Fan Service

Phantom of Inferno could well be the future of entertainment. An anime on DVD, in which you use the DVD remote to control the direction of the plot. The first title to truly straddle the closing gap between anime and computer games. A director’s cut in which you are the director, in many ways! Except you’re not.

Here’s the thing. Interactivity is a myth. Not because we can’t influence the way a story turns out, but because audiences have always done so, since the first time stories were told. The days are gone when bards would change tack mid-verse to avoid getting another bottle hurled at them by an unruly crowd, but marketing surveys, preview screenings and focus groups do a lot of that work instead.

Do you honestly think that, if you vote with your wallet to see a worthy art-house film made in the People’s Republic of China – Red Sorghum, or Blue Kite or any other combination of Color and Noun, that halfway through there’s going to be a car-chase, followed by martial arts combat between two men wearing jetpacks? Or when Jerry Bruckheimer presses the GO button on his latest blockbuster, that he hasn’t already thought through the needs and desires of every fifteen-year-old mallrat in the multiplex, and carefully tailored the movie to conform to the choices they would have made, if they’d been asked?

Films are already interactive. When I refuse to pay money to see Harry Potter and the Emperor’s New Clothes, I am casting a vote. It isn’t one that counts for much, but it’s a vote nonetheless. When I pay $150 for my copy of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories DVD, I am also casting a vote. In fact, I may have to cast it twice, because I can’t remember who I lent my Memories to, and I may have to buy another one, how’s that for irony?

But my low-tech approach, ignoring the entertainments that don’t suit me, could become a thing of the past if the interactivity fascists have their way. Instead of a hundred, different anime movies, studios could instead throw all their resources into making one, big crappy one, with a hundred potential endings. Then they’ll wire us into our seats, and “let the audience decide” how the movie goes…

Is it just me, or does that sound like Hell on Earth?

It’s bad enough that I should endure the infantile distractions of poorly-housetrained, ill-mannered children (of all ages) in a movie theater. God forbid that they should have any say in how the movie I’m trying to watch actually ends! I don’t want “democracy” at the movies, because that way lies the madness of TV ratings. I’m paying my dollars to see what the writer, director and actors wanted me to see, not a pablum that pleases the largest sector of whatever audience followed me in.

That’s what the creatives are paid to do. That’s why we pay them. Allow the audience to interfere with the creation of a work of art, and you might as well have nothing but reality TV and game shows.

“Fan Service” is a fabulous term that the anime world has given us. I love it in particular because it is a triumph of spin doctoring; something really dumb, that’s been sold to the public as something really smart. Fan service is what happens when the camera peeks down a girl’s blouse, or zooms in on her shapely behind. It’s when the film-makers throw in a piece of titillation “for the fans”… isn’t that great? They’re blaming you for the times when their movie sucks.

Take fan service to extremes, to the one-note “joke” that is Agent Aika for example, and you have nothing but wiggles and jiggles. The fans have been well and truly served… but then the real audience drifts away, and the creators wonder why it is that their stuff doesn’t do quite so well as the stuff by the Greats, your Miyazakis, your Takahatas, your Shirows…

Now, I’m sure if you, yes you – I’m sure if you sat down with Masamune Shirow or Katsuhiro Otomo, you’d get along fine. You’d have a nice chat, and at the end of the day, you might be able to give him a few pointers to improve his work. Sure. But what about the guy next to you, or the Hello Kitty Hugger in the corner, there? Do you want them having access to your favorite creator as well? Surely you like these creators because of the way they write and draw without your help… why on Earth would you want to rock the boat?

What makes these creators great is that they lead us to places we cannot conceive. They do seek out new worlds. Don’t make them go where everyone has gone before.

(This article first appeared in Newtype USA magazine in January 2003. I choose to reprint it here in the wake of David Hayter’s begging letter to fandom on AICN, pleading with them to go and see Watchmen twice, as if this is going to save the world).

15 thoughts on “Fan Service

  1. Your initial reactions to my posting the link to Hayter’s letter on Facebook made me think I’d done the wrong thing – but it was worth it to read that again. Fresh as ever.

  2. I’ve just had a quick look at Phantom of Inferno on Wiki and it makes for interesting reading – by the looks of things the technical glitches may have harmed its popularity in the West more than anything (I haven’t even heard of the title at all, so it really must’ve faded into obscurity!).

    I’m with you 100% on the fanservice issue – series and movies that rely on fanservice are giving the audience what they *think* they want, much like a fast food outlet. Junk food is convenient, fun but ultimately unsatisfying, and fanservice is the same. Yeah, cleavage shots and huge mecha battles might put bums on seats in the cinema but I’ll be the first to agree that a story isn’t realising its potential in being presented that way.

    It’s interesting you bring up the issue of visual novels here – I finished the Tsukihime VN just this evening and was amazed. The running gag of complaints to the tune of “there is no Tsukihime anime!” from fans of the game is still a bit unfair but I can see where they’re coming from: much like the “It wasn’t as good as the book/play/game…” is familiar when people watch movie adaptations of something that’s already popular.

