Let’s start by covering the what has been stated before. Moe characters are characters which are tough to provide solid definition on, since they appeal to human emotion. These emotions, in fact, are created from a broken idealistic femininity, which generates a protective and nurturing instinct. I’ve also noted that these characters, when used heavily in shows, attract a niche group of loyal fans.
Of course, no discussion on the matter really is complete without how many different opinions exist about the moe character type with varying opinions on the topic. Seriously. Those were the highlights from the top 20 Google results. And it’s not limited to us fans either. The legendary (and now retiring) Hiyao Miyazaki has been famous for his dislike of the moe character, though it should be noted that he had originally found them to be sympathetic characters. The director of Psycho Pass, Motohiro Katsuyuki, was also on the books for saying that the term moe was forbidden from use during Psycho Pass‘ development.
So…what gives exactly?
The natural starting point for unravelling all this is to start by asking “what do people hate about moe characters”? A bit of a backwards (and sometimes fallacy driven) approach, but I think it warrants merit here. After all, we kind of have an idea why those who like moe characters like them…or at least, why I think they like them. It’s good to look at the other side of the question. A look into the most common arguments tend to focus around three primary concepts: moe characters as a dominating force in anime, moe characters as being too simple a character type, and moe characters as being sexual fodder. What I have found myself though is that the first two tend to draw harder on the last argument, as the reasons seem to feed into the level of fan service applied to shows.
Let’s visit each in detail, shall we?
Moe Characters as a Dominating Force
This line of thought was much more common a few years ago, but in this belief, moe characters have become a dominant part of anime. They are popular. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be having as many discussions over it, would we? As mentioned before, moe driven shows seem to hold about 25-30% of the market value of anime, quite a large value. And for a while, they seemed to become unstoppable, with studio after studio converting their character designs over to be more alone the lines of the concepts underlying moe characters. Because of this, some have felt that moe characters are a plague that has started to consume the entire industry and is warping it into something different from what we had. To some, it’s because it’s a cash cow that’s easy to milk. To others, it’s because they just don’t like moe characters, god damn it.
I noticed this myself too. I must admit I’ve never been the strongest fan of moe characters. My interest tends to be far away from shows with lots of moe characters, though there are exceptions (Slice of life/coming of age anime Stellvia of the Universe is the first I can think of). So I tend to shy away from anime when the trend hits strong, while I hold interest in more shows when there are fewer shows revolving around moe characters. For a stretch of time, I passed series after series over without a second glance. There was probably a stretch of about a year or so where I didn’t see any show that I was interested in.
I think this sentiment draws a lot from something I had noted previously: that, from the studio’s point of view, moe characters and shows revolving around them are safe gambles. They don’t generate the best returns, nor do they break any new ground, but they keep the company afloat better to some degree. Safe and small profit over risky and possible death. If we look at debates about moe ruining anime, a lot of the topics with this concept at the centre take place in 2009 to 2011, right around the time the global recession started hitting anime the hardest. This seems to coincide perfectly as a reaction to economic concerns.
Now, there’s something else worth noting here: many other character stereotypes exist. Tsundere characters are probably just as prevalent, yet don’t generally receive as much flak. When pressed on this, I think the reason moe characters get a harder ride starts to roll into the next point (or the final point)…
Moe Characters are Flat
This point of disagreement on moe characters stems from a flatness in the characters. They simply don’t change. Shows with lots of moe characters tend to not have lots of character development and instead focus on cute girls doing cute things. The front of this rage probably goes to the K-On! series, since it’s one of the most popular shows which epitomizes everything about the moe characters. So, what’s bad about this? Viewers of this type tend to want depth. They want their character to grow and develop. Shows where this doesn’t happen seem shallow since not much happens. This isn’t the same as slice of life shows. In those, the character can develop and change, despite a possible lack of true moving story. In shows where there is nothing happening and little character development, there can be a sense of stillness and wasted time.
