Today, how you feel about panty shots can determine how you feel about anime as a whole. And it's not just panty shots. In the blockbuster anime Food Wars, women's clothes burst off their bodies when they taste an exquisite bite of steak. Skirts often don't cover the bottom halves of women's butts in Prison School. Breasts are regularly the first body part to enter a shot in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?. In the West, the practice of lacing gratuitous sexuality — and especially female sexuality — into an anime is known as "fan service". Love it or hate it, anime studios have made a conscious effort to feature "fan service" in most of this year's Western-subbed anime titles.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona
Unfortunately for some Western anime fans, panty shots and their ilk can be a major turn-off. It's distracting from the story, they say, and breaks immersion. For feminists, fan service can fall into a media trope that portrays women specifically so they will appeal to viewers attracted to women, and not as flawed, whole people. They say it's objectifying trash.
But avoiding fan service is easier said than done. The truth is that it's ubiquitous. Even smart, artful shows like Flip Flappers or Monogatari are riddled with it. Plenty of lower-brow stuff is, too. As anime becomes bloated with fan service, some fans say they have stopped watching. Panty shots are childish and distracting, they argue, even as others who like it say it's fun or part of the culture of anime. What to make of it? How should a progressive anime viewer think about fan service?
Channing Kennedy, an anime fan and director of the San Francisco Zine fest, recently shared some concerns about fan service, saying, "I hate being complicit in something that I view as a serious social problem: The reduction of women, especially young women, into objects of desire without agency." He recalled watching the first episode of Rail Wars, an anime about aspiring rail conductors at a specialised high school, when he saw "the presumed female love interest's entire vagina pressing through her underwear" when she searched a train compartment. He closed the browser tab and, he said, cursed that he couldn't even watch teens striving to be rail conductors without being slapped across the face with T&A. (A YouTube video montage of Rail Wars fan service describes it as "a reason to pick up" the show.)
It wouldn't be called "fan service" if it didn't titillate a significant chunk of viewers, including ones who identify as feminists or progressive. The bouncing anime breasts, upskirt shots, porn-y screams and ripped bodies are relaxing, sexy, fun. "I know exactly how dumb and problematic it is, but I love dumb, silly stuff and life is short," a progressive anime fan who goes by the name Fujoshi's Island on Twitter said. "I am a heterosexual male-presenting person of whom 98% of all anime is made for, and frankly, acting like I don't enjoy anime boobs helps no one." Anime producers are just giving a large audience what they want (and then selling them figurines and posters to boot), this faction says. If you don't like it, don't watch it. It's just fiction.
Anime can be a fraught hobby for plenty of fans who identify as progressive. Sometimes, sitting through an episode requires some mental gymnastics or agile skips through overly raunchy scenes. Other times, it necessitates trying to understand why producers put fan service in their anime, coming up with hard rules for a media diet or crafting convincing explanations for friends they show newer anime to. I struggle with this, too. My rules, like many's, are fluid and probably not rational. It's tough to put into words — I'll watch Bakemonogatari, even though an 11-year-old is regularly subject to harassment, but not Food Wars, which contains a distracting breast-to-food quotient.
"Fan service" doesn't mean the same thing in Japan as it does in colloquial otaku-English. Akiko Sugawa-Shimada, a professor at Yokohama National University, told me that the first reference to "fan service" in Japanese was in a 1978 article on a baseball team and its fans. The term refers to anything a creator inserts into their work to please their audience, including food, dancing or cute animals. Not necessarily sexual, fan service defines a broad umbrella of pleasurable things added to an anime to make it more fun. It could help further the plot, or it could be totally superfluous.
Also, fan service isn't just panty shots. There's fan service for straight women and kids, too.
Yuri!!! On Ice
2013's Free!!! Iwatobi Swimming Club is considered the pinnacle of female-centric fan service. In it, hard-bodied men in tight swimsuits flirt with each other and flex, a sort of grab for straight women's attentions. This season's hit Yuri!!! On Ice rides that wave, overtly displaying naked, figure-skating men longingly gazing at each other. Emotional and sensual relationships between men, so lacking in other forms of media, feature prominently in these anime. Some female fans find respite in a genre that nods to their notion of sexuality.
Yuzuru Nakagawa, an associate professor at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image said that Westerners' perspective that fan service is geared toward men is "simply misunderstanding" the concept. Fan service is broad, and exists for everyone. He says that "progressive" Westerners "just find examples from anime titles which can be read as a representation of degrading women".
So, if that's the case, why are panty shots the face of fan service over here? Sugawa-Shimada said that it's a matter of precedent and a mainstay of more adult anime aired on Japan's midnight television slots. "'Fan-sa' ["fan service"] primarily refers to sexual scenes [meant] to appeal to male audiences," she said, "because anime works targeting male audiences outnumbered the ones for female audiences during the midnight slots." Relatively new to the scene are so-called "boys' love" anime that targets straight women and is designed to titillate them.