    If I have one criticism to raise here, it’s this. There’s a big difference I think between letting idiots decide how a movie ends, and playing the multi-threaded story structure of a well-written visual novel. Still, I notice you wrote this article before the likes of Key and Type Moon released some of the most popular titles; I’m guessing your main point was about fanservice, which came across really well. Sorry if I dragged things off-topic there! 🙂

  3. That’s right. At the time I wrote that article, a “visual novel” was more likely to be a pornographic video game that ended with the lead character scoring with one of five or six different types of girl. (It was breaking down the code for some of those games, and finding out how the relays switched, that led me to write for the first time about the “Five Girls Named Moe”).

    Back in 2003, there was a much more terrifying prospect: that audiences in some cinemas would be fitted with controls that allowed them to vote on the direction that a movie took. This is, of course, what happens in a modern “visual novel” and indeed how Phantom of Inferno operated… just with the controls in the hands of a bunch of strangers whose opinions you didn’t necessarily give a toss about.

    It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, because it’s couched in mealy-mouthed terms like “choice” and “interactivity”, but what it amounts to is putting teens in charge of cultural decisions — like the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.

    I understand that 15-year-old boys from Nebraska have different attitudes and expectations to me, but I already seem to spend most of my life wading through media that has been designed with them in mind.

    I would like to stress that I don’t have anything against Nebraska. Or 15-year-old boys. But when I think of going to the cinema and my choices are Caped Spandex 3 and RRRRAGH! CARS!, it’s not a choice at all, it is an Illusion of Choice.

  4. Putting aside the question of Phantom of Inferno itself (I’d say it’s a good VN, despite the format and translation problems), there are times when a multithreaded storyline is pulled off really well. One example of this is Ever 17.

    As to fanservice, I don’t find myself bothered by it too much, but this assumes that there’s something else to keep me watching. If the show is all about fanservice, or if the VN is simply a sexfest, then I won’t bother.

    Some of the problems with “voting with dollars” is pretty apparent in the VN translation market. Hirameki, the translator of VNs (like Ever 17) that I’d like to support has already stopped publishing them. Buying Japanese VNs won’t help signal the demand for translated VNs, but I don’t intend on buying translated VNs I don’t want just to help the market. All I can do is eagerly await the release of Kazoku Keikaku (Family Project) and pick it up as soon as it’s available.

  5. You know as well as I that it’s not the cinema that bring in the returns for the creators of “Five Girls Named Moe” and its ilk. It’s the DVD sales and downloads to the hikikomori otaku, who heavily feed their fantasies like a haroin addiction, that are bringing in the readies. That’s why the studios keep churning it out. They can’t seem to do anything else at present.

  6. True enough, there are other limitations on cinema anime, often seemingly brought about by film-makers’ fear/hope that hardcore otaku *won’t* be the only audience. Somewhere in almost every meeting, there must be a man at the back with a clipboard who says: “You know, we might get more bums on seats if we put a really irritating kid in this…” And I sometimes wonder if someone in Tokyo is the Government Pants Inspector, who is there to ensure that every single anime contains a pointless knicker-flash. Maybe there’s a quota… Hmm… I sense a column coming on.

  7. I reviewed Phantom of Inferno way back when, and it was possibly one of the most tedious experiences I’ve ever had with a DVD. “Defines the anime generation!”, ran the tagline – in which case the anime generation must have been spending most of their time asleep. It may not be a good example of the genre, but it certainly put me off trying any others.

    As for fanservice – I’ve seen it described as “anime gravy”, and that’s pretty much spot-on – throw a little fanservice into a show that’s trying to do something else as its main course, and it works quite well. Divergence Eve has the bouncy bits, but it also has a very good hard SF storyline. It’s not just “Tits in Spaaaacccceeeeee!!!!”, regardless of what a certain releasing company would have us believe. 🙂

    But you can’t have gravy without a main course, which is where the likes of Agent Aika and, more recently, Strike Witches fall down. Enough people buy them, though, that they’re not going to disappear anytime soon.

  8. “Hey, Michelangelo, David looks a little sparse, any chance you could put a hat or perhaps a leather jacket on him- that would be cool and everyone would buy cool?”.

    Yes, why not get “the market” to dictate the product: maybe they can please all of the people all of the time? Personally I’m more of a compromise is a solution that pleases no one type of codger- show me the vision, even if I don’t agree with it!

    Truth be told I will see Watchmen again, but it’ll be the full version next time, and in it, maybe, I’ll find the missing je ne sais quoi. I wonder if the cut version was a product of committee deciding what “the market” demands? Ask the questions enough times and eventually you’ll get the answer you sought to begin with.

    As erudite as ever Mr C.

  9. Sorry if I’m being a bit thick here, but as hilarious as Solid Snake’s begging letter to the fans was (and the cringeworthy apology to anyone who thought he was being misogynist) – I’m not sure what relevance this article has to that?

    Hayter’s saying, if you want more movies like this, go see it more than once. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

    JC seems to be saying that films are already appropriately targeted at their audience (although as someone who is a fan both of Aika, *and* films like Red Sorghum, where my market is, I’m not entirely sure). So Clements and Hayter agree? Or have I got the wrong end of the stick? Is this entry a riposte to Hayter, or support?

