedly contains a whole lot of fanservicey shots of certain popular characters like Mash Kyrielight (above) and Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and fertility who looks exactly like Rin Tohsaka for some reason. I think these kinds of shots can be safely put into the fanservice category because they’re pretty damn blatant and clearly gratuitous. When the Servant Mash is protecting her Master by using her Noble Phantasm while they’re falling out of the sky, do we need the above kind of shot specifically to get what’s going on? Not really.

Of course, games also contain plenty of fanservice. A few days ago I saw a review of Atelier Ryza 2, the newest entry in Gust’s long-running Atelier series. This review mostly praised the game but did complain about all the “fanservice”, by which it meant shots of characters in conversation with low camera angles. Presumably these angles focus a whole lot on the protagonist Ryza, since her thighs have become famous (and I still wonder whether she was designed at least in part to appeal to the American market, because if she was, the plan seems to have worked.) I haven’t played Ryza or its sequel, so I can’t say whether that reviewer was making too much of it, but I have seen a few of those conversation scenes in bits of playthroughs and yeah, those shots certainly do exist in the games, though I can’t say how frequently they come up.

However, there are other works in which I’d argue that the “titillating” material is not gratuitous. I’ve written a bit about the Monogatari anime adaptation here, which I mean to pick up again this year because of how much I liked its first few series. Though it had been on my to-watch list for a long time, I have to admit that part of what got me interested in it was the griping I saw about it from some Twitter users for being “horny” in their words. And then I resolved to finally start watching it to see if there was anything to those complaints.

What I found was a series that did contain some material people would call fanservice but that worked in the context of the series, that suited the tone of the story and didn’t involve any out-of-character nonsense. Moreover, this material was largely woven into the story, since confusion between romantic love and mere sexual lust is a pretty prominent theme of Monogatari, at least in the first few series that I’ve watched so far. You could certainly argue that author Nisio Isin pushed the envelope with Nisemonogatari, but in general I never felt like I was being pandered to or watching something meant merely to titillate. And even Nisemonogatari didn’t feel too off to me since the series had established a kind of absurd tone by that point, mixing that in with the more serious dramatic material in a way that I thought completely worked.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (2015). Fighting hundreds of bikini ninjas at once is just a normal day in this game

And then there are games and other works so filled with sexual or borderline content that they’re defined by it, but those don’t bother me either. It’s not like I can argue otherwise after everything I’ve written on this site until now anyway. But I think the most important reason I’m not bothered by such works is that they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. When you buy a Senran Kagura or Gal*Gun or HuniePop game, you know exactly what you’re getting. The same goes for anime and manga series with strong erotic elements.

I always find sexual content-based complaints about these works strange. It would be like me reviewing an album by a noise rock group and complaining about how noisy it is. Well shit, what did I expect? I completely understand why these kinds of works put some people off, but I also don’t think complaints over fanservice apply to works that don’t make any secret of what they are. Just read the M for Mature or 18+ notice on it and move on if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Nekopara Vol. 2 (2016), just filling my self-imposed catgirl quota for this post.

I feel the same to be true of optional material in games. As much as paid DLC sometimes annoys me, I don’t have any problem with giving players the option to choose whether they want the spicier parts of a game. The Nekopara series of visual novels provides a nice example: the all-ages versions are cute romance/slice-of-life stories with some light ero sort of stuff thrown in, while the 18+ versions go hardcore by adding the sex scenes. (The full 18+ version of Nekopara Vol. 4, which I’ve recently started reading, is even considerate enough to ask if you’re playing the game while other people are present, and you’d better take it seriously when it asks.) I’d put skimpy DLC costumes in games in the same category — they’re there if you want them, but if you don’t they’re easily ignored.

But then what does that leave? There’s a narrow slice of artistic content that I’d call fanservice that actually annoys me. That’s the type that’s clearly present only to pander to what the creators think I want to see and that either distracts from the story, breaks the tone, or causes characters to act in bizarre or stupid ways or against their established personalities, assuming the characters in the work have personalities worth caring about in the first place. I wouldn’t even include shots like those brought up in F/GO Babylonia or Atelier Ryza 2; my only complaint is with those works that allow the fanservice to seep into the substance, the story and characters, in ways that warp them and screw them up.

I can’t think of any specific examples to illustrate this point, but I know they’re out there. Take your average harem comedy for a general example, the kind that has a dumbass protagonist bumble around and waver between a bunch of girls who inexplicably all like him. I can’t stand this sort of work. It’s not so much the fact that there are usually erotic elements to it, but rather that they’re put there in service of a bunch of boring characters getting into predictable situations.