Regarding so many of those panty shots and other scenes like them, Sugawa-Shimada said that Japanese anime fans "do not take those sexual scenes too seriously". Bouncy breasts may be comic relief to break up an overly serious narrative. Wind that sends skirts in a flurry can undermine a woman's raging diatribe against her husband. Half-dressed little boys attempting to be seductive, probably, make some people laugh. It's light-hearted, Sugawa-Shimada suggested.
Most progressive American anime fans I spoke with described fan service as gratuitous titillation, not necessarily funny, informative or pleasurable to watch. They said, generally, fan service is sexuality artificially inserted into an anime without any bearing on plot or character development. It's any moment when, for example, an upskirt-shot could be cut out and the anime would remain intact — something purely inserted to turn viewers on. A few called it "pandering". Food, self-referential jokes or dancing, to many Westerners, doesn't really qualify as fan service like it would in Japan. It's mostly about female bodies, and more recently, queer male ones. Also, unlike in Japan, fan service can be a hot issue in the West. (It was difficult to track down Japanese scholars who were anti-fan service.)
It's not necessarily productive to define fan service as "gratuitous". In Keijo!!!!!, women fight each other with their breasts and asses. The whole thing is fan service. Without it, there's no anime at all. I recently referred to Keijo!!!!! as "wretched" in a critical article, adding that "in Keijo!!!!!!!!, female erogenous zones are the subject, with a thin plot shambly plastered on top. The occasional up-skirt shot or full-body-pan is an expected, tolerable mainstay of contemporary anime. What I don't understand is why, despite cultural differences, a lot of Western anime fans see Keijo!!!!!!!! and laugh it off."
Commenters fiercely defended Keijo!!!!!'s right to exist and their right to enjoy it, uninhibited from what they considered a left-field, Western critique of Japanese media. Many thanked me for introducing them to their favourite new anime. Their detractors argued that Keijo!!!!!'s being Japanese didn't insulate it from criticism. For example: "Some stuff falls under 'live and let live.' Probably a lot of it. But there are things that are just wrong and no amount of cultural heritage can defend." Fan service in Keijo!!!!! is the whole point — so, is it even fan service any more?
Curiously, fans who identified as "progressive" say it's easier to accept Keijo!!!!!'s fan service because it's so unabashed. It's not hiding. It's the whole damn thing. But even so, is the whole damn thing just off-limits to criticism?
Izetta: The Last Witch
In less radical instances, sometimes fan service helps convey a point, but in a way that's fun and sexy. Japanese translator and anthropologist Dan Kanemitsu said, "Providing material that audiences enjoy is a given in any work, but storytellers sometimes throw in moments that add nuance and change the tempo at key moments... A character does not need to be shown enjoying a shower, but it does make the character more real." He's right — real people are sexual, and giving viewers glimpses of anime characters' private lives can help us identify with them, and help us learn how they identify with others.
In Bakemonogatari's second episode, high school girl Senjougahara repeatedly dresses and undresses in front of protagonist Araragi, flaunting her body and heaping verbal abuse onto him. It's a brilliant sequence where we learn that Senjougahara couldn't care less about what others think of her. She's confident and enjoys playing games with others' emotions while teasingly keeping them at arms' length. In just a few minutes, viewers know what she's about. It's not tangential to the plot, and even helps further it.
A lot of the time, though, fan service doesn't have a function outside of turning viewers on.
"I define fan service as any display of sexual content meant to appeal to the viewer and not necessarily add anything of substance to the show," anime fan Blakinola told me. When an anime has slapstick fan service, he's more likely to get into it. Or when it illustrates subtle sexual tension between two characters, like Shinji and Asuka from Evangelion, it's enjoyable. Another progressive anime fan named Raymond told me that he watched Monster Musume because of the fan service, but "if the show wasn't funny, I probably wouldn't have watched past the first or second episode." He added, "You can enjoy something and simultaneously understand and agree why it's a problem."
Recently, in new magical girl anime Flip Flappers, tentacles randomly burst out of a protagonist's pet robot and grab two young girls nearby. They yell "No!" as the robot claws at their skirts. To me, it was entirely out-of-sync with the tone of the show, which is about female friendship and fantastical adventures. The scene is jarring. A frequent criticism of hit anime Highschool of the Dead, about high schoolers struggling to handle the zombie apocalypse, is that its well-choreographed fights scenes are undermined by cacophonous boob-jiggling. In Scorching Ping Pong Girls, a ping pong sports anime, a 15-year-old girl's name is "Mune-Mune", which translates to "boobie-boob". The camera regularly zooms in on her chest.
An anime fan who goes by the name Vita and who likes shows with heavy fan service said that some fan service can really detract from an anime's plot or setting. When it's "harmless", like maybe a protagonist's skirt is just a smidge short, it's fine; but when it contributes to real-life stigmas that negatively impact certain demographics, fan service takes him out of the experience. He cited Occultic;Nine, which he says has a "mysterious and psychologically unsettling setting" that gets "completely tossed aside" when fan service is introduced. There's a high school girl with breasts twice the size of her torso and a gay, flamboyant restaurant attendant whom, Vita said, "seems to be used for comic relief."
