Comedy, Carnivalesque, and the Naked Body in Anime: Why the issue of ‘Fanservice’ is more complex than it first appears
January 22, 2014 4 Comments
Japanese culture has long been viewed as a curiosity, from the period of European colonialism when The Orient was a place of exotic otherness, to modern day society where Japanese popular culture is viewed as extreme, perhaps hedonistic, as opposed to the more refined tastes of the west. When viewing anime, it is possible to see how it, as a cultural medium, promotes an orientalist view of Japan with its astonishing visuals, along with the numerous exotic and strange creatures and creations. Part of the exoticism within anime is the explicit use of nudity, and more revealing situations where male and female characters are seen in their underwear, or in a more exposed, even fetishistic light.
The rather clunky term used to describe such elements is ‘fanservice’, however, this particular term, while almost exclusively used to describe nudity, focus on the male and female anatomy, and the framing of lingerie in particular can be used for anything that might be linked to fans of specific genres. What I am concerned with is not the other aspects of ‘fanservice’, but specifically the explicitly sexual, and the absurd found within much of anime. Throughout anime fandom there has been an astonishing backlash against the use of such elements with in anime, with specific elements such as bloggers and known websites actively criticising anime that employ more explicit sexualisation of female and male characters.
There are clear issues with certain elements of anime and their sexualisation of female characters in particular, often presenting them in a fetishistic manner. There are clear issues with the fetishisation of the male and female forms within anime and broader elements of manga and games, with some series presenting the naked body, and particularly the female form in a gratuitous fashion that does not fit with the story or the world that the series is trying to create. There are series and films out there that do use fanservice in a highly questionable manner, arguably as a way of gaining a larger following, but this is not what I am exploring in this post. Rather I am broadly exploring the use of ‘fanserivce’ within anime as an important part of the medium, and believe that to criticise an anime solely on its use of panty-shots, naked scenes, and the other trappings of slapstick comedy within anime is short-sighted.
I argue that the use of such situations and scenes are an essential part in the carnival of anime, and to criticise anime solely for their use is to further reinforce the idea of a The Orient and its exotic otherness. I am not suggesting that cultural analysis and critique should only ever focus on what is considered proper for your specific country and culture, as that would be a recipe for insularity and a lack of dialogue, and sometimes an outsiders eye can see more clearly than eyes long resident (Medhurst, 2007). Yet there are advantages in knowing a culture well enough to be fully attentive of the idiosyncratic facets of its nuanced particularities, especially as they pertain to comedy and the comedic moment. This is particularly true when it comes to the use of ‘fanservice’ within anime as an example of the carnivalesque within Japanese culture and its ability to bring out the absurd and grotesque elements of popular culture and social norms.
For those unfamiliar with the term, carnivalesque is the translation of a term used by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), one that refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and chaos. Crucially, carnival was not a spectacle to be consumed by the audience, but actively participated in by an entire community, and although at first glance this might distinguish carnival from contemporary popular culture such as anime, where there is a screen to be watched, the level of involvement demanded by the series or film, and the recirculation of mannerisms or dialogue through social media calls into serious question any idea that their consumption is ‘passive’.
Carnival was a time of excess, inversion, disrespect, parody, the grotesque and overflowing, made emblematic in events and activities including feasting, drunkenness, mockery of authority, dross-dressing, sexual licence, swearing and both symbolic and actual violence (Medhurst, 2007). Carnival, Bakhtin claimed, was ‘a second world and a life outside officialdom’, it was also a world in which the body, and a very particular model of the body, overruled the respectability and decorum controlled by the mind. The emphasis placed on the body in anime, with male characters in many comedic anime series, or those with moments of comedy conveniently groping female characters breasts or bottom, or the camera lingering over these aspects of the female, and male bodies serves as an important part of carnival.
Anime presents an alternate world, one that mirrors Japanese culture and society, whilst also mingling the acceptable high culture with the absurd and profane. The use of the naked, or half-naked bodies of male and female characters within anime serves a number of purposes. They are the subject of explicit humour, a way of creating an alternate image of the real world, one that could not exist within the confines of social and cultural boundaries, and a space of play. The values propagated within comedy and comedic moments in anime – hedonism, ribaldry, sensuality, the enjoyment of alcohol (in the case of older characters), the portrayal of marriage, or stable relationships as a tragic-comic disaster, and the equality of the sexes at work and at leisure – are diametrically opposed with those attributed to everyday life in Japan – asceticism, prudery, refinement, abstinence, an almost puritanical work ethic, marriage and the family as the bedrock of social with the woman’s role as housekeeper and mother.
