Chicks on Anime

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Sep 9th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.


Bamboo: Nowadays, you can't really go to an anime forum without seeing some form of discussion about moe. It's a topic that many people have mixed emotions about, and it's lead to some heated debates in the past. Before we really talk about moe, I want to get a good definition of what it is. Casey, can you give us a little heads up on what the term means?
Casey: I've done lectures about this in the past, and have said that there is really no one-word definition in English that exactly matches up with moe. The technical definition would be something like an overwhelming sentiment of affection you feel when you see something that is unbearably cute. Of course, that really doesn't get much of a reaction from people when they hear it, so I always say it's how dog lovers feel when they see a really cute puppy, or the way that cat lovers feel when they see a really cute cat. The main issue, I think, that needs to be kept in mind is that it's distinct from lolicon because you don't normally think of the dog lover as wanting to jump into bed and have sex with the puppy.

Generally speaking, although there is some overlap between moe and lolicon, the hardcore people who are real moe fans will tell you that moe is not sexualized and that it is pure love. It's not about sexual or physical love. Whether you believe that or not is under question, but that's the definition.

Sara: I think it's so interesting that the textbook definition of "moe" makes it sound like a very feminine kind of emotion, but in fandom, this type of affectionate sentiment is primarily associated with men.

Casey: While moe as a fan-related phenomena appears to have emerged from male-dominant segments of fandom, I have since seen it appropriated by female fans and creators as well. Besides, I don't think that the emotion itself is gender-specific. Although some emotions are considered stereotypically characteristic of one gender or another, I can't conceive of any human emotion out there that would be truly gender-specific.
Bamboo: The first time I ever read a really well thought-out definition of moe was from an article written by Tomohiro Machiyama for Patrick Macias' book, Cruising the Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo. He mentions that"moe," as a verb, means a plant that sprouts, and it has a very positive image of a fresh beginning, like a fresh flower. He also mentioned in the article that it is something very virginal—something that people see as an image of something that is not corrupted yet. I think for a lot of men, at least a lot of Japanese men in fandom, they see these little sister types and think, "Oh, she is so untainted by the world. Look at her running around in her bloomers having fun! I feel this overwhelming need to protect her." So it's totally not sketchy. It's this very innocent feeling.
Casey: Also in that same vein, they don't feel threatened by her.
Bamboo: What do you mean?
Casey: Well, think about it. If the girl is little and young and cute and vulnerable and innocent, then she is not a threat.
Sara: I can't speak for moe viewership in general, since every viewer is obviously different and watches moe titles for his own reasons, but the impression I get from the packaging and presentation of moe itself is that female maturity and sexuality seem like a very threatening presence. To me, there's a marked difference between moe characters who are designed just to be looked at and fawned over—like the OS-tan girls, who I think are amazingly cute—and moe characters who are placed in more nuanced types of relationship scenarios. Like Misuzu from Air, for instance. In the latter case, I worry slightly about the effect this type of archetype has on expectations of real-life relationships on the part of the viewer, because I don't think this kind of innocence and docility really exists in most girls.
Bamboo: Well, Casey, you wrote a review of Honey and Clover in which you mentioned something about the character, Hagu. You wrote that she is very much the portrait of a diminutive Japanese woman that doesn't talk much or do anything, yet is the object of so many men's desires. Do you think that she is moe?
Casey: Oh, I definitely think she is a very good example of a moe character. As I mentioned earlier, an adoring, protective impulse toward the small and vulnerable can be felt by women as easy as men, and moe has been appropriated by female creators. And generally speaking, the aesthetic seems to have moved from male-oriented comics or media in general to other types of media. I didn't see that particular depiction in Honey & Clover as being ironic either, although perhaps that would be open to interpretation.
Bamboo: So do you think that moe can have negative undertones?
Casey: Well, I think you have to remember, too, in the case of some moe, it's all about marketability. And since lolicon and moe can, in practice, overlap (lolicon, of course, being tremendously marketable—and profitable—as well), you definitely see examples of moe that are not tremendously affirmative depictions of girls and women.
Bamboo: Moe itself is very marketable. They even have all those books in Japan, like the Moetan books, in which the whole purpose is to have an extremely moe character do moe things. They're super cute. I'm not going to lie—I think they're pretty great. You said earlier that it's possible for females to feel moe towards characters. I think it makes sense, though maybe they're not the exact same feelings.
Sara: In terms of marketing, a lot of moe merchandise is very appealing to both genders. I love looking at cute things just as much as the next person. I begin to have a problem with some of it where the line between wholesome cuteness and fetish territory begin to blur. I know that the technical definition of moe is clearly separate from loli and other sexual fetishes, but that's hard to buy when you suddenly stumble across all this "moe" merchandise that pictures these girls with very childish features and panties flashing all over the place. Where's the line?
Casey: I think you are right to point that out. Because in the example I just gave with the dog lover loving the puppy, it's actually different from an anime fan loving a moe character, in the sense that the moe character is a representation, and the puppy is presumably real. And so while a real-life puppy would be dependent upon its owner for food, water, shelter, etc., a moe character is really and truly an object for the consumer's adoration, exploitation, and objectification. Because the character has no feelings, fans feel no responsibility toward her, and they may manifest behavior which, taken out of context or perhaps sinisterly transferred to a real young person by someone mentally unstable, can be distasteful or outright frightening.
