Who is anime for?
I’ve only been into it for a relatively brief amount of time, but if there’s one thing I can consistently note about almost any anime I watch it’s that it’s totally unshackled by tone. Mature themes can be bandied around like nobody’s business, with concepts light-years ahead of what the vast majority of Western equivalents can raise. You need only look at something like Fullmetal Alchemist, STEINS;GATE or Aldnoah Zero – the level of writing, discourse and action is absolutely stratospheric.
But with an unshackled tone comes a certain degree of…unshackled inhibitions.
“Fanservice” is not necessarily the word I want to use here, since it has as many definitions as you want to give it, being as how it basically functions as a catch-all term for anything designed to please the audience but not really progressing the story. By this metric, any loving, panning shot of a Jaeger is fanservice. The scene in DOOM (the movie starring the Rock) that takes place entirely in first person is fanservice. Any time Seto Kaiba says or does anything…well, you get the point.
There’s no way to really word this paragraph correctly – I don’t want to come off like a prude through writing this. If a female character wants to look attractive, that’s okay. If the presence of a character empowers someone through their design or their actions, that’s perfectly okay and I’m not trying to attack that or take those experiences away. Exploration of sexuality is part of the greater goal of animation widening its lens to encompass – and tackle – more social topics. That sort of thing is what I live for.
However, it’s my view that for all its maturity in so many areas, anime has a serious problem with sexuality and its representation, and it runs the risk of damaging the medium’s image and progression even further than it arguably already has.
Mech love (and listen to the music)
I talked about it at length when I reviewed it a while back, but for all the fantastic ideas, character designs and morals raised by Trigger and A1’s DARLING in the FRANXX, it was let down by a really poor attitude to sex that not only added basically nothing to the show, but actually damaged its own morals regarding sexuality.
To recap for those unfamiliar, the show focuses heavily on giant mechs – FRANXX – piloted by two children who must link their minds Pacific Rim-style to fight giant monsters. The show supports its premise, alongside beautiful animation and an expertly-crafted soundtrack, with heavily mature sexual themes, ranging from the discovery of where you stand on the LGBT spectrum to wanting to start a family, and the power of choice in an oppressive society that demands hetero-normative relationships.
One of the central characters, Ikuno, goes through a very believable process of coming out, as she wrestles with her own feelings for fellow “pistil” Ichigo. This is mirrored in-universe by her expressing numerous times that she’d love to pilot a mech with her, in no small hint of how she feels, though it doesn’t work when they try – Ichigo is straight and cannot return them.
This all comes to a head late in the series where Ikuno breaks down, pins Ichigo to the bed and screams about how life isn’t fair. It’s an emotional highlight of the series, and one of the most pivotal moments of representation in a show all about discovering who you are.
Did I mention you pilot the mechs doggy style by grabbing the girl pilot’s butt?
What’s worse, the writing flip-flops between treating the sex stuff as a joke and the most serious thing in the entire world. Let’s be clear, it is supposed to be the latter – the children are the last line of defence in a post-apocalyptic world where humans live in roaming cities – but first we need to have an episode where all the girls’ clothes melt off and it gets the boys all hot and bothered. Or we go to the beach. Or both!
Don’t get me wrong – I sincerely admire what FRANXX was attempting to do with its story, and the mech designs are so cool I have not one but two of them purchased – but it really didn’t have any clue what to do with representing the sex angle. In a universe as positively saturated with allegories and allusions to sex, relationships and love as this show is, there is absolutely zero reason for this to be presented this way other than to titillate the viewer or solicit raucous laughter. And I’m not sure which is worse.
Passion for Fashion
Let’s talk about Kill la Kill.
It’s another show by Studio Trigger, and it’s become well known for a variety of reasons since it stormed onto the scene in 2014 as essentially a frenetic, adrenaline-fuelled fever dream of a show that combined action, comedy and a heartfelt message into one rather excellent package.
