The opinions presented below are my own. They are based on my experiences with fan culture, and the methods by which I have arrived at them completely unscientific.
A fresh perspective
About a year ago, I was talking to one of my good friends in Tokyo, when he said that he wanted to go see the Strike Witches movie. Furthermore, he also wanted to host marathon screenings of the first and second season of the TV-series, in order to get pumped-up. I hold a great deal of respect for this friend of mine, but at the same time, Strike Wtiches and I don't have the easiest of relationships.
The first time I tried watching it, this was all I saw.
Lollies flying around in ridiculously skimpy outfits, with preposterous camera angles clearly chosen only to showcase their panties as frequently and as closely as possible. “This is the worst thing I've ever seen”, was what I thought to myself as I rated the series “3” on MAL, one of the lowest scores I've ever given an anime, and moved it to my “Dropped” list. Now, this was not because I can't handle loli-fanservice. In fact, one of my favourite manga of all time is Kodomo no Jikan, the archetypal loli-manga, which spawned the anime most otaku probably think of first when they hear the words pedo or loli.
Since I clearly didn't mind the concept of fanservice in and of itself, what was it that made me hate Strike Witches where I adored Kodomo no Jikan? To put it simply, it was the pointlessness of it all. Kodomo no Jikan, while full of gratuitous fanservice, has a point. At its core, it's the story of a maladjusted young girl named Rin, who is being brought up by her cousin, who dated her much younger mother, who is now dead. On top of that, this cousin was abused by his parents, and sees in Rin the spitting image of her late mother, who took him in when his abusive parents passed away. In short, she has a complicated home. The fanservice in the series is largely used to showcase the fact that, perhaps as a result of all of this, she has developed a very different sense of right and wrong to most children her age, also when it comes to sex.
Since she knows that the person currently bringing her up slept with her much older mother at a fairly young age, she doesn't understand why society sees her falling in love with her teacher as a bad thing, despite her being 10. Now, why she falls in love with him is an entirely different story, but I think I have completed my goal of showing that the fanservice in Kodomo no Jikan, while gratuitous, contributes a lot to the story, and is a result of the characters being who they are, not just something that happens to give the viewer a hard-on. Most of the time. Because even though I loved KodoJi, there were episodes while watching it where there was pointless fanservice, fanservice that had no higher purpose. This annoyed me. However, I felt that the overall quality of the manga was so high that I could overlook it, and still hold it in high regard as something that tries to get to the core of issues most other works hardly dare to scrape at the surface of.
This kind of anime and manga which incorporate the fanservice into the story is what I will call category A anime. The "A" doesn't say anything about my opinion of the quality of these kinds of works, it's just a letter. These include anime like Evangelion, Panty & Stocking, Yosuga no Sora and Gurren Lagann. These are all shows where the fanservice, when it's there, is largely well-placed, and helps to tell the story and develop the characters in one way or another, and they wouldn't be the same without it.
Strike Witches is not in this category. All of the fanservice in Strike Witches is essentially nothing but pointless, even more pointless than the most pointless of the fanservice from Kodomo no Jikan, repeated over and over again. My position at the time was essentially that fanservice could serve a point and be worthwhile, or it could be there just to please the viewer and be annoying.
So when I heard this friend of mine saying that he really liked Strike Witches, I couldn't help but blurt out; “But it's crap”. When he asked me to elaborate, I essentially presented a longer, more ranty version of what I've written above. When I was finished, my friend replied: “Yeah, I know all that. But so what, it's my kind of crap. As long as I know it's crap when I sit down to watch it, I can enjoy it just as much as I enjoy Ghost in the Shell, just on a different level.” I had nothing to say in return to this. At first, I found the argument in and of itself to be ridiculous, but wanting to give his argument a chance, I agreed to attend the screening.
When watching it this, the second time, by keeping it mind that this is not trying to be anything but silly fanservice, I found myself enjoying it immensely. The ridiculous angles, the WWII jokes, the ridiculous characters, they weren't written by someone hoping to accomplish great things, they were written to have fun, and to let the viewer have fun, nothing else. We watched the entire first season that day, and when I returned home to my apartment, I watched the second in quick succession, and ended up going to see the movie in the cinema twice.
Anime like Strike Witches, Ikki Tousen, GreenGreen, PrincessPrincess, Highschool of the Dead, and perhaps even K-on are what I will refer to as category B anime. The entire point of these anime is pretty much to “service the fans”, in one way or another, and the fanservice doesn't get in the way of the story or character development, because the fanservice is the point of the show.
This is just one among the many things that I changed my mind on during my time in Japan. Another was that the status of porn and sexuality. Now, in my country, I'd been used to porn and erotica being something that you keep to yourself, and certainly not something you seriosuly talk about with friends. In Japan, things were different. In one of my first trips to Akihabara with otaku friends, we visited the 18+ sections of several stores, my friends walking in like it was the most natural thing in the world. At first, I was quite uncomfortable with this, but after a little while, I realised that there was a lot of stuff that could be classified as porn that I'd actually like to have serious discussions about. Things like eroge and certain doujinshi, which I hadn't felt were appropriate to bring up in a discussion with my friends at home, were suddenly totally fair game, and it was actually rather nice.
Because, and I don't know how many western fans realize this, but some really great anime started out as eroge. Clannad, Fate/Stay Night, Air, Shuffle, all were originally eroge, and only later adapted into anime. Being able to play the originals and discuss them with friends was a great addition to my otaku life. Doujinshi also aren't just the dirty ones we see on the net over here. A lot of doujinshi are really just manga/anime artbooks, some more erotic than others, but many of the drawings certainly wouldn't look that out of place at an art exhibition.
I came to realize that I'd been overly critical and inhibited earlier. I was able to relax my standards for what was good anime, and thus enjoy a lot of different titles I wouldn't have before. During my stay, I began to think about how odd my standards had been before, and wonder why I'd ever been unable to enjoy the silliness of shows like Strike Witches and Nanoha.
Then I returned to Europe...
That's all for this time. I expect to upload the second half sometime next week.