    Hong Kong have already been blending genres for years, trying to get as many bums on seats as possible, appealing to as many markets as possible, which is why a bloody martial arts film can suddenly turn to wacky comedy, with romance and horror also shoehorned into one film.

    PS. Dungeons and Dragons people did some (quite good) interactive DVDs a couple of years ago, they were CGI animated, with a best- neutral – and bad ending – although they were more about solving the mystery than choosing if the heroine gets her baps out etc.

  10. I know how Hayter feels. But what irked me about Hayter’s letter was the implication that we were all in agreement about what “this” was, and if we wanted “more films like this” we should all rush to subsidise his film, as if the future of entertainment were in jeopardy, and that we could only save it by going to see Watchmen twice. And whatever we may think about Watchmen (I quite liked it), it’s not Casablanca!

    I don’t know what “more films like this” is supposed to mean, but I am supposed to open my wallet and give generously? I just did! I object to the implication that Great Art is lying in the gutter, and I’m kicking it if I don’t put my hand in my pocket and hand over another banknote to the writer of the Scorpion King, who already earns — take my word for it — significantly more than I do.

    Some of my associates immediately began burbling about the need to rush down to a cinema and see Watchmen again, lest the movie world be buried in crap. The movie world is *already* buried in crap. If you go and see Watchmen twice, it is not going to stop Highschool Musical 5 from happening.

    I paid my £8 to see Watchmen, in spite of the movie’s own director, who had publicly argued very persuasively that the cinema version was only half the story, and that I should probably go and buy the DVD if I wanted to see the whole thing. As far as I was concerned, I was *already* subsidising an incomplete work.

    So, all these things considered, I remembered that I’d written something before about democracy at the movies, and the arguments concerning who makes the decisions, the mealy-mouthed implication that if a film does well it’s a work of genius, and that if it does badly then it’s the public’s fault for being stupid. (I am sure to come back another day and argue precisely the opposite, with regard to the anime business).

    So, no, Mark, you’re not being thick here. My 2003 musings on fan service are merely of an oblique relation. But I think that my comments, and Hayter’s letter, and the various reactions to it, all form part of an interesting area in Audience and Reception — a debate on how people pay for their entertainment, and how accountable creators are for the foibles of their audience.

    I am fascinated by the economics of the entertainment industry, and by the implicit contracts between the reader and the writer, or film-makers and audience. A copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis costs £9.99. What if Titan decided to charge double for it, would all the same people still pay £20? What if I asked you all for £20 up front, sight unseen, for a book that I promised you *would* be good? And if it wasn’t, could you ask for your money back?

    The issue of how much a book is worth, to its readers and its publishers, is also very interesting, and book pricing is careful mathematical formula — a bit of Game Theory about x money risked for y hours entertainment, and maybe z added value as reference.

    Hayter’s arguments represent an interesting trend in the economics of the movie business. Renny Harlin, for example, is trying to get a movie off the ground about a famous Finnish man called Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who also happens to be the subject of my next book. Now, Harlin was supposed to go into production this month, but lost one of his backers. His producer went to the people of Finland and asked them to fund the film directly, by buying cinema tickets in advance at €50 each.

    Harlin and his crew are effectively arguing that if the Finns want a “film like this”, they’d better put their hands in their pockets before it’s even made, for maybe five times the amount that Hayter wants from Watchmen fans.

    Does that mean we are *all* producers now? What are the perks?

  11. I’m a producer on that 1 second film charity/illconceived vanity thing… but alas, no credit on IMDB. Yes, I think if you stump up money in advance, that does indeed make you a producer, and all those Finns should get a credit as such.

    JC, I think you could have charged whatever you liked for SGMC if you included a DVD medley of you singing the Cantopop hits that we all so loved on Saiko Exciting. But with a Eurotrash style backdrop for visual stimuli.

    I went to see Watchmen thrice (enjoyed it on the second view, fairly bored on the third) but I have one of those Cineworld subscription cards, so my three tickets cost me no more than buying zero tickets. How that translates into box-office for Watchmen I have no idea.

  12. “His producer went to the people of Finland and asked them to fund the film directly, by buying cinema tickets in advance at €50 each…

    …Does that mean we are *all* producers now? What are the perks?”

    A while back I was asked to write an article about the web site Sonicbids, which uses precisely this system to enable bands to raise money directly from fans. In their case, $10 entitles you to a copy of the CD and, in theory, a share of the royalties, although in practice you’d be fooling yourself to expect much there.

    This would probably make an interesting comparison with the way modern, networked, “3rd Generation” otaku culture influences what the industry produces. Will the Finns get the film they want, or will Harlin just take their money, leave them an IOU, and then make the film he planned to make originally? Sellaband fans generally seem to want the bands they invest in to do precisely that.

    On the other hand, the influence of otaku culture on current anime seems to be immense. I bang on a lot about Hiroki Azuma, but stuff he was writing about years ago in relation to fan culture has become utterly ubiquitous. Not only the fans, but also the creators, have embraced the database and subsumed themselves to the hive mind, as it were.

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