Fanservice. It’s a word that divides the otaku massive, and brings the worst out of people on both sides of the spat. It seems like how you feel on the matter can often stem from where you first saw it and how you interpreted it; at least, that was the case for me. The Sailor Moon transformation scene, for instance, is mild, sparkly and completely inoffensive unless you’re of a super-sensitive disposition. But if you were introduced to ecchi or hentai through a message board or image search, your opinion might be different. Rule 34 is strong here. There is so much fan-made porn of characters that it may have marred your image of them, or disturbed you before you even knew what anime was.
And then there are the shows where the ecchi is irritating, distracting and distasteful – a shame in the visually dazzling Samurai Bride – or downright disgusting in a series like Aesthetica of a Rogue Hero. Aesthetica’s Akatsuki brings Miu, the daughter of the defeated Last Dark Lord, from a fantasy realm to our world as carry luggage; a hero’s reward. But ‘rogue’ is a gross understatement of his character. He feels entitled to Miu’s attention and adoration, and while she’s singled out and teased for her breast size, even by her so-called friends, her body’s exploited in every way possible for the audience’s ‘benefit’. Throw in an implausible lesbian relationship, complete with sporty-butch stereotype in Chikage Izumi – who, though a self-defined lesbian, still somehow has a thing for Akatsuki – and the series is shown up as completely disrespectful to women, and its presumed male audience.
But my first exposure to fanservice proper, as I remember, was in the robo-rom-com Chobits, and that scene in which we discover Chi, the femme persocom’s on-switch is her g-spot. Such wanton ecchi won’t push the right buttons for everyone, but I found it a charming idea in a sci-fi tale that explores those well-trodden grounds of relationships between humans, and technology that resembles humans. While Chi’s awakening by her owner Hideki means she’s exposed to the world, in all of its complications and varying shades, her life with him is one of naïve blunders, learning and love.
Fanservice has become so much a given that you rarely see a series without a beach and/or hot spring and/or bathhouse episode, with some shows opting instead for parody or a meta-awareness as in A Certain Scientific Railgun, Outbreak Company and Himouto! Umaru-chan to name but a few recent examples. (Props here go to Tsuritama for making pretty much the whole series a beach episode without feeling the fanservice compulsion.) But, despite my whining, I am pro-fanservice. Especially as it’s becoming more inclusive to people of all sexualities, male and female, and all identifications on the scale between.
Sure, Bishonen Jump Syndrome has been tempting girls to the pages of Jump since the mid-nineties. But lately it seems there’s an increased erasure of the lines between stuff for men and stuff for women. Gangsta and Food Wars! both have cool, sweet and sexy male and female characters, without having the feeling of being targeted too much one way or the other. The two provided me with my hottest-guys-of-the-season fix in Worick and Isshiki, and I related so deeply with Megumi that, in one of my most odd and complex otaku experiences, watching her grow in self-confidence was almost like having moé tingles for myself.
Gangsta mangaka Kohske in particular sparked, quite simply, an inspired action series that appeals to men and women because of her non-gender discriminative characterisation. As for her self-styled fetish for drawing ugly dudes, I beg to differ on both our behalves when it comes to Nicolas Brown. It’s true he’s far from being a bishie, but that just accentuates the different kind of swagger he has to his fellow Handyman; the kind that comes from living outside the bounds of accepted society, and making a name for himself in doing so.