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Who is the greatest moe anime character?
That’s the question that the Saimoe (literally “Most Moe”) Tournament set out to answer, and its long history of competitions, dating back to 2002, are a reflection of not so much the state of anime fandom over the past 13 years, but rather how internet anime fandom has grown, changed, and even arguably moved on past the concept of moe in both the US and Japan.
If there’s one fact I always find interesting about Saimoe, it’s that its original winner was Kinomoto Sakura of Cardcaptor Sakura. There’s something just so appropriate about her being the first champion, given how beloved she is among anime fans of all stripes. However, Saimoe is also often a snapshot, a look into the zeitgeist of at least a corner of anime fandom, and in that same tournament it might come as no surprise that its silver medalist was Osaka from Azumanga Daioh. These days Azumanga Daioh is viewed as a relic of the Early 2000s, an excellent show for sure, but not as timeless as its fervent fans (of which I am included) would have hoped for.
Other than Sakura, who has stood the test of time as Saimoe champions? It’s okay if you don’t remember who has won Saimoe before, as anime fandom as a whole has a tendency to burn briefly yet passionately for its favorite characters, where in the moment it seems as if her fame will last forever, the sheer memetic popularity of a Suiseiseki (Rozen Maiden) or a Takamachi Nanoha (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha) blinding fans from seeing the long-term. That’s not to say that characters such as Aisaka Taiga (Toradora!) and Rosemary Applefield (Ashita no Nadja) are forgettable or bad, but that the otaku mind can be a fickle thing.
Among these titles, it seems as if Madoka Magica‘s popularity still endures, giving a kind of strength to previous winners Madoka and Mami, but one factor that also has to be considered is that the numbers for Saimoe participation rose rapidly in the mid-2000s, and then declined sharply afterwards. To give an idea, for final-round votes, Sakura won in 2002 with 580, Suiseiseki won in 2006 with 2306, and most recently Saki and Nodoka from Saki tied each other at 187. This can be explained by the fact that the mid-2000s were when Saimoe truly opened up to international participation, but also that the idea of “moe” no longer carries as much subcultural weight.
This is perhaps best exemplified by that Suiseiseki victory. It was during that time that fervent fans on 4chan and other communities figured out how to vote for their favorite characters, and whether they were genuinely voting for who they believed was “most moe,” were backing their favorite characters, were trying to push a running gag forward, or they wanted to rally behind their chosen girl, Suiseiseki embodied all three. She was the center of the DESU DESU DESU meme, Rozen Maiden was generally popular among hardcore fans, and her character does have distinguishable moe qualities overall. The heyday of Saimoe was indeed also the heyday of 4chan, and while it’s questionable as to whether Saimoe had ever been more than a popularity contest, when looking at the “rise and fall” of Saimoe, so to speak, what comes out of the other side isn’t so much as a return to the idea of “moe” from the earlier days when Cardcaptor Sakura won it all, but something new and different that I can’t quite fully describe.
Let’s compare the winners of Saimoe 2012 and 2014, all of whom come from the anime series Saki. 2012’s champion was Onjouji Toki, a character who is strictly moe by all conceptions of the often-nebulous term. Toki is a sickly girl whose ability to peer into the future to win at mahjong set her up as a tragic figure that overshadowed even the protagonists of her story (the ending theme to Saki: Episode of Side A, “Futuristic Player,” is actually a reference to Toki). It’s hard to describe her as anything but “moe.” In contrast, while there are cutely tragic elements to Saki and Nodoka, their dual-victory in Saimoe carries a very different set of meanings. First, it can’t be ignored that Saki dominated the overall bracket, to the extent that it could be argued that the fans who care most these days about “moe” overlap significantly with Saki fans. Second, and I think this is more important, Saki has a major yuri component, and I believe that is the true meaning behind the tie. In fact, Toki, Mami, and Madoka also all attract yuri fanbases.
Yuri to some extent has been a factor in people’s views of characters as moe (see Nanoha and Fate’s popularity), but the role that the cute girl plays in the aspirations and fantasies of anime fandom seem to have changed. Moe as an idea was arguably overwhelming and overpowering at its height, but now it seemingly has begun to secede, and in its place is a network of interests of which yuri is a part. I put it that way because I don’t think “yuri” supplanted “moe” as if that would even be possible. After all, yuri as a vocabulary word predates the solidification of moe by at least a couple of decades, so if anything moe was the young upstart terminology. Rather, moe may have gradually melded itself back into the fabric of anime’s iconic characters, to the extent that trying to ask who is the “moest” has become a more difficult and less directly appealing proposition overall.