If any single concept can represent the decline of modern Japanimation, surely it’s the insidious spectre of moé, that catch-all term for all manner of things fetishized and patriarchal. As such, the Colony Drop Educational Society has prepared this introduction to the subject, comprising a brief survey of key literature and analysis of the power dynamics essential to moé‘s spread and appeal.
Before we can begin to discuss moé-related concepts and the artistic works they inform, we must first clearly define our terminology. Japanese culture and Wittgenstein scholarship journal Ecchi Attack wrote an excellent analysis of the term several years ago, but for the sake of completeness — and out of respect for our readers who are in environments unsuited to the viewing of cartoon genitalia — I shall provide a brief summary of its common usage.
Just what exactly is this “Moé“?
Moé, lit. “sprouting,” is a loanword from Japanese fandom, generally used to refer to characters or aspects of characters that elicit feelings of sympathy or adoration, such as personality or physical appearance, as well as related aesthetic styles. It is possible, for instance, to have a “cat ears moé,” or a “robot maid wearing thigh-high stockings reciting pi to thirty-six thousand decimal places moé,” but that sort of moé is not our focus. Crucially, when discussing the emotional aspects of moé, we inevitably address weak characters. Young girls are the most common subject of moé, though hardly exclusively so — Claudio from Ristorante Paradiso is a classic moé character, particularly in his passive, pathetic resistance to the heroine’s forceful courtship in the second episode of the series.
Historically, proponents of moé, such as comic artist Ken Akamatsu, have argued that moé is strictly a non-sexual subject. Feelings of moé are often compared with an urge to “protect” or “mother” the subject; heartwarming is the word of the day. Reverend Ragu calls bullshit on these arguments — after all, he writes, “Have we [otaku] ever done anything entirely pure and beautiful without the whole thing erected on a toothpick-thin foundation of sexual hangups? [… D]o we really want a girlfriend, or do we just want a puppy? A puppy we can fuck, presumably.”
The power differential is crucial to most sorts of moé character. Creating moé appeal is surprisingly straightforward — for easy results, try adorable flaws like a complete inability to cook despite domestic aspirations, a crippling fear brought about by past trauma, or hell, just put the character in a wheelchair. Even the supposedly self-sufficient and strong characters must be eventually emotionally undermined, leaving them in the perfect position for a bigger, stronger, and more masculine entity to support them.
The Tsundere & Problems At Home
One of the varieties of moé character well-known enough to get its own nickname is the tsundere, which, if you’ll allow me a bit of artistic license, can be translated as “bitchy-submissive.” The term comes from the personality arc of the character, stuck in a perpetual sort of puberty where acting standoffish, rude, or even physically abusive toward the object of your affection, at least in public, is considered healthy and even attractive. This is likely because most fans of Japanese cartoons are similarly developmentally disabled, unable to handle a relationship with a mature adult, and find the attentions of a petulant child both non-threatening and attractive. True to their “soft” side, however, the tsundere will eventually behave more sweetly and submissively around the object of their affections, if only in private. At her core, the tsundere wants nothing more than to be embraced by the patriarchal society that spawned her.
While I’m at it, why do otaku have such a hard-on for their sisters? It’s the convenience factor, right? She lives in your house, you’re more comfortable talking to her than scary women outside, and maybe she even has some misplaced respect or affection for you, Big Brother! Maybe you’ve got your wires crossed and misinterpret familial affection as something else entirely (Akamatsu’s “mothering”; see Ragu 2)! Whatever the reason, otaku fucking love little sister characters. They don’t have to be true, blood-related little sisters — half-siblings, step-siblings, adopted siblings, cousins, childhood neighbors, etc. can all qualify — but that sure makes it more exciting, doesn’t it?
The real beauty of the little sister character is all the different varieties you can use. Hell, you could make an entire series solely devoted to exploring the possibilities. It’s like a moé multiplier — throw it in with other popular features such as Chronic Illness, Self-Sacrificing Devotion and maybe even throw in a lil’ tsun tsun, and your hugpillow sales will launch into orbit. Not only is it an effective fan-baiting method, but it’s a handy way to give your protagonist instant characterization: the protagonist works hard to overthrow the government to create a better world for his sweet, crippled and blind little sister!
Nothing about the tsundere is particularly innovative — or even unique to Japanese cartoons; for an American cartoon example, consult Hey Arnold! — it’s just that around the turn of the century, fandom decided to officially codify and fetishize these traits. As usual, GAINAX’s masterwork Neon Genesis Evangelion is probably to blame, although Asuka remembers to have actual emotional and psychological reasons for her behavior. (Except in Evangelion 2.0: You can (not) advance, of course.)
But, as disgustingly prevalent as they are, the tsundere and even the little sister aren’t the most interesting trends in moé characterization. No, we’re concerned with far more imbalanced sorts than that. Recent years have brought about a particularly interesting new brand of moé character, one with much more obvious mental trauma than the tsundere‘s perpetual tweenhood. Perhaps it was natural, the twisted result of space cadets like Azumanga Daioh‘s “Osaka” taken to their logical conclusion, mixing with influences from darker and edgier and always-poorly copied fare like Eva, but in the past few years we’ve experienced the formal codification of new, unstable character types.
Good, Bad, I’m the Guy with the Cinder-Block
The recent Oriental Animated Video Denpa-teki na Kanojo, sometimes questionably translated as Electromagnetic Girlfriend, conveniently provides one-and-a-half examples of some of these new moé varieties. According to sophisticated Internet research and the consultation of subject matter experts, the title of the show basically means something like “that chick who keeps doing weird shit because she picks up strange radio waves in her brain,” so, if you’ll forgive me a bit of localization, I’ll call the show Tinfoil-Hat Girl.
