Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Opinion: Fan Disservice

Foreword: All opinions and arguments presented within this article are strictly my own and do not necessarily represent the views of either the other staff members at OtakuGamers UK or the site as a whole. If you wish to critique this article please do so with me, the sole author. Many thanks. – Shadon1010.

I am a heterosexual male, and I have a penis.

Baffled? That’s understandable, but apart from that previous statement being possibly the worst chat up line in human history it is nonetheless a proven fact about myself. And what follows from that you can easily infer: I have carnal and sexual desires as a result. But to leave it at that would be to reduce me to an unthinking animal whose sole concern is reproduction. My meat and two veg, if you will, is only one part (albeit a large one...) of me as a whole, and the most important piece of the puzzle that is me I would say is my brain, or to be more specific, my mind. It is with my mind that I experience the world and through which I take in the realm of fiction in its various forms.

What, you might ask, does this have anything to do with fanservice? Well, I’ll be frank. I don’t care for fanservice. But, and this is a big but, what I actually disapprove of is how fanservice is often utilised within fiction, not that it exists, and I should stress that this does not strictly just apply to the kind of eastern games and media you might see on this website. One look at Starfire from DC Comics New 52 tells you all you need to know about the kind of depictions of women that can occur in western fiction unfortunately.

When it comes to fanservice, I understand that it is targeted to affect me through the route of sexual excitement as opposed to intellectual. That in of itself is fine. But my issue is when there is a disconnect between the purpose of fanservice (that is, to titillate), and the purpose of the work within which it exists. If the work is designed to stimulate me intellectually, then why is there fanservice present within? Can it be justified?

If you’ve ever watched softcore pornography in your life and were mature enough at the time, you probably had a right good laugh at the “plot” of said skin flick. We’ve all heard the pop-culture “tale” of window cleaners fulfilling the fantasies of sexually frustrated housewives the world over after all. Such plotting is often nonsense, or in the case of some particular examples (see Emmanuelle In Space for what it would be like if Ed Wood made “Plan 69 From Outer Space” if you will) the kind of riffable material you and your mates can enjoy over a few beers. But in the case of pornography, hard or soft, the plot is an irrelevance to the main material which is the sexual content. There we can riff on the plot, mock the bad Playboy acting and laugh at the cheap sets because they are just hashed together context and not the purpose of the product in question. Emmanuelle In Space after all never pretended to be anything more than it was: a softcore porno.

If you’re a regular to OtakuGamers UK you might have read Geoffrey’s various articles on a certain title named Senran Kagura Burst. In his review and a later article relating to the toxic cesspit that was a stratum of internet commentary on the game, Geoff mentioned that this particular title was the subject of some controversy in the mainstream gaming press due to its use of fanservice. And yet, Geoff’s opinions (which I highly value, don’t get me wrong) should not have been necessary, nor should any of the various comments on the supposed objectification of women within the game itself. The reason for this is simple: the game never pretended to be anything it was not. It was marketed from the get go as being full of fanservice, indeed I’d say that was one of its selling points to its prospective audience. And while Senran Kagura Burst is not pornography, it follows the same rule: it is open with its purpose and intended goals (I should also be very clear that the previous comparison is just about the respective honesty of intent and I do not mean to devalue Senran Kagura Burst by comparing it to pornography in that manner. Please put your pitchforks away). It’s for that reason that, while Senran Kagura Burst holds no appeal for me personally, I have absolutely no problem with its content whatsoever. It knows what it is, what its audience wants and what it wants to achieve, and it does not lie to you about it. And as Geoff mentioned, if it can then have characters with interesting back stories too, then it can have its metaphorical cake and eat it, so long as it is upfront and honest about it.

I should also point out that there are many examples of fiction where the intellectual and sexual can be combined to make a point or express an idea. Black Swan, Nine Songs, Welcome to the NHK are just a few things I could name that combine sexual imagery with the intellectual elements to enhance and add texture to their respective plots. Sexual imagery can be used as art, and given it is a big part of our individual and collective behaviour exploring it in fiction can be very rewarding.

But, what if you have a video game, a film, an anime, a book etc etc, that sells itself as something intellectual, or at least does not titillation in mind as one of its primary goals? Can fanservice work then?

This is more of a grey area, so perhaps to highlight what I mean let me give you an example. Consider the two characters below, whom if you’re a fan of Arc System Works fighting games you might just recognise.

These two are I-No from Guilty Gear Xrd on the left and Makoto Nanaya from BlazBlue Chronophantasma on the right. Both of these pieces of official art and their ingame depictions have fanservice present and accounted for, as is clear. Yet when it comes to these two, I have no issue with I-No’s character design whereas Makoto’s irks me tremendously. Why is that?

It’s all about context. Fighting games might not have the greatest of stories but stories they do have nonetheless (although I wonder sometimes why companies don’t just strip out the story all together and just throw the characters into a contextless tournament but that's a discussion for another time). In the case of Guilty Gear, I-No has been a long time antagonist who in her many encounters with the various cast members uses sexual puns, innuendo and taunts to mock and humiliate her opponents (just check her entry in Guilty Gear's TV Tropes page to see some examples). Heck, one of her moves is named “Stroke the Big Tree”, which I don’t think even Freud could explain away as anything but R rated. To me, this tells me that I-No uses sexuality as a weapon and her attire is part of that strategy, particularly when it comes to the men of the Guilty Gear franchise. In other words, her clothing is something she chose to wear, as logically impractical as it otherwise would be, and it in my mind organically tallies with her attitude towards sex and sexuality as a means to, well, dick with people's heads.