Obvious fanservice here in Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!, but this didn’t bother me too much.

This is part of why I usually dislike romantic comedies unless there’s something really special about them. The Uzaki-chan anime didn’t deserve all the silly controversy it got itself into last year, but it did come close at times to falling into that boring overused trope category for me — that was the only real complaint I had about it. Even stuff like the standard beach episode seen above didn’t bother me, since it’s not unusual for people to go to the beach on vacation, and nobody was acting out of character in this part. It’s only when the characters repeated the same old gags, going through that tired cycle of “are we just friends or more than that” bits that I got irritated. I know that’s the whole point of the series, but there are more interesting ways to do it (see again Nagatoro, but maybe I should reserve my judgment to compare its own anime adaptation to that of Uzaki, especially since I haven’t read the Uzaki manga.)

So really, I guess my only complaint about fanservice is when I feel I’m being very obviously pandered to in a cheap way, or when I’m being bored by something overly predictable. It’s not enough to just have some cleavage or thighs on screen every so often; you need to provide an interesting story or compelling characters or fun gameplay, and then you can throw in all the titillation you like as far as I’m concerned as long as it fits into the work naturally and isn’t just a dumb distraction. The real sin in my mind is creating something that’s dull — as long as the game or series in question is entertaining, I’m fine with these sexual elements, and used in the right way and context I think they can even add to the appeal of a work.

Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica (2007). This JRPG contains some suggestive conversations and some eye-catching costumes, but I’d say these are examples of fanservice done right, presented in an interesting and clever way.

Finally, I want to address an argument I’ve seen brought up that I find interesting: that anime and related games and other media should be cleaned up somewhat to get rid of the stigma some people attach to them. This very argument was raised by an article I featured on the site back in October, which dealt specifically with fanservice in anime. I agree that this stigma is a real thing; certainly some people think poorly of anime in general at least partly because of its sexual content. However, I don’t agree that the stigma is a problem. Those who dislike anime are free to find other media to enjoy, and that’s provided they never discover that there’s plenty of anime out there they probably would like. Creators shouldn’t feel compelled to water down their work in the hopes that they’ll reach a wider audience, especially since a lot of established fans would likely be upset by it. If they want to take that risk, that’s their choice, but I believe in most cases that it would be the wrong one.

Of course, I get that a lot of people would disagree with me on these points. I obviously don’t have the same moral objection to h-games or similar 18+ material that some do, and my tolerance for sexual content in games, anime, manga, and VNs and in art in general is pretty high.2 These are just my opinions, and as usual, I’m always happy to read differing ones as long as we all keep things civil. But we always do here anyway, don’t we? We can keep all the stupid fighting for social media. I think I’ve gotten used to Twitter’s bullshit by now, at least enough to not be driven crazy by it. 𒀭

* * *

1 On this subject, it’s not really my concern anymore, but I think it’s pretty weird that all these modern breweries try to replicate these very old drink recipes like Dogfish Head’s ancient Egyptian-style beer, which from what I remember tastes like liquid ass. Probably for a reason: people back then were making alcohol from whatever they had around, and when you’re a commoner tasked with building King Menkaure’s pyramid, life probably sucked enough that you were fine as long as you could get hammered every day. This has nothing to do with fanservice; it’s just something else I wanted to complain about.

2 This is also not strictly related to what I’m writing about here, but I do believe drawn and animated 18+ material can be a moral substitute for people who have objections to similar live-action videos — especially relevant now considering certain large websites that have collapsed in on themselves thanks to apparently practicing little or no oversight over their content. But then many people who object to live-action videos also seem to object to the 2D adult material, sometimes in even far stronger terms, so maybe their problem is with the subject matter and not the people involved in depicting it.

In any case, it’s important for the purpose of regulation to make a distinction between suggestive and downright pornographic material, both in live action and in drawing and animation. Conflating the two leads to serious problems (and unfortunately that’s something legislators seem all too willing to do, especially if they see votes in making a moral issue out of art. But I’ll save the political/legal soapbox stuff for a later post.)

On reviews, scores, and objectivity vs. subjectivity

I’m in despair again.  This time about review scores.

