Five anime that hide their wholesome goodness beneath fan service

Anime is known for its fan service. Sometimes it's just fan service, but sometimes its a clever disguise for the stuff your mother WOULD approve of.
Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid - Opening | Blue Sky Rhapsody
Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid - Opening | Blue Sky Rhapsody / Crunchyroll Collection

Let's be honest. Sometimes you really want some fan service. It's OK. That's why they make it. And it is really easy to get out there and find fan service anime.

It's not significantly harder to find anime that are just wholesome "af." People love warm and fuzzies almost as much as they love being a little naughty. Finding anime that manage to combine the two in interesting or meaningful ways, though, can be quite tough. These five (in no particular order) fit the bill!

1. Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is the anime that inspired this list. The first episode sets things up nicely as Tohru, a dragon from another world, is found by a drunken Kobayashi in the mountains. Kobayashi saves Tohru's life and then sits with her for a while, before declaring that the dragon should live with her, but it would be better if she was a maid. Tohru shows up on her doorstep, madly in love, and in the guise of a woman with a cosplay maid outfit. Shenanigans ensue.

The show is full of fan service in the form of progressively bustier human-shaped dragons. But where the plot might turn pervy in a harem anime, this one finds another path through the series of relationships between its dragon and human characters. Tohru starts off a bit lewd but eventually settles into a much sweeter affection for Kobayashi, helped by the introduction of the show's second dragon. Kanna. Kanna is a grade-school-age girl dragon and - thankfully - is not sexualized. But her quasi-adoption by Kobayashi requires the two older characters to act as surrogate mothers and forms the core family dynamic the show holds from that point on.

It never completely abandons the fan service, but it tempers it with a wholesome found-family love between not just those three, but with their whole community which ends up including several other dragons as well as two more grade-school-age humans and Kobayashi's best friend/co-worker, Makoto Takiya. The cantankerous dragon Fafnir ends up in a roommate/brother situation with the Takiya because he develops a fondness for video games. Quetzalcoatl, shortened to Lucoa thankfully, allows herself to be summoned by a young boy magician who is also friends with Kanna. Lucoa bears the brunt of the fan-service writing but also cares for the boy in a more wholesome way.

Throughout the series these characters and more all learn and grow together and even, in the case of the dragons, overcome some past traumas. So don't let the heavily-featured, large bosoms in the art prevent you from experiencing this sweet story!

2. My Dress Up Darling

Most of us can probably identify with one of Wakana Gojo or Marin Kitagawa. One has a niche hobby that he doesn't know how to explain to those around him and which he's afraid makes him appear too weird to socialize with. The other has a love of cosplay but lacks the talent to get her dreams off the ground. Magic happens in My Dress Up Darling when the two of them meet - not just because it turns out that Gojo's hobby and attitude mean he's the perfect creator to go with Marin's vision and desire, but because they each find in the other someone who is willing and even eager to learn about and share in each other's hobbies.

Sure, there's a ton of fan service as Marin and late other girls come to Gojo seeking out his talents for crafting cosplay outfits, but the show really hinges on the relationship between Gojo and Marin which goes beyond the sort of "love-at-first-sight-but-afraid-to-confess" shenanigans we've all become accustomed to, not just in anime but in many storytelling mediums. Their blossoming friendship is a slow burn into romantic attraction but never loses that wholesome flavor as they each learn to find joy in each other's company beyond how attractive they are.

One of my favorite parts about the show is how it models healthy relationships, even including a misunderstanding that leads to harm being caused. The offending party apologizes profusely and begs the first person to tell them next time and to be sure to also take care of themselves. No real-life relationship is without its bumps and it's great to see a show which shows us how to authentically apologize and work to improve.

3. Food Wars

At this point, Food Wars is old enough and was popular enough to be the cause of many, many memes on the internet. Most of those memes center around the fan service that is everyone being stripped and screaming in ecstasy whenever they eat some of the amazing-looking food. And, yeah, that happens.

A lot.

The show also features other battle shonen staples such as tournament arcs and the power of friendship. But this show takes it beyond what you'll find in many other shonen shows; the characters don't just celebrate each other's victories they actively work to help their allies improve. Even would-be enemies are often treated as friends until they capitulate and join together.

What makes this show isn't just the battling or the fan service, but the genuine affection and camaraderie the heroes and even the villains seem to feel for each other. In the end, there is no room for hatred of true evil in this show and it makes it arguably the most relaxing battle shonen series out there.

4. Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend

Tomoya Aki has a dream. Many of us have also probably had the same dream: a desire to make a video game. But Aki has what many of us lack: a vision and the drive to work hard to make it happen. Oh, and a harem of talented creators willing to collaborate with him.

So, yeah, Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend is, in many ways, a stereotypical harem anime. However, where it improves on the formula is that it is self-aware and quite willing to make jokes at its own expense. However, it doesn't stop there. Saekano also uses a lot of those tropes to help give depth to its characters and allow them to grow.

Most harem anime have a checklist for the tropes they will include and leave it at that. Saekano explores what it means for each of those tropes to exist in the group. The tsundere, for example, is more or less aware of her position and spends most of the series trying to break free of those constraints. This goes for almost all of the characters.

This leads to some really brilliant gags on top of the normal fan service but also leads to much deeper and more interesting relationships than we usually get out of the genre. Additionally, the protagonists' actions aren't universally ignored by the girls as they do everything they can to make themselves more appealing. They all have their own hopes and dreams in addition to being in love with Aki. It makes for some really sweet moments because the characters can care for each other as real people instead of simply pulling gags.

5. Fairy Tail

If you're looking for more explosions in your battle shonen than what you'll find in Food Wars but are otherwise interested in some fan service mixed with wholesome relationships, look no further than Fairy Tail.

What it also does is give the four main characters, and even all of their supporting characters in the Fairy Tail guild a deep and abiding respect and love for each other. Sure, they fight sometimes, but it's the way family fights. Gray and Natsu start out hating each other's guts, which makes sense since one of them controls ice and the other fire, but it doesn't take more than a few episodes for their dislike to turn to mutual respect and then admiration, and then camaraderie. Before the fiftieth episode, rather than constantly bickering they can be found telling third parties that they trust the other one will get the job done when it comes to whatever calamity or enemy they are currently facing.

It's fairly common in battle shonen shows for protagonists to be willing to die for each other or to intentionally take a wound for the same reason. Fairy Tail, however, takes this in a different direction when the final member of the quartet, Erza, attempts to die while saving her compatriots. Natsu manages to rescue her and reminds her that dying for your friends might seem heroic, but it just makes them all really sad. Erza vows to stop trying to die for her friends and focus on living for them instead, a lesson we could all stand to learn in lesser measures; it's important to be willing to help our friends but not to ever give so much of ourselves that it causes us harm, because our friends would be saddened by that, too.

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