slowdeath of moé

Blood on my hands

We live in a post-Love-Live world. The microtransaction gacha game mobile market has clawed its way up to infest the japanese animation industry. Your game’s fifteen minutes of fame lives or dies by the unflinching hand of the otaku. Moe is currency. Money is siphoned out of their wallets on the basis of the two-dimensional girls handing in their pockets. Gacha gacha gotcha! Developers and artists throw every idea they have at the wall to see what sticks. Every combination of hobbies crossed with cute-girls create inbred monstrosities. Try out all the combinations of hair-styles, archetypes and bust-sizes to assemble a cast of girls enough to cover every possible fetish of the global demographic. Scroll through Pixiv and see the same character dozens of times, only to realize they were all from different variations of phone idol games.

Akihabara burning, Dejiko missing in action, disillusionment is quietly ballooning, hundreds of sameface’s are vying for your attention, unlimited fanworks; moe is dead, long live moe.

I was perusing AnimeNewsNetwork late one night and came across the announcement [a]that Liden Films was working on a new entry in the Di Gi Charat anime franchise, currently dubbed Reiwa no Di Gi Charat, after the current era of Japan’s official calendar. What rubbed me the wrong way, and was also the primary motivator of my writing of this blog, was the new artstyle. It was to be expected with over twenty years of evolution within the anime industry, however, something about it was off-putting. The key visual was illustrated by the original artist, Kobe-Donbo*, and while visually appealing, seems to me more like a Pixiv illustration or promotional flyer than a key visual for the anime.

In an attempt to set my heart at ease, the article reassures fans that Sakura Hiroaki will be returning as the director and the new designs were drawn by the experienced character designer Watanabe Atsuko, known for her work on GA: Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Ebiten and Acchi Kocchi among others. GA: Geijitsuka Art Design Class being significant for being a somewhat niche, but similarly well-known, moe anime within certain otaku circles, with a very clearly delineated early-to-mid-2000’s puni plush[b] aesthetic.

However, I felt a more explicitly calculated approach to designing Dejiko's appearance this time around. It feels less in-line with the more absurd original and more so a product of the current trends within the industry. This reminds me of the fourth episode of NHK ni Youkoso where Satou and Yamazaki are brainstorming a character design of their main heroine in a meido-kissa and they create a terrifying amalgamation of all the common moe character traits in one drawing. In a similar fashion, the original Dejiko was less-so a character and more so an amalgamation of the most popular moe trends at the time.

Once a trend-setter, now a trend-follower. Yet, this is not a negative critique, rather, this is an observation that inspires me to explore further. Di Gi Charat was a parody series which attempted to poke fun at the-recent trends, but quickly came to define the de-facto limit to what the otaku collective unconscious understood as moe- a shared perception of “what it means to be an otaku” and “this is what we like.” Dejiko was both the spokeswoman and the idol of this punipuni-moe revolution; characterized through large buggish eyes, nekomimi, cat bell collar, paws on her hands and feet, and a meido-san cosplay to top it off. The absurdity of the design was how the hodgepodge [c]of these cliches all blended together to create the definition of otakucore at the time, as well as gives us a hint as to what moe looked like at the turn of the century.

The problem was that Dejiko is a product. Created in collaboration with artist Kobe-Donbo* and Japanese media company Broccoli, she was to become a mascot for the former company's Akihabara-based retail chain of stores, “Gamers.” The store specializes in distributing anime and manga goods aimed towards otaku. The character first appeared in a promotional magazine called “From Gamers” in July of 1998, later appearing in August of the same year as a 4-koma manga strip called “Gema Gema,” after Dejiko’s sidekick, published in the same magazine. Soon after she was adopted as the mascot for the Gamers store and has remained as such to this day.

So when did moe die? And why do I have blood on my hands?

Heisei-era anime

(We’re all in the madhouse)

Di Gi Charat was by no means the beginning of moe, but it was what launched a moe revolution during the climax of the Heisei era. Beginning around 2002 with Azumanga Daioh and continuing to the current year, what the industry has come to call “moe anime” has been in production, and is generally understood as aimed towards otaku as opposed to a general audience.

According to AniDB’s “cute girls doing cute thing[d]s” tag, the earliest show within that tag is Azumanga Daioh: The Movie followed closely by the 2002 TV series. This was an anime adaptation of Azuma Kiyohiko-sensei’s 4-koma manga of the same name. It’s important to note that this was a 4-koma manga following the traditional Japanese 4-part comedy structure: Ki (Start), Shou (Development), Ten (Climax) and Ketsu (Conclusion)[e]. It also served to define a popular collection of archetypes within the scope of the manga that would lend itself well to comedy, which naturally created scenarios similar to the manzai [f]Japanese comedy routine. It was a series about nothing really, but featured a predominantly female cast of memorable characters and featured traces of absurdist humor. At the time there wasn’t anything else really like Azumanga and many fans were left wanting more of this new type of anime.

