So, I just finished Nisemonogatari for the first time. And I’m pretty much blown away. And I need to talk about it.
(You might want to sit down, I’ll be here a while)
I’d put off watching this second season for a decent while, for two very specific reasons. First, while I found the first season very unique and artistically compelling, it didn’t really resonate with me at all until that last, basically perfect episode. And second, from everything I’d read online, it seemed like the second season amped the fanservice up to 11. And fanservice, well…
It’s bad. The way it’s normally used, it demeans and objectifies characters, and distracts/detracts from whatever a show is trying to do narrative-wise and emotionally. It makes the camera itself a lecherous observer of characters, and not simply the best framing device for the story being told. It adds to a value unrelated to a show as an artistic work, and in fact normally detracts from its artistic worth and the narrative/emotional weight of any scene. It demeans the audience as well, implying we’re unable to be entertained by the show’s actual worth, and the implications regarding my base-instinct-oriented nature colors my experience as a viewer. It proves that the creators of the show are not taking that show and its characters seriously – and if they’re not, why the fuck should I?
Nisemonogatari is not interested in fanservice.
Nisemonogatari is a show specifically about sexuality, perspective, and the conventions of camera use (yeah, I know it’s not an actual camera, bear with me).
Most fan service happens by making the camera take the perspective of an outsider, an intruder to the scene – or at “best” the perspective of the lecherous or hapless protagonist. Fan service is all about the male gaze, that is, women are framed in a way that accentuates their sexuality not because that’s how they see themselves, but just because the cameraman finds that sexy.
In Nisemonogatari, the cameraman has got greater concerns than that. Every shot is purposeful, and from a specific perspective or mentality.
Example 1: the scene with Nadeko.
In this scene, Nadeko is specifically and obviously trying to seduce the oblivious Araragi. To that end, Nadeko is in control of the camera. The camera is portraying her exactly how she wants to be perceived, and most of the humor of the scene is drawn from the contrast between her fumbling, obvious advances and Araragi’s upbeat obliviousness. This is the first of many scenes where a female character attempts to use her sexuality as a weapon, and Araragi’s responses make it clear that the camera is not from his male perspective – it is portraying the way she is attempting but failing to be perceived. Additionally, this is the first of countless scenes where almost all the emotional content of the exchange is contained in the direction, not the script. This isn’t surprising, considering this show is directed by the great Akiyuki Shinbo, but it’s clear even this early that Shinbo has a bone to pick with the way anime portrays sexuality, and his superior, winking control of the camera’s eye comes up again and again.
Let’s run through a few more examples. The next scene, Araragi meets his sister, and this is completely unsexualized – in fact, they even go so far as to incorporate a traditionally grossly fanservicey shot (a crotch shot), but because of her outfit and stance, it’s totally neutral. At this point in time, neither of these characters consider the other sexually at all, so why would the camera? Shinbo knows what many directors fail to either know or care about – that the positioning of the camera both has a significant emotional effect on the viewer, and always conveys information. Information about tone, about self-image, about stakes, about the way one character views another… anime is a medium with literally infinite framing potential, and Shinbo is going to talk about that whether the viewer likes it or not.
The next scene we’re with Kanbaru, and it’s back to “fanservice” – but the context is entirely different from the Nadeko scene. In this sequence, it’s a girl using her body to deliberately fuck with Araragi, because that’s the rapport they share. Unlike Nadeko, there is no subtlety in Kanbaru’s sexuality, both because that’s more representative of her in-your-face personality, and because she just knows Araragi better. She uses her sexuality as a weapon, not to seduce Araragi, but to simply throw him off guard. But again, she is entirely in control of the camera’s eye.
Skipping ahead, we have an episode where Shinobu is naked basically the entire time, but the tone and impression are completely different. The camera trivializes her nudity because to her, it is trivial – it is not sexualized, and is treated in a way very similar to Horo from Spice and Wolf – it doesn’t shy away from it, but also doesn’t fetishize or draw attention to it. Meanwhile, in a brief conversation with a fully clothed Hanekawa, the camera is all about the character’s sexuality. This is because Hanekawa is an inherently seductive presence to Araragi, and they both know it – the sexual tension just barely unacknowledged between them is apparent in the camera’s eye. Again, all these scenes contain the majority of their context simply in the framing of the character – while their conversations are more whimsical and plot or banter-focused, a huge amount of information about the relationship the characters share is conveyed through the camerawork alone. Intelligent cinematography is like a freaking superpower.
And now we get to the big one.
Episode 8. Dental hygiene. The last great point of this series.
To me, firstly, this episode is goddamn hilarious. The primary joke of the second half is, “brushing teeth should not be this sexy,” and that joke only works if the audience can feel how sexy it is for those characters. And this team is obviously gifted enough to know how to pull off a scene like that.
And that’s impressive enough on its own. But what I really think this episode is doing, what I think the point is from the beginning straight through the end, is talking about Intimacy.
