“What is perhaps most striking about anime, compared to other imported media that have been modified for the American market, is the lack of compromise in making these narratives palatable.”
– Susan Pointon
“…what appears to be be the single most asked question about anime in America, “why is anime so full of sex and violence?” is an inquiry that, while betraying an ignorance of the complexity and variety of the art form, is still significant in that it reveals the bewilderment of Western audiences in confronting so-called adult themes within the animated medium.”
– Susan J Napier
I’m sure my country’s recent ban of various sex acts in pornography wasn’t on many people’s Christmas list. Not because of any particular fetishization of any of the practices listed; it’s alarming due to the sense of a growing trend journalistic fans of anime should be all to familiar with. The practically Victorian belief that our media must be purged of any images we (that is, the social elite that stand to represent and essentialize us) find morally unsavory, and the result being dominated by a limitation of the expressions of women in media, to serve as a condemnation of the ‘patriarchy’, the ‘male gaze’, and so on. Any reader of Anime Feminist is continually blasted by an overt desire to have the medium change to fit the demands of certain strands of Eurocentric cultural criticism:
Just don’t sexualise characters in the first episodes of a non-sexual show. Portray them as full humans rather than body parts. Animate them to convey character, not cup size. Frame them to show power, not panties. This should be bare minimum stuff, the lowest bar. It’s not.
– Amelia Cook, writing for AniFem
This blog has explored before how a thinglike treatment of any human subject can be purposeful, even empowering, and isn’t objectively degrading. The vague and nonsensical cookie-cutter of a ‘non-sexual show’ is a fiasco that could fill an article of its own. But there’s a bigger underlying issue to our Western culture’s trend of treating fantasy like reality and believing it can be seen as nothing else. Many critics like the ‘feminist’ above want an ethical monopoly on the representation of gender in Japan’s postmodern multimedia culture, partly because they only read images as gathering into an ethical monopoly of their own, in a semiotic war against their views. Particularly, they want to decide what is ‘the lowest bar’ – what should be pushed to the outskirts of a medium, ostracized for being a ‘problematic’ part of it.
Our Western hegemony has long deemed the pornographic to inherently have its place at such an edge, teetering on losing inclusion within a medium’s intellectual space entirely. For many of us, fanfiction must know its place away from the ‘canon’ of whatever work we’re transforming. No matter what fantasies we have about the story, its reality must stay set in authorial stone. It’s no wonder therefore that the standard for Western anime critics is to denounce the value of all fanservice within a story. “It breaks immersion,” they say. “It’s all out of character”. As Lauren Orsini writes in another AniFem article:
...when an otherwise serious show suddenly points the camera at a female character’s panties, it’s saying several unfortunate things:
The creators have no confidence in their product. It reeks of self-doubt on the storyteller’s part. “Don’t like our storyline? Let’s toss in some skin just in case.”
The creators don’t know why we’re watching, and are hoping to compensate for that with unasked-for sex appeal, ultra-violence, etc. It’s tone-deaf.
In the case of female skin, the creators may believe that this is the only way to make women interesting. “She’s a magic-wielding soldier from the future, but if you still think that’s boring, take a look at her boobs.”
These critics see the integrity of narrative reality as hostile to any permeation of the audience’s deconstructive imagination, porn only as a threat to ‘serious’ performance. But this isn’t the only way to view fanservice, or anime as a whole.
The State and Statelessness of Japan
One only needs to step into the shoes of Japan’s media history. While Western literature in the 19th century was moderated by the pseudo-Christian morality politics of self-serving elites, objectifying women into essentialist prisons of purity and vulnerability in manners far more problematic that comical cartoon nip-slips, Japan’s visual culture was becoming more and more celebratory of representations of the disturbing and profane. As Susan J Napier explains:
“Certainly Edo period works have images the appear to have direct links to both manga and anime, particularly with the kibyoushi, illustrated books with an often humorous and/or erotic content, and the woodblock prints known as ukiyoe, which featured not only actors and courtesans of the demimonde but, as time went on, increasingly grotesque and imaginative subjects such as demons, ghosts, and extremely creative pornography… it seems safe to say that [Japan’s] tradition of pictocentricisim is definitely an influence behind the ubiquitousness of anime and manga.”
