Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo
Fan service unites disparate acts of narrative and celebrity expansion, seemingly bringing audience and performer closer together in a variety of official and unofficial contexts. Intrinsically intertextual, fan service often references and becomes something to reference simultaneously, extending beyond one moment into other texts and the interpretative strategies of the fan. The gravity of fan service is unsurprising given the wider turn toward the service industries, where emotional labor is linked to all exchanges of value (Hochschild 2003). Fan service celebrates these exchanges as conversations between all parties involved in the media text, encompassing a wide range of nodes to further engagement and strengthen emotional investment. Despite the industrial enthusiasm for certain outlets of these exchanges (usually lucrative and policed spaces like conventions), fan service is frequently dismissed as pandering to the core audience demographic that has an emotional investment in the media franchise. Fan service is usually rendered problematic by particular groups invested in regulating the meaning of a text or the accepted understanding of a performer. Common examples of fan service include the post-credits stinger scene at the end of Marvel Universe films that hints at the next adaptation (Suskind 2014) as well as exchanges such as meet-and-greet opportunities with stars at Comic Con or interacting with fans on social media. Each example requires us to consider the effort that goes into fan service from everyone involved.
Critiques of fan service, as I have mentioned, often focus on the audience and their “demands” for content from media producers. The term is often used in headlines as a disparaging label for narrative or visual content intended for a dedicated fan demographic—locating a problem at the site of media consumption. But fan service critically requires the performer’s affective/emotional labor and engagement, “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” (Hochschild 2003, 7). Though fan service may be surprising initially, the narrative of the performer usually makes the act believable or at least impressive in its rarity. The performer’s labor is a method of engaging fans, and fan service aids in organizing fan communities (officially and unofficially) through paratexts. In many ways, fan service is about the performer mirroring back audience desires. This is clear when media forms solicit an active audience. Fan service rewards practices and paratexts equally; fan art and cosplay are celebrated alongside behind-the-scenes interviews with special effects coordinators, costume designers, and combat choreographers. In these examples the focus is on a conversation and a sense of equal investment in the media.
Fan service works best when the performer can reference a repertoire of codes or knowledge shared with the audience, the intertextual pleasure that lends additional depth to every new text.
Fan service works best when the performer can reference a repertoire of codes or knowledge shared with the audience, the intertextual pleasure that lends additional depth to every new text. Older, established performers with prolific careers therefore have a larger library of meanings to reference but also run the risk of appearing outdated. Newer performers face the challenge of establishing themselves while competing against previously recognized canons against which they are judged. Intertextuality functions as one of the core appeals of media and the celebrities that circulate within media spheres, and fan service is an exemplary form of intertextuality. Yet fan service also points to the tension inherent within celebrity watching, the perceived coexistence of the famous persona and a genuine self.
Fan service is a type of performance inherently linked to fan gratification, often creating a circuit of pleasure between performer and fan. Performers create a library of moments, experienced by fans firsthand and via other circulation routes. This in turn generates reaction and production on the part of fans, frequently circulating back to the performer who can then further perform in the same vein or reference a moment knowing its weight within the fan community. Fan service, therefore, creates a sense of affective proximity in which the fan experiences a sense of closeness (in varying forms) to a media figure because of a particular code or intertextual reference worked into the performer’s greater narrative. One early definition of fan service in English was “images calculated for sexual excitement of titillation that are unnecessary to the story,” targeting Japanese media like anime and manga (Lamarre 2006). While this critical definition focuses on textual narratives, performers or media creators are similarly charged with unnecessary “fan service” whenever the term is used disparagingly. In the context of a performer, every moment may potentially contribute to a greater narrative, and what is considered necessary is a murky area.
Critically, fan agency is not absent within this circuit. Conceptualizing fan service as merely a top-down industrial phenomena limits an understanding of how media fundamentally works. Fan service is much more than just “bonus” content accessed by the few and disseminated to the many. Such blatant attempts from the industrial side at fan service can lead to fan dissatisfaction, whereas seemingly “spontaneous” or candid moments become prized instead. Because of the murkiness of intent and interpretation, what counts as “authentic” fan service is often contentious. Like many terms related to fandom, who uses the label is just as critical as the definition of the label itself. This is further complicated by a variety of factors. We must be aware of how different contexts (especially historical and social) and personal subject positions inform our reading of fan service.