I think, and this is pure hypothesis, but it seems pretty reasonable to me, that Shinbo asked himself, “what do people who love fanservice get out of it? Why are they watching an anime, and not just porn? What does this show have that actual direct sexual gratification lacks?”
The toothbrush scene is so erotically charged because of the intimacy involved, and everything in the show/episode leads into this. First, Karen and Araragi’s relationship always has a weird, semi-flirtatious charge to it, as they’ve moved from younger traditional antagonistic siblings to one of those bicker-flirting couples. Then, everything Karen does at the start of this episode is designed to put Araragi off his guard and in a place of intimacy/discomfort. Her outfit does so much work here, and it’s all her intentional, meaningful decision. First, it serves as a striking contrast against both her normal outfit and her personality – the bee exercise outfit is absolutely her, androgyny is absolutelyher, carefree sexlessness is absolutely her, and putting her in such a constricting, gendered, sexually charged outfit serves to throw off all preconceptions Araragi has about interacting with her. Second, the fact that it isn’t her outfit, and in fact doesn’t fit her at all, puts her in a place of vulnerability, and this also throws off Araragi. Finally, it directly is designed to be sexy, and prove she’s in control of her sexuality, which is something Araragi has clearly been struggling to come to grips with as he attempts to act like a role model for his sisters. All of these things further Karen’s goals in this episode – make Araragi so uncomfortable he’ll agree to introduce her to Kanbaru. All these are choices of the character, not the learing cameraman, and the effect these choices have on both Araragi and the audience is very much the intended effect. Everything else she does – the confession about how his insults used to really get to her, her basically physically assaulting him – all these further that one clearly understood goal.
But I was talking about intimacy. So, what the actual toothbrush scene does obviously builds off this place of discomfort/vulnerability/overt sexuality she’s been intentionally provoking. It combines this with the relationship these two have been building, a great deal of bantering buildup, and a close monologue from Araragi to place the sex stuff in a position of complete emotional honesty. Sure, it’s also played for humor – but the humor is mostly based on the fact that it’s funny brushing teeth can be this sexy, and as I said, for that joke to work at all, the audience has to truly understand that this scene is sexy to these characters. Most powerful moments in most media are powerful not just because of the audience’s emotional reaction to a situation, but because they can empathize with a character’s emotional reaction to a situation. This effect drags us further into the text/film/show and girders our connection with the characters involved – at that moment, we feel for them more deeply than we do for ourselves. Thus, all the prep work of this episode works to help us understand these characters completely at this moment, and when they react to this scene as if it’s incredibly erotic, we can understand it to be erotic as well. The connection between the characters is honest, and the way the show is conveying their emotions to the audience is honest as well – intimacy is really just another word for honesty. This honesty, which makes this scene so strong, is a part of why most fanservice is so bad – because it’s dishonest to the characters, and portrays them as sexual objects when they’re not actually feeling like sexual objects in that moment. But more than that, this honesty is almost entirely lacking in conventional pornography. Conventional pornography is generally a collection of soul-deadened actors performing a service for a fee – sure, they’re naked, but it’s the furthest thing from intimacy you could possibly imagine. To find someone disrobe emotionally, you have to look to art. And so the point of this scene is “Even in a scene as ridiculous as this, honesty can make it ring true.”
One last tangent, but it was very interesting to me, and I never would have thought of it if not for the strong points raised by Nisemonogatari. I think this intimacy issue is a large part of why something like K-On is so damn successful. This is a kind of fractured and difficult point to make, mainly because the characterization in K-On is very difficult to describe as “honest,” but I think from the point of view that these are valid characters, K-On attempts to create a continuous mood of emotional honesty and friendly, unabashed intimacy. It invites the viewer into a safe, loving environment free from any of the hidden motives and defenses that characterize the real world, and is always completely honest with the viewer. For those who watch Community, K-On is basically like the ultimate Abed experience – a world based on rules you understand entirely that loves you unconditionally, and is willing to share all of its emotional secrets with you. Intimacy porn. I mainly bring this up because there was a thread a few days ago where someone said they like K-On because the characters feel “real.” Now, to anyone who knows anything about character writing or, frankly, human beings, that’s a ridiculous statement – but I think what was really meant there was that the characters feel honest, which, though they are very fabricated constructions, is certainly true within the context of that show.
So yeah, the toothbrush scene forced me to reevaluate and perhaps legitimize the emotional appeal of “cute girls doing cute things”. And I think that’s exactly the point Shinbo was trying to make – that sex will never be as appealing as honesty, and that intimacy is ultimately the core of the erotic. And that this, in addition to the issues about male gaze, camerawork, storytelling, and perspective he’s already addressed, is why fanservice normally hurts shows – it’s impersonal and dishonest.
So no, I don’t think Nisemonogatari is a big fan of fanservice. In fact, I think it’s the ultimate, staggeringly coherent statement against it, complete with endless demonstrations of the ways sexuality really can be used to enhance and augment storytelling. And I could not be more freaking impressed.