Napier makes reference to one such late Edo work in a chapter on anime’s local and global identities, a discussion at the forefront of her collection of essays on the medium. The 1824 “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” presents what can only be understand today as an early precursor to tentacle porn. She describes the subsequent Bakumatsu and Meiji periods as continuing this fascination with the grotesque. Nowadays, popular anime is much tamer; to appeal to an increasingly globalized audience, and to a global culture which has grown to emphasize a hegemonic sense of ethical responsibility centered on Western ideals, Japan is losing its tradition of reveling in the ridiculous.
The pressure anime has to conform to one sense of social morality is a misunderstanding of possibilities of the virtual space. It’s popularity and mass consumption are partly the products of America’s capitalism-will-prevent-communism policy that transformed Tokyo into an economic monument following Japan’s post-war state of defeat. The fact America now demands Japan’s media to be their ethical property, refusing relationships with media outside of the Platonic, continues their wish to control Japan’s sense of nationhood; if it runs on capitalism, it must be America’s capitalism. But as Saitou Tamaki has noted, otaku exhibit an absence of Platonic ideals, and that overall Japanese fiction has not been seen as serving or vying to reach reality:
Contrary to the idea that otaku are immature and confused about the boundaries of reality, Saitou argues that otaku have in sustained interaction with fiction developed a mature awareness of reality. They are extremely strict about observing the distinction between fiction and reality. As Saitō sees it, otaku are those with an affinity for “fictional contexts” (kyokō no kontekusuto), or those who react to fiction itself as a sexual object.
– Galbraith on Saitou
It is possible to see this dynamic modeled on more than the otaku who center their lives on Japan’s postmodern media mix. One could not be so daft as to believe the ‘furry’ fandom, and lovers of catgirls, revel in bestiality… right?
Western anime criticism furthermore has a tendency to ignore the more recent cultural contexts that pervade Japan in the twenty-first century. The bombing of Hiroshima, Napier argues, is “an experience that continues to affect the society today and that has created for many a collective sense of victimhood”. While we have our own share of existentialist dreads that emerged in the post-war world, British and American critics have the privilege of being on the winning side of international conflict. The country that produces anime, meanwhile, is continuing to endure the pessimism of having traditions blown apart and torn down further by the influx of Western influences that followed the war.
But while Japan’s postwar economy initially experienced success, more recently things have taken a turn for the worst. The Lost Decade of 1991-2000, following the collapse of the Japanese asset price bubble and their economy along with it, has left a further hole in the national integrity and pride of Japan: as Napier notes, “the perceived failure (or at least inadequacy) of Japan’s postwar economic success has led to an increasing disenchantment with the values and goals that much of postwar Japan has been built on”. That disenchantment has been strongly linked to the escapism of otaku and hikikomori, who, as this blog has previously touched upon, have abandoned the socioeconomic breadwinner society, and paradigms of ethics and gender along with it, in favour of a virtual world.
The transnational nature of this shift is best summarized in the word mukukoseki, ‘stateless’, which explains why anime has such a great sense of its country of origin while also deviating from the Japanese image so much – an often-cited example being the large eyes and whiter skin of so many characters, particular those of the moe disposition. Mamoru Oshii goes as far to claim that this deliberate de-Japanizing of characters serves a consumer interest to evade the fact they are Japanese. Along with other traditions, concepts of male and female are thrown into the maelstrom of a matsuri that takes pleasure in deconstructing and subverting their ‘essential’ aspects. Why else do you think we have dickgirls?
Evolving From Essentialism
It is dangerous to ignore this cultural history and de-essentializing process in motion when one looks upon otaku and their media. A strong case can be made against Naitou Chizuko’s criticism of lolicon in this manner. In her article in Mechademia’s fifth volume, she posits that the positions of the ‘woman’ and the ‘young girl’ were reversed for the ‘marginalized male’ because the downfall of the patriarchy meant such men no longer felt empowered over the opposite sex: they therefore turned to infantilized, objectified, helpless fictional women to fulfill their desires. A caustic air of ‘winning the battle but not the war’ against masculinity emanates from Naitou’s feminist analysis, but even more hazardous is the essentialism through which she binds all ‘marginalized males’ to heteronormativity. It is strange that her studies are guided through Judith Bulter and the Japanese response to her work, since she abandons the value of Butler’s academia in examining otaku themselves. She has no treatment of the feminized male, and no consideration for the state of otaku being anything other than a continuation of the polarized narrative of male hostility towards women.