Makoto? No such context. Her choice of attire frankly makes no sense me and given that the sports bra is a thing I honestly have no clue why she as a character would chose to wear this clothing. I mentioned previously in my Blazblue Chronophantasma review that one moment where Kagura, a known pervert, is punched by Makoto and in doing so she removes her jacket to reveal herself dressed as she is in the above artwork, and as I have commented before and will continue to do so, this is like trying to fend off a starving lion by whipping it with a string of sausages. To put it simply, unlike I-No whose appearance is conceivably by her own design, Makoto’s is nothing but the product of the creative staff, and is purely for the express purpose of titillation in a game where titillation is not its primary purpose. Considering these two examples of where I personally feel fanservice is done right and wrong respectively are from the same company, then, well, need I say more?

But there are times when fanservice can be justified in an otherwise intellectually focused plot, and to highlight this I now need to divert into that unfairly maligned realm of television: anime. Specifically, to two series I watched last year: Steins Gate and Phantom: Requiem For The Phantom (hereafter just referred to as Phantom).

The shower scene. Naked woman, select camera angles and censor steam all combine for easy to make fanservice that doesn’t offend the classification boards. You’ve probably seen one at some point in television or film, even Beyond Two Souls featured this trope. Steins Gate and Phantom both feature this scene, although Phantom has multiple instances. You can probably guess where this is going.

With regards to Steins Gate, without spoiling much, our lead protagonist Okabe is an incredibly paranoid man who believes he is being hunted by CERN (yes, that CERN) because he is the co-creator of a time machine which is something they want. He returns to his lab/apartment one evening to find the shower running, and upon opening the door to the stall he finds the two female leads, Kurisu and Mayuri, in there together, naked as the day they were born. However, I do not mind this scene for two reasons (and no, the reasons are not Kurisu and Mayuri respectively damnit). Firstly, earlier in the show’s run it was established in a brief bit of throwaway dialogue that the lab’s shower is rarely used, if ever. Combined with Okabe’s paranoia and the fact no one seems to be home when he returns that evening, this provides a natural, organic reason for him to check out the shower. Secondly, the scene is very brief and leads to some comedy shortly after at his expense as the two women chew him out for believing he was playing peeping tom. There is set up, and there is pay off. The fanservice element is minor, and it is justified by what comes before and what comes after.

Phantom has the bizarre honor of having two shower scenes, one of which serves an intellectual purpose, one of which does not. The one that does not appears exactly as you’d expect: cut to the woman (Chloe) in the shower, cut away, with no narrative explanation for why we were shown this, nor does it add anything to what we know about said character or anything else in the story. It doesn’t help that Chloe, despite having a semi interesting arc of her own, really only exists for fanservice in general, especially given some of the comments made by the men in that same episode towards her “assets”, shall we say. Yet later in the series, another character (Cal) is in a shower holding herself and she discusses how vulnerable she feels with the male lead who is sat outside listening to her. Barring the minor contextual details and the presence of dialogue, this is almost the same scene as the one in Casino Royale where Bond comforts Vesper in the shower after they were attacked by the two thugs trying to kill LeChiffre. Here, the “shower scene” is used to develop the relationship between two characters and serves as a metaphor for Cal's sense of emotional nakedness, whereas previously with Chloe it was just there to provide completely unwarranted sexual arousal.

Hopefully these examples will have made my point clear. If fanservice is to be present in a work that is not expressly geared towards titillation, its presence must be justified and must serve a purpose towards the plot. If people found the scene of Mayuri and Kurisu’s time in the shower arousing then that’s fine by me, because while that’s not the intended purpose of the scene, part of what makes art “art” is the ability of the audience to find meaning, even sexual meaning, in places where it might not have been intended, if the viewer so wishes. I may not understand why you might find it sexually stimulating, but it’s not my place or anyone else’s to judge you for it, nor should they. But when it comes to fanservice like the shower scene with Chloe from Phantom or Makoto’s confounding dress sense, I cannot do the reverse and take anything intellectually meaningful from those examples, beyond perhaps the fact that Makoto is an idiot, which is hardly endearing.

But what does that mean for you or anyone else who might say “Who cares? If you don’t like it, ignore it, those that like it are welcome to like it.” or have similar objections? Well, you’d be entirely correct. As I mentioned before, I nor anyone else has any right to judge those who find fanservice sexually exciting regardless of said fanservice’s purpose within the work itself. But I ask that if you do take that entirely justified viewpoint that you remind yourself why unjustified fanservice is there, and what it might mean for the work in question. Phantom was meant to be a show about identity and the (re)discovery thereof but the egregious amounts of unjustified fanservice overshadowed the good parts I liked, and the actual fanservice itself to me smacked of papering over weak moments in the story or filling time. After all, if a comedian begins to flounder or isn’t funny when he’s up on stage, the organisers do not send in scantily clad women with nipple tassels, batons and peacock feathers attached to their butts to cover that up. The mature approach would be to refine that comedian’s material so such immaturity isn’t needed.

Immaturity. It’s a word that is often associated with animated works, not just anime but western too, and particularly with video games. But whereas it’s an apt descriptor in the sense that as art animation and video games haven’t reached their full potential yet, I do not believe for a second that the word “immature” can accurately describe even a fraction of fans of video games or animation, or even fiction in general. It’s my hope that you, as someone intelligent and as thoughtful as I hope you are, know you’re above that, because the presence of unjustified fanservice implies on the author’s part their belief that their work isn’t strong enough to keep your interest and/or that you’re not mature enough to keep your attention on said work.

But, as I have said, whether or not fanservice of any type is your thing is solely up to you and you have every right to your preference without fear of judgement. All I ask is that you remind yourself why the authors of a work are using fanservice, and if like I said before they’re using it without justification to target your meat and two veg, to remind yourself that, like me, you’re far more, and better, than that.

-       - Shadon1010 knows a lot about tits, specifically about making one of himself. He hopes to soon be given an honorary doctorate in the field. 

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