What Exactly Is Moe? – Part 1: Definition

Moe.  Three simple letters.  It’s a term that has become synonymous with anime.  “Oh, [x] is so moe” or “This scene is moe”.  It’s a term thrown around early and often.  It sometimes feels like a verbal tic in dialogue.  The fame of this term has become so large that there are huge popularity contests designed to find the most “moe” character.  There are endless derivations on the term; moeblob describes a character who acts moe and nothing else (often used with negative connotation) and moe anthropomorphism is an increasing trend where we, as with any personification, turn something into a human form…in this case, with moe characteristics.  Just ask Trope-tan.  We get even more terms coined by other sites…see TVtropes’ Moe Couplet and Moe Stare.  As a fan, we can use it as an adjective or a genre.  Oh, and let’s not forget that moe has become the topic of serious debate…up there with harem and fan service as components of a show that are debated on as either a sexual outlet for a viewer or a legitimate tactic for ensuring decent viewer base and allowing for serious money to be spent on what really matter while selling out a small part of the show.

Despite all this information, I’m not sure we really know a great way to define moe.  In hard strict definitions, it’s tough to come up with a simple, hard and fast rule for what exactly the term means.  There are many reasons for this, including and not limited to the widespread usage, impossibility to translate the term effectively, and the act that it is at heart a fan term.  Really, the short way to look at is that if a friend of yours, who had no experience in watching anime, asked you “So…what is a “moe” character?”, it’d be tough to describe a character that perfectly inscribes all that.  And this is really something I’d like to explore and discuss in detail…what exactly are we talking about when we say “moe”?  Do bear in mind though that I’m no expert on these things.  There are entire semi-academic articles out there which do describe the topic in excruciating length.  I may post some at the end of this, but those are strictly a little above where I’d like to go.  I’m simply someone who has written up an article after a few too many late nights.  Heck, I’m writing this article well past midnight.

What Do We Know?

I’m a science major (Engineering to be exact).  When I don’t have enough information, I start looking for a base to work off of.  Something concrete I can work with and make logical connections as I build upwards from that…actually, first I look through my handbooks for tables about the subject since it’s likely somebody did some calculations on the subject before.  But my handbooks are worthless here so that’s irrelevant.  In this case, we have small facts…simple basic, boring Google searches can yield some basic information about the term, its history, and what people think of it.  The last part may come in handy later, but let’s just focus on what the term means at its root and build up.  Really, this is what this one post is going to be about greatly: a white paper on moe…what do we already know and how can we consolidate the contradictory parts together?

First, let’s look at the history of the word…where did it come from?  Why is it a term we use a lot?  Wikipedia lists some interesting facts aside from the obvious “we can’t really define it” point that sparks the whole discussion.  The primary that I’ll highlight is the nature of the word.  As I mentioned before, the term provides minimal help in giving us character traits or what exactly it means when directly translated over from Japanese.  It notes that the term, at its heart, is a pun.  Therein lies a major problem: as language outsiders, we don’t get the pun.  As such, we start already by having to approximate the term.  Have you ever tried translating a verbal pun into another language?  It just doesn’t really work.  Try explaining the “Why is 6 afraid of 7” joke into another language.  It isn’t a lot of fun.  A very famous case of this came to the forefront of the series Martian Successor Nadesico.  One of the characters, Izumi Maki, spoke in puns plenty of times.  The verbal puns were one of the largest components of her character.  When this couldn’t be translated through effectively, the translation team actually just wrote her a whole new set of jokes, such as ones about Gotham City and the phrase “Got ’em”.  This really highlights how far out of things outsiders to the language can really be.  Also notable on the Wikipedia page is that the origin of the term is up to question as well.  The origin is rarely spoken of with any level of true certainty…it almost ends up being described as something that has been existent for a while, but when or how it came into existence is shrouded in a mystery wrapped in an enigma which was once cared for by the Loch Ness Monster.  This sort of conundrum is fairly common with fan terminology, since there are no real records of who said what first.  We have many theories, but none which can be conclusively proven as of yet.

For those looking for an overview in the history of the word, the long and short of it is that it’s a verbal pun…but what it’s a pun of exactly is up in the air.  Some will claim that its a homonym that led to this term being used (the general translation used is frequently one of “budding” or “blooming”, while yet another homonym is “to burn”).  Another commonly used theory is one of relation to the ever popular Sailor Moon series.  In this series, the character Hotaru Tomoe, Sailor Saturn, was a fairly popular character and fits many of today’s modern definitions for a moe character.  With the verbal obvious similarities in her name and the term, the link can be pretty easy to see.  Of course, this is all just speculative since there is no proof of any of this.  This really leaves the origins in the place of “well, damned if I know”.

Like many other fan terminologies, the fact that it was developed by many people and used by many people for different things makes it hard to pinpoint a single definition or use of the term.  Today, the most frequent usage is generally in the “[x] is moe”, but it should be noted that many other usages of it have existed.  For this, I’ll defer to tsurupeta.info for a better description than I could ever provide.  I might not agree on all their terms or usages, but at the same time, I’m nowhere near active enough to really say that I can confirm or deny that they may have been used in such a manner at one point.  Further support for this spread usage is clearly evident on visiting a site I’ll quote early and often, TVtropes.  On its page defining moe, we can first see a concerning factor in that it’s a YMMV page.  For those unfamiliar with the cite, YMMV is “Your Mileage May Vary” and is reserved for pages which refer to tropes which are debated in nature.  This, in relevance to moe, hints to me that it’s an opinion based on one’s intrinsic perception.  There’s never going to be a hard check list of “meet these requirements, qualify as moe”.  This likely means that the result is something that is emotionally driven given the nature of what is being described.  In other words, what exactly moe is defined as will be subject to the perception of the viewer…what I may deem moe may not be the same as what you see it as.