While writing on ultimately conservative, heteronormative pornography, Napier at least gathers in her conclusion that there is the possibility for male otaku to be not simply viewing women in anime but ‘becoming’ them. These open-ended thoughts from a decade and a half ago have been solidified by Galbraith’s more recent interrogation of otaku consumption. In The Moe Manifesto and his scholarship, Galbraith has helped demonstrate the importance of an anti-essentialist examination of otaku through the variety of viewpoints he draws together on the subject. He presents, for instance, how:
Sharon Kinsella suggests that the shoujo possessed her own power, and male viewers both abused and identified with her to negotiate an ambiguous gender position. Specifically speaking of lolicon, Kinsella discusses the shoujo as a performance scripted by and for men, one that became central for those transitioning from the “male” position of producer to the “female” position of consumer.
It’s a boon that we have scholars like Galbraith to help combat the discourse on otaku that is so stifled by stereotype. He explains the problem in a dialogue with fellow scholar Thomas Lamarre:
Scholars working on Japanese popular culture are only distinguished by the quantity of their publications and the novelty of their topics, which conditions a preference for niche subjects, which are analyzed by applying simplified superstructures. The result is a tendency toward exoticizing and essentializing. This tendency often reflects or even reproduces sensationalist journalism about Japan. This is very clear in the context of otaku. Definitions are set up on the basis of “otaku” in Japan, but often with little or no contact with these imagined others, and there is a critical lack of engagement with experts in Japan. Thus discussions of otaku repeat assumptions about unique, even bizarre habits and practices. And such assumptions go unquestioned, because Japanese uniqueness is the last remaining rationale for continued study of Japan itself.
The primacy of social media in discussions between fans and ‘critics’ of anime alike has only worsened this situation. Online messaging favours the tightly-packed, buzzword essentialization of a subject. From hashtags to calling out ‘hate speech’, Twitter is perhaps the worst offender in this case. All a ‘feminist’ has to do to be seen as a good critic of otaku culture is screenshot something focusing on boobs and tweet it as ‘objectification’, quote something out of context and tweet it as ‘misogynistic’. What it means to be an otaku is treated as a trivialized closed case or too nebulous an affair to tackle, and yet critics will continue to use the term to center their grievances around an interpretive community they have no interest in examining with open-mindedness.
To make progress in our criticism, we need to take the same steps feminism has made in furthering the examination of women’s lives: end the essentialism, and the Eurocentricism. Otaku do not fit into one neat box, and their variety and dialogicism is what keeps their community so alive. Neither do otaku fall under whatever premeditated conclusions on masculine perspectives Western viewers have arrived at only by examining their own Hollywood-saturated culture. Western critics need to understand their normativity of media consumption is not necessarily the position of those consuming anime, and nor should it be. Japan revels in the bizarre, and often the morally outrageous, not because they wish their society would come to reflect that, but rather, as Mamoru Oshii argues, because “anime is a world unto itself” and “the very flexibility, creativity and freedom in the medium” is “a site of resistance to the conformity of Japanese society”. (1)
Napier goes on to consider how “the anime medium […] offers a space for identity exploration in which the audience can revel in a safe form of Otherness unmatched by any other contemporary medium”. It is curious to consider that Japan’s embrace of this Otherness in the form of lolicon coexists with their society having eight times less the teen pregnancy rate of the United States. Though at the height of industrialization, Japan faces one of the lowest crime rates of any developed country. If one keeps in mind the otaku’s common lack of Platonic ideals, and the self-infantilization that occurs in the moe interaction, the consumer performance of a field such a lolicon comes to look rather different that it appears at a first glance to the typical Western mindset.
