GS: The Deconstruction of Moe Subculture 02 – Historical Context

Japanese Woodblock

Japanese Woodblock

The problem with discussing moe from a modern perspective is that much of its roots lie deeply into anime’s past, and partially into Japan’s cultural past as well. While much of the modern interpretation has to do with physical characteristics, most of that was built upon the major canons of previous works. And the problem with that, for me, is that I’m a Westerner trying to critically analyze Japanese cultural characteristics without being all that much of an expert outside of my few and rare glances into their thousands-of-years history.

But some inkling of it can be reverse-engineered from current archetypes, and any discussion of the culture of moe cannot be done without historical context anyhow. So this will be one of the shorter articles of the series, but, all the same, will serve as the backbone for much of my analysis and final critique.

(edit: THIS TURNED OUT TO BE A LIE. Holy shit, I wrote a lot.)

The important bit to remember is the old writer’s lament: it’s all been done before. Originality isn’t only a scarce resource – it can be said to have not existed for the last few millennia. The basic story structures and character archetypes have long since been established, and what is new isn’t the substance of the story, but the names, the details, the technology – the shinies, basically, or how the story and characters are presented. Even science fiction isn’t free from this: the exploration of the stars mirrors the exploration of the seas, and robots are just fancier golems.

And neither is moe.

Remember, from the first article of this series, that a lot of moe characteristics are, effectively, rewrites of the various flavors of the Japanese view upon femininity, altered and mutated with time and foreign influence, perhaps, but still distinctly Japanese. And the farther back you go into otaku history, the more readily apparent this is.



Or maybe not even that far back. Kasumi Tendou of Ranma ½ and Belldandy of Ah! Megumi-sama are both archetypal examples of the Yamato Nadeshiko archetype – the ur-examples of the Perfect Japanese Woman. A classical, willowy beauty, with focuses more on refinement and feminine maturity than sex appeal or flashy personality. Their character types are still popular today, though phasing out in favor of the more “interesting” personality types – Clannad’s Nagisa, for example, exhibits a strong foundation of the personality aspect of this archetype, especially after her marriage, and has won over even some detractors for the almost extreme amount of understanding and patience she shows.

Rei Ayanami, infamously from Neon Genesis Evangelion, is often traced back to as the originator of many modern concepts of moe, but even she is often nothing more than a mild exaggeration of existing tropes. Perfect obedience, perfect submission – even her first extended appearance, covered in bandages and clearly too injured to even think about engaging a gargantuan biological weapon capable of leveling cities, is meant to put a blatant accentuation upon her submissive role – or, as Asuka, her polar opposite, puts it, her doll-like state. Even her genetic origin, and the ultimate fate of Yui Ikari, serves to paint her further in this rather dreadful light: the dark side of the Yamato Nadeshiko is their utilization as often nothing more than a pedestal for male ego and dominance.

In fact, the gender relationships in Neon Genesis Evangelion, while uniformly fucked up, are almost all classical plays on the Japanese view of the sexes. And Shinji’s relationship with girls especially so. Asuka is a clear polar contrast to Rei – fierce, outspoken, opinionated, and overtly physical. Even their coloration is deliberate – the contrast between fire and ice, summer and winter, is universally classic. If we assume a Japanese standpoint, and I admit that my guess may be way off the mark here, she would represent the opposing ideals of Rei as well.

This is important. Seriously. Overt sexuality, overt emotionality, and egocentrism is the farthest thing from the Yamato Nadeshiko ideal. Asuka plays it to the extremes, much like her counterpart, but the examples of the seduction of the exotic or rebellious exists almost as much. The important thing about this is that such behavior is usually not considered “moe.” Think it over – the endearing aspect of a tsundere is not the tsuntsun, but the emergence of the deredere. Yoko, the hottest supposedly 14 year old (I call shenanigans – just look at her) in anime history, engenders rabid fanboy lust for her habit of fighting in bikinis, but isn’t considered moe except for the rare and fleeting moments of weakness.

Yoko - moe =/= sexy =/= moe

Yoko - moe =/= sexy =/= moe

The yang traits exhibited, in part, by the latter qualifiers have always been seen as a flaw in anime female characters. Assertiveness, arguably even intelligence, was considered a masculine trait, and though the original concept of ying-yang was that of a constantly evolving balance between dichotomies, the patriarchal divisiveness between the sexes put a rigid boundary between the two when it came to relational ideals.

But remember, this is merely the historical context of the concept of moe. And the thing about history is, despite the old adage, it doesn’t necessarily repeat itself…

And nothing proves this more than the evolution of the Tsundere.

Please welcome... Kagamin~!

Please welcome... Kagamin~!


~ by Gonzo Mehum on February 13, 2009.

7 Responses to “GS: The Deconstruction of Moe Subculture 02 – Historical Context”

  1. On gender roles in Eva: reverse the gender of the younger chunk of the cast and you get a girl desperately fighting for her father’s approval, a stoic young man who won’t even let injury keep him off the battlefield, and the hot-headed ace who feels like his superiority is being eroded by some little girl. There’s not a definite point here, but it’s somewhat odd how it seems to work out either way.

  2. I’ve heard of that comparison, but I’m not too impressed by it, to be honest. It seems more of an example of cultural double-standards more than any shocking revelation of Eva’s character designs.

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