In the Japanese context, as “media appearances and promotion, advertisements and live shows make Japanese performers an intimate part of everyday life in Japan,” a celebrity’s performance of fan service becomes part of the intricacies of the domestic media system (Galbraith and Karlin, 14). People who do not identify themselves as fans of a particular artist may still know details about their career, humorous canonical anecdotes, or information about their personal life, but fan service speaks to fans who apply this knowledge within a framework of emotional investment. This creates a dense web of paratextual relationships. While in many cases the paratextual materials lack the apparent spontaneity of onstage actions, they remain an integral part of the system and can be given equal or even greater weight by fans. To illustrate this, I will consider how fan service functions in the context of Japanese media by focusing on the Japanese artist Gackt.
Gackt is a singer, songwriter, actor, and designer well known for his eccentric persona. Gackt’s career is emblematic of the tensions generated by fan service, particularly the formation of celebrity identity over a variety of media platforms and technological change. Gackt’s popularity within Japan began with his role as lead vocalist of the Visual-Kei band Malice Mizer where he claimed to be a vampire born in the 1500s, a backstory he defended in various interviews (he was actually born in Okinawa). Due to creative differences, he left the group after their popularity increased and debuted as a solo artist in 1999, though suspected motives include creative differences focusing on control of his image and celebrity persona. Since then Gackt has released a prolific amount of music, including forty-six singles and nine albums. He also holds the domestic sales record for top ten consecutive singles for a solo male artist. This creative output is matched in his widely recognized media presence associated with various products and the use of social media. In Japan, celebrities “facilitate social practices within society by organizing patterns of social exchange, accumulation and consumption,” making Gackt’s endorsements critical to his connection to fans on an everyday basis (Karlin 2016, 33).
Frequently described as “highly androgynous,” Gackt’s physical appearance has undergone dramatic transformation throughout his career (Darling-Wolfe 2015, 65). As “Japan is a significant cultural site in which to examine the presence of a different kind of relationship between men and the gaze,” different physical iterations reflect not only shifts in style but an artistic self-policing serving the fan’s gaze (Monden 2015, 36). Like many artists tailoring their physical appearance to the latest concept, photographs of Gackt are easily identifiable by “eras” corresponding to his body of work. Therefore, later styling choices evocative of an earlier era manifest as deliberate acts of fan service; a clear example of this was Gackt’s 2009 Requiem et Reminscence II Tour in an updated version of his alternate history military uniform from the previous 2001 Requiem et Reminiscence Tour. The eight-year gap between tours and inclusion of more narrative information for the accompanying backstory piqued the curiosities of fans while simultaneously playing on their nostalgia for one of Gackt’s earlier eras.
Gackt has built a career on fan service to varying degrees, relying on it more heavily in recent years. His spike in popularity and visibility in Japanese media is tied to his activities immediately after the 3/11 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, when Gackt created the charity “Show Your Heart.” Since then, his appearances on popular television programs and recent prolific utilization of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Weibo, have closed the distance between artist, fans, and the public at large. Gackt’s usage of both Japanese and English on these platforms has added to his global reach.
Central to Gackt’s success is the fact that in Japan, there is a large market for anime, manga, and other media depicting so-called “yaoi” or Boys’ Love (BL)—genres that are focused on the depiction of romances and sexual relationships between men. These genres tend to appeal to women, though not exclusively, and encourage a mode of fan production where fans create their own materials such as fan fiction, fan art, and so on. Beyond content like anime and manga, “boy bands, comedy duos, and sports teams have long provided ample material to arouse speculation about romantic or sexual relationships,” often in the form of dōjinshi, or fan-created comics, centered around pairings that appeal to fans (Welker 2015, 58). In music genres frequented by homosocial groupings this is even more common, especially in Visual-Kei where the fluidity of gender and sexuality are often referenced. It is unsurprising then that Gackt’s friendship and media appearances with L’arc~en~ciel vocalist Hyde have served as fodder for fan speculation and creative content in this arena for years.
