>Monogatari has a lot of fanservice. Why, you may ask? Because anime fans like it, it serves no narrative purpose in the anime.
What a load of bullshit.
The toothbrush scene is more than just the fan service. There is a deeper message in it.
The toothbrush scene is so erotically charged because of the intimacy involved, and everything in the show/episode leads into this. First, Karen and Araragi’s relationship always has a weird, semi-flirtatious charge to it, as they’ve moved from younger traditional antagonistic siblings to one of those bicker-flirting couples. Then, everything Karen does at the start of this episode is designed to put Araragi off his guard and in a place of intimacy/discomfort. Her outfit does so much work here, and it’s all her intentional, meaningful decision. First, it serves as a striking contrast against both her normal outfit and her personality – the bee exercise outfit is absolutely her, androgyny is absolutely her, carefree sexlessness is absolutely her, and putting her in such a constricting, gendered, sexually charged outfit serves to throw off all preconceptions Araragi has about interacting with her. Second, the fact that it isn’t her outfit, and in fact doesn’t fit her at all, puts her in a place of vulnerability, and this also throws off Araragi. Finally, it directly is designed to be sexy, and prove she’s in control of her sexuality, which is something Araragi has clearly been struggling to come to grips with as he attempts to act like a role model for his sisters. All of these things further Karen’s goals in this episode – make Araragi so uncomfortable he’ll agree to introduce her to Kanbaru. All these are choices of the character, not the leering cameraman, and the effect these choices have on both Araragi and the audience is very much the intended effect. Everything else she does – the confession about how his insults used to really get to her, her basically physically assaulting him – all these further that one clearly understood goal.
But I was talking about intimacy. So, what the actual toothbrush scene does obviously builds off this place of discomfort/vulnerability/overt sexuality she’s been intentionally provoking. It combines this with the relationship these two have been building, a great deal of bantering buildup, and a close monologue from Araragi to place the sex stuff in a position of complete emotional honesty. Sure, it’s also played for humor – but the humor is mostly based on the fact that it’s funny brushing teeth can be this sexy, and as I said, for that joke to work at all, the audience has to truly understand that this scene is sexy to these characters. Most powerful moments in most media are powerful not just because of the audience’s emotional reaction to a situation, but because they can empathize with a character’s emotional reaction to a situation. This effect drags us further into the text/film/show and girders our connection with the characters involved – at that moment, we feel for them more deeply than we do for ourselves. Thus, all the prep work of this episode works to help us understand these characters completely at this moment, and when they react to this scene as if it’s incredibly erotic, we can understand it to be erotic as well. The connection between the characters is honest, and the way the show is conveying their emotions to the audience is honest as well – intimacy is really just another word for honesty. This honesty, which makes this scene so strong, is a part of why most fanservice is so bad – because it’s dishonest to the characters, and portrays them as sexual objects when they’re not actually feeling like sexual objects in that moment. But more than that, this honesty is almost entirely lacking in conventional pornography. Conventional pornography is generally a collection of soul-deadened actors performing a service for a fee – sure, they’re naked, but it’s the furthest thing from intimacy you could possibly imagine. To find someone disrobe emotionally, you have to look to art. And so the point of this scene is “Even in a scene as ridiculous as this, honesty can make it ring true.”
One last tangent, but it was very interesting to me, and I never would have thought of it if not for the strong points raised by Nisemonogatari. I think this intimacy issue is a large part of why something like K-On is so damn successful. This is a kind of fractured and difficult point to make, mainly because the characterization in K-On is very difficult to describe as “honest,” but I think from the point of view that these are valid characters, K-On attempts to create a continuous mood of emotional honesty and friendly, unabashed intimacy. It invites the viewer into a safe, loving environment free from any of the hidden motives and defenses that characterize the real world, and is always completely honest with the viewer. For those who watch Community, K-On is basically like the ultimate Abed experience – a world based on rules you understand entirely that loves you unconditionally, and is willing to share all of its emotional secrets with you. Intimacy porn. I mainly bring this up because there was a thread a few days ago where someone said they like K-On because the characters feel “real.” Now, to anyone who knows anything about character writing or, frankly, human beings, that’s a ridiculous statement – but I think what was really meant there was that the characters feel honest, which, though they are very fabricated constructions, is certainly true within the context of that show.
So yeah, the toothbrush scene forced me to reevaluate and perhaps legitimize the emotional appeal of “cute girls doing cute things”. And I think that’s exactly the point Shinbo was trying to make – that sex will never be as appealing as honesty, and that intimacy is ultimately the core of the erotic. And that this, in addition to the issues about male gaze, camerawork, storytelling, and perspective he’s already addressed, is why fanservice normally hurts shows – it’s impersonal and dishonest.
So no, I don’t think Monogatari is a big fan of fanservice. In fact, I think it’s the ultimate, staggeringly coherent statement against it, complete with endless demonstrations of the ways sexuality really can be used to enhance and augment storytelling. And I could not be more freaking impressed.