GS: The Deconstruction of Moe Subculture 06 – Reaching a Milestone

Sunohara... Marisa?

Sunohara... Marisa?!

Over the last few weeks (months now?), I’ve discussed what I believe to be the most pertinent aspects of moe culture. If you’ve read carefully, you’d have seen that most of it was, in fact, focused on the temporal aspects of it, as opposed to a point-by-point dissection of each individual trait and quirk. This isn’t out of laziness on my part – no, seriously – but due primarily to the nature of the thesis itself: my efforts thus far have been to prove, at some level, that the changes that have been made to the culture are at least somewhat beneficial, or at least an improvement over its original state. While an in-depth analysis on the cultural drift in terms of the physical features of moe characters is probably deserving of an analysis… okay, so at that point, I really am just too lazy to make the effort.

But let’s get back on track with the arguments I have made. Using tsundere, yandere, yamato nadeshikos and lolicon as examples, I’ve attempted to make an argument in favor of moe. There were setbacks, quite naturally – there are few people, if any, that can claim with all seriousness that moe culture is wholly harmless, especially given lolicon fetishism and its links, however tenuous, to pedophilia. However, note here that the perceived increase in lolicon-related art and anime is a physical expression of moe – and while tinged with darkness, does little to refute the behavioral argument that is core to the thesis.

Why has moe changed? What has caused the drift in fan attitudes towards what is considered a moe personality or not? In the yandere article, I’ve articulated that one of the causes of the rise in yandere (or, as a shout-out to Chris, yangire) personalities is a backlash against what is now commonly perceived as unrealistic expectations of female behavior. Perhaps it isn’t impossible to derive a more general truth from that: the shift in moe characteristics, and especially in its embellishment and greater complexity, stems from a greater desire for believability from the audience. Though we necessarily suspend some disbelief when watching a fantasy anime, or even just a romantic comedy, watching cookie-cutter personalities gets dull after a while.

(parts one, two, three, four, and five)

"Shut up!" "Die!" "Idiot!"

"Shut up!" "Die!" "Idiot!"

Even with tsundere, there have been backlashes, mostly cyclical, against Kugimiya Rie’s famous interpretation of the trope – the cycle, notably, diminishing when she is involved in a new work (and by new, I don’t mean sequel seasons. ZnT 2/3, and Shana 2… not well done). Especially in an age where multiterabyte hard drives are now commonplace, and digital video piracy so rampant you can almost understand the industry’s frantic adoption of DRM-esque measures and related lawsuits, otakus are simply inundated with far too much readily-accessed media. As stories are necessarily driven by the characters and characters alone, a successful studio must balance both the physical and intangible presentations of a character in order to stand out from their rivals – and because it’s the intangibles that make the greatest difference in the suspension of disbelief, it is the personality characteristics that make or break a new release.

In short, the drive towards greater complexity of character and believability of behavior is market-driven. And the market is, in turn, driven by otaku culture’s infamously finicky attention span. If they can’t believe in a character, they won’t watch. Or, in the case of English-language otakus, translate.

This is not, naturally, a universal truth. Arguing that Strike Witches was a paramount example of characterization is beyond my abilities – rather, the show’s success is due almost completely to its gimmicky physical conceptualization. Then again, Gonzo’s in the economic crapper right now, and it’s only natural to aim for an ensured moneymaker – sex is guaranteed to sell at least a little, while the issue of narrative art is extremely hit or miss, at times.

Nagisa and Ushio

Nagisa and Ushio

But the biggest hits, the cult hits, and the ones whose fandoms persist past the first few years: they’re all shows that have invested wisely in a narrative and character-driven foundation. While Kyoto Animation’s adaption of Key’s “Clannad” was initially just a standard moe girl harem showcase, what truly made it stand out was the key “emotional” episodes – it’s… difficult… not to get overly emotional on Clannad After Story’s episode 16 or 17, and that had absolutely nothing at all to do with the fact that Nagisa’s characterized by Key’s standard use of sickly-moe, and everything to do with how KyoAni presented the interaction of her personality with Tomoya’s up to that point.

Even non-moe anime, or at least ones that aren’t characterized by moe specifically, are feeling the pressures of a dwindling capacity for suspension of disbelief: the hot-blooded Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann’s infamous death of a major character was made impacting not because the character was an embodiment of the Rule of Cool, but because the preceding episode cast a human light upon the character’s motivation and the origination of his drive, as well as its interplay with the development of the protagonist.

The common thread that links it all together is probably as simple as the idea that while individual traits and quirks may be meaningless, may be nothing more than an eye catch, there has to be some level of meaning in the relationships. What delineates good moe from bad moe is as simple as wanting a character to empathize with, as opposed to ogle: to treat the characters as a subject as opposed to an object. And in an industry driven by the big hits, the fact that you make more money with moe personalities and moe appearances than appearances alone cannot be ignored for long.

Yes, of course it’s hard to sell a character that the viewer doesn’t find attractive – but it’s hard to keep the viewer if all it has is cute, not when everybody else’s got cute going for them as well. It is a promising paradox that the same mass media that’ve forced and oversold the idea of physical perfection is now struggling to master the concept of humanization just to stay relevant.

Very promising indeed.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As stated by a few readers in Rizon.net’s #sankakucomplex (‘lo guys), there remains one core fallacy in my moe deconstruction series: much of my arguments of moe assumes a definition of it that cannot arguably considered universal. What people consider moe can often differ wildly – much like, I am amused to point out, fetishes. Even the most common denominators, of which I’ve primarily used, have its exceptions in the audience, and can often have numerous detractors. Well, granted – the idea of what is and isn’t moe is often blurry around the edges. But the purpose of this deconstruction isn’t to brightline what does and doesn’t fall under the moe category (to paraphrase xkcd, “my fetish is whatever isn’t and won’t be on your list.”).

Rather than trying to pinpoint the exact location of every unit of this metaphoric electron cloud, the purpose of this intellectual exercise is to take the most general and commonly accepted features of the concept and track its change over time. Notwithstanding my philosophical difficulties with the idea that “moe is just moe” (I doubt anybody can accuse me of intellectual laziness at this point – maybe the opposite), it is useful to take a rough barometer of our cultural status at times. And the pervasiveness of moe makes it uniquely ideal for this purpose. While we can’t get a specific reading, we can get an accurate one – or as close as accurate as we can get when people insist on treating unique perspectives as outside the human ability to sense and elicit pattern from chaos (a wholly nonsensical argument, but hell – not all of us bother with the philosophies of logic, and it’s useless outside of exercises like these anyhow).

Overall, my own interpretation of the readings is generally positive. Though lolicon will forever remain an enormously controversial subject, the patterns of character development, at least, treats moe characters as desirable because of who they are in totality, not solely because of physical fetishism. Though otakus are often derided as a culture of virgins, the increasing mainstreaming of anime culture necessarily sees leaks into the general public itself (in fact, every year, it seems as if the local conventions have more and more families). If the culture’s quirks also expand outward, the cross-pollination of memes seem a distinctly positive thing.

I’ll give it a look-over again in a few months. Or years. Or whenever. But, for now, Thoughtscream’s biweekly Geekscream looks… elsewhere.

Sayonara... for now.

Sayonara... for now.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on March 18, 2009.

One Response to “GS: The Deconstruction of Moe Subculture 06 – Reaching a Milestone”

  1. […] (I’ll eventually have a general link to all the damned articles – once I get my friend to help set up the server – but, for now, the rest of the series: parts one, two, three, four, five and six.) […]

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