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
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:
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!
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:
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!