Five Steps to Better Fanservice

by Paul Jensen,

Speaking as both a fan and a critic, I'm of the opinion that fanservice is like a spice; just the right amount in the right recipe and it's fantastic, but too much overpowers the dish. Not every anime series needs to be a subtle masterpiece of moving, insightful screenwriting. There's room on the shelf for risque pleasures and bawdy fun. Sometimes we all just want to ogle handsome dudes or hot ladies in skimpy outfits, or maybe we need to shout corny catchphrases as a giant robot goes through a ten-minute launch sequence. A little populist entertainment is good for the soul, but that doesn't mean that we should be willing to put up with lousy anime in order to get it. To that end, I've put together a few modest requirements for the best animated comfort food of choice. For the sake of brevity, I'll be focusing on the most traditional (and most maligned) definition of fanservice: good-looking ladies or gentlemen in revealing outfits and suggestive situations.

Consistency is Key

The first step in making fanservice work is to ensure that it fits reasonably well into the context of the series. Different shows can get away with different things depending on their tone and subject matter. For example, a hot springs episode is a much easier sell in a goofy romantic comedy than it would be in a super-serious war drama. Fanservice scenes are almost always a detour from the more important parts of a series, but the change of direction is less jarring when the audience can reasonably imagine the characters getting caught up in silly, raunchy antics. As long as the creators are honest with themselves about what kind of show they're making, it isn't too hard to keep the tone consistent.

Keeping the style and level of fanservice consistent is also important. When a show suddenly goes off the deep end after several tame episodes, the audience ends up feeling blindsided. I criticized an episode of Gourmet Girl Graffiti earlier this year for this exact problem: after half a season of odd but mild fanservice, the series abruptly tossed in a suggestive bath scene. It was hardly the most tasteless piece of animation out there, but it was way out of place in a slice of life series about girls freaking out over delicious food.

Ultimately, all this talk about consistency boils down to one simple idea: let the viewers know what they're getting into so they can make their best judgment about whether the show works for them. The image above is one of two title cards that appear halfway through the first episode of High School DxD, and it's easily the more restrained of the two. High School DxD is brutally honest about its intentions. It takes about two minutes for the screen to be filled with cleavage, and one of the hero's first lines is a remark about how much he likes boobs. Anyone who doesn't share his sentiments can safely walk away with no more than five or ten minutes down the drain. Personal taste makes a big difference with these kinds of shows, so the least that creators can do is help the audience decide whether or not to stick around.

Fanservice is No Excuse for a Bad Story

Anime can bluntly appease its perceived audience all it wants, but a series still needs a halfway decent plot if it's going to hold up for more than a handful of episodes. It doesn't take much; even a simple story can act as the glue that holds all the beach episodes and shower scenes together. Free! is clearly not aimed at me, but I still enjoyed it because there's a solid piece of sports fiction under all the well-defined muscles. By the same token, characters are more memorable when they're more than just models for skimpy outfits. Alien cat-girls alone would've been enough to sell Cat Planet Cuties, but it's a noteworthy series because those cat-girls are also surprisingly well-written characters.

Clever comedy also goes a long way, since not many fanservice shows can get away with taking themselves seriously (sincere, serious high drama is a tougher sell when the show is insisting you ogle the dramatic heroine's scantily-clad butt during her impassioned speech). This means moving beyond the old harem routines, or at least taking a fresh approach to them. If a male protagonist is going to fall face-first into a girl's breasts, it had better be the end result of a high-altitude parachute jump worthy of a Red Bull publicity stunt. Better yet, why not just ditch the old punchlines altogether? Anyone looking for proof that sex appeal and humor can get along should track down Yamada's First Time, which uses a sex-fueled premise as a springboard for genuinely funny jokes. The best fanservice shows can work even if you're not interested in seeing animated underwear.

Know How to Draw Humans

Look at Rin. Look at him. Dude's looking good, and I just took this screenshot on the fly without searching for the perfect image. Fanservice is often used to cover up a weak story or flat characters, but it only brings a show's production values out into the spotlight. A few layers of clothing can help cover up iffy body proportions, but there's nowhere to hide when everyone's down to their swimsuits. If I'm going to spend half an hour looking at half-naked anime characters, they'd better be well drawn. Nobody really wants ogle subpar character art.

All Things in Moderation...

In my experience, this is the point that drives most arguments on this subject. Poor writing and cheap animation are harder to defend, but the idea of good taste is subjective enough to fuel a lifetime of debates. What I consider palatable could easily strike another viewer as pointlessly tame or obnoxiously inappropriate. Individual preferences may vary, but I think most folks want to feel comfortable watching their trashy series of choice, based on whatever "comfortable" means to them. There's a big difference between enjoying questionable content and feeling like a giant sleazeball for watching something that takes it all too far. A little moderation on the creators' part helps take the "guilt" out of your "guilty pleasure".

Exercising restraint can also give fanservice more impact. If every shot in a series is packed with spurious amounts of two-dimensional skin, the audience will eventually grow numb to it. There's a lot of traditional fanservice in Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend, but what impressed me about that show was its ability to bring out the sexual tension in a scene through clever writing and direction. Filling the screen with animated cleavage is the easy road to take, but the more challenging route can leave a more lasting impression.

...But It's Okay To Go Over the Top

Cleverness and subtlety are good traits for a series to have, but sometimes the best thing to do is jump as high and far over the shark as humanly possible. This whole topic is a bit silly to begin with, and a fanservice-heavy show can succeed by embracing its inherent absurdity. Monster Musume strikes me as a series with the potential to make this approach work. By replacing the cast of a harem comedy with centaurs, harpies, and other half-human characters, it immediately calls itself out as something too ridiculous to take seriously.

The issue with taking the crazy approach is that it can backfire immediately if it's not done right. The key is to balance blatant excess with a healthy dose of self-awareness. There's a scene in the first season of Free! that does this well enough to make me laugh uncontrollably every time I watch it. A shopping trip goes completely off the rails as the guys get caught up in trying on new swimsuits. The scene goes on for so long that even the character whose sole purpose in the show is to admire the guys' physiques gets bored and walks away. The show lets us know that it's in on the joke, and that admission makes the scene fun even if you're not watching it for shirtless hunks.

So yes, an anime series can work perfectly if the right amount of fanservice, executed well, is part of the mix. From time to time, that extra indulgence can even make a show more fun than it otherwise would have been. Go forth and enjoy some sexy anime characters, but don't assume that you have to put up with inane writing or half-finished animation in the process. It's okay to hold our comfort food to a higher standard of quality.

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