Long story short: Nobody honestly really knows what moe is or how it came to be.  People, even academics have theories and that’s about it.  Since it’s a fan term, we can’t conclusively prove anything except that it’s a widespread, coverall term.  In this sense, we can see commonalities to some more comfortable English words.  For example, “feminist” can mean a wide variety of things, so much so that it’s much easier to break the term up into schools of thought.  Yet we use the term feminist to explain a wide variety of different opinions and beliefs from equal pay for equal work and qualifications to “insane nutbar down the street wanting to chop your nuts off”.  And, as such, we’ll never really get a strict, effective definition.  This may seem kind of silly to point out, since the post here is “What Exactly is Moe”…but this really leads to an argument that moe isn’t an exact thing.  There’s no science or perfect way to describe it since it, by nature, was never perfect in definition by virtue of being a fan term.  As one open to interpretation, it’s going to be unfair to say that someone is incorrect in saying that [x] isn’t moe.  It’s subjective and the matter of interpretation is left to the individual.  A similar example can be written into a science.  How safe do we need to make a bridge?  Is 1% chance of it breaking in a year safe?  Is 0.1%?  0.01%?  We have regulations on such things, but there’s no real good way to decide on a safety factor since the concept of 100% safe never actually exists outside the realm of thought.

Short long story short: Honestly, we know nothing about the term “moe”, other than it’s a widely spread term which, by nature of being originated as a fan term, is near impossible to describe and one in which we don’t have a way to identify how it got here…it just did at some point.  Again, this may seem weird that my “what exactly is…?” post ends up with a bit of a “it’s not exactly anything” answer…but fan terms are an oddity.

Extra Credit – Actual Trends

In all this chaos and madness, there is but a couple interesting points which refuse to die down.  The lesser is that the show Neon Genesis Evangelion was a huge factor in all this and the greater being that the character of Rei Ayanami in specific was the catalyst. One has to take into consideration the nature of the industry at the time.  Neon Genesis Evangelion was part of a fairly big genre at the time: an “after the end” show.  Apocalyptic shows ran rampant in the years leading up to the airing of Evangelion.  An extremely famous example, if needed for assistance in visualization, is Fist of the North Star.  Leading up to this, Evangelion was more of the same.  However, the character of Rei Ayanami was something unaccounted for.  Director Hideaki Anno had attempted to form a creepy individual, one which we couldn’t possibly relate to.  And that was Rei.  What ended up happening was impossible to predict in my mind…Rei became a popular character. Someone many people liked.  In a show full of easy to hate characters, she was the one we took into our arms.  Why this is has become an interesting area of debate.  A roundtable discussion once pointed to the rise of apocalyptic works and their sudden decline after the Aum Subway bombing.  In this theory, the bleak contrast of Evangelion’s hopeless world scenario, in which we see exactly how horribly things go when we leave the world in the hands of angst-ridden kids broke the back of this entire genre.  Before, these shows were an escape…you could stand up and say “The world needs saving?  Well, I can save it!” and replaced it with a void of nothingness due in no small part to the real world events occurring around them and how badly Evangelion broke basically everything.  This discussion furthered this point by suggesting that the final two episodes of Evangelion hurt things even worse since Anno, famous for his hatred of the otaku lifestyle, seemingly prepared a parody of the inevitable parody of a normal life for the Evangelion cast (which, and I’m not familiar with this enough, is suggested to be an event that had already started).  Regardless, it should be noted that Rei Ayanami will forever be a turning point and will probably be considered the harbinger of a shift towards moe trends, a point highlighted by Galbraith.   A common line of thought was that Rei’s presence brought about a new trend.  Why is questionable, but the need to see their fan favourites in positions where they aren’t being mentally and physically put through the wringer, seems to become the prevailing trend.

Wrap Up

So, for the speculative “can we create a hard definition to moe” part, it turns out there’s really no good way to define moe.  No simple formula to apply, no simple definition.  We get a general idea of what it’s supposed to be…but nothing concrete or anything that can’t be described greatly without learning by examples.  Terms like “generic cuteness” or “elicits the big brother instinct in all of us” are about as close as we get.  If you need to explain it to the friend mentioned at the beginning, just keep sticking to spinning your wheels until it gets through.

From here on out, I’ll be focusing on the character definition of moe, such as the must be have been said a million times “Mikuru is so moe” (emphasis theirs) type of statement.  This is probably the most relevant term, since the usage of moe as a term period has died out in recent years.

From here, the next step is to approach and understand the appeal of such a character.  Why are they so appealing anyways?  What makes a character with this incoherent blob of moe traits so popular?


4 responses to “What Exactly Is Moe? – Part 1: Definition

  1. Pingback: What Exactly Is Moe? – Part 2: Appeal | Lain's First Law

  2. Pingback: What Exactly Is Moe? – Part 3: Impact | Lain's First Law

  3. Pingback: What Exactly Is Moe? – Part 4: Conflict | Lain's First Law

  4. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide To Anime | Lain's First Law

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