The term “guilty pleasure” is overused. I’m not of the belief that the concept doesn’t exist; of course it does! Guilt and pleasure are so closely related it’s absurd to dismiss the validity of experiencing shame and enjoyment simultaneously. But a trashy horror film with subpar special effects, a cheesy eighties pop song, a lurid paperback thriller – these do not and should not command guilt. Inferior as “art,” perhaps, but there’s no need to feel guilty about products that strive for something simple, a rudimentary thrill, and achieve it.
I do feel guilty, however, about enjoying IkkiTousen, to the point where I was reluctant to write about it. Great Guardians is the third season of an anime that is set, as so many are, in a high school. The characters are with few exceptions female, and possess – as so many do in anime – supernatural fighting talent. The disagreements and squabbles of high school are amplified into fierce confrontations where combatants are tossed around like ragdolls. The emphasis of the series, however, is not fighting but fan-service.
“Fan-service.” It’s a strange phrase. It suggests fiction built to give the audience what they want, but in anime the connotations are more specific. The audience is predominantly male, and apparently what they want is the curve of a woman’s breast, or the contours of her inner thigh, all animated in exquisite – or, at least, sufficient – detail. IkkiTousen pays less attention to the motivations of its characters or the vagaries of plot than getting boobs to jiggle and bounce just right, or ensuring that when two rivals stare at one another across the battlefield, our vantage point provides a better few of the outline of the fighter’s perfect white panties than the battle itself.
This is all achieved with camera angles that are essentially impossible. Impossibility is ubiquitous, and necessary. If this were a live-action series, it wouldn’t exist. Partly because many of these shots are near physically impossible (imagine a real actress waiting hours for her close-up as the director digs trenches into the dirt for the perfect ‘panty shot’!), but also because it would carry the unpleasant veneer of exploitation. After all, these characters are putatively schoolgirls, and their immaturity supports this. These aren’t real adolescents, thankfully. Not just because they’re animated, but because no real teenager possesses proportions somewhere between a Barbie doll and a Russ Meyer starlet.
Despite this, a sense of eroticism lingers. IkkiTousen contains some nudity – flashes of nipples the animators surely spent careful attention illustrating – but the fan-service is primarily constructed to tease. Suggestion and brevity – a glimpse here, a curve there – combine to channel the anticipatory thrill of the sinuous, slow thrill of a striptease, or the electricity imparted by seeing a beautiful woman with clothes that reveal more than she should – and just as much as she wants. It lacks the hint of truth at the heart of striptease though, where much of the appeal is the combination of seduction and shyness on the performer’s face (the reveal is important, of course, but revelations don’t require nudity). Here there is no such insight; these characters are constructs.
Aren’t all fictional characters constructs, though? Do these sketches given life through motion deserve more or less sympathy than actors who give life to their characters through adjacent photographs spooling through a projector? Roger Ebert expressed disgust at the plight of IsabellaRossellini in Blue Velvet, stripped bare in every sense of the word. One wonders what he would think of these animated automatons, given life only to cavort in various stages of undress.
Of course, Rossellini never had to indulge the silliness of battles that invariably leave the fighters nude from nipple to navel. And Ebert’s espoused sympathy for Rossellini has as much to do with the plight of her downtrodden character as seeing a supermodel so “abused.” It’s hard not to feel a twinge of the same sympathy when IkkiTousen trends towards the pornographic; as in the special features, “cosplay” chapters where character inexplicably face one another down (barely) clad in shiny latex S&M gear. They are constructs, perhaps, but there’s a slender sense of exploitation even if there’s no-one to be exploited.
Those special features are outliers, admittedly. IkkiTousen’s episodes are closer to children’s entertainment than pornography, no matter the ubiquity of panty shots and torn uniforms. The plotting is defined by innocence and irreverence, venturing from school and dojo to the expected destinations – beaches and hot springs, providing further excuses for skimpy (or non-existent) clothing – and frivolous locales like karaoke bars and the like. Conflict is fleeting and based in high school melodrama. Despite the unnecessarily complex mythology, discord stems from insecurity, deception and misplaced desire – hallmarks of high school. IkkiTousen refuses to take itself seriously, and that’s for the best.
IkkiTousen is a guilty pleasure. But the appeal isn’t its artificial eroticism – or, at least, not entirely – rather its insouciance, its insistence on the insubstantial. The emphasis on high school tropes and fan-service leaves the series little time for significant stakes or serious stakes. Instead it drifts through the silliness with a gentle charm that deflates the moments where it trends towards distastefulness. It may not be great art, or even particularly good entertainment, but there’s something delightful about its amiable ambling. The guilt in the guilty pleasure is justified – it’s sexist, and stupid, and slapdash – but so too is the pleasure.