By nature, they aren’t going to be deep characters since they reflect a specific tone. Their appeal requires them to be innocent and imperfect…and stay that way. This limits character development from episode to episode greatly. To change them too much would be to turn in their “moe” license and may even pull away some of the attraction that had won them fans to begin with. I mean, and I’ll go to the extreme with a popular example since I don’t want to make this argument twice, let’s look at the famous Mikuru Asahina. Describe her younger self. The most common answer is “moe” or “moeblob”, the latter just describing how little else she actually does. Now describe her if she stood up for herself, had a sense of self-confidence, and didn’t fold like a house of cards to every single demand. Actually, that describes her older self. Which pretty much sucks the moe characterization out the door…the most common description of the older self is more along the lines of “sexy”. Well, that may be because of a change in drawing procedure for her, but I think you get my drift. It’s not only me that has noticed this lack of character depth. Galbraith (There. I think I mentioned him in each post) has noted that moe characters are the result of flattening real personalities into a much simpler form.
Now, the question can also become “Why exactly do moe characters get flattened? What is there possibly to gain?”. Which leads into the final conflict line.
Moe Characters are Pseudo-Fan Service
From this standpoint, moe characters are the harbinger of pseudo-sexual components of a show. Moe characters act as fan service, providing simple sexual gratification to their viewers. They can be overt, such as T&A action, or much more covert. And some people, myself included, tend to roll their eyes at sexual additions to their show. While it may not be fair to moe characters, they are often associated with softcore fan service and more risque elements of shows, such as ecchi.
And this, I think, is the ultimate heart of the matter. Why we argue and debate about moe characters so much. The battle lines seem to come down to where we stand on pseudo-sexual elements. I keep comparing moe characters to the use of harem in anime and I think something similar comes here. Both tend to be signals of more intense sexual elements. Both tend to have lots of love it or hate it elements. Both tend to be very contentious. Both are used to excite the audience in more covert ways…harem anime through providing a male audience surrogate to imagine they are, and moe characters to give the audience someone to emotionally bond to in a protective manner.
This tends to make sense when we look at some of the other elements around it. Let’s return to Miyazaki for a second for an example. Actually, first, let’s reflect on his films. There are on the very low end for fan service for the most part. Miyazaki is anti-moe characters these days. He feels pretty strongly in relation to the sexualization of his characters and has felt the culture surrounding moe characters has driven closer to a power fantasy than anything else. A lot of these sentiments easily transcend the field of moe characters and reach further into the line of where appropriate use of these type of traits.
This battle isn’t one that is left on Miyazaki’s feet alone. There seems to be a much stronger sentiment about how the integration of sexual traits and anime has occurred. Hideaki Anno is infamous for his handling of this. He absolutely despised the otaku lifestyle around the time of Neon Genesis Evangelion to the point where, whether or not it’s true, many believe components of the protagonist (Shinji Ikari) is seen as a critique of the otaku culture, using the popular (at its time) apocalyptic story as background. In the same theory, Anno was absolutely furious at how Asuka and Rei were treated by the fans, having become the sex symbol for anime. The whole End of Evangelion hospital scene tends to make a whole lot of sense. And takes “screw you audience” to a whole new level. Go ahead and look up video of it if you’re not familiar. I’ll wait.
From this, I think I’ve identified where I stand on the topic of moe characters and why they generate conflict. It doesn’t seem to always be within moe characters themselves, but what comes with them. Moe characters become synonymous with more sexually implicit elements of shows and the real discussion comes into whether or not these elements really belong in anime, and if they do to what quantity. This debate isn’t being discussed only at the fan level, but creator level as well.
Over the past couple months, I’ve enjoyed writing my sometimes aimless thoughts about the moe character, what it is and why we’re talking about it. It’s been a bit of an adventure as this is the first blog I’ve attempted to run and the first topic I picked has been quite a challenge to tackle. The topic is massive and I’ve only but scratched the surface of what I really wanted to say.
So, where do we go from here? Well, the foundation has been lain for a debate proper for those who want it. I have felt I’ve placed a great starting point to debate the merits of moe characters by providing a background and hypothesis as to its appeal, its impact, and what exactly the debate circles around. But honestly, I’m happy to put my thoughts in writing about such a vast and interesting topic to provide background for others to read.
Hopefully you’ve had some fun and have developed opinions of your own about the topic. I don’t doubt that some of what I’ve said is wrong, so please point it out.
…But don’t take it too seriously, okay? Anime is entertainment after all.