Napier summarizes the issue well through Douglas Kellner, who argues that American “mass culture […] articulates social conflicts, contemporary fears, and upotian hopes and attempts at ideological containment and reassurance”. Anime, on the other hand, while sometimes providing a “compensatory function” often offers “explicit alternatives to social norms”. These include extreme deviations from hegemonized perceptions of social morality and national conservatism, performed in anime through minimal moments of fanservice, whole genres of disturbing sexual interactions, and the grand scheme of destabilizing the sense that a ‘normal’ anime has an integrity that must resist the entertaining of unsavory thoughts. Fanservice penetrates anime to encourage derivation and crack the mask of decency. It’s a matsuri, and the perceived failings of social tradition are the primary cause for its primacy.
To respond by telling anime to ‘get it’s act together’ and re-conform to a monolith of such morality and politicization ignores the potential that the otaku media mix presents: a virtual space where the most perverse fantasies may be realized without harm so long as they are consumed through the kind of “life stylization” Lamarre suggests is what best defines otaku themselves, which Galbraith believes exhibits greater maturity in distinguishing fantasy from reality than Western culture has come to manifest. Policing this space may sate one’s fears that the media could be viewed and used differently, ‘wrongly’, for harmful purposes, but removing it would also remove our capability to respond to manifestations of what we consider a morally problematic imagination altogether.
We must focus on perspectives, and their multiplicity, to work with this issue of an ideologically volatile media, and read works of the otaku media mix as performing to us impressions of what kind of reading they encourage, rather than assuming one kind of image has only one kind of viewer. A ‘problematic’ relationship within a work may be noted, but that criticism should be directed at the world that gave birth to the dynamic, and not the media in a request for it to change. Acting otherwise would be akin to poking at your mirror because you want to change your face, or your make-up. The mirror reflects, and media should be able to reflect whatever qualities of its producers and consumers there are to be manifested in images.
Anime has to remain an interpretive space where we can look and say ‘that’s wrong! that’s weird! that’s absolutely abominable!’ from whatever perspective we have, while respecting the right for that image to be made and expressed. Trying to silence that genuine expression will only cause a greater demand for it to be made. Juridifying against it, based on assumptions of cognitive distortions that essentialize viewing into Platonic fantasy-reality dynamics, will only drive more and more viewers to a mukokuseki way of life. And that isekai will always resist ethical monopolization, because it was born out of desire to escape that very kind of cultural imperialism upon the imagination.
With this in mind, fanservice should not be relegated to ‘the lowest bar’ of otaku media. It should thrive as much as otaku wish it to, particularly as it benefits the matsuri of destabilizing social and moral traditions of gender politics. This is not the say that it is (before any reader interjects with the phrase) ‘immune from criticism’: it must be viewed critically in the manner of understanding its complex roots and uses. The lust for the virtual image must not be assumed, through a Westernized hegemony, to be the lust for it in reality, or as ‘real’. If we recall Saitou’s consideration of otaku as “those who react to fiction itself as a sexual object”, we must consider it important to reflect on whether the moe girl is engaged with as human at all, or whether it’s her virtual essence, performable in reality but not actualizable in the physical, ‘humanlike’ but more substantiated in artifice, that attracts the otaku.
Hundreds of debates spring from the notion that anime shouldn’t be conquered by one community’s ethical mindset. A number have been touched upon here, but are far from being concluded. But that’s a good thing: the complexity of otaku provides us with challenges to our critical perception of media that we must address. Ignoring those challenges, to permit expedient criticism of what should be ‘the lowest bar’, means failing to understand the media and its consumers. You won’t reach otaku that way: you’ll only alienate them further from your ethics, further into the mukukoseki world they’ll be staying in regardless. And they will look down at you squabbling over how large an anime girl’s tits are, and they will laugh at your misunderstanding, and your ‘criticism’ will only be another part of their boundary-breaking matsuri.
The next time you see fanservice, don’t just assume how otaku view it. Interrogate the image, and the culture. The weird and worrying sides of the medium are always more complex than most ‘anime feminists’ make them seem.
(1) This is Napier’s paraphrasing