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Fan Service With a Smile

Del Rey’s Negima!

I know it’s the rustiest saw in the columnist’s tool box, but I have to start out this week with a definition:

“Fanservice (or fan service) is a vaguely defined term used in visual media, particularly in the anime fandom (in Japanese, it is simply spoken as “service (saabisu)”), to refer to elements in a story that while potentially superfluous to a storyline, are designed to amuse or excite the audience. It is sometimes used in a derogatory manner when presented in a clumsy, pandering fashion or is the only thing notable about a series. Since it is extremely subjective, the most common uses are listed.

“Sexual: The typically understood definition is inclusion of racy or sexual content (usually female, but also male) to titilate the viewer, such as nudity. Shower scenes are very common in movies. Many television series use trips to Japanese hotsprings, or “obligatory” holiday episodes (especially to tropical locales) to depict characters in states of relative undress when it would otherwise be out of place with the tone of a series. In anime two common fanservices are the panty shot and jiggling breasts, both often overused to an almost silly level (that is often what is desired).” (From Wikipedia.)

It struck me that, while I’ve danced around the topic as it relates to content ratings and other issues, I’ve never really immersed myself in the fan service experience. I’ve never snuck into the shower room, as it were, and as a manga columnist, I feel I owe it to myself.

But, where to start? What title will provide a peephole into the girls’ restroom? What title will provide superfluous nudity, possibly at odds with plot and tone? Are there any examples out there that play to my pet themes of appropriate content and targeted marketing?

You can see why Negima! (Del Rey) seemed like such a godsend.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it’s a hugely popular comic fantasy about a ten-year-old British wizard assigned to teach English to 31 junior-high-school girls at a huge private school in Japan. Each volume arrives sheathed in plastic, a sticker declaring that it’s “For Mature Audiences Ages 16+.” Nubile tweens stare out from the cover, a breeze lifting their skirts, wrapped in towels that are destined to succumb to the pull of gravity. Prior to publication, Del Rey considered altering the content to make an all-ages product for western audiences. Unlike other publishers, they opted for a straight translation and a 16+ age rating, which hasn’t hindered sales in the slightest.

Creator Ken Akamatsu is working with an amiable, air-headed premise. Negi Springfield, wizard-in-training, has completed the classroom portion of his education, and it’s time for him to go out into the world. He approaches the improbable teaching gig with optimism and enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that he’s younger than his students. His assignment demands he be discreet with his magic, though he totes his wand/broomstick with him wherever he goes.

Surprisingly enough, his students don’t seem to be bothered that they’re paying private-school tuition to be taught by a ten-year-old. Most of the nubile throng think he’s adorable, like a kid brother or a pet. The honorifics shift accordingly, with –kun (used affectionately for a younger male), -sensei (“teacher”), and –bozu (“squirt”) brought into play depending on the speaker and her disposition. (Negi refers to his students with the respectful “-san,” as they’re older, despite his having authority over them.)

Not all of the students are pleased with Negi’s arrival, of course. Bossy, blunt-spoken Asuna misses the teacher Negi replaced. Her resentment leads to extra scrutiny, and she quickly catches on to Negi’s magical abilities. She’s won over by Negi’s basic decency, though, and they form a big sister/little brother rapport. And Asuna’s objections are nothing compared to another student with her own mystical secrets.

The first three volumes feature standard classroom comedy. Negi helps his students stand up to a domineering group of high-school girls in a dodge ball tournament. He tries to drag themselves out of the academic cellar with a nighttime raid on the school’s enormous, unusually dangerous library. And he tries to protect them from a predatory vampire with a grudge against the young wizard. Laced through are familiar themes for all-ages material: a kid trying to be taken seriously, scholastic struggles, and secret-identity highjinks.

It’s lovely to look at, particularly the backgrounds. Akamatsu and his assistants have created a richly detailed setting and seem to delight in exploring the various corners of the landscape. Character design is strong, too. It can’t be easy to make 31 girls visually distinct without resorting to absurdity, but Akamatsu pulls it off. Negi is a suitably adorable figure (though he’s just a lightning-shaped scar away from a lawsuit, if you ask me). The often screwball action has fine, comic flair and tremendous energy. It’s also visually dense, with lots of small panels and a flurry of sound effects.

So it feels like it should be more unsavory that these 31 girls are so wardrobe challenged. Panty shots and scenes of slightly veiled nudity come fast and furious. At times Akamatsu incorporates the fan service with some inventiveness. Mostly, though, it’s as simple as a protracted scene in the girls’ bathroom or an ill-timed magical sneeze that sends uniforms flying. It’s almost a relief that the manga-ka doesn’t try that hard to incorporate these scenes, because I have the feeling it would become fairly strenuous fairly quickly.

And if we agree that fan service is, by definition, “potentially superfluous,” why bother at all? There’s no lasciviousness to the fan service in Negima!, at least in the context of the narrative. Since Negi is only ten and views the girls as his charges, it would be lethally uncomfortable if he ogled them with anything resembling lust. And while the girls are smitten with their pint-sized teacher, there isn’t a sexual component to their teasing. They’re older kids taking advantage of a unique mix-up in the usual pecking order, not temptresses.

Since the fan service fills no narrative function, it’s just eye candy for the readers. It’s entirely separate from the story’s context. And given the tone and mechanics of the story so far, it’s more than a little weird, like a spelling bee conducted in lingerie. The title would be a generically appealing supernatural romp without the fan service, but it’s difficult to tell whether it would be quite as much of commercial success. (I’d love to see what an edited version of the title would have looked like. I’m betting you could make a dandy drinking game out of spotting the tactfully placed flowers, butterflies, and stars.)

To be honest, I expected to have more of a reaction to this kind of title. When tonally appropriate tits-and-ass shots show up in a western comic, it can bother me a great deal. This leads me to wonder if Akamatsu has been defter in his handling of this stuff. Clearly, the fan service is there as an invitation to ogle, just like a super-heroine’s arched back or crotch-centric action. PerhapsNegima’s relentless desire to entertain, whether with boy-wizard shenanigans or nearly naked tweens, blunts what might have been a more parochial reaction. It would be almost grandfatherly of me to disapprove of something so eager to please.

Or maybe it’s just the fact that I’m not in the category of fans serviced by this sort of content. Maybe the expedition was doomed from the start, because I see nothing even vaguely titillating about the content Akamatsu has so thoughtfully provided to the 16+ set (and a slightly younger audience in Japan). From my perspective, this stuff doesn’t have any power to excite, so maybe there’s a corresponding inability for it to offend. I’m just left mildly amused by the plot, a bit charmed by the characters, and vaguely curious about what happens next.

Something tells me I’m going to have to repeat the experiment with material that might have the power to generate a more complex response. Good thing Digital Manga is gearing up for a flurry of new yaoi titles.

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