Introduction: Fan Service or Art?
Is it fan service? Is it art? Or is there really a difference?
A couple years ago, I read a blogger’s review of Miru Tights. The review elegantly spoke of the beauty of the characters and their tights. The site has vanished even from the Internet Archive. That’s sad, not only because I can’t attribute the original post. It’s sad because I really enjoyed reading that blogger’s material!
At first glance, I almost scoffed at the idea of an anime series about attractive women in tights. How interesting could that possibly be? What would the plot arcs be like? Would it adequately differentiate between goals/wants and drives/needs?
Then I reconsidered. I’d just written a post about how Endorsi from Tower of God had used her crossed legs to advance her agenda with the men around her. Basically, she used her attractiveness as a weapon. Endorsi had wore tights. At least, that’s the way it looked. No way am I going to ask her. But her clothing was part of her arsenal.
Was I right to scoff at an anime that celebrated tights? Is was “just” an entire series about fan service, wasn’t it?
Or was it?
I had to wonder. Have I been thinking about fan service all wrong?
Disclaimer about Fan Service
The very idea of fan service is divisive, so let me be clear about my definition right up front. I’m focusing on the sexual types of fan service. Fan service can be non sexual, but I’m not talking about that here.
Specifically, I’m talking about fan service that:
- Celebrates sexiness
- Does not condone harm
- Does not encourage or endorse nonconsensual acts
Think in terms of Miia, Rachnera Arachnera, or most of the other monster girls from Monster Musume. Or think of Musubi or Matsu from Sekirei. That’s the kind of fan service I’m talking about here.
One More Disclaimer: Slightly NSFW Content Ahead
I’m not showing any hentai or anything like that. Spoiler alert: I’m convinced that anime depictions of nudity should be treated the same way we treat nudity in classical art. Namely, with appreciation. So, I think it should be viewed and interpreted in the same way.
Which is to say, I’m about to show anime nudity.
Yeah, I gave away the ending! But I wanted to let you know where I was heading to give you a chance to walk away if you don’t like that kind of thing. I recognize that you might not think or feel the same way that I do. Please feel free to stop reading and come back tomorrow for a new and exciting post about a non-fan service topic.
Seriously, I don’t want you to feel in the least bit uncomfortable!
Fan Service or Art? Ancient Western Marble Statue Edition
Let’s start by thinking about the history of art in Western culture. That’s the culture I’m most familiar with. I’m going to show you a marble statue and a shot from an anime, because I’m a visual kind of guy and pictures help me clarify my thoughts.
By the way, did you know there was a Wiki dedicated to anime bath scenes? Me, neither! Talk about handy! I was faced with the possibility of combing through endless anime looking for just the right shots. If I had time, that’d be one thing. But I don’t.
Anyway, consider these two works of art:
On the left, Aphrodite of Knidos, sculpted circa the fourth century BCE. On the right, Lala of To Love-Ru, painted circa 2015 CE.
Here we have two representations of the female form. Praxiteles of Athens sculpted the first example, Aphrodite of Knidos, in Parian marble. Animators from Xebec painted the second example, Lala, using classical hand-drawn animation techniques.
It’s tempting to point and say something like, “Ha ha, anime tiddies,” isn’t it? But as I consider both images, I’m struck by how similar they are, in terms of how well they capture the artistic concept of feminine beauty.
What’s the difference between these two depictions of feminine beauty? Stop giggling! I’m serious! Is there any qualitative difference between the two? I’m beginning to suspect there is not. Maybe it’s not obvious yet. So, let’s look at another example.
Fan Service or Art? Less Ancient Western Marble Statue Edition
The first example we looked at used a classical statue from ancient Greece. That’s just the ancient Greeks, you might argue. For all we know, they might have been a sketchy lot. How about more modern, more enlightened artists? They were more circumspect, weren’t they? Let’s see!
On the left, Modesty, created around 1752 CE. On the right, Centorea Shianus, painted around 2015 CE.
Here we have two more representations of the female form. The first, created by Antonio Corradini, shows amazing sculpting skills. Seriously, how did he get stone to look like that? The way he material follows her stomach, breasts, and even her nose is just amazing. In fact, I have to remind myself it’s not fabric. It’s rock!
The second example, created by animators from Lerche, has more similarities than it might first appear. The way the shadows and towel follow Centorea’s body is very realistic. Frankly, I prefer how alive Centorea’s expression looks. I mean, she have an actual expression with emotion. There’s drama and story in Centorea’s expression. The statue is just staring off into the distance. Kinda boring, if you ask me.
What’s the difference between these two shots? Is it the artist’s intent? I’m not sure that’s a reasonable measure of a work of art, because we can never know the heart and mind of an artist. Do we really think Antonio Corradini had zero sexy thoughts as he carved?
Okay, is the difference in how the work is perceived? I’m not sure I can take seriously the idea that folks can look at Modesty and not notice that it must be cold in the studio where the model posed. Or that Centorea is someplace warm and comfortable. I look at both and my perception is roughly identical in terms of what both works bring to mind.
