Ask John: What Constitutes Otaku Pandering?
What’s John’s definition of “fan pandering”? I feel like that phrase is one of the most overused buzzwords in the modern anime fandom to describe anime that they don’t like or perceive as bad.
Extensive experience watching a vast variety of anime has convinced me that originality is a tremendously overrated signifier of quality. Originality is certainly commendable, but being different doesn’t automatically designate that something is good. In many cases, trends, traditions, and conventional practices exist because they’re most effective while alternatives are less effective. However, utilization or adherence to convention must incorporate some degree of uniqueness, creativity, or originality in order to be distinctive and appealing. Particularly over the past decade, as American anime fans have increasingly found access to a larger variety of contemporary Japnese anime, American otaku have realized that a lot of anime is redundant or derivative. And insecure American otaku that desire justification for watching “cartoons” demand originality, creativity, and literary artistry in anime, frequently dismissing derivative, sensationalistic, or redundant shows as “pandering” and therefore of lesser quality and integrity.
The exact constitution of “otaku pandering” is particularly relevant to me because, coincidentally, just a dozen hours before reading this question watched the first two episodes of the new Accel World anime and found it to be precisely “otaku pandering.” My foremost belief is that anime should be fun and enjoyable,excepting, of course, serious and provocative dramas or educational anime that are not intended to be lighthearted. The broad, logical definition of “otaku pandering” is anime that overtly and deliberately delivers and emphasizes characteristics intended to appeal to established otaku. By such logic, moé anime, in particular, is frequently accused of being “otaku pandering” because it relies upon delivering an established formula of visual design and characterization that Japanese otaku appreciate. But simply delivering cliché alone doesn’t necessarily make an anime bad. Guilty Crown offers a milquetoast protagonist, a supernatural concept previously seen in X and Utena, and even supplemental otaku fetishes like an idol singer and artificial cat ears. Yet Guilty Crown still manages to be moderately interesting because of its fantastic, dynamic, creative action scenes. A-Channel is essentially Lucky Star without the anime in-jokes, yet it still manages to be equally fun because it establishes its own, distinct identity. Shows like B-gata H-kei, Joshikosei, and Gokujo rely heavily on flashes of nudity and the concept of girls behaving crudely. Both characteristics should be cliché and both are certainly beloved viewer fetishes, yet these shows don’t feel like “pandering” because they’re still creative and enjoyable.
When I personally think of “otaku pandering” shows, I think of titles including Accel World, Afro Samurai Resurrection, Hellsing Ultimate, Mardock Scramble, Ergo Proxy, Trinity Blood, Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko, and almost, but possibly not quite Nisemonogatari. “Otaku pandering” is, or should be, a construction that not only delivers but exclusively relies upon cliché and otaku fetish components. Anime productions like the Hellsing OVA series, Afro Samurai Resurrection, and Mardock Scramble wallow in indulgent, gratuitous violence and thick atmosphere, expecting that those superficial characteristics are adequate to sustain the entire production. Accel World has a nice, superficial, visual design, a one-dimensional protagonist that viewers can easily associate with and root for, and a pair of female characters that viewers are familiar with: the diva-like prima-donna with a human side, and the childhood friend and unrequited love. And Accel World has practically nothing else. The story set-up has no compelling substance: it’s entirely a collection of popular tropes culled from other anime. Just putting a lot of popular settings, character types, and conflicts into a single anime, without doing anything creative or interesting with them, is lazy, uninteresting pandering. It will certainly be popular, but it’s nothing more than the sum of its parts.
Anime productions like Fate/zero and Madoka Magica don’t introduce anything new to anime. Fate/zero relies on viewer familiarity with the characters, settings, relationships and conflicts. It uses music that its producers know is popular among otaku. It employs a lush, atmospheric setting that its producers know that otaku viewers will love. But Fate/zero doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t rely solely upon those attributes. Madoka Magica uses the tropes of magical girl anime and an Evangelion-esque deconstruction of genre. But it’s also compelling and affecting. While it may consist of a bunch of cliché tropes and components, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. Many “otaku pandering” anime exhibit average or even above-average production values. Those production values alone are one of the superficial attributes that the show relies upon to attract otaku. Otaku pandering shows are the ones that assume that if they include several characteristics that otaku are known to love, the anime doesn’t need to inject any amount of thoughtful creativity. The superficial fan favorite characteristics will sell the show. And in many cases, considering the success of titles like Hellsing Ultimate, wallowing in bloody gore that lacks any degree of emotional impact and repeating the same redundant monologues ad nauseam actually is enough to satisfy otaku.
Fan service is not inherently bad. If anime didn’t provide anything that viewers enjoy seeing, we wouldn’t watch anime. The reason we enjoy and respect anime is because anime delivers the characteristics that we want to see in an interesting way. Good anime, regardless of age or genre, engage viewers by evoking a greater, more emotional response than a mere knee-jerk visceral reaction. Trinity Blood is dynamic looking. It features gothic atmosphere, gunplay, vampires, attractive characters – all elements that otaku like. But it fails to, or arguably doesn’t even try to evoke a greater, deeper, more emotional connection with the viewer beyond merely satisfying a desire for visual flashiness and “cool.” It’s attractive to otaku in particular on the outside but empty inside, summarizing the figurative description of “otaku pandering.”