Anime, in effect, becomes a primary cultural space where these alternative values are articulated, with the articulation taking concrete, collective shape in the punchy, straightforward nature of many anime series. And even when cultural stereotypes are reinforced through the actions of particular characters (take for example a female character being a good cook and good at housework), the actions of other characters within the series will often turn these stereotypes on their head, and show them to be absurd, and pointless.
Let us take To Love-Ru as an example of the hedonism and sensuality within anime, things that could not happen in the real world. Yuuki Rito lives in a world filled with girls, female characters who are all potential love interests despite his very conservative approach to marriage and the idea of love. Within this series Rito finds himself in one compromising situation after another, usually groping the chest of butt of one of his potential love interests, or planting his face firmly in their crotch. Such situations and actions are not deliberate, but are part of an long running joke about Rito’s ability to slip on thin air and end in the most compromising position purely by chance. One of the most extreme examples takes place in To Love-Ru Darkness when Rito manages to fall down the stairs, grabbing Yui Kotegawa and in the process managing to pull her panties (or pantsu in the Japanese) down with his teeth. Many of the situations Rito finds himself in follow this same pattern, with him tripping on thin air, or managing to fall, grabbing one of the many girls in his life and ending in the most bizarre and impossible of positions.
What we see in the actions of Rito, and how he interacts with the women and girls that surround him is the absurd within the comedic form. Many of his actions are impossible to replicate as they seem to ignore the laws of physics altogether, and should you try to replicate them you would like be slapped/punched, and arrested for molestation other charges. Rito’s is not a realistic life, but instead an example of the carnivalesque within comedy presenting us with a world where the natural order societies hegemonic ideals has been turned on its head. Rito continues to hold to certain common ideals such as loving and marrying a single woman, showing that he is a socially conservative at heart.
But his actions, lifestyle, and the way he interacts with the girls in his life show us another side to him, and present a mirror of his socially conservative attitudes. The world within To Love-Ru allows for this sort of comedy, with naked women and girls constantly waling around Rito’s house, and his ability to walk in on others changing, thus seeing them in their lingerie, or swimsuits. His actions, and the scenes we see on screen are those of fantasy, they are not something that could happen on a daily basis, not if you wanted to live a peaceful life out of jail. They are turning the realities of the world on their head and presenting us with a comedy that takes the absurd and makes it normal.
Another example of the absurd in anime can be found in Sora no Otoshimono, a series that has certain similarities with to Love-Ru, but focuses on an openly perverted main character rather than one who happens to find himself in such situations accidentally. Tomoki’s openly perverted antics are reminiscent of Happosai from Ranma ½ and Ataru from Urusei Yatsura. His fascination with the female body, and lengthy rants about the importance of looking after your lingerie, and the magnificence of girls breasts are part of his perception of what it means to be a man, and what he considers important. The focus on female lingerie, and specifically panties makes up a significant amount of fanservice within anime, representing something that many in adolescence may have dreamed of, but never actively seen. Furthermore, underwear is a very intimate article of clothing, something that we hide from the world and only show to those we are intimate with. Thus, the showing of panties in particular, and lingerie in general, within anime is subverting this form of intimacy in its presentation of these articles of clothing as something to be viewed, even analysed in a comedic fashion. And by doing so anime brings the audience into a world where intimate or personal objects can be viewed in the most open and public manner.
