Those who’ve followed this site for a while will have noticed that all the coverage of contemporary cinema is periodically punctuated by reviews of fanservice anime. In my first such review – of Ikkitousen’s third season – I made a serious attempt to grapple with the politics of a genre operating in the vein of exploitation except without, y’know, anyone to exploit.
Where I landed at the end of that piece is pretty well where I am nowadays: these anime are often crass and sexist – putting the ‘guilty’ in ‘guilty pleasure’ – but they’re too innocuous to worry about. On the surface, a show like Motto To Love-Ru seems to be the perfect example of this. The follow-up season to the (fairly dire) To Love-Ru ramps up the nudity and steps down any semblance of serialised plotting.
Each 20-some minute episode consists of three (largely standalone) chapters the invariably revolve around the female cast getting scantily-dressed (or entirely undressed). These stories are sustained by alien technology and mishaps – whether it’s a watermelon transforming into a tentacle-slinging monster or hero Rito Yūki (Akeno Watanabe) finding himself with X-ray glasses strapped onto his face – and are easy to laugh off as trivial trifles.
But Motto To Love-Ru is a little more insidious than that. It’s certainly not intended to be taken particularly seriously, but there’s a troubling reinforcement of the “Nice Guy” paradigm driving the series’ harem scenario. Where fanservice contemporaries like Maken Ki! and High School DXD pair their unabashed perversion with unabashed perverts for protagonists, Motto saddles Rito with an exaggerated aversion to any kind of sexuality. When he’s got those X-ray glasses plastered on his face, he seems terrified at the prospect of inadvertently seeing his classmates nude; not out of any sense of propriety or respect for his friends, but out of some primal, juvenile fear of sex. Any time he’s faced with a come-on throughout the series his first reaction is sheer terror.
This is pretty consistent with plenty of harem set-ups. Presumably the idea is that their otaku fanbase will better relate to a weak-willed, nervous protagonist than a drooling perve. It’s maybe unfair, then, to single out Motto (and I don’t doubt that plenty of other similar series could be substituted into this piece). But when the series finale sees Rito express his love for (and possibly propose to) a half-dozen or so young women, all of whom seem to be infatuated with him, it uncomfortably emphasises the underlying assumption that decency warrants romance.
Motto’s fantasy never finds time to explain why these attractive women would fall for our hero. He possesses no exceptional qualities, no defining personality traits beyond timidity and lukewarm niceness. What the show seems to be doing is actually positioning Rito’s discomfort around eroticism as a positive, distinguishing him from the show’s only other male ‘character’ (the school principal, a caricature of lustful masculinity who’s forever doffing his clothes and throwing himself at Motto’s ladies).
Again, this seems innocent enough, but this thinking is a seed that grows into toxic tendrils. Young men – awkward, nerdy, intelligent young men – see enough pop culture through this lens and they start to think that they deserve love by default. Simply for not being assertive, or overtly sexual. They’re “nice guys.” If you watch enough of this sort of anime, that should be enough to have one – if not many – of girls falling head over heels for you. Right? You don’t have to look far on the internet to see what happens when that kind of entitlement curdles into resentment, and I think anime like this have some responsibility for that. Granted, plenty of other pop culture offers these kind of messages, but the prevalence of anime avatars in the men harassing women online suggests there’s at least a tentative connection between the prevalence of these stories in anime and the toxicity of the fanbase (pockets therein, anyway).
Motto To Love-Ru is entertaining enough if you don’t think about it too much. And that’s the point – you’re not supposed to think about it. But I wish that shows like this, even when their primary focus might be animated boobs, would spend more time thinking about the politics behind all those panty shots and melon monsters. Now those ‘guilty pleasures’ are even guiltier…