"That bothers me because women and gay folks are already misinterpreted so much in the anime industry, and it just adds to the stigma that people shouldn't take them seriously," Vita explained.
Anime fan Josh, who also enjoys fan service, told me that it's pretty clear when fan service hinders more than helps an anime: "If fan service is 'content that has been added specifically to please audiences, then the kind I enjoy is where that doesn't take away from the story and doesn't diminish a character to a mere object," he told me. "I don't think nudity or sexuality are necessarily at odds with that."
Kill La Kill
But when "fan service" is included in anime without context or any bearing on plot, titillation isn't the only reason. Sometimes, fan service is meant to self-parody anime. Scenes with young boys taking baths, or wind blowing up girls' skirts, can inspire a "Ha-ha, this trope again!" feeling. In blockbuster anime Kill la Kill, the young, female protagonist is subjected to every flavour of sexual humiliation, mostly against her will. To fight, she's forced to wear armour that is basically just suspenders over her breasts and underwear (Once, when someone cosplayed her in Singapore, a bystander called the police). She's expressly uncomfortable. Her father, whom she's fighting to avenge, gave it to her. The armour — a sentient, male armour — also feeds on her blood. There's endless allegory. And it's an obvious parody of other fighting girl anime, where girls un-self-consciously kick arse in skimpy outfits.
The anime skyrocketed to the top of 2015's anime charts. It's a kind of inside joke that doubles as, well, softcore porn. Kill La Kill's fan service has been called gratuitous and polarising. But it's responding to well-established tropes in anime, which ground even its most raunchy scenes.
Where did the precedent come from? It's hard to say, but recently, anime streaming platform CrunchyRoll filed 1981's Miss Machiko, one many precedents, to its digital shelves. Miss Machiko was famous for its sexual humour. In it, an attractive, young female teacher's body is repeatedly exposed by her male students in an attempt to humiliate and embarrass her. In the first episode, a male student pokes at her breasts with a fishing rod and engineers a trip wire attached to a fan that is positioned to blow her skirt up. Even today, it's pretty shocking that an anime's entire plot revolves around a career woman's sexual humiliation.
A historical explanation isn't a moral one. Today's fan service may be parodying anime like Miss Machiko, but in practice, panty shots are still panty shots. It can serve a dual purpose, winking to anime connoisseurs and horny viewers alike. Intention aside, animators are still drawing women in anime to appeal to audiences who enjoy women being sexually humiliated. For fans who identify as "feminists", that type of content can be hard to watch, and even upsetting.
But feminist-leaning anime fans do watch it. As Raymond put it, "You can enjoy something and simultaneously understand and agree with why it's a problem... it's definitely OK to have complicated feelings and opinions about the media you enjoy, because it's not a reflection of your behaviour."
"Progressive"-identified anime fans — myself included — judge fan service on a case-by-case basis, and often, can't adhere to simple rules. The rules are broken over and over again as each new season of anime seems to include more fan service. Many fans with whom I spoke draw similar hard lines for not-OK anime — generally when an anime girl is sexually victimised to turn male viewers on, and when underaged girls are treated as sexual objects or points of attraction.
Amelia Cook, editor-in-chief of anime criticism site Anime Feminist and someone who has a degree in Japanese Studies, said that she takes a hard-line stance against fan service that relies on a lack of sexual consent — if a woman's breasts are groped for viewers' amusement, for example. It's a trope. The main character of The Seven Deadly Sins, which is licensed on Netflix, has a groping problem. In the first episode, just halfway through, he encounters a sleeping woman on a bed. He looks at her. He smells her. He grabs her breast like a rubber horn a dozen or so times, even after she's awakened, to determine if she's a woman. Ha-ha!
The Seven Deadly Sins
For several progressive fans I interviewed, sexual assault spun as fan service instantly marked an anime unwatchable. Cook added, "Normalising and making light of sexual assault has real world consequences in any country ('grab her by the pussy,' anyone?) and I believe anime is no exception to that." She doesn't advocate for censorship, just criticism. "I cringe every time I see a boob-grab shoehorned in for 'cuteness' and 'comedy'," she added.
There are commercial reasons why fan service is everywhere, including where it probably shouldn't be. It pushes product. Unreasonably large, bouncy breasts make for great figurines and strong, swimsuitted anime boys make excellent bedroom posters. Every time an anime character is objectified, they are commodified. There's a market for these products, so they're there, and they sell big time.
"Progressive" anime fans can understand where fan service comes from, why it's popular and what their personal lines are, but understanding is not a structural solution to finding more anime without fan service. Few people I interviewed, myself included, want fan service to be censored. But considering that the best-rated anime in the West, including Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, Attack on Titan and Studio Ghibli titles barely trade in panty shots, it's clear that there's a path to success for anime without gratuitous fan service. More options, please, is the bottom line.