A huge theme of the show is sexuality, once again, though this time it’s a different definition – this is the sexuality within all of us that we have, and we flaunt (or don’t). In a world where clothes literally make the man – that is to say, they grant incredible power to those who wear them – transfer student Ryuko Matoi bonds with a powerful sentient sailor uniform named Senketsu as she tries to find and take revenge upon her father’s killer.
This time around, the revealing nature of the costumes is – at least partially – an actual part of the plot. With the central theme of the show revolving around independence and self-identity, a huge part of Ryuko gaining power comes from her acceptance of – and feeling confident in – this new outfit, as she fights to oppose a totalitarian regime governing the school she finds herself infiltrating.
In this way, her journey closely mirrors that of puberty. You’re thrust into a body you don’t feel comfortable in, but by accepting it you can grow as a person. A girl’s body changing into that of a woman can also attract unwanted attention – like a builder yelling at someone as they walk by.
It’s terrible, but it’s also a struggle women face in the real world, and in a way this is paralleled by the costume’s – and the show’s – overtly sexual framing of Ryuko’s…well, everything. Satsuki yells at her that she shouldn’t be embarrassed by what others think, and she’s right.
It’s muddled a bit, of course, by the fact that the show could well have ultimately written and animated at least partially as an avenue to ogle the characters, as the numerous ‘male gaze’ shots of Ryuko and Satsuki demonstrate. But by the same token, through accepting Senketsu as a part of herself, Ryuko’s journey to completing her character arc is completed. And she could comprehensively beat the shit out of any wolf-whistling builder.
Unlucky For Some
But here’s where things get creepy.
The age of consent in Japan is what we’d like to call cursed ground, since at a national level it’s 13. One-three. Treize. However, everyone under the age of 20 is a ‘juvenile’, and depending on the age of the partners in question, things become up to interpretation.
To reiterate, the legal nature of sex in Japan is so complicated that there is a fucking chart for it:
In turn, this creates a very serious cultural problem, which can be compounded with other weird stuff.
So if we take, for example, Monogatari:
When Araragi (17) does that to Hachikuji (11), it’s played by the show as wacky harmless fun. Araragi is excited to see Hachikuji, after all, and this is a perfectly normal thing for someone to do to a girl they haven’t seen in a while, right? It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, too, taking up only about three seconds of screentime, so at least it’s quick, right?
But now I tell you that Hachikuji died 10 years before the events of the show, and so her literal age – as helpfully recorded by the wiki – is 22. She’s actually older than Araragi is, so it’s fine, right? If we consult the Japanese sex chart, she would at worst get a misdemeanour, which is basically up to legal interpretation in Japan, right?
Araragi is reprimanded for doing this – his actions are met with irritation and/or being knocked away. But much like Mineta from My Hero Academia, this is presented a little too much like an awkward moment to be quickly forgotten and not the more serious situation that it…kind of is.
And then we have Shinobu, a vampire who looks like an eight-year-old. She used to look way older, but now she looks like an eight-year-old.
She’s 598, still, though. That’s way over the age of consent, right?
I can’t believe I just fucking wrote that. But that’s the kind of justification that makes my blood boil. If the show doesn’t do it, there’ll be a fan somewhere who will. It’s so out of place in a show so heavily steeped in exploration of self-identity and solving the world’s problems. Why drag more of those problems in and not solve them?
This whole thing is just so uncomfortable. It’s like that scene in Age of Extinction where a man explains to Mark Wahlberg how he can be in a relationship with Mark’s underage daughter.
Only for an entire genre of media.
So here’s the thing. For a lot of anime fans, this probably becomes something that gets laughed off as a weird thing that happens. Oh, that pesky anime, you might say while smoking your pipe. At it again!
To reiterate, separately from its suspect moments, Monogatari is a really well-made, mature show that is well worth your time. It’s such a shame that it – and several other shows like it – damage their serious maturity by delving into such…immaturity. And in some cases, it goes beyond immaturity.
Sexuality is something that can be woven into a narrative – much like violence, much like swearing, much like anything – to make a show elevate itself above its contemporaries by asking questions never before asked, by covering ground that needs to be covered. But much like violence, much like swearing, there are effective ways to use it.
And there are horribly ineffective ones.