Bamboo: I suppose there's a fine line. I mean, these characters are represented as these young, fresh-faced innocent girls, who are then turned around and marketed as something more sexual. I think it's with the merchandising aspect of it that these sweet girls can sometimes cross the line between moe and possible fetish. When you have a character where you can think, "Gee, I wish I could protect her, she's my little sister," and then you buy a body pillow of her and sleep next to her, suddenly it crosses a weird line. You can watch a show and think, “I really like this character. She makes me feel like I should be a better person. I should protect her,” and whatnot. But then when you buy a figure of her, or some doujinshi, and the original definition of moe almost loses its meaning. Once you have a body pillow of a little girl… I mean, I don't know a lot of men who platonically sleep with their little sisters.
Sara: I love puppies, but I don't think I'd necessarily buy a body pillow of a puppy.
Bamboo: I have a lot of plush puppies, though, but I don't know if that works as an appropriate parallel. They provide me with comfort, but never having bought a body pillow of a human character before, I'm not sure if there are any similarities or differences in thought.
Casey: Well, I know there are dog fans who like to buy calendars of puppies. Or puppy photobooks.
Sara: Well, this kind of brings us back to that point you brought up earlier, where we need to keep in mind the difference between representation and reality. Puppy calendars and photobooks are pictures of real dogs, obviously. If I bought a huge dog-shaped stuffed animal, it would be because I'd want the simulated comfort of a real pet. In terms of moe character body pillows, though, I'm not convinced it's quite the same thought process. If it was, it means that people are buying these pillows to simulate sleeping with a pre-teen every night. I think it's more the idea of the particular character itself, and the pure ideal it represents, that people are drawn to.
Casey: That's a really hard question to ask a person, though.
Bamboo: Well, Sara, a few weeks ago, you mentioned that in your animation studio, you've often been stuck animating or drawing the boyfriend character. From sketches I've seen in the past, a lot of these boyfriend types are these young bishounen types. So, even with a lot of girls, it seems like there's an affinity for these young, very boyish anime characters. Do you think that has a similar crossover with moe?
Sara: I think so. I mean, the aesthetic of Japanese animation, in general, is about creating very idealistic, visually perfect people. These are the romantic ideals that you can't get in real life. But I think a difference has to be specified here, because the characters I was assigned to design and animate were clearly meant to be attractive and desirable to young women. Like, they sing and give flowers and make bedroom eyes and what not. Moe fans consistently assert that feelings of lust and desire—and even romance—need to be left out of the equation.
Bamboo: So going back to the whole representation of real life. If you have a representation of a little girl character, you can't necessarily translate that to real life. And that's one of the things that moe defenders will tell you.
Sara: That's very true.
Bamboo: That's one of those things that, even though they may really like this character, that because it's just a representation to them, it's not going to carry over. At the same time, it's one of those things where only some parts carry over. Perhaps not the age or the look, but perhaps it's part of the personality. If the representation is a young girl, then perhaps the real life representation of that is a very quiet girl, a naïve girl, or one who is very girly.
Casey: Well, we really haven't talked about this too much, but moe actually kind of had its moment after lolicon. So lolicon is actually older then moe. And so you see with moe a logical progression away from the female as a sexual—and thus threatening—being. As we all know from watching anime, mature women can be awfully frightening, and Japanese guys who are hung up about their masculinity may find even a mature woman a threat. So we get lolicon, which turns the object of desire into a less threatening little girl. Yet it seems that for some, even the sexual power of the lolicon character was too powerful, so we get moe, which neutralizes the threat of female sexuality entirely.
Bamboo: I guess for me, it's really hard to step into that mindset of the demographic of a moe show. You know, I can watch a show like Air and think, “oh, that's a cute girl,” but I don't have any overwhelming feelings for her. Outside of my feelings for her as a human towards another human being, I don't really have a desire to protect her, so I guess for me, it's hard to separate those who do have that feeling, and those who may look at her as something more sexualized.
Casey: I'm not sure how much of the ideal of the moe fan is actually true. That's what I was kind of hinting at in the beginning. On one hand, I don't know that you can really say that the moe fans have no kind of sexual interest at all. On the other hand, you might argue that, say you have a very insecure male who feels attached to a character, and to feel that the demands of reproduction and of sexual love are not present—it might be comforting to them. So that might be a part of the appeal as well. And in a sick way, the only way they can relate to the opposite sex is in a completely desexualized way.
Bamboo: But it's also interesting when you look at all the cases in anime in which you have the brother complex. It's a little hard to say, “Well, that's not sexual at all,” when you have girls who say, “Oh, he is my brother, and I want him to be mine for the rest of my life.” For example, shows like Please Twins or Sister Princess or Magikano, where you have these female who are super possessive of their brothers. In one respect, it's protective, but in another, it's a little weird sometimes. Some shows even poke fun at it, like the most recent Kujibiki Unbalance, where the sister is all over him.

