The topic of fanservice comes up pretty frequently in discussions about anime, and for good reason. Every season has at least one show that obviously just exists as a vehicle for fanservice, and even anime that doesn’t prioritize it sometimes has fanservice. Some people like it and some people hate it, so the question I’m looking at here is whether fanservice is inherently a bad thing.
Before I go any further, I want to define fanservice to make it clear what I’m talking about. Some people have used the term to describe any content meant to please fans, but for the purposes of this editorial, I’m going to define it as sexual content designed to titillate the audience. I want to make that distinction since sexual content doesn’t always mean fanservice. Berserk is known for having plenty of sex and even some nudity, but nothing in it is what I would consider fanservice. The nudity was never framed in a titillating way and was usually there because the story called for it, not because the writer/director thought it was sexy. The camera never lingered on it and it generally seemed to be there because it makes sense for there to be nudity at that point in the story. The distinction here is between a scene that has nudity and a scene that exists to show nudity. The former exists to tell a story, while the latter exists to be sexy.
Fanservice itself holds no appeal for me. I don’t have a problem with it existing and a lot of my favorite anime have at least some fanservice, but it’s not something I would consider as a reason to watch an anime. I have a problem when an anime makes fanservice a priority instead of an addition. Shows like Ikki Tousen and the more recent Hybrid x Heart Magias Academy Ataraxia (yes, that’s the actual title) clearly prioritize sex appeal over story and character, which makes them pretty pointless. It’s possible to do a fanservice show that still has a decent plot, like Highschool DxD, so shows that only care about fanservice don’t have any reason to exist. If that’s all the creators care about, they should just make a hentai instead.
One of the main distinctions between acceptable fanservice and bad fanservice is how much presence it has. Fanservice alone shouldn’t be at the forefront of the show, and is best if it stays in the background. Cowboy Bebop had some fanservice, but it was only present in Faye’s revealing outfit and one 3 second shot of her sunbathing. That kind of fanservice is fine because it doesn’t distract from the more important aspects of the anime and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s also possible to do fanservice well if it’s more for comedy. Gurren Lagann had a pretty typical hotspring episode, but it was more of a comedy episode than just fanservice. Sex comedy is fine and can frequently be funny if it’s done right.
One thing that fanservice should never do is become creepy. Fanservice with rape undertones exists and almost always ends up more uncomfortable than sexy because of how tasteless it is. [minor spoilers for Sword Art Online ahead] The best (or worst) example of this is the not-tentacle rape scene from season 1 of Sword Art Online. The scene was creepy, pointless and wasn’t even good sex appeal. It’s the perfect example of fanservice gone wrong. [end of spoilers] These sorts of scenes are just mean spirited and off putting. They fail as both fanservice and plot.
Fanservice is pretty common in anime, and isn’t going anywhere soon. It holds no real appeal for me, but it’s existence doesn’t instantly make an anime worse. It only becomes a problem when it detracts from the story or characters instead of just existing on its own. Fanservice can be done well and plenty of people like it. It just shouldn’t be the main point of an anime.