I'm So Moe, You Already Know...

With the post-election aftermath rippling across the world, I figured that now was the best time to offer up a distraction. After all, the situation looks bleak, and people need diversions from real-life more than ever. However, finding diversions have proven tough, as politics seems to be all that’s on people’s minds. If I’m to succeed, then I should discuss Otaku-centric issues for those burned out by the real world. Fortunately, I think I have what the doctor ordered:

Let’s talk moe instead.

For those unaware, moe is a big source of contention in anime right now. More-specifically, it’s been a source of contention in anime for years. The argument stretches back to the early-2010’s at least, going by the discourse, although it could even date back further. Regardless, it’s a hot-button topic for many, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Go figure.

What’s “moe”? Basically, it’s the Japanese word for “cute”. The term is so heavily ingrained in Japanese culture that anything can be considered “moe”. A baby, for example, is considered moe, for obvious reasons. A puppy or a kitten is also moe. Even an action or behaviour can be called “moe”. Basically, moe is everywhere in Japan, whether you like it or not.

However, that’s not what Otakudom thinks of when discussing moe. When they think of moe, they picture cutesy-looking, overly-dependant girls with big eyes, squeaky voices and penchants for cuddling, giddiness or flat-out “d’aw” moments. Simply put, moe is viewed as a Freudian, over-dependant caricature cliché meant to elicit Pavlovian responses from the target audience. Moe characters are often inserts for pleasure fantasies, and, if the internet is indicative, can often be conflated with lolicon fetishism. In other words, Otakudom sees moe as something to fawn over.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s infantile. Remember, moe, by this definition alone, makes characters look younger than they are. A 17 year-old moe girl, for example, looks and behaves like a 6 year-old. This, in turn, leads to the self-masturbatory thought that all girls, irrespective of age or maturity, behave like 6 year-olds, which, in turn, perpetuates infantilization of women. This is really unhealthy when you consider that women get the short-end of the stick in society anyway, and that by over-consuming media that promotes this behaviour, it reenforces misogyny. Cogito ergo sum.

Besides, this isn’t the only way in which something can be moe. Going by moe = cute, anything cute in anime can be moe. Chihiro Ogino from Spirited Away, for example, classifies as moe. Yuki and Ame from The Wolf Children, at least in the first-half, classify as moe. Even Takeru from Digimon Adventure can be considered moe. They’re not the moe Otakudom is familiar with, especially since they don’t fit the traditional, Freudian build, but they are, by definition, moe.

One could also argue that anime is, by definition, moe. Think about it: Osamu Tezuka, considered the pioneer of modern anime, took “cutesy” influences from Western animation, like chubby, rounded faces, big eyes, stubby fingers and toes and a tiny mouth that expands whenever a character’s excited. These are features meant to over-sell personality, hence they’re moe. And while many have evolved and changed over time, the Tezukan influence remains. I know it’s controversial to say this, but if people propagate “the moe problem” in anime, well…they might want to stop watching it altogether.

So the question that needs to be asked is as follows: if it’s a varied word with a vague definition, then what’s the “moe problem” really about?

Well, I think it can be distilled to a bigger, and perhaps ignorant, concern that Otakudom has felt in recent years: a lack of diversity. Ignoring that most anime in the 21st Century has taken place in high school, something Digibro did an excellent video on, the complaint is that anime’s been overly “moe-ified” since the “moe boom” of the 2000’s. The claim is that every genre of anime has moe in it, and even character designs have followed suit with their moe-ification in face and body. I remember writing about anime character designs on Infinite Rainy Day a while back, and one of the points I made was about the transition of anime noses from being noticeable to being barely noticeable. I meant that article as a joke, I commented on other features that were trivial to the average watcher, but it’s no-less true how “blobby” the anime face has become recently.

Here’s the problem: anime has been slowly evolving to this point anyway. You look at 80’s anime films like those from Hayao Miyazaki, and you’ll see that “moe face” already existed. I re-watched Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for the first time in a long while, and you know what I noticed? The kid and teen character models had early traces of moe. Pazu and Sheeta in particular are guilty of this, as their noses, while noticeable, are softly drawn in relation to their adult counterparts. Their faces too! So this isn’t new.

On top of that, there are two issues that arise from clumping post-2000’s anime into a generic lump called “moe”. (They’re actually connected, but I’ll separate them because they deserve individual attention.) The first is that the “moe trend” has a plethora of exceptions. Shows like Wolf’s Rain, Fullmetal Alchemist, Psycho-Pass, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and the likes all have more “realistic” character designs compared to moe. I say that relatively because they’re still anime, but details like noses and eyes are more subdued than what you’d normally see in moe-style. This is especially prevalent in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, where the noses are so defined that it’s impossible not to see them even in a close-up.

Second, when exactly did the moe trend begin? People frequently point to modern anime looking worse than classic anime for that exact reason, but the moe age is vaguely-defined too. Plus, if you look hard enough, you’ll find examples of modern anime that aren’t moe, especially in contrast to some shows from the 80’s and 90’s that are moe. The idea that moe began in the 21st Century is misleading, as this chart demonstrates.

The final question is whether or not the moe-boom, assuming there is one, is bad for the industry. I’d argue that the current anime system has enough problems without moe weighing it down, but it’s definitely a concern amongst Otaku that moe is “ruining anime”. To that, I’d say, “not really”. There certainly has been a boom in slice-of-life moe shows as of late, thanks in part to the successes of K-ON! and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, but that’s only one facet of the industry. Cutesy, slice-of-life shows will always exist, yet there are other genres out there, like Shonen, that buck this trend. And even within the moe style, there are oddities like Mahou Shoujo Puella Magi Madoka Magica, shows that adhere to moe-ified tropes and patterns of characterization, yet manage to flip these on their heads in dark and disturbing ways. Moe, like I said, is a design choice, and it can be used in interesting ways.

Keep in mind that the anime industry, like any other, is a business. Businesses follow trends. The moe-boom is simply another trend, and it too will eventually die out. But until the perceptions of what moe is, the unhealthy strand it frequently takes shape in, the claim that it’s destroyed anime and the claim that it can’t be used effectively all disappear, we’ll never be able to engage in healthy discourse. And I think that’s more harmful than the concept of moe.


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