Tomoki’s openness about his love for the female body, and his willingness to capture and collect lingerie (reminiscent of Happosai) are portrayed as normal, they are just part of his characterisation and the desires he has. What Sora no Otoshimono does with his openly perverted antics is present them in a slapstick manner, changing what would be despicable, and quite disturbing behaviour into something of a farce. His actions constantly result in Tomoki being beaten up either by Sohara, or other female characters within the series, and his grand ambitions for panties in particular never amount to anything. One particular scene from (the ending of episode 2 I believe) shows us how ludicrous the use of fanservice is, with Tomoki’s entire collection of panties takes off and flies around the globe as if they were a flock of geese. This particular scene turns into the ending of that particular episode, with the panties flying around the globe accompanied by the ending theme of the series. This scene like much of the series is presented in an absurd and comic fashion, taking something that would be considered normal – a migrating flock of geese – and swapping the normal with the absurd – a migrating flock of panties – thus showing us the carnivalistic elements of anime and its ability to turn social and cultural rules and norms on their head.
So far I have discussed ideas of the carnivalesque as it is linked with the appearance of lingerie in anime, and the use of slapstick as found in To Love-Ru, but now let us move onto the appearance of exaggerated bodies in anime, both male and female (although mostly female). Some of the most criticised anime films and series are those that involve women with highly sexualised bodies – those with accentuated breasts, and large bottoms. Bakhtin’s (1984) study of the medieval European carnival culture where social hierarchies were temporarily abolished and classes intermixed for a period of permissible freedom and rule breaking, lead him to characterise grotesque bodies. Historically the grotesque body is defined by its primal needs, i.e., eating, drinking, defecating, urinating, sex, etc, but it also represents openness to life during the carnival celebration, i.e. ‘open bodies’.
While the classical cannon focussed on the symmetry of the body, the grotesque emphasised body parts that protruded (belly, breasts, bottom, genetalia) and orifices (anus, mouth, vagina), which were considered open to the world and other bodies, and therefore, carnally attainable (Bakhtin, 1984). If we look at the examples of Maken-Ki and Queen’s Blade we can see the emphasis placed on these more open parts, especially the female characters breasts and bottoms. The female characters in these series take on hyper stylised forms, with bodies that cannot be replicated in real life (assuming one would even want to try).
Such series incorporate many of the same elements already discussed, with a focus on the harem, and particularly on lingerie and the female figure. In Maken-Ki for example, the main character Takeru is a similar character to Rito, and finds himself surrounded by a large group of beautiful, and quite sexy girls. However, unlike Rito, Takeru is open about his desires and fetishes, but, he is still subject the same sorts of slapstick moments as he walks in on many of the female characters changing, or taking a bath, thus resulting in a beating from the other characters. The female characters are subject to Takeru’s gaze, but in this respect their unnatural bodies, particularly their breasts result in slapstick comedy.
The humour from this series is a result of the characters actions, and how seriously they take the world they live in. We as the audience know that Takeru is perverted, but he also represents hidden desires that normal everyday life cannot allow. In the moment of carnival that is Maken-Ki, all of these desires for both men and women can be released, resulting in the comedic and the absurd. Takeru’s lecherous nature does not result in him being shunned from society, but becomes the basis for many of the series jokes. Watching Takeru get beaten up by the women that surround him for giving into his lecherous urges, only to be forgiven the next reinforces the nature of the carnival as a space where the laws of society are forgotten or turned on their head. The series is certainly not reality, even though there are aspects of the story that mirror reality, instead it represents a space where the laws of society are turned upside down, and allow for such characters, and bizarre body proportions to exist in their own cultural space.
The same can be said of Queen’s Blade, although in this case the series lacks a male lead to act as the butt of the jokes, and instead focuses on a fantasy world where women reign supreme. In carnival, everything is rendered ever-changing, playful and undefined. Hierarchies are overturned through inversions, debasements and profanations, performed by normally silenced voices and energies. Queen’s Blade is not a comedy like Maken-Ki or To Love-Ru, but it remains firmly rooted within the carnivalesque, presenting a world where social orders and ideas surrounding the gender division of labour have been turned on their head. It is a series with significant emphasis placed on the female body, showing the numerous characters in ridiculous armour that appears to disintegrate as soon as it is touched. We are within the carnival fantasy, a space where women walk around dressed as amazons, where ideas surrounding nudity and public decency do not hold much power or influence.
