Anime teems with fan service (fanservice, or service cut), complementary content that aims to give fans exactly what they want. Breasts!Big robots! Panties! fan service has become such a part of anime that it defines genres. For example, comedy anime often features the antics of a perverted male spying up lady’s skirts or a prudish guy surrounded by girls lacking qualms about showing off their assets. Think Master Roshi from the Dragon Ballseries and just about every male protagonist in the harem genre. Fan service most often involves similar sexual elements. Animators turn the camera just so the audience gets a full view up a female character’s skirt. Fan service scenes, such as a male character tripping, falling, and grabbing a handful of a woman’s chest, have become so common that they have morphed into tropes and stereotypes.
The most common types of fan service center on a male-dominant view. Female characters swing two directions. Either they are innocent victims of a male’s pursuit and suffer from accidental peeks, or they are sexually dominant toward the male protagonist. Both views focus on male fantasies of women. Rosario + Vampire, for example, features KurumuKurono, a succubus who flaunts her bust and other body parts to try to win the male protagonist’s attention.
As you can tell, fan service by Western terms can be seen as sexist. It violates women’s privacy and reduces them into objects of desire. However, That isn’t to say that anime aimed at female audience doesn’t feature its own fanservice. There are plenty of shows that sexualise the beautiful male characters to titilate the female viewers. Despite this, male-oriented fan service is more common and more acceptable. Because of this, we’ll just focus on the male side of fan service in this article.
Before we get into the most common version of fan service, the panty shot, I need to mention a version that doesn’t focus on sexualization, at least directly. The branch involves long, detailed pans of vehicles and humanoid robots. These pans show off the design of mechs, which have become well-known characters in their own right. Mobile Suit Gundam gives us a good example. Fans want long camera pans over Kunio Okawara’s designs so they can enjoy the details and changes from previous entries in the franchise. The practice comes from Star Trek, Star Wars, and other science fiction stories. It’s common for these shows to have long pans of the Enterprise or other starships. Science fiction and mecha anime that lack these shots feel a bit off as if something is missing.
Okay, let’s get back to the most common feature of fan service: panty-shots. Male-oriented anime goes out of its way to give the audience a gander at what patterns and types of underwear female characters wear. It’s a strange Japanese focus, but it turns out the United States caused it. Panty fan service has roots back to the Meiji era (1868-1912) when western clothing became popular with the wealthy. At the time, common people still wore kimonoand koshimaki,a traditional waist-wrapped undergarment.
During World War II, women started wearing loose pants with ankle drawstrings called monpe, and these prevented them from wearing traditional underwear. Drawers became popular instead. After the war, extreme poverty struck swathes of the population, forcing them to return to traditional undergarments. Only the high-class prostitutes that serviced the occupying troops could afford Western underclothes like drawers. This led to Western underwear becoming associated with sexual promiscuity. As the economy recovered, more women started to spend money on Western clothing. Many were not accustomed to wearing skirts and sitting with their knees touching, leading to obvious glimpses. The association with sexuality and these glimpses provided the frame for later anime fan service. The patterns and styles also provided peeks into the personal tastes of the characters. This ties back to the separation between public personality and private feelings Japanese culture requires. Only those close to her can know her private feelings and interests, but panty-shots provide a window to her personal world. Of course, the shots also titillate.
Besides the historical associations of underwear fan service, why does anime have so much of it? Perhaps the better question is, does anime have that much more sexuality than other genres of television? As an American, I can only approach it from the perspective of American television. Take soap operas for instance. American soap operas like Days of our Lives feature scantily clad women and shirtless men. Mostly men because the primary audience is women. Prime-time television shows are full of sexuality and violence. Across American television, I see bikinis and skimpy dresses that show off busts in the same way anime does. While all of this is anecdotal, I do not believe anime is any worse than American television when it comes to fan service. American television has its own versions of it, but because many of us are acquainted with it, we fail to see it. It is just as in-the-face as anime fan service, if not as comedic as anime makes it be.
American fan service includes violence. Violence is, perhaps, the most common version of fan service in the West. Just look at all the action films released each year with car chases and other expected scenes. At its core, fan service gives the audience what they want and the way they want it. As you watch anime and American films, you can predict the cadence of the story. This predictability comes from fan service in its various forms. The guy gets the girl. The girl gets the guy. The hero defeats the villain in a final confrontation (and then gets the girl/guy/money). You can predict when the horror movie jump scare is coming or the sex scene or the next gun fight.In many ways, the cadence of storytelling itself is fan service. Think on how high school anime structure their stories. The meeting of the protagonist with the antagonist. The placement of comedy and flashbacks—often during pivotal action sequences. They follow set patterns rather than follow different cadences.
As a librarian, I notice many bestselling novels are cookie cutters, yet that is what makes them bestsellers. People don’t like the unknown. Entertainment follows set story patterns in order to appeal to wide audiences. Remember, I’m speaking in generalities; exceptions always exist. Anime offers fan service and familiar cadence for the same reasons bestselling novels do: it sells. Anime Production Committees seek profits, and just like book publishers, they will go for what proves the least risky. Fan service appeals to a subset of anime watchers as do certain genres. Shounen, for example, dominates Western markets because the audience is more accustomed to stories tailored to boys and young men.
All of this returns to the audience. As long as fan service sells, stories will contain it. While the Japanese market dictates the types of stories anime features, Western buyers determine which of these stories companies translate and export. As long as certain stories make a profit, that is what we will see.
Writer. Librarian. Japanophile. Chris enjoys a good, musty book-fort. As a librarian, he gets to indulge his love for books and research on a daily basis. When he isn't writing about Japanese folklore, he enjoys painting and getting lost in the woods. You can read his attempts to smash words together at www.japanpowered.com.