Let me take a moment to describe a scene for you. A lone warrior, stands against a great evil. Steely eyes meet and lock gazes. Jaws clench, tense fingers coil around hungry blades, eager to speak the tongue of battle. The warrior knows that her power depends on the strength of her armor. Reaching within, she ignites the spark of near-madness that propels her to fight, raises her blade with a cry, and charges towards her foe. Her sneakers ring against the stony ground, each defiant step a launching pad that brings her closer towards her end goal, her end foe. Energy surges through her, activating the very fibers within her clothes. Ebony and scarlet threads fall apart, reweave, strengthen, rejuvenate, empower. The symbol of her power, the Senketsu, reveals itself as a barely-there crop top and miniskirt, sparking with life as she engages her white-clad adversary.
Yeah. That’s Kill la Kill.
Anime has become more and more widespread with the advent of the Internet, especially in the West. At this point, anime is less of a niche and more of a cultural phenomenon, but with that popularity comes an equal amount of infamy. Large-eyes schoolgirls and screaming protagonists are far from the only public face of anime: the specter of hentai and ecchi continuously haunt those who would claim to be otaku. Being a female character in an anime almost seems synonymous to being an exhibitionist, with the amount of fanservice-y anime in the mainstream gaze. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to a lot of people, that’s all that Japanese entertainment tries to market. The body, in all of its glory, seems to be regulated to nothing more than a beautiful tool. Or is it?
If ever there was a more anime quote…
It’s really easy to pick on Japan and anime for being “perverted” and thinking only about sex, but that viewpoint assumes several things:
- Japan has little to no social norms when it comes to sexuality.
- The West has a better cultural outlook on sexuality.
- Media that comes from other countries should be “Westernized” before coming here.
Let’s take a look at this first one, shall we? Does Japan have little to no social norms when it comes to sexuality?
When judging the deliciousness of a cookie, do you look at its outside appearance alone? I’d hope not, because the best part of a cookie is that first bite, the one that exposes the soul of the baker. The amount of butter, the consistency of the mixing, the extra bits like chocolate chips; all of these elements work together to create the final product. In the same way, a culture can’t be judged by outside features alone, but what elements went into the culture to shape it. In the case of Japan, a large cultural influence has been the Shinto religion.
Shinto is as integral and deeply ingrained into the social fabric of Japan as Buddhism, and each have a large focus on life and nature. Birth and death, the life cycle, and the elements leading to both are celebrated, and sexuality isn’t seen as sacrilegious or taboo. Couple that with social norms like onsen (public hot baths), and it’s easy to see why Japanese culture sees nudity among people of all ages as normal. While public displays of sexuality are frowned upon (Japan is very conservative when it comes to outward appearances), within their respective spheres of influence, the exploration of sexuality is seen as normal. Sex isn’t something to be ashamed of, but embraced as part of being human. This openness has led to the proliferation of sexually-charged media, but it does not mean that the entirety of the culture is single-mindedly focused on sex.
The “fanservice” of Black Rock Shooter conveys the openness of emotion of the title character.
In contrast, the West has had trouble defining what sexuality even is, much less the role it should take in society. From a Victorian-inspired “it’s taboo!” mindset to the “anything goes” viewpoint heralded by the 1960s, we here in the West don’t seem to have a defined set of cultural values when it comes to sexuality in our media. On one hand, we push for more progressive values for the minorities, while we judge other nations according to our older standards. The stigma against sex in media has become nearly non-existent, but among the normal, everyday people there is still a hint of the taboo. Conflicting ideas and messages make it hard to discern what to truly believe, and a lot of people find it easy to simply take a hybrid of both old and new values and judge everything situationally by the standards they deem appropriate. Thus, anime carries a weight forged out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture it comes out of. The perceived sins of the few taint the many, and the stigma against anime enthusiasts exists until today.
So where does this leave us, the casual consumers of anime? Should we wholeheartedly accept fanservice as a part of the culture it comes from, or should we demand that anime change to suit our standards?
Sinon is a strong, confident character whose clothes support her role and her identity in the MMO Gun Gale Online.
On one hand, you can’t fault a piece of media for being a product of its time or culture. Artists are shaped by their experiences, and thus their art is a colored by their environment. Sexuality expressed in anime is only to be expected, just as sexuality explored in our own media. It’s all part of the human experience, and it shouldn’t be ignored or treated as inherently dirty. Stories and storycrafters should feel free to journey through different facets of humanity through the experiences that they craft, for it is through story that we can learn about ourselves while observing another.
Therein lies the rub: where fanservice often serves to exploit for the purpose of humor, it can also serve to express ideas or attitudes about the characters it uses. The use of fanservice in Kill la Kill served not only to convey the character’s emotions and ideas, but also to critique the over-use of fanservice in many modern anime with its over-the-top flair and insane costumes for characters of both genders. At the same time, the majority of fanservice is used for just that purpose: to service the fans. Close-ups of sensitive areas for no reason than to titillate don’t serve any justifiable purpose, and it’s that type of fanservice that should be spoken out against, but properly. Not with rage or disbelief, but from concern for a form of media we enjoy very much. I don’t believe that fanservice will ever fully go away: we are all still humans after all, but I do believe that it has a place, and that we can come to understand its place better as we learn to embrace anime and media from all cultures.