It’s never not a good time to use screenshots from SZS

Let me back up about a decade and a half (I promise there’s a point to this trip through time, so don’t worry.)  Back in my school days, I used to follow two music reviewers: George Starostin and Mark Prindle.  These guys maintained websites dedicated to writing album reviews well before the modern age of easy blogging — before technologically untalented people like me could start free WordPress and Blogger accounts and dump words onto the internet without knowing anything beyond the most basic HTML tags.  Messrs. Starostin and Prindle were both excellent writers, very knowledgeable about music, and incredibly prolific (in fact, Starostin is still writing at a different address, though he seems to be on hiatus right now.)  Most importantly to me, they were independent voices that I felt I could trust far more than the hacks at Rolling Stone, Spin, and the other big music magazines.

However, Starostin and Prindle’s review styles were very different.  Starostin seemed to try to take a more objective approach to his music reviews.  While admitting that he couldn’t be totally objective, being a human with his own likes and dislikes when it came to music, he still tried giving a fair chance to artists whose styles he wasn’t naturally fond of (though he could and would tear an album up in a very entertaining way if he thought it was lousy.)  Prindle, by contrast, seemed not to give a damn about even trying to be objective.  He could and often did also write deep and interesting analyses of albums, but they also felt more personal in the sense that you were getting his opinions based purely on what he liked and disliked.  Prindle’s more personal style also came out in the various rants, anecdotes, and obscene jokes he’d drop into his reviews, usually without any warning to the reader.  Even though their styles were so different, I liked them pretty much equally, and I’m sure both of them have had a serious influence on my own reviewing style.

Source.  Though how “Movie X no longer has a 100% RT score” could be considered a story worth writing about, I have no fucking clue.

Now back to the present day, where people on Twitter and other platforms are tearing their hair out over the Rotten Tomatoes scores movies get.  Red Metal at Extra Life covered this already in a recent post about the reaction to the film Lady Bird getting one bad review from a critic, knocking its score down from 100% to 99%.  Some people were apparently losing their shit over this development.  If it can even be called a “development”, really.  No doubt they’d also be piling onto Red Metal if his own mixed review of Lady Bird had been factored into that score.  I haven’t seen the film, but I can say at the very least it’s impressive that a movie managed to get such dedicated fans that they’d scream bloody murder over a single poor review.

Or is that really what’s going on?  It looks to me like many people have expectations that certain artworks should be insulated from negative criticism, as though they have a God-given right to a perfect score on RT and maybe also on every other review score aggregator.  I have no idea where these expectations come from.  Even among my favorite games and albums, I can’t think of a single one that I’d yell at a reviewer for over a poor review.  I’d certainly disagree with said review, but as long as it was reasoned out well enough, I’d just think “Fine, that person has a different opinion than I do.”  Because we all have different tastes, different perspectives, different life experiences.  Not everyone has to like what I like, and I don’t have to like something even if almost everyone else likes it.

I like drinking beer, chewing on dried squid, and playing visual novels, but a lot of people don’t, and that’s okay.

So how should I approach my own reviews?  I’ve been writing reviews of games and other media for six years now (not on a very regular basis, as you can tell from looking at my index of reviews and dividing their number into six, but still, six years is a long time.)  I always try to write my reviews in such a way that they’re useful to every reader who follows this site or comes across it through a Google search.  But when it comes to the score I assign a work, I sometimes find myself facing this conundrum: if I score the work based too much upon my own subjective tastes, the score won’t be meaningful to a reader with different tastes from my own, and if I score it based too much upon some kind of as-objective-as-possible balance of factors, I’m removing my own views from the process so completely that I may as well not review the work at all.

I usually try to strike a balance between these two extremes, but sometimes that’s difficult, especially when the work I’m analyzing is directed at a niche audience.  I’m facing just this issue with the game review I’m currently writing.  Maybe I should just not worry about the problem at all and write whatever I want like Prindle, or maybe I should still try to take a more objective view of things like Starostin.  Maybe I’m overthinking this like I overthink every single other aspect of my fucking life.

Maybe don’t worry about cutting the cake precisely Chiri, maybe just cut it and eat some god damn cake

I have another question for you, the reader: if you write reviews, do you run into this problem?  How do you resolve it?  Or is it even really a problem and am I just overthinking things? If you don’t write reviews but only read them, do you really care about how objective or subjective the reviewer is trying to be?  And should anyone even care about Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic scores aside from the film and game studios and distributors?

Sorry, that was more than one question.  You don’t have to answer all of them if you don’t feel like it.  Or any of them.  In the meantime, I’ll go back to finishing my next review.  Maybe one day, I’ll write a review that will get me a headline on Indiewire about how I’m an asshole who made people on Twitter cry.  I can only hope.