In connection with Gackt’s sexuality, ambiguity becomes the means for cultivating fan practices. Gackt has consistently maintained a performative sexualized presence in Japanese media, ranging from discussing his sexual stamina and techniques on television programs and web broadcasts to appearing seminude in advertisements for Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic and the women’s magazine Frau. These paratextual materials contribute to Gackt’s celebrity persona and also serve as references for his onstage behavior. While occasionally heteronormative, Gackt’s physical appearance and actions during fan service utilize the “expressive tools of yaoi and BL [to] offer a phenomenon that is already several steps ahead—namely, the ‘amusementization of gender’” (Fujimoto 2015, 85). Consistently modifying his appearance, emulating the imagery of the bishōnen figure, and participating in aesthetic tie-in campaigns have heavily factored into Gackt’s particular celebrity persona. Considering the strong ties between fan service and the yaoi/BL genres, this is an unsurprising path for such a heavily aestheticized celebrity.
Well before Gackt’s wholesale adoption of social media to curate an identity, and continuing into the present, fans have looked to fan service for narrative material. In the Malice Mizer era, Gackt became known for his sexually charged fan service, particularly in his interactions with bassist Mana. This pattern continued at the final concert of Gackt’s first solo tour in 2000, where he simulated sexual acts with two of the male members of his support band during the song “Vanilla.” In some cases, fan service can be thought of as a coproduction between performer and fan, though in many cases the incorporation of a text may be surprising or far outside the performer’s control. Gackt may have known that speaking in English would please the fans at the film premiere (an intended act of fan service), but the manifestation of this in fan fiction has been an unforeseen consequence (an unintended act of fan service).
When fan service goes too far, it risks becoming self-parody. Gackt’s penchant for fan service entered this realm of commodified self-parody in 2009 when he covered fan-created songs for a Vocaloid application using his voice database known as Gakupo. Gackt subsequently appeared on Japanese television cosplaying as the purple-haired Vocaloid derivative of himself for live performances of the covers. Adding to a plethora of digital selves, the Gackt-Gakupo example highlight’s the artist’s commitment to and inspiration taken from fan content. This cyclical nature of fan service also explains phenomena such as the unlockable content in the 2003 PlayStation 2 video game Bujingai: The Forsaken City allowing the main character—modeled after and voiced by Gackt—to wear Gackt’s clothing, including leather pants. By appearing in various media as multiple iterations of himself, Gackt’s celebrity becomes a malleable commodity oscillating between official channels and the playful imaginations of fans.
As Gackt has become a library of intertextual references that add further potential for fan engagement, he has become more active in multiple arenas of promotion. This self-commodification works with the help of industry and fan involvement. At the same time, Gackt must consistently grapple with the potential ramifications of that fan service library. Recently relocating to Malaysia, Gackt began a series of business investments, including acting as a founding member of the cryptocurrency-based investment platform SPINDLE. The announcement for SPINDLE’s opening was advertised widely to Gackt fans as a kind of spectacle, since Gackt promised to finally reveal his surname to the public for the first time on the platform’s web page. Despite this long-sought piece of fan knowledge, the subsequent SPINDLE announcement of his name as a “strategic advisor” only alienated fans. SPINDLE’s Japan events are essentially nothing more than lengthy marketing pitches, and Gackt makes brief appearances that are advertised via his official fan club. Since the creation of SPINDLE, many fans have expressed dissatisfaction with his involvement, citing the appearances as thinly veiled attempts to shill digital currency using his celebrity status.
Through reading Gackt’s relationship with fan service throughout his career, we can see that the interplay between nodes (fans, performers, creators, etc.) is vital in deducing how fan service resonates throughout the web when attached to a performer or media property. Fan service stands to bring performer and fans closer together, create intertextual pleasure while generating promotional discourse. As a result, fan service can also alienate and reaffirm the tensions between production/consumption, intent/interpretation, and industry/fans. The fact that fan service remains a contentious term in various fields of study, among fans themselves and within the industry, points to overall tensions concerning authorship, intent, and reception in the current multimedia environment, especially in Japan. As Japanese media struggles amid increasingly globalized flows and a proliferation of media platforms, fan service remains one of the means whereby Japanese performers can reach dispersed audiences both at home and abroad.
