Moe is not just about the anime industry. It’s a cultural phenomenon that might be the most difficult term I have ever had the privilege of attempting to define for a mass audience. Ph.D candidates have written 15 page long essays on the sole topic of what moe is. According to one Ph.D candidate, “Moeru (nominalized as moe) is a simple Japanese verb meaning ‘to bud or sprout,’ and is homophonous with the verb ‘to burn.’ In the 1990’s the word moe appeared on a now famous bulletin board website 2Chan in a discussion of young, cute, innocent anime girls and a ‘burning passion’ for them.” However, moe can actually be used to describe more than just young girls.
The moe market in Japan is enormous. It encompasses practically anything cute and two dimensional that caters to gender-based emotional and psychological needs. Men who feel that it is impossible for them to express their stereotypically ‘feminine’ needs and women who have repressed masculinity both reach out to different types of moe for comfort. It is important to acknowledge that anything moe is fantasy. A moe character in a story would almost always be characterized as ‘flat’ (if you remember your high school literary terms). Though the moe girl is dependent, simple, loving, and evokes feelings of nurturing, it would be impossible to imagine her in reality. The general charm of such a moe character can be a nostalgia for ones own (idealized) childhood or the warm feelings of pure, clean love that their innocence ignites, or even parent-like affection. But there can also be a darker, perverted side to this love.
Though female moe characters in anime (Mio – K-On! , Konata – Lucky Star, Chobits – Chi) are inherently incapable of sensing sexual tension, avid fans soon realized that they could make doujinshi (fan manga) where such was not the case. Soon enough a new industry, lolicon, was created where the perverted fantasies of older men craving young girls could be realized.
Moe remains a separate entity, but can easily cross the line depending on the circumstances. Still, what men really crave about the female moe is the sincere affection and love that these anime girls are capable of, not the sexual release they may provide on the side when their innocence is compromised.
Female-targeting moe can usually be found in yaoi, where women can live out their sexual fantasies where prescribed androgynous character types pursue one another in very forthcoming ways. The female reader can project herself onto the usually very feminine uke (bottom) and proceed to be banged by the highly masculine seme (top).
The very physical and sexual nature of yaoi appeals to the repressed masculinity in women, though the reader is very aware that it is not something they would actually want in real life. Just like male moe fans know their characters cannot exist in reality, so women understand that the ‘moe’ situations in yaoi can live only in fantasy, and would not be so pleasant if acted out in real life.
Though generally yaoi and male moe characters are not always acknowledged as being moe, even female moe alone is already very pervasive trend in the Japanese anime, gaming, and manga industries. Female moe characters are popular enough that there has even been an anime, “Welcome to the NHK” about the culture of moe-obsessed male otaku.
(CAUTION SPOILERS AHEAD on Welcome to NHK)
The main character, Sato, is afraid to leave his apartment plastered with inappropriate anime girl posters and beer, but when a very moe-esque girl appears one day on his doorstep and tells him she can ‘save him,’ he decides to make a visual novel game with his nieghbor to convince her that he is actually a succesful designer, not a pathetic loser.
Love, or lack thereof in Sato’s life is an essential element to explaining his (and his neighbors) obsession with moe. Every time they manage to get a date they temporarily forget about their favorite moe characters, but the second a relationship is shattered all their old habits return. At one point in the anime Sato’s neighbor explains that a female moe character is receptive, sensitive, has no ulterior motives, and is at her heart only interested in the well being of others, and that therefore they cannot exist in reality. And that is why so many men fall in love with them.
The preoccupation with moe in Japanese culture has motivated companies to produce more and more moe-heavy anime and other products like games, toys, t-shirts, etc. The New York Times even published an article about men who are in serious relationships with their favorite moe character. Printed on a body pillow. Naturally the anime market has only seen a rise in sales, taking advantage of the Japanese weakness for moe. According to Anime News Network, the moe market is worth 88 BILLION yen. So long as the weakness prevails, so there will be a continual increase in moe-heavy anime. This doesn’t mean that one genre of anime will rise above the others, because moe spans genre. After all, if Neon Genesis Evangelion and Chobits were the same genre the world would have to implode. Only those anime who take moe to the furthest extreme are necessarily all rainbows and bunny rabbits (think Moetan or Futago Hime). Such anime are rarely ever liscensed in America, and are unlikely to even be noticed by casual American Anime fans. Only the more (dare I say it?) obsessed of us are observing the increase in production of moe anime from Japan.
However, it seems that this ‘moe boom’ might be coming to a close. The number of new moe shows has been cut in half since last year, so it seems the sunrise is before us. For one, the number of female viewers is rising and with that the female moe character becoming less desirable (since it was created mainly to charm the male viewer). It seems even the guys were getting a little sick of the fluff, as enticing in its innocence as it may be. The mature anime audience has clearly awoken and wants it gritty three dimensional characters back. I have to say, I am pretty happy about this, but I think that there is a lot to learn from the moe boom, both about Japanese culture and the human psyche. As much as I don’t personally like moe, I don’t want the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. Moe, kawaii, and humorous anime do a good job in balancing out those incredibly depressing titles that the anime industry is equally capable of. We certainly don’t want them to go away completely. Balance, balance is always good.