Now, to cover my bases, I think this is completely different from shows that do bring up incest, but in a very unique and different way, like Koi Kaze. I think the show is beautiful, but rather than use the brother-sister complex as some comedy device, it becomes the central focus point. With them, it's more like, “Well, look at us. There may be shame, but I can't hide this feeling,” and I think that tugs on a very interesting subject, and I think the series is very thought-provoking and even heart-breaking.

Sara: I think the “brother complex” in its more fetishized form might tie in with what Casey was talking about before, with the ideal of the young, non-threatening innocent girl. She will never be this scary alpha-female presence in your life; she'll just be this supportive girl who will always be there for you without her scary female sexuality hanging all over you.
Bamboo: There does seem to always be a contrast between the cute moe girl and the scary woman he wants to avoid. I guess it's your typical foil between the douchey jock and the kind-hearted chess nerd who won't dump you after prom.

At the same time, I think it's hard for us to understand since we do live in such a progressive society where being the powerful woman is totally cool. You look at all those new series like Lipstick Jungle and what not, and you have these completely badass women. Even back in the day with Ally McBeal, who was a total girl, but still kind of awesome and strong.

Casey: I've noticed at least in manga that moe manga has not exactly taken off the same way here in the United States as it has in Japan. For whatever that's worth. I'm not sure what the situation is with anime as a category separate from manga, but it may be possible that the market for moe manga in the U.S.—and the most important purchasing demographic for all categories of printed fiction in general is women anyway—just isn't big enough to sustain it as a niche genre. It just hasn't become the phenomenon, at least not yet, so all of the stuff we've been talking about is really only about the situation in Japan. Or maybe moe is a product of cultural or economic facts on the ground in Japan that do not apply here; they say that the phenomena of the shut-in is that way.
Sara: We need more shut-ins.
Casey: We need to make shut-ins a topic for another week.
Bamboo: I feel like a lot of the bagging on moe and comparing it to lolicon really comes from within the anime community. Like, the persecution comes from fellow fans.
Casey: Well, anime fans are used to feeling somewhat repressed, I think. Not all, but some, especially in the context of mainstream pop culture. There may be a tendency, just within the community itself, to point fingers at someone you feel superior to, just because in other contexts, you had people point fingers at you.
Sara: I also think there's a persecution complex within anime fandom where, as the term implies, they feel they're being persecuted. Maybe even if it's just joking or light mocking. I think those two things combined can create some potentially disastrous flame war situations.
Bamboo: Bringing up the article I mentioned earlier, there is an interesting passage where he mentions, and I quote, “Otaku guys fantasize about living in a girls-only world, like Little Women.” I wonder if there is truth in that. Interestingly, there's a series that was recently released in the US called Otoboku. The main character is a boy who, in order to fulfill his grandfather's will, he ends up going to the same school his mother did. But, it's an all-girls school so he has to cross-dress in order to fit in. It's kind of a cute show, I think, but I wonder if that ties into the statement about otaku men wanting to live in a girls' only world.
Sara: I think we'd have to ask an otaku man about that because I have no idea. I think the closest equivalent to a flip flop for female viewers would be the Ouran Host Club, where girls leave their normal school lives behind to experience this fantastic male pampering.
