Cliff Notes Characterization: Another Moe Discussion Part 3

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.

14 thoughts on “Cliff Notes Characterization: Another Moe Discussion Part 3

  1. This makes sense, and it’s an expansion from the “it’s simple” arguments that are seen as both a plus and a minus depending on who you talk to.

    This also makes me think that the usually negative reaction to this “it’s simple” argument might indirectly also be saying that “anime is usually more complex than that!” If that latter impression would actually be the case, why would they be saying that to fellow anime fans, who would probably already agree with that?


  2. This reminds me of why I’m an advocate against labels, they can be helpful but I find them ultimately both limiting and confusing. And just image if such a scenario did occur where a work was not available and all you had to go on was a one-word description.


  3. Moe characters = Characters I would rape because of the fetish points they exhibit.

    Non-moe characters = Characters that don’t turn me on in the same way as moe characters and would consider a sane relationship with because they are overall awesome and have a strong character.

    This is why I don’t understand the bullshit surrounding Mio from K-On. Why is she so fucking desirable by otaku? She ranked number 1 on some poll about who would you marry. She’s just a flat/shallow character that is overflowing with moe traits.

    Female characters that I believe have a strong character and are attractive but I don’t clump them in moe because they rise above the moe. Some that come to mind are Chika Ogiue (Genshiken), Kyoko Otonashi (Maison Ikkoku), Ai Tanabe (Planetes), Ayumi Yamada (Honey and Clover), Horo (Spice and Wolf).

    I don’t even know if this has anything to do with your entry.


  4. I think now you’re finally starting to get at the heart of the issues that the vocal group in question has with the “moe” trend. It’s perceived by some as a trend that replaces deep characterization and plot with shallow character archetypes designed to appeal to popular trends or fetishes. Some people perceive it as “paint-by-number storytelling”, and get upset because they believe that the rise in prominence of these types of stories is coming at the expense of the sort of stories they think they would enjoy more. This group gets especially incensed by the fact that many “moe shows” appear to have a rather narrow list of plot scenarios that get repeated and are sometimes treated as a sort of “checklist”. So, this group tends to decry the industry’s lack of “originality” and wish for a return to earlier days when anime was “fresh, original, and interesting”.

    (Not saying those are all fair or accurate arguments, but that’s what I often see/read.)

    You combine the above with general uneasiness about Japanese (anime) culture’s idolization of the “cute, young-looking female”, and you have the recipe for most of the “moe sucks!” claimants out there. In the end, I think it simply reflects a market that has shifted from selling plastic models and trading cards to “character goods”. However, as an audience that has often experienced anime in isolation from the rest of the marketing experience, it’s easy to see how the perspective can be somewhat different.


  5. I think you’ve got my feelings on the moe argument pretty much down here. Moe is getting waaay too generalised these days as a just bunch of fetishes collected together that’s killing Japanese animation, and it’s nice to hear a rational voice out there.

    For me, it’s not moe itself that annoys me. There’s a lot of moe shows that I enjoy. It’s just the morass of lazy, pandering, stupid moe shows, that more often or not are based on eroge or harem manga that I despise with every fibre of my being.

    I think you can easily separate the creepy sexual moe with the innocent platonic into two groups, alongside your active and passive moe definitions. It’s a theory I keep meaning to blog about, but haven’t bothered to yet.


  6. Ayumi Yamada… wait, what were we talking about again…

    “You had to have been there,” is one sense of what I get from reading this article. With that in mind, there is something entirely elusive of “a situation” in which the experience cannot be fully transfered via another medium other than the reality in which it occurred. Sometimes, it might be best to let go for the notion that the experience could ever be properly manifested in another individual. Such is life.

    This issue of moe, I think would be greater solved in a more abstract manner of discussion, because in the presence of an instantiated definition, there is subjectivity. A similar pattern would be seen in discussions on liking, and what qualifies a likable character.

    If there is to be a classification/flowchart/definition of moe, it should immediately exclude any instantiated instances of characters, people, or things. At least, at the core.


  7. Ah, I see. Troubled times, troubled times.

    I can actually agree with that sort of distillation of a character into it’s most basic catalysts or the development of a character from those components as a valid form of minimalism which could easily be confused with shallowness or strangeness. It isn’t so much an observation of the characters and events as much as it is also an observation of otaku tastes and culture.

    What I don’t like is certain complex orders of character traits classified as archetypal canon. ‘Blue-haired girl has a pure and innocent heart, how dare you give her black kneesocks?!’ or, ‘Megane-chan’s hidden beauty is perfectly exemplified by a pet hamster, I accept no Megane-chan that does not have a pet hamster,’ is really the only thing about moe that bugs me.


    • Simplification has it’s benefits. It makes things easier and faster to understand which allows for more information to be shown and processed. It can also lead to predictability. When you’re in an entertainment medium do you really want your work to be predictable?

      From an artistic perspective I applaud works that can tell you a lot about a character from a single shot. A picture is worth a thousand words and all. But from a viewer perspective I find my interest waning exponentially if I can reliably guess a character’s personality and reactions based solely off their character design. I think blaming that solely on Moe is simply misguided when you’re anger should be directed towards overly lazy creators. I suppose that puts me in the paint by numbers camp.


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  9. I’ve read your posts on Moe, and I find your thoughts on the subject interesting. Also, it seems that the subject of Moe has been bouncing around the anime blogosphere, lately. Generally the discussions on Moe cover issues like; is it good or bad, sexual or non-sexual, and so forth. But, what I think most writers miss in their discussions of Moe is that the whole idea of having young girls, dress, behave, and otherwise act in a manner that provides relaxation or creates a feeling of innocence in men has been around a hell of a lot longer than anime has, dating back to at least Victorian times.

    While researching the history of the idea/history of Moe for a post that I’ll someday will have ready I came across/purchased several books on the historical aspects of the idea/ideal of “Victorian girl culture” and it looks surprisingly like modern Moe.

    Here’s some of the books and some snippets about them.

    Men in Wonderland:
    The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman
    Catherine Robson

    Review of the book

    “In Men in Wonderland, Catherine Robson explores the ways in which various nineteenth-century British male authors constructed girlhood, and analyzes the nature of their investment in the figure of the girl. In so doing, she reveals the link between the idealization of little girls and a widespread fantasy of male development–a myth suggesting that men become masculine only after an initial feminine stage, lived out in the protective environment of the nursery. Little girls, argues Robson, thus offer an adult male the best opportunity to reconnect with his own lost self.”


    Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs
    Carol Mayor

    From product description.

    “An intimate look into three Victorian photo-settings, Pleasures Taken considers questions of loss and sexuality as they are raised by some of the most compelling and often misrepresented photographs of the era: Lewis Carroll’s photographs of young girls; Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of Madonnas; and the photographs of Hannah Cullwick, a “maid of all work,” who had herself pictured in a range of masquerades, from a blackened chimney sweep to a bare-chested Magdalene. Reading these settings performatively, Carol Mavor shifts the focus toward the subjectivity of these girls and women, and toward herself as a writer”


    What’s really interesting about thess books is that in upperclass Victiorian society girl’s were expected to dress and act in way that provided their father’s, brother’s, and other adult males with a feelings of peace, relaxation, and innocence (almost mono no aware like), sounds a lot like the modern concept of anime Moe.


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