Is the difference between art and anime fan service simply the artist’s attention to detail? I’ll grant that Modesty’s level of detail is astounding. Let’s take a look at an example.
Fan Service or Art? Early 1800s Western Edition
If we get too much more modern, we risk clouding the issue with commercialism and what not. So, let’s have one more old-ish example:
On the left, a close-up of Girl Bathing, circa 1835 CE. On the right, a closeup of Lala of To Love-Ru, painted circa 2015 CE.
Richard James Wyatt created the sculpture on the left. It is an amazing rendition of fabric around a woman’s hips and along one thigh. The ability to depict realistic-looking clothing in stone amazes me. Those are some serious skills! The artist obviously had an eye for not only how clothing flows, but the body the clothing flowed against.
Animators from Xebec created the shot on the right. It’s a shot taken from the OP for To Love-Ru. Take a look at a closeup of Lala’s thigh-high stockings. Look at how the elastic constricts her skin. Look at how the lines of the stocking conform to her thighs. This artist also had an eye for detail. In fact, you can’t tell me that artist spent less time studying thighs than Richard James Watt. The level of accuracy is just too high!
So, it looks like attention to detail isn’t a differentiator.
So Is It Fan Service or Art?
There are tons of definitions of fan service. Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any to use as a yardstick. In part, it says fan service is “material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series that is intentionally added to please the audience.”
How many artists, whether they be visual artists or writers, add material to intentionally displease their audiences? There are some, certainly, like the Dada movement that still weirds me out. But by and large, I think it’s pretty clera that artists want to please their audiences. So how is the definition of fan service any different from just writing or creating visual art?
I’ve talked about how “good” fan service respects a character’s agency. I’ve used Miia as a positive example, because she often used her sexuality, according to her own agency, to try to build a relationship with Darling-kun. But I could just change the sentence to read, “Good fiction respects a character’s agency.”
Honestly, I see no difference between the two statements.
Is Fan Service Even a Useful Term?
The point I’m making is this: I think the term fan service is just not useful. For example, in Mieruko-Chan Episode 4, a ghost intruded on Miko while she was bathing. Was showing her naked body fan service, or did it serve the narrative?
I’d make the case that it showed vulnerability and fear in a visceral way. A way that moved the narrative forward.
This scene of Miko in the tub drove home her vulnerability and fear in a way that lounge pants and a sweatshirt just would not have portrayed.
What about low camera angles in Mieruko-chan? Did a shot of Hana’s short skirt move the narrative forward? Maybe, maybe not. We got a lot of shots of Hana’s skirt. In some cases, I could make the case it was relevant to the narrative. In other cases, maybe not. But I liked Hana’s skirt.
I also liked the animation for the shrine attendants. Pretty sure the shrine attendants weren’t fan service.
I think a better way to approach the discussion is to talk about whether a given moment in a show, whether or not it involves the naked bodies of Lala, Centorea, or Matsu, and ask ourselves, “What did this moment do for the plot? Or for a given scene?”
Nudity is beside the point. The point is how something fits with the story.
Giving the viewer or reader something with the intent to please them? That’s called building an audience.
It’s All Art
It’s all art. I tried to be a little humorous in how I presented my examples, but the beauty we see in Lala and Centorea is no less than the beauty we see in Aphrodite or Michelangelo’s David. All of these are examples of artists portraying human beauty in a way that they hope will please or excite their audiences.
So in my mind, an anime tiddie is equivalent to Chekhov’s gun or any other plot device. Maybe a show uses nudity to just titillate, which is as valid an emotion as fear or hope or anger. Maybe the instance of nudity shows something important about a character. Or maybe in that case we could call them Chekhov’s tiddies! Though I can’t really see that catching on…
What do you think? Am I close? Would you take a different approach? Please feel free to let me know in the comments!
13 thoughts on “Fan Service or Art?”
I think it’s fair to say it’s all art so long as remember that not all art is good. I specifically think of the Greenback Jane arc in Black Lagoon that has more panty shots than the rest of the series combined. It’s as though they are telling us, “Don’t take this seriously.”
I can see where you’re coming from.
I tend to want to evaluate story element by how they contribute to the overall story. I think I’m comfortable with that, but I have to remember: What works or doesn’t work for me won’t always match what other think, and that’s not only okay, it’s healthy!
I think there’s a lot to learn if we keep the discussion at that level. We can share insights about whether the impact of panties on that arc in Black Lagoon if we start from the idea that we both have insights that are at least potentially valid. I know I almost always gain a lot to think about in those discussions.
But if I go into a conversation morally condemning you for even watching that arc, well, that kind of kills the collaborative mood, doesn’t it? 🙂
Yeah, I agree. For me, it’s a cartoon, for Pete’s sake. I don’t care about seeing panties; I see them during every trip to Target. But to see them for no reason is bad storytelling.
This is such an interesting discussion and you raised some great points about anime (and fanservice, more specifically) being an art form. There seems to be a general stigma around anime – and anything animated, really – that it’s not “real” art. There’s also a weird modern stigma around nudity, so fanservice unfortunately falls into this stigmatized overlap.