Casey: I've heard a lot of people talk about the origins of lolicon as being a kind of reaction against things like Fist of the North Star, for example, or Crying Freeman, where you have these über masculine guys, which is hard to live up to if you're a real guy. So instead of depictions of a hyper-masculinized culture everywhere, you start seeing depictions of a more feminine culture. It's also around the time you start to see more shojo manga-styled drawings in shonen manga. The creator of Oh My Goddess! was one of the pioneers of this. I do definitely think there may be amongst some Japanese men a desire to not be male because of the pressures of being male in a very patriarchal society. There is so much pressure to perform, pressure to make money, to have a family, to support your wife… sometimes these things are difficult or financially impossible. It might also be stressful, and the desire to get away from that, or check out completely, can be overwhelming for some people.
Bamboo: That is a really interesting point and I hadn't really thought about that before. You know, I guess it does make sense, especially when you look at so many male heroes today in anime that are popular nowadays. You don't have as many, “Woah, I'm gonna take over the world!” people. You have more normal people who are high school students or college students, who do extraordinary things because of talent or hard work. Maybe that's where moe comes in, where you can be this normal guy, but still have a girl looking up to you who thinks you'll protect her forever. You don't even have to take 20 punches to the face.
Casey: I think there may be something to that. The more insecure somebody feels, the less they are willing to go up against somebody strong.
Sara: That includes females, too, which would be a good explanation of why moe girls are so… I'm trying to look for an adjective that's not too derogatory. So innocent, I guess. I'll just go with that.
Bamboo: You know, something that's always struck me is that anime fans have amazing imaginations. When I was at Anime Expo, Funimation had an Ouran High School Host Club booth where they had mostly female cosplayers dressing up as the boys, and they set up their own host club. These hosts would stay in character, and would take customers on mini-dates around the exhibitor's hall. They'd chat with them, they'd pretend to sip tea with them, and it was pretty incredible. The customers loved them.
Casey: Were the customers mostly men or women?
Bamboo: Mostly women.
Sara: That reminds me a lot of the Takarazuka Revue, a Japanese musical troupe originating in 1913 that's all women. They play all the different roles, including the male parts, and there's all this elaborate stage make-up. They have a big following, which is largely made up of women as well—something like 80 or 90 percent. They're still going strong today, and I hear anecdotes about mothers, who have seen the troupe perform 30 years ago, come back to contemporary shows with their daughters.
Casey: I think that it's hard to judge people at a convention, though, in relation to how they would feel in other contexts. For some people, the convention is a kind of play already. I think a lot of these gender issues have to do with power shifts. For men, they're being viewed as the more powerful ones, at least in the lenses of a heteronormative society. Being female kind of means a divestment of power. Men can say, “I don't have to be in control, I can let go,” whereas for women, androgyny or masculinity represents power they aren't ordinarily allowed to have.

Or, and this is going off on a completely different topic, a lot of people say the reason why women want boys' love is because they themselves are not present in the story. It can be truly a romance between equals, because they are unable to imagine romance between equals when one of the two lovers in female.

