If a man were porter of Hell Gate…
Fanservice! We all know it, we all, ah, have a strong opinion about it. Is it good, is it bad? Is it neutral? Can we even say that about something so polarizing?
[note: I wrote this back in July. My semester continues terrible, and I should really be reading theory, Dickinson, and James Hogg right now. But I've decided to post this, which is really unfinished. I wanted to make this a post of three sections, examining a show in each. As it is, it works as the beginning of a mini-series, and hopefully once the break arrives I can write parts two and three.]
I once had a professor tell us never to think of scenes such as the porter scene in Macbeth as “comic relief.” The term implies that there’s nothing else going on in the scene, and in Shakespeare, at least, the “comic relief” scenes can tell us the most about the themes of the play, if we pay attention. You might also classify the gravedigger scene in Hamlet as the same sort of thing.
[Here's a link directly to the Porter scene, which is Act II, scene 3 of Macbeth]. What happens in the scene is that in the latest stretches of the night, someone knocks on the door to Macbeth’s castle — this is the same night Macbeth kills Duncan, his king. The drunken porter shambles out of his room and takes his sweet time answering the door, talking about what it would be like to be the door-warden of Hell (if you’re up on your Milton, you’ll recall that would be either Sin or Death). It’s a hilarious scene, especially when well-played. I tried my hand at it once, for my last Shakespeare class (the third thus far), when a friend asked me to. I saw a performance where the actor came out into the crowd and picked on likely members, choosing my friend Brooke (who was busily knitting as she watched) to fill in for the imaginary English tailor who stole “out of a French hose.” He begs Macduff, the man who vanquishes Macbeth, to “remember the porter,” and Shakespeareans do indeed. The list of professions he rants about is infamous, including the “equivacators,” who were likely Jesuits. Juxtaposed with the great sin of the play, the murder of Duncan, this scene illustrates how minor sins are welcomed into Hell just as much as major sins — providing a wealth of interpretative data: is Macbeth’s crime greater? Or is it just the same, and not to be worried about? Does Macbeth fall because of his crime or because he never gets over it?
Well, you see what I mean. I told you that to tell you this: fanservice can work the same way, and incurs the same risks.
What I mean by “risk” is that fanservice is often considered as separate from the rest of the show (or comic) we find it in. The general problem with a lot of readings online is that a lot of time is spent on whether or not something is “good,” which often becomes an argument about whether or not certain elements should be in the show. The reason that’s a problem is that the element is in the show — it’s a little too late to jump in front of that problem. More useful is the approach of asking why something is there: what it does and how it does it? So, with your indulgence, I’ll use a handful of examples and take a crack at what the fanservice adds to the show.
Crest/Banner of the Stars
I’m starting with Crest of the Stars because fanservice isn’t usually what springs to mind when we think of it. But, oh, the fanservice is there, and we couldn’t be happier. Over on my post about Baron Febdash, Kadian makes the point that the dinner memorial “mostly consisted of long pans of the Admiral’s and Lafiel’s lips, legs, and cleavage” while mentioning it was a favorite scene — which would imply it isn’t any longer? (Incidentally, replying to Kadian, Ghostlightning makes the “comic relief” argument, claiming the fanservice is a way to break up the data-heavy dialogue for easier consumption)
Let’s look at that scene first, then.
So… yes. There’s a whole lot of fanservice going on. I didn’t get any shots of Lafiel, because I didn’t spot any moments when the camera just stops to focus on her breasts or something. I did opt not to get a screenshot of Commander Atosuryua’s leg fanservice, as I’m not convinced they would show up in a screenshot from my copy of the episode.
Anyway. If we go by the binary I’ve described already, this scene gets thrown right out: it has fanservice in it, and thus, has no other content. Of course, I don’t believe that, so what else could the fanservice be doing? Again, let’s assume it’s there on purpose. If you’ve watched Banner of the Stars, it’s very easy to do so; the camera shots are carefully composed throughout the series.