Ms. Tinfoil is one of several women inexplicably attracted to protagonist Jyuu Jyuuzawa, an Ordinary High-School Student, who gets in fights a lot and likes to be left alone. (It’s based on a light novel; don’t expect any surprises.) He’s regularly chewed out by the Class President (glasses variant), who has a blatantly obvious crush on our hero which will get her killed fifteen minutes into the show, and Giddy Psychopath seems quite interested in slobbing his knob when she isn’t busy casually discussing the string of murders rocking the town, but Tinfoil is the real deal. Combining the face-hiding bangs and jet-black hair of a certain horror movie character so discredited that even girls’ comics play it for adorable laughs with excellent stalking skills and total submissive obedience to her chosen master, Tinfoil explains that in a past life, she served as a knight for King Jyuuzawa, and wishes for nothing more than to protect him and do his bidding. Good, noble, and obedient, willing to liberally apply stun-gun or cinder-block to the heads of her lord’s enemies in the hopes of being allowed to lap at his heels. “A puppy we can fuck,” indeed.
In other words, Tinfoil’s a schizophrenia-moé character. Nothing about her character is particularly new — after all, moé archetypes are all about defining, labeling, and fetishizing the familiar. It’s the common boys’ fiction conceit: a mysterious girl appearing to tell the “ordinary” protagonist about their mystical heritage and destiny and lead him off on the adventure, even as he rejects the claims and tries to avoid this weirdo girl who keeps breaking into his apartment and showing him creepy photographs. It’s not like it’s even especially uncommon for her to be (at least initially) more physically capable than the protagonist, because in the end, her emotional health is entirely in the hands of the male she bonds with — after all, that power dynamic is what moé is all about. Doesn’t matter if she’s humanity’s mightiest space marine, a smart-mouthed, axe-wielding, crimson valkyrie descending on the battlefield — outside her armor, she’ll still break down into tears when the protagonist shows her she’s not alone in her struggle, a lost child barely coming up to the chests of her comrades.
Wait, I’m getting sidetracked here.
Anyway, Tinfoil-Hat Girl is based on a mystery novel, and that means Jyuuzawa gets to play Boy Detective when he stumbles across the corpse of Class President while wandering the alleys one night, as all Japanese teenagers are wont to do. One lucky guess and a cryptic phone call later, he catches the killer, a crazy dude who believes the people he beats to death are alien invaders that he has to stop. But since he’s not secretly cute behind those bangs like Tinfoil, we don’t have to feel too bad when he kills himself off-screen during a bout of exposition. Oh, hey, we’ve got 20 minutes left — it’s time for the man behind the man to show up!
Violence, Glorious Violence!
Obviously, that man is actually a chick, Giddy Psychopath, who demonstrates her love for the protagonist with a roofie and a baseball bat. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the yandere! Combining your average misanthropic otaku‘s two favorite things — gruesome, torturous violence and little girls — a yandere character, named for master cleaver wielder Martin Yan, is a gal that initially appears normal and sweet and has an obvious attraction to the hero, but who ends up being a total violent nutjob who channels her love into liberal application of cutting utensils, against the hero or otherwise. A relative newcomer to the moé archetype collection, I trace the development of this character to two particular shining examples of otaku culture: the horror-moé visual novel series When They Cry and erotic entertainment software School Days.
In fact, School Days owes its notoriety entirely to its flirtation with the yandere. Were it not for the shock value of particular comically violent “bad endings,” the title would likely still be languishing in obscurity as yet another piece of interactive adult entertainment where a milquetoast douchebag nails pretty much everything with a vagina in the vicinity of his high school. Each subsequent adaptation has set the bar higher and higher, starting with simple endings like Girl A murdering the protagonist for knocking her up and then dumping her, or Girl B murdering Girl A for hooking up with the protagonist, eventually proceeding to chains of murder that end with Girl B sailing away on a yacht cradling the protagonist’s severed head, and so on. A brilliantly timed bit of Japanese media panic cemented the “Nice Boat” epic into the otaku’s collective consciousness.
And we mustn’t count out When They Cry, one of the breakout hits of the Japanese “doujin” indie scene. Pretty much every single character in Dragon Knight 07’s Groundhog Day-inspired epic has an opportunity to murder everyone who stands in the way of their happiness. As early as the first “loop” of the story, our protagonist, The Only Teenage Boy In Town, flees in horror when his irritatingly chipper classmate starts following him around and brandishing a cleaver, and it only gets worse from there. The yakuza heiress and her twin sister take turns killing for love and vengeance, everyone learns that courage and friendship can’t stop a bullet (but a bro will totally bury a body for you), and we can’t forget the one where the gal with the cleaver scatters home-made explosives around her school and holds everyone hostage, culminating in a Last Second Bomb Defusal and a rooftop melee with TOTBIT. Before she can land the final blow, however, she realizes that all she really wants is for TOTBIT to be there with her, forever! Touching.
That last bit is key. While the yandere‘s cleaver is certainly her most visible charm point, as with the other moé archetypes I’ve discussed, it’s the inner weakness that really seals the deal. The yandere isn’t that much of a stretch from the tsundere when you get down to it — one of them works through emotional assaults, temper-tantrums and other childish tactics, and the other just cuts out the middle-man with an axe. Heck, the latter is probably even more appealing to the kind of stunted man-children who watch these cartoons (really, who doesn’t enjoy gratuitous violence?). But even if otaku like the aesthetics of a dominant female, and probably even enjoy the verbal and physical abuse, at the end of the day, she’s still gotta break down cryin’ in his big, flabby arms and then go make him a sandwich.
That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.