I think it also extends to digital art, as I recently had to call out someone when they said “there just aren’t any master artists anymore” – implying that impressive artists only existed in history, and somewhere along the way humanity just forgot how to make good art. It’s bullshit, quite frankly, and it stems from the concept of historical value.
We perceive things from the past as being inherently more valuable than things in the present, simply because they’re now an ‘artefact’ – and the creator is dead, so there won’t be any more works by them. They’re rare, and therefore more impressive, but that doesn’t mean they’re *better* than anything that exists now, and it certainly doesn’t mean that modern art forms require any less artistic ability or technical skill. I think it’s also to do with scarcity, or lack thereof.
There’s so much free art available for consumption that art itself has become devalued in general society. People no longer feel the need to pay for art, and therefore their respect and internal sense of value is lowered. It also means artists feel the need to rush out more frequent work in order to meet demand, and therefore may not have the time to create something with quite so much attention to detail. I’m not saying this means art is no longer as good – just that it’s hard to create a masterpiece when your deadline is too soon, and you’re not getting paid enough.
What I’m trying to say is: I like this post. I like that you’re comparing what is typically seen as “not real art” to what is typically seen as “real art”. In my opinion, anything that requires creativity and technical skill counts – and I’d like to see the people who think oil painting is the only acceptable form of art try their hand at animation, and then tell me whether or not it’s “real art”. (Also I 100% agree that nudity has far more creative use than simply trying to turn on the audience – although that in and of itself isn’t a reason to dismiss it, either. Everything has its purpose, including erotica, which also requires skill and creativity to do well). – Sorry for the long comment! Your post inspired me and it turns out I have more feelings about this than I realised!
Good point about the stigma. I’ve seen it, too, and I don’t understand it. Though it does remind me that many critics considered Shakespeare to be a hack. So, there’s historical precedent!
I hadn’t considered my discussion in the context of historical value. That’s also a good point!
Masterpieces are hard to create if circumstance is too harsh. Sometimes, though, there needs to be pressure to create a masterpiece. I think that the anime industry could be considered “too harsh” right now, despite producing some amazing work. I guess I’m just saying I don’t know the perfect balance, and I don’t know how to affect it, either.
“In my opinion, anything that requires creativity and technical skill counts ”
That’s an idea I can get behind 100%!
“Everything has its purpose, including erotica, which also requires skill and creativity to do well”
Also an excellent point!
Thanks for leaving such a long comment. You gave me a lot to think about!
Wow! A post about nudity. Right up my alley!
I don’t believe that fan service is a useful term any more. It probably once was. But you get completely different meanings depending on who you talk to. It is not about the literal definition. it is about the emotional baggage people bring. Seriously, by Wikipedia’s definition, ALL of entertainment is fan service. Everything is there to please the viewer.
It might be more useful to critique a scene as being useful to advance the plot or broaden the character or generate laughs or titillate the viewer, or provide comic relief or whatever else the writer/director had in mind. Whether it disrupts the flow or fails to advance the plot may be my definition of fan service but might not be yours.
Kind of like my hiking blog posts where I include a naked selfie on a rock somewhere. It is gratuitous fan service or or is it important editorial content? Or is it just comic relief? Opinions will differ.
The naked selfie seems like the perfect example. It you were to post one, it would be an honest expression of self. If someone were to judge it otherwise, from the perspective of your intent, they would be wrong.
Maybe that’s what bugs me about folks who are such vocal opponents of nudity. If someone isn’t comfortable with it and expresses that discomfort, I can respect that. I’ll even try to accommodate it. In fact, that’s why I mostly choose screen caps that feature characters with their clothes on.
But what frustrates me are people who try to tell me that what I enjoy is sinful, or demeaning, or whatever other negative connotation they can throw at it. It’s just not helpful, and it’s divisive.
It’s also incorrect, at least from the perspectives I have available to me. One of those is training in Moral Systematic Theology. From a classical theological perspective, I can state confidently that the presentation of nudity is not in itself a problem.
But now I’m off track. I think it comes down to your last statement: “Opinions will differ.” And that’s a healthy thing!
“Moral Systematic Theology”
Wow. I’m just a tyro when it comes to philosophy. I read a few books here and there and pretend I’m an expert. You’re probably the real expert.
Are you a cleric of some sort? I guess that would mean you can’t use edged weapons.
Most people don’t attempt to identify the author’s intent. They go right to, “If I did this what would MY intent be?” And that is where they stop.
I considered being a priest, but, well, I decided against it. Still have a degree in theology, though. Had some amazing teachers that helped me honestly thing through a lot of observations I’d made.
Though, in D&D, I did make a Lawful Good Hobbit thief. Can’t say the DMs were very happy with me…
I’d go so far as to argue that it doesn’t matter if it’s necessary to the story or not. I’m reminded of Stephen Fry’s response to swearing and just like a cushion on a couch, it might not be necessary but it adds something. You might not like it, but some one will.
Here’s the full clip – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=s_osQvkeNRM
Also, I approve of the comparisons between classic works of art and old marble statues…
That’s a good point. “Adding something” is more than enough reason to include any given element. It also frames the question in a useful way.