So what’s the scene about? It’s the memorial dinner for Baron Febdash, and the only people in calling distance who can help Atosuryua (Klowal Febdash’s sister) celebrate it also happen to be the people responsible for his death. In true Abh fashion Atosuryua doesn’t worry about it, as it was Klowal’s fault. They go to a fancy restaurant and discuss Klowal.
That’s the summary. What’s really happening here? Banner of the Stars begins with Lafiel taking command of her own ship, and the struggle she goes through in trying to command them well. So BotS, moreso than CotS before it, is about life and death. War, in short. The dinner memorial comes in between the two major battle arcs of the series — this scene is in episode six of a thirteen episode series. The placement is important, as a memorial for the dead falls in the center of a story about trying to keep people alive. Jinto and Lafiel call back to the memorial near the end of the series, when danger strikes the ship.
We also see the “human” side of Klowal, as well as some of Atosuryua’s as well. There’s a running thread of birth to contrast the death that starts the memorial; Jinto jokes about Abh evolutionary practices, only to be corrected: the Abh did not evolve, they adapted. That is, they weren’t the product of the typical system that springs from birth, but from scientific alteration to suit an environment (known in SF circles as “autoplastic adaptation”). The birth strains back the family ties vibe underrunning the scene.
The conversation also serves to make “human” the figure that, until this point, has been a rank and a vague threat: Commander Atosuryua. Before this, we know two things about her: she is Lafiel’s commander and the sister of the person Lafiel killed. In turn, we learn a little more about Lafiel and Jinto as well. The dinner works all around to humanize these figures.
And then there’s the fanservice. Except not really. It serves to underline each of these themes. Life and death is fairly obvious, and so is birth: the fanservice adds a sexual dimension, and there are three things that define the living: a fear of death, a need to eat, and a need to copulate. Add in a need for shelter and you have all the spurs behind life (it’s interesting to not that ultimately the show does include shelter, showing us that Jinto identifies the Basroil, not his home planet, as his home). The sexual dimension of this scene underscores the desire for life that these people feel. We’re used to seeing all three of them as relatively staid. Most of this show we see them in uniforms, and the other outfits they sport (like Jinto’s “nobleman” duds) serve to highlight their societal placement rather than their biological needs (that is, their sexual identities). It’s significant that this blast of fanservice happens during a meal: two reining desires are coupled here, healthily and without issue. Not only does this underscore what the entire series is about: illustrating warfare as something performed by people; the alien as human; and the personal lives of these developed characters, it also shows us these two women, generally so controlled, still behaving in a controlled manner while enjoying their sexual sides in a familiar way: wearing nice clothing that reveals them to observers.
The empty chair is Klowal’s, and the conversation centers on him, humanizing him further; we already saw his sexual side in his choice of servants and his mad Gothic desire to rape Lafiel.
Ekuryua’s insertion into the scene is then easily explained, where some feel it’s random. She’s interested in Jinto, and Jinto clearly notices that and, while remaining devoted to Lafiel, realizes how attractive Ekuryua is. Jinto can’t wear super-revealing clothing, it’s not typical, either in the Abh culture or ours (especially in male evening wear). But we can see the figure of the person who he has noticed sexually more obviously than he has Lafiel. She’s also tied in through her care for Diaho, which is the reason she’s in the shower to begin with. Caring for Jinto’s cat is her way of getting closer to Jinto himself, and while she isn’t doing any crazy bestiality with the cat, he does serve as a surrogate for Jinto — so the scene also illustrates Ekuryua’s sexuality as well, through a steamy shower scene with a surrogate for Jinto. The cat does run off, too, probably showing the frustration this is going to leave her in (we already know by this time Jinto’s sticking with Lafiel.
Owen tackles the way people write off shows for having fanservice, assuming it inherently makes X show “bad” over here: ["Fanservice and the Blinder Effect. . ."]