It wasn’t until 2005 or so when Ichigo Marshmallow would air and be grouped within the same tag. Though not to the same success since this show was more clearly defined demographic. Fans would rejoyed in 2007 which was the year of moe anime; Manabi Straight, Hidamari Sketch and Lucky Star all within a short period of time. The latter two being 4-koma manga while Manabi Straight being an interesting adaptation of what originally was a reader-participation game tuned manga. Among these three anime, Lucky Star was the most popular due to the pedigree of Kyoto Animation working on it, hot off the heels of the runaway success that was Suzumiya Haruhi finishing airing just the year prior. Though Hidamari Sketch and Manabi Straight would slowly gain dedicated fans in smaller circles, Hidamari later would receive continued adaptations from Studio Shaft. Interestingly enough, Kyoto Animation, Shaft and ufotable (Animation studios for Lucky Star, Hidamari and Manabi respectively) would go on to be major players in the modern anime industry and all see unprecidented success amongst the hardcore anime fans. However, one of the biggest influences and the breakout hit of the subgenre was 2009’s K-On! animated once again by Kyoto Animation. Following the release of K-On!, we started to see a lot of similar cute-girls anime adaptations of 4-koma manga. These styled closely in the groundwork that Azumanga Daioh created and what K-On! refined. Some examples of similar cute girls moe that were created were: A-Channel, Yuru Yuri, Kin’iro Mosaic, Non Non Biyori and Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka? Not all of these examples were following the four-girls template to a tee and managed to creatively explore the subgenre and try new things. For this reason, we now see many interesting takes on the genre, though each not to the same degree of success. Different combinations of “cute girls doing X,” where “X“ is continuously being replaced with increasingly niche hobbies. This is starting to reveal itself as a slippery slope.

The economics of manipulation

One reason for the overabundance of moe and cute girls anime is money, since otaku are more willing to support anime with cute girls through the purchasing of official merchandise such as figures, special edition home video releases and other miscellaneous goods. This doesn’t mean that otaku won’t purchase mainstream anime merchandise, though we are more willing to purchase goods that directly market themselves to us. There is a certain “comfort” to purchasing moe goods that artificially increases their value whilst artificially justifying the excessive spending.

Cute Catharsis

Moe anime was, for all intents and purposes, the new 90’s OVA. Where the OVA was born and raised during the decade leading up to the millenium thanks to the overall booming popularity of the home video market and finally recognizing the untapped market of older anime fans with money to spend. This “new” market of older adults having grown up watching the classics such as Kidou Senshi Gundam: 0079, Urusei Yatsura or the works of Matsumoto Reiji (999, Harlock etc), now having a job and money to spend, but not enough time to dedicate to watching a lengthy space opera epic like they once did in the arcadia of their youth.

The OVA of old reminds me of punk rock and metal music, both traditionally being anti-authoritarian and in rejection of the more mainstream pop music. They straddled the thin line between aggression and arousal, oftentimes blending the extremes together at the same time. I equate these OVA to similarly be a product of the social unrest during the time; in which the stress of a salaryman found an outlet for their stress through hyperviolent and hypersexual animations, which simultaneously harkened back to their youth, invoking a lukewarm feeling of nostalgia. However, the primary motivator was the cathartic grimdark violence and sexuality that helped provide an outlet for a new lost generation.

Despite Japan’s economy reportedly recovering in the years since, the social unrest still remains. But unlike the madhouse generation that came before them, the next generation of ideological warriors dubbed themselves “otaku” and found a new way to express themselves. The violence and erotica of the 90’s Madhouse OVA was exchanged for a similarly cathartic style of anime: cute girls doing cute things.

Moe anime really took off in the Heisei era with genre-defining masterpieces within the slice-of-life genre, as well as the aforementioned “cute girls doing cute things” subgenre. These were anime largely about nothing which let the story take a backseat to the interaction between characters. These shows were largely influenced by the late-90’s bishoujo games which hinged on a player’s attachment to the characters in the game. These games would encourage you to self-insert by role-playing as a nameless protagonist and trying to win the hearts of various beautiful heroines. This was oftentimes done through lengthy conversations held with certain characters which allowed the player to gain a deeper understanding of the character’s as people, as well as use that as a metric to pick a love interest, oftentimes based on their own preferences. Scenario writers such as the pioneer of the nakige genre, Maeda Jun, toyed with the emotions of the player by incorporating tragic situations in the story to invoke feelings of sadness to further deepen the player’s connection to said characters.

Anime like Azumanga Daioh being profoundly influential on the modern landscape of such anime, incorporating very modern elements such as absurdist comedy, outlining the classic archetypes of the genre, was ultimately defining a template for creating anime about nothing. It was a show solely driven by the characters who each had a certain role to play. This created a unique dynamic that facilitated the uniquely comedic everyday back-and-forth conversations between characters. Altogether, Azumanga was ahead of its time, only really seeing a major impact deeper into the 2000s with anime like Lucky Star, Pani Poni Dash and Yuyushiki which could only exist thanks to Kiyohiko-sensei’s work many years before..