The naked, or semi-naked body (both male and female, although I have mostly explored the female body) within anime positions itself somewhere between art and reality, a fantasy world where anything can exist, a place where social and cultural norms do not hold sway. Unlike the classical nude, positioned as a form of high art, thus distancing itself from reality is different to the figures we see in anime. The bodies before us break social conventions through their clothes and behaviour, thus giving the audience a view of a world that exists outside of reality. The situations that Rito and Takeru (and Issei from Highschool DxD) find themselves in are unrealistic, deliberately so, for if they were realistic there would be a lack of comedy, a lack of the carnival that allows the world to be turned upside down. Unlike the artistic nudes the subjects within anime are not distance, but are instead very close, personal subjects to watch and laugh at, or with.
This not to say that all ‘fanservice’ within anime can be viewed through the lens of the carnival, with directors, writers, and artists adding nude shots or gratuitous use of the camera to focus on the female body. Many of these shots seem to have little to do with the carnivalesque, and certainly do not add to a world where societies norms are turned upside down. We also have to consider the idea of titillation; something that focusing on the naked form, on lingerie, or other aspects of the body is certainly meant to do. That is one of the roles of the carnival, a place where such ideas and desires can be realised, thus the prevalence of dirty humour and focus on the bodily functions.
To ignore that aspect of fanservice within anime would seem very shortsighted, but that is merely one part of a more complex set of ideas and ways of viewing this element of anime. But, we see within anime fandom a focus on fanservice as a sign of immaturity, with blogs and writers suggesting that the only ones who could enjoy such things would have to be teenagers (which is unfair to teenagers and anyone who happens to like a dirty joke or humour regardless of age). This is what I disagree with, and have argued throughout this post that the use of the naked body, of lingerie, and a focus on the ‘grotesque’ or ‘bizarre’ body is an essential aspect of anime and Japanese culture. It serves as a release from the restrictions of the everyday, showing us a mirrored world where such restrictions and attitudes do not exist. Ian Buruma in his book ‘A Japanese Mirror’ argues that the bizarre and often explicit nature of Japanese popular culture is partly because of the strict and hierarchical nature of Japanese society. The nature of anime and its often explicit use of nudity, lingerie, and a focus on the physical body (both male and female) is part of this mirrored society, showing us everything that has been bottled up in everyday life. These aspects serve as a release for emotional, sexual, and social tension, a space where everything can be expressed before returning to normality.
As Umberto Eco argued, the carnival can only exist as an authorized transgression. If the ancient religious carnival was limited in time, the modern mass-carnival is limited in space; it is reserved for certain places, certain streets, or framed by the television screen or computer monitor (or perhaps smartphone or tablet screens as well). In this sense, comedy and carnival are not instances of real transgressions; on the contrary, they represent paramount examples of law enforcement. They remind us of the existence of the rules. The use of ‘fanservice’ within anime needs to happen within the space anime has created because it cannot happen anywhere else. The animated medium allows for these sorts of bizarre bodies and absurd situations, a space where harem’s can exist, and where one can focus on lingerie and on the male, or female body. It would be foolish to suggest that fanservice is not added to help increase a series popularity, and perhaps to lead to a line of figures and other merchandise because it, like many other aspects of anime are clearly added for such reasons. But, it isn’t purely added for such reasons, and the use of fanservice, of the naked body, of a focus on lingerie and bath suits is part of something more complex, and cannot be reduced to a simple drive to sell more Blu-Ray discs (although in some cases that is arguably the case).
To criticise an anime purely based on its use of fanservice suggests a blinkered approach to culture and the carnival, and an inability to enjoy something that is as ridiculous as it is unrealistic. Yes there are clearly issues with the fetishisation of the male and female bodies within anime and manga, and some series focus on the female anatomy in particular in a highly fetishistic and gratuitous manner, but that is one part of something more complex. Even then I would argue that the carnival space of anime that allows fanservice to exist is important because the animated medium allows for a far greater number of absurdities to happen that could not exist within the real world. This animated space allows the laws of society to be ignored and transgressed for a short time, knowing that one has to return to them once the episode or series has finished. As a final thought, there are many other issues surrounding the use of fanserivce with anime, some I’ve pointed out such as the fetishisation of the female figure and the gratuitous use of fanservice within certain anime series and films, there are others, but they are topics for another post, and not something I wanted to explore here.
Andy Medhurst: A National Joke, 2007.
Umberto Eco: Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 1984.
Mikhail Bahktin, Rabelais and His World, 1984.