- Lamarre is referencing Ōtsuka Eiji’s framework of narrative consumption, leading to the conclusion of necessary and unnecessary elements. ↑
- Visual-Kei is a genre of Japanese rock with a heavy focus on presentation, androgyny, and lyrically diverse content. Malice Mizer is considered one of the foundational groups of this genre. ↑
- Malice Mizer’s conceptual leader, Mana, has frequently replaced vocalists within the band’s lineup. At the time of Gackt’s membership, the band had an image melding French rococo and fairytale gothic elements. Gackt’s departure from the group and embarkment on a solo career is therefore often read as a personal journey toward being his own artist. ↑
- See “GACKT, Dansei soro 1-ni no 39 sakumoku TOP 10 Tahara Toshihiko no kiroku wo 19-nen-buri kōshin,” Oricon Style (July 19, 2011). http://www.oricon.co.jp/news/89976/full/ (accessed November 25, 2016). ↑
- Both tours are part of the Moon Saga universe, Gackt’s multimedia project spanning live concerts, concept albums, a stage play, a film, etc., which are populated by his own characters and mythos. ↑
- Gackt’s film Moon Child (2003), starring himself and Hyde, is a critical text behind fan theories about their relationship. In the film, Hyde plays a vampire who befriends Gackt, their years together include crime, gang violence, and familial bliss; it culminates in Hyde sending Gackt’s daughter off to university before the two men (now both vampires) commit suicide together. ↑
- Gackt appeared with various female models in Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic ads between 2003 and 2006. The clinic mainly targets women for beauty work treatments. ↑
- Gackt frequently ranks in the top ten for Oricon polls such as “Most Beautiful Male Celebrity,” “Men with Most Beautiful Skin,” and “Men with Coolest Lifestyles.” See “Oricon Profile – GACKT,” last updated 27 December 27, 2016. http://www.oricon.co.jp/prof/9259/ (accessed December 27, 2016). ↑
- Fan service between Gackt and Mana during stage performances included BDSM-themed sexual simulations, hugging, and playful fighting. It should be noted that Mana appears mute in public and dresses akin to a Victorian doll, making his gender performance another space of play. ↑
- Globally, the best known Vocaloid personality is undoubtedly Hatsune Miku, while Gakupo’s popularity remains more niche. ↑
- Part of this resentment stems from reports that Gackt’s move to Malaysia was motivated by tax issues in Japan. ↑
Darling-Wolfe, Fabienne. 2015. Imagining the Global: Transnational Media and Popular Culture Beyond East and West. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Fujimoto, Yukari. 2015. “The Evolution of BL as ‘Playing with Gender’: Viewing the Genesis and Development of BL from a Contemporary Perspective.” In Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker, 76-92. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.
Galbraith, Patrick W., and Jason G. Karlin. 2016. “Introduction: At the Crossroads of Media Convergence in Japan.” In Media Convergence in Japan, edited by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin, 1-28. Ann Arbor: Kinema Club.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2003. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jenkins, Henry. “On Anti-Fans and Paratexts: An Interview with Jonathan Gray (Part Two)” from Confessions of an Aca-Fan (blog). March 8, 2010. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://henryjenkins.org/2010/03/on_anti-fans_and_paratexts_an_1.html.
Karlin, Jason G. 2016. “Precarious Consumption After 3/11: Television Advertising in Risk Society.” In Media Convergence in Japan, edited by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin, 30–59. Tokyo: Kinema Club.
Lamarre, Thomas. 2006. “Platonic Sex: Perversion and Shojo Anime (Part One).” Animation 1, no.1: 45-59.
Larsen, Katherine, and Lynn Zubernis, eds. 2012. Fan Culture: Theory/Practice. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Miller, Laura. 2006. Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Monden, Masafumi. 2015. Japanese Fashion Cultures: Dress and Gender in Contemporary Japan. London: Bloomsbury.
Suskind, Alex. 2014. “‘You’re Still Here?’: A Brief History of the Movie Post-Credits Sequence.” Vulture, April 8, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2014/04/brief-history-of-movie-post-credits-sequences.html.
Welker, James. 2015. “A Brief History of Shonen-ai, Yaoi, and Boys’ Love.” In Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma, and James Welker, 42-75. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.