This post originally appeared over on The Action Points Podcast.
There are more questions posed than answered in Patrick W. Galbraith‘s collection of interviews, The Moé Manifesto (2014). As such, I can’t help but want to discuss some of the themes, so if a non-fiction social commentary can be spoiled, then consider this a SPOILER ALERT.
Galbraith offers an excellent framework for important discussions, and is upfront about his position as a moé apologist. At the heart of every interview is each individual’s understanding of the Japanese cultural phenomenon known as “moé”.
“Patrick W. Galbraith: So can you clarify your definition of moé?
Prof. Ito Kimio, Kyoto University: Moé is a feeling for two-dimensional entities. One doesn’t have to risk getting hurt in a relationship with a fictional character, and can also control the character…“
He conducts interviews with an impressive cross-section of academics, social commentators, artists and others working in the field of anime and manga. There are as many perspectives and opinions as there are interviewees, and many are at odds, even over definitions of things like “otaku” and especially the core concept of “moé”. The concept of being “in love” with an animated character is discussed at length, largely free of judgement. Although several figures describe otaku (geeks or enthusiasts) as socially maladjusted, it’s often more of a criticism of the society they’ve pushed away from, than the enthusiasts themselves.
“Patrick W. Galbraith: In your writing about gender dynamics of otaku culture you have compared otaku to women. Can you explain what you mean?
Kotani Mari, feminist author: …In Japan, ordinary men adhere to the ideals of so-called salaryman society… …both women and otaku were marginalised by salaryman society…“
The stigma associated with being an anime enthusiast and engaging in the associated consumer culture is addressed with a compassionate understanding. Almost all those interviewed are fans of the media in question, and each offers a different perspective on their fellow geeks. Otsuka Eiji, a social critic and manga writer, sees the foreign obsession with Japan’s moé culture in the broader spectrum of Orientalist fetishisation, and sees it as something not necessarily specific to Japan. He criticises the artistic dissection of manga as nonsensical, as he believes it to be firmly in the realm of “low art”. Of particular interest is his etymological breakdown of the term “otaku” as used to describe geeks.
The rise of male fans of “cute”, as well as increasing social acceptance of “2D love” offer interesting and thoughtful themes for each commentator to ponder – although it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it is somewhat one-sided. The most common definition of moé is along the lines of a deep affection for a 2D character, and the assortment of feelings that spring from that “relationship”. What seems to be missing is the contrast between love of a fictional character, and real, inter-personal relationships. The observation that otaku can readily differentiate between the two is often raised, but the exact differences are discussed less frequently. Defining “love” as being a feeling of wanting better for someone else than for yourself doesn’t make sense in the context of fictional characters. It is possible to want the character to feel good and be happy, but people like Honda Toru, author and cultural critic, advocate for relationships with fictional characters, almost as a form of social protest. He sees the consumerist nature of romance in Japan and globally as something to rail against. Honda notes the inherent double-standard people are held to based on their gender as reason enough for him and others to justify their 2D romances as alternatives to seeking real, human relationships. He foresees society eventually accepting his “love” as equally valid.
Oppressive gender norms in Japan are often referenced as one explanation for people seeking refuge in the cute, fluffy world of moé. This often relates specifically to a criticism of expectations placed on men in Japan, but I can’t help but feel like male entitlement might be an avenue for discussion. The idea that these men feel weak, so they’re drawn to vulnerable characters as fictional friends that they can protect isn’t extended to the idea that they’ve been sold a lie – they were promised the girl as a prize, but when she turns out to be a complex human being like themselves, they can’t cope. As an aside, a manga/anime that addresses this concept, albeit in a gender-flipped version of the stereotype, is WataMote. A friend told me he was reduced to tears by this tragicomedy, as he saw his own prior attitudes of contempt for the socially well-adjusted general public represented in the main character. It doesn’t do to dwell on what could have been discussed, but the lack of any real criticism led me to desire a more meaty discussion on the negative aspects of moé culture. The Moé Manifesto seems to be content with providing a guide to moé apologetics.
“Soda Mitsuru, moé academic: …So is it just about the cute girls? No, I don’t think so. That’s a really impoverished way to think about moé…“
An important element of moé culture is the extraction of character from narrative. Many of the authors comment on how the characters in whom people place their affection often take on a significance outside their respective stories. Many characters that elicit a moé response in their fans were created without a narrative, as mascots or emblems. The ability to bring the character into an otaku’s own fiction seems to be important at some level, and the enormous popularity of fan-zines is testament to the desire of an otaku to spend as much time as possible with the character.
The interviews offer an incredible insight into the social context for grown adults heaping adoration on often (but not always) pre-pubescent characters, but disappointingly, any real discussion on the sexualisation of children is pushed aside, often with comments suggesting that there is a purity to the affection that is often asexual. Those interviewed admit that this is often not the case, but there’s no real discussion beyond acknowledgement. The idea of anime/manga fetishes – for example, little sister fetishes – is dismissed as being purely fantasy, and it is suggested that should someone have an actual little sister, or maid, then they wouldn’t enjoy media in those associated genres/fetishes, as it would destroy the fantasy. Saito Tamaki, author of Beautiful Fighting Girl, suggests that empowered, beautiful girls lie at the heart of otaku sexuality, and that a desire for the impossible is where otaku fantasy lies. He sees cute girls doing “cool things” as the perfect recipe to inspire the hearts and loins of geeks.
“Kotani Mari: …Hagio [Moto] is known for her sensitivity to issues of gender, and in addition to writing sci-fi, she was one of the pioneers of “boys’ love”[male-male romance] manga, which girls were crazy about in the 1970s. Some boys liked them too – especially the intelligent ones…“
For the hipster moé cultural critic, there’s ample discussion surrounding the formulaic way many modern anime attempt to create moé feelings within viewers by adhering to highly prescribed guidelines. Anime such as Lucky Star often create characters already devoid of narrative, by creating episode after episode that is almost completely without plot or character development.
Riding the moé phenomenon from its post-WWII beginnings with Tezuka Osamu’s manga, to the male geek appreciation of shoujo manga (manga aimed at young girls), which evolved into the bishoujo (beautiful girl) manga and anime we see today, is a wonderful trip eloquently investigated through the lens of prominent Japanese cultural icons and researchers. In The Moé Manifesto, we hear from the surprised creators of various anime, as well as the moé-loving otaku themselves. Galbraith’s work may not have tackled everything I’d hoped for, but as a reference for the cultural phenomenon of moé, it offers a wonderful look at its evolution. Perhaps this is the book that all those men out there with highly-detailed plastic figurines of schoolgirls on their shelves can give to their concerned friends or significant others.
Alternatively, they could marry a fellow otaku. I did. It’s great.
Marrying a geek: