Anime Terminology 101: Moe

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen and others! Welcome to Anime Terminology 101. I am your instructor, Professor M. In our last class, we discussed the term “yaoi” and the tropes and background associated with the subgenre. Today we’ll be taking a crash course in another subgenre, the wonderful world of “moe”. Please raise your hand if you have any questions. Yes, you there, at the back!

What is moe?

That’s a very good question, particularly as you can often ask ten different people and get ten different answers. Generally, though, it tends to refer to a certain kind of series or character that is defined by youth, cuteness, and innocence. Some scholars believe the word translates as “budding,” and conveys that idea of a bud becoming a flower. The most common form of “moe” is a prepubescent girl, often in a school uniform or some sort of cute, frilly clothing, who has big eyes, stylized hair, and behaves in a very endearing fashion (either by being adorably sweet, or impetuous, or a bookworm, etc); her driving goal will usually be something basic and childlike such as following her dreams or becoming an idol singer/magical girl/some sort of hero/famous person.  Moe characters can also be male (it’s rare, but it happens) and can be past puberty or even into young adulthood.

Above all, to be moe means to be adorable and to elicit strong protective feelings and affection in the audience; indeed, some other scholars claim that moe is a form of the verb moeru, “to burn with affection.”  If you ever see a character who seems almost designed to make you want to grab them and squeeze them in a big hug, chances are that the character is moe.  An entire series that seems to run on this principle is probably designed to be a moe series.

So it’s cute adorable girls doing cute adorable things. These are kids’ shows, then?

Er… no, not exactly. While there certainly is a lot of crossover between children’s anime and the moe phenomenon (e.g. Chibi Usa from Sailor Moon being identified as a “moe” character), the target audience of moe series and moe design tend to be adult males, with the largest and most passionate demographic being the “otaku” subculture.

…oh. So is it a sex or pedophile kind of thing then?

Yes… no… sort of… not exactly… it’s complicated. There’s definitely an element of fetishization to moe; there are just too many short skirts and wide adoring eyes to be entirely non-suspect. Some series go full hog and embrace the sexualization, such as Kodomo no Jikan (though jury is out on whether that’s trying to deconstruct the genre). This can often cross the line into lolicon, a term derived from “Lolita Complex” to refer to erotic stories about underaged girls. And like almost any media on the planet, moe is subject to Rule 34… lots and lots and LOTS of rule 34. The fanworks built up around moe series almost inevitably have a few creepy, skeevy or downright mindmelting pictures or fanfics, with the added “eww” factor of how young most of these characters are.

On the other hand, one of the core elements of moe’s appeal is innocence, that of the character(s) and, often, of the story as well. Moe fanservice is not necessarily about panty shots and smutty humor, but rather about adorable bouncing princesses and school trips and following your dreams and drooling cutely when they fall asleep on the bus. Fans of moe are often drawn by the childlike innocence of the characters, and not in the sense of them being “untouched virgins” to be deflowered; rather, their cutesy purity and lack of sexualization is a draw in and of itself. Moe inspires protective and affectionate urges, the need to hug and shelter a character without any sexuality necessarily attached. Indeed, some moe fanboys would argue that to overtly sexualize a moe character would destroy the essence of what makes her moe.  A lot of those same fans would claim that they’re not physically attracted to the characters at all… they just happen to like pink frilly things and sweet, adorable people.

In the end, moe provides emotional fanservice as much as (or more than) physical fanservice. The jury is out on whether that makes it “better” or “worse.”

So wait, you have adorable prepubescent characters with childlike dreams in shows meant to provide fanservice for adult men. What are these shows like, anyway?

No two series are alike, of course, but in my experience, moe shows often end up coming over as rather odd in terms of their tone and delivery.  The plotlines are often quite simplistic and childish – some sort of school drama, or a magical girl story – and there’s lots of pink and pretty colors, but the cuteness and youth of the characters is emphasized strongly, even shoved down your throat a little, in a way that makes it clear that this is being made to make certain adults squee. You often end up with these “hybrid” shows where the characters, aesthetics and subject matter seem to be for young girls (e.g. a story about adorable catgirls learning the value of friendship) but there’s just something a bit off about it that makes it more for adults. Perhaps there are a few risqué jokes in there, or some adult content like references to sex or rape, or a few lingering shots on a character’s rear end, or an emphasis on HOW CUTE AND ADORABLE the characters are. Whatever it is, it makes it difficult to know how to approach a moe show; if you’re anything like me, you’re torn between being faintly bored at the childish and simple plot and creeped out at the idea that somewhere, someone is getting… “into” it, if ya know what I mean.

One other thing; while, as always, exceptions exist, moe shows have a bad reputation of being middling-to-low quality. This is because, as a genre, moe anime is often mass-produced at an incredible rate. For every moe anime that makes it over to our side of the Pacific, there are probably five in Japan that never get picked up due to overproduction and low quality. General consensus is that the market is almost glutted with moe, and already a backlash is beginning.

Why produce so much moe?

Merchandising. Nothing makes an anime company’s bank account sing like the sounds of cash registers ringing up adorable vinyl statues of chibi French maids or wide-eyed posters of innocent catgirls.  And with the anime industry taking such a huge tumble in recent years, many companies sought to go with the “safe” money by appealing to their otaku base and mass-producing moe mascots that would get male fans interested in buying items. Between DVDs (collector and normal), figurines, pencil cases, folders, notebooks, posters, manga, audio CDs, Tshirts, garage kits, cellphone charms and plushies, the potential revenue from moe anime is astounding… hence why it has been so prevalent in the past few years.

So, is moe bad or good?

This is such a subjective question that it’s difficult to answer. Certainly, there are plenty of genuinely likeable moe characters, many in non-moe series, who have captured the hearts of fans of all ages and genders. And in many cases, a so called “moe series” can transcend its fanservice origins and become something truly inspired, such as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Azumanga Daioh. On the other hand, there certainly is a ton of crappy moe, much of it uninspired fanservice, and there are plenty of people who find the close connections to lolicon and the intentional “appeal” of the characters very creepy. Detractors will often refer to particularly egregious examples of adorable, trusting and sweet female characters as “moeblobs”, pointing out the bad implications of reducing a woman or girl into a “blob” that exists only to be loved and cuddled and adored by male fans. Indeed, some argue that the entire genre is misogynist emotional “porn” and should be discarded for more realistic, fully-rounded depictions of women, girls, and relationships.

Whatever your thoughts on moe, I’m sure the debate – and the fanservice – will keep going for a long, long time to come.

What do you think of moe? Do you think it’s just as valid and interesting as any other anime genre, or do you think it’s all mindless fanservice fluff? Do you find it harmless or skeevy?

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