Sara: I've also heard of this, though I don't know what it has to do with moe.
Bamboo: Well, if you look at boys' love anime, it's between two people who are presumably equals, but the readership is largely women, so they may have different views. The scholarly argument, amongst some scholars anyway, is that with a male readership, they don't necessarily want that same equality. They don't want a woman who is the equal, which is why moe comes into play. Suddenly, he is dealing with something he can manage. He's not dealing with a woman trying to be the alpha male. I don't know that I agree with this viewpoint 100%, but it's interesting to consider.
Sara: That's a good point, especially considering the viewership of moe shows, and especially the kind of male protagonist that shows up in moe shows. One of the points that consistently keep arising is the blandness in the “everyman” sorts of protagonists that tend to star in these types of titles. They're catalysts for the viewers more than any kind of substantial personality. These types of catalyst characters tend not to appear much in boys' love comics and anime and the female reader takes on a much more passive kind of voyeurism than full-on immersion.
Casey: It's really sad in a way when you think about the context of these two phenomena together, because what you have is men who only can feel powerful with a child. And then you have women who are checking out of relationships altogether either by fantasizing about something that can't happen, or mock dating a woman in drag. I mean, it's just an utter disconnect between the sexes in Japan.

This isn't to say that all the heavy stuff we've been talking about applies to all moe in the same way or to the same degree. I'll end this by saying that I really like Azumanga Daioh because it was so funny.

Sara: I wanted to mention that, too, the first time you brought it up. I'll have to side with the moe fans on that one. I really love that show. I can't get enough of it. I watch it all the time. I was just watching a few episodes last night, in fact. Sakaki is amazing.
Casey: I almost died laughing.
Bamboo: I think a lot of anti-moe people are quick to judge and quick to jump the gun on the whole anti-loli thing. There are a lot of shows I like that have these tiny, cute girls, and as a female viewer, I have no sexual feelings towards these girls. I still think some of those shows are really hilarious, like Azumanga Daioh or Lucky Star. Shows like Strawberry Marshmallow and Bottle Fairies—I thought those shows were really cute. What was that one show… A Tiny Snow Fairy Sugar? Super cute.
Sara: Oh my God, I love that show!
Bamboo: Yeah, it was a really cute show. It's unfair to male fans sometimes because you presumably have guys just like us who are thinking, “Ah man, that show is so cute!” and then you have these haters who are like, “Well obviously you're a pedophile.” That's not really fair.
Sara: What other moe shows do you like?
Bamboo: A lot of people give me crap for this, but I like some of those moe dating sim shows, like Air and Kannon. They're really cute, and some of them make me tear up at the end, because some of that stuff they put those characters through is just brutal.

You have to feel protective towards these girls in some of these dating sims. The girls are either dying, or they're not human, or they are in some screwed-up state of life. I think in those cases, you almost have to feel protective of them. Like, if you don't feel protective of them, you're kind of a cold person. If you want to have sex with them, then that's just some weird snuff film stuff going on. That's just weird.

Casey: Well, like I said, I like Azumanga Daioh. I began reading the manga first while browsing at the bookstore one evening. I never even intended to buy it. But there I was, standing in the bookstore reading it, and was just laughing in front of the bookshelf and attracting an embarrassing amount of attention. I know if I re-read it, I wouldn't laugh the same way again because I know what it going to happen. But for whatever reason, it really tickled my funny bone. That's enough for me to say I loved it.
Sara: I really like Strawberry Marshmallow. There's this character in it, Miu, who is probably one of my favorite characters ever. She's just this asshole kid who is kind of amazing. She has a really bizarre personality and loves unapologetically aggravating everyone around her, and I guess I feel like I can connect with that because that's how a lot of my friends acted while I was growing up. She's also a very assertive little girl, which I love. I mean, she probably fits neatly into some moe category, but I really don't care. I really love all the Strawberry Marshmallow characters and I think the show is super funny and well written.
Bamboo: Well, our time's up for this week. Thanks to everyone for participating, and thank you readers, for joining us!

Transcribed by: Keith LaPointe


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