Bending over backwards

A distinction must be made between a “moe character” and a “moe anime.” The former being used to describe a certain character within (perhaps) an otherwise very un-moe anime, while the latter is used to talk about an anime in general. Personally I prefer the term “moe character” over an umbrella term, since “moe anime” implies everything about the anime is moe. The etymology of moe allegedly has its roots in the early online communities of the Japanese internet such as on BBS and mail groups, where moe was (in)famously born from typos of “moeru” (to burn) to describe the sensation of one’s heart burning when looking at a certain type of character. Moe being distinct from kawaii (cute), though not mutually exclusive, since kawaii factors into the core feelings of moe. However, moe is not simily limited to kawaii traits.  

I was having a conversation with someone recently about Lucky Star, and they explained how one of the problems with modern moe anime was how self-aware it is. Lucky Star being unique for managing to subvert the problems of being too meta, but also being able to indulge in its genre trappings for those who enjoy said trappings. That is why Lucky Star is a celebration of moe and otaku culture as a whole. It’s not aggressively self-aware and doesn’t hinge on the novelty of this fact; not quite postmodern, but still having a controlled degree of medium awareness. Moe anime, and to that extent, anime as a whole, are getting a bit too self-aware as of late. This is because producers and production teams are getting a bit too good at what they are doing and the authenticity is beginning to wear thin. Breaking the fourth-wall is becoming increasingly common, characters will converse about anime tropes, and sometimes the audience will be implicitly involved as a part of the show. Good critique Parz, well said! I mean that’s all well and good and I see what you were bothered about, you want corporations to get their greasy hands off your fluffy anime (ban big moe?), except for the fact that moe was always self-aware.

As explained previously, Di Gi Charat was a well-calculated bait to appeal to otaku and it wasn’t very subtle about this either. Dejiko had an abrasive personality and would belittle otaku customers in her shop, which was a stark contrast from the fluffy demeanor of her gauge-inspired counterparts and what her overall appearance suggested. Don’t let the fluffy paws fool you, this catgirl has sharp claws! Even from her inception, Dejiko was designed to be a bait-and-switch character who initially appealed to Akiba-kei otaku, slowly drawing them into the Gamers storefront with the promise of seeing a cute nekomimi media character, but instead she is quite derivative from what her appearance suggests. In contrast to modern mobage characters who are churned out at a startling pace in an ever-ballooning market of tapping games, each overflowing with increasingly similar-looking characters all looking at you with smiling faces. The sheer amount of individual characters to keep track of is startling. Facial features and hairpieces will start to blend together. Personalities are copy-pasted archetypes chosen from a small pool of “deres.” These girls might be drawn with the intention to be as “moe” as possible, but there is nothing beyond that. Di Gi Charat was no different. So pinning up a poster of Dejiko is perhaps the most (un)intentionally self-aware thing an otaku can do.

The pretty face of a revolution

Golden-era Akihabara of the early and mid-2000’s saw an exponential rise in the market for bishoujo goods. Games, figures, DVDs, eroge, dakimakura and posters…. Otaku were defined by their obsessions, and in this period, oftentimes characterized through reckless spending. Unmarried salarymen with plenty of capital and nothing else to worry about would comfortably drop undisclosed amounts of limited editions or store exclusive items. Companies encouraged spending and otaku reinforced these practices. Moe characters and otaku-oriented anime became more viable as demographics began to skew. Broadly appealing anime can draw in many fans across gender or age, but otaku-pandering anime started to seem like safer and safer bets. As such, a portion of the industry began to experiment within anime to cultivate a niche of its own and saw a rise in popularity within otaku circles as a result.

Dejiko personified golden-era otaku spending habits but all the while retroactively providing

commentary on these creatures of habit. But on the other hand, our pocket idols smile thin smiles and hold nothing beyond their unblinking eyes and visage of eternal happiness. They too provide commentary, though they continue to smile and not critique. Instead encouraging reckless spending.

Moe has always been self-aware. Well, almost. Very early animation within Japan inspired moe feelings from the audience even if there wasn’t a specific word used to describe that complex collection of emotions. Writers and illustrators intentionally created cute characters to be cute and will incorporate specific accessories and features to evoke these feelings. All character designs are carefully calculated in this way. Protagonists are designed to stand out and look cool, villains are designed to appear menacing or mysterious. So in much the same way, moe characters were always designed to appeal to otaku sensibilities. But now markets have shifted, demographics of 2005 no longer reflect the current global anime landscape. Younger generations now have spending power and were raised amidst the hyper-aware anime trend. Moe is no longer able to fit the small mold Dejiko left us twenty years ago. The new generation knows what moe is, the suit’s know what moe is, I know what moe is, but none of that moe is the same. But that doesn’t matter. There have always been conflicts about “the sanctity of moe” or “preserving the purity of moe” I’m sure, as the idea of greasy hands manipulating our cute girls anime is surely nauseating. However, to a certain extent, it always has been there, since anime is made by people who are generally aware of what they are making, and those people don’t make things for free. In an ideal world moe would be more pure than my galge osananajimi on her wedding night. It can remain pure in spirit and within the smaller doujin scene, but even then, these are artists inspired by works that came before them. Moe is incestuous, hold hands with your imouto.

So in the same breath; as long as money is to be made, moe characters will continue to exist.



[c]Is Dejiko postmodern?