In my previous two entries in the Another Moe Discussion series, I may have generated some confusion on the topic, particularly because my own choices for characters I find to be particularly moe may seem somewhat unusual. In addition, reading the comments I received, a question popped up in my head: does the “moe” label imply a certain character depth or a lack thereof? The answer I’ve come up with is that it is both and neither. A seeming cop-out response, but allow me to explain.
Let’s say there’s an anime series you absolutely love, and in it is a character with strong characterization who goes through some trauma, and in the process resonates with you emotionally, possibly sexually, and you want to tell other people how great the character is and how powerfully attractive they are. The best way to try and make them understand would be to get them to watch the series, but if that is an impossibility, the best you can do is summarize the character and try to describe in fewer words just what made the character move you so. If you have to summarize your complex feelings towards the character in a few sentences, you’re going to have to either pick very specific moments or generalize greatly to give a broader view.
Now then, what happens if all copies of the original work fell into the ocean without any chance of salvaging them, and all the world had left was that summary you wrote? To be sure, your summation has its own merits, as does your intent to really get to the core of what makes you love that character so dearly, but what you’re left with now is a record of that depth. It would be like if nearly every book in the world on a subject was destroyed and the only ones left unharmed were Cliff Notes, and then everyone assumed that this is the way things are and also begin to write their own original stories in the Cliff Notes format. The summary becomes the entirety of the work.
Let’s use a famous character who is often argued as both moe and not-moe: Evangelion’s Ayanami Rei. Having watched the entirety of the original Evangelion series, I can say that there is a lot to Rei’s character to the extent that it’s somewhat difficult to summarize her character and do her justice, but if I had to, I would describe her as an expressionless girl who is fully aware of the fact that she is not unlike a human doll, and has to live while being unsure as to whether or not her emotions are real or just facsimiles. Rei often puts herself into danger as she does not regard her own life as more special or important than the task at hand. To abridge that once more, “Rei is a seemingly emotionless human doll who has little regard for her own well-being.”
But what happens if you take that Cliff Notes version and were to simplify it even further? A Spark Notes of the Cliff Notes one might say. What if you were to reduce the element of time down to zero, and attempt to express those aspects of Rei purely in her visual design? Blue hair and pale skin make her appear more doll-like. An expressionless face implies a seeming lack of emotion. The frequent appearance of bandages on her body implies that she often gets injured. These visual elements become symbols with their own power, which then can be isolated, codified, and even fetishized. Rather than looking for a character by their description as a conflicted human doll who struggles with understanding emotion, you can instead look for a character with pale features. And then you can play off of that trope by making a pale character who acts unlike the stereotype. That leads us to where we are now.
Depending on the extent to which you simplify and distill the attributes of a character, moe can be something with plenty of depth or very little, be it an emotional depth, a storytelling depth, or some other kind. I think this also explains why some people can have such a bad reaction towards moe, because it can be seen as a reduction of what should be there, a quick-and-dirty facsimile of storytelling and characterization. However we must also keep in mind that art and fiction itself is often an exercise in summarizing and simplifying ideas and emotions to transmit them more easily.