The word ‘moe’ is one that often seems to be used as a throw-away term within the anime fan community. It’s actually been bandied around on internet message boards and forums since as far back as the 1990s, but became popularised within the Western-speaking fandom since the early to mid-2000s. Since I’ve used the word myself several times in previous articles here on Otaku Lounge, I thought I’d take the opportunity to give a (hopefully simple) but slightly more in-depth explanation.
As with my first article for this blog in which I delved into the word ‘otaku’, I thought the best way to start off with ‘moe’ is by means of its linguistic roots. Pronounced “mo-eh”, the kanji used to write it (萌), translates as “to sprout” or “to bud”. However, the word may also have possibly originated from the word ‘moeru’, meaning “to burn”. In its most basic terms, it could therefore be said that the definition is something along the lines of “a youthfully innocent character (often female) on the cusp of maturity, who incites a burning passion in his/her fans.” Of course, as a slang word with no single concrete definition, the exact meaning is very open to interpretation.
In fact, how the term came about at all is something of a mystery, and probably always will be. Two common suggestions are that it stems either from the character of Sagisawa Moe (from the 1993 anime series Kyouryuu Wakusei), or else from the character of Tomoe Hotaru (aka Sailor Saturn from the Sailor Moon metaseries, also beginning in the early 90s). Particularly in Hotaru’s case, her character is seen by fans to trigger an instinctively protective, elder-brotherly response because of her delicately fragile design and personality traits – much how one might be inclined to take care of a tiny bedraggled kitten.
In order to elicit such as a reaction from the viewer, a moe anime character must somehow be representative of those things that are seen as cute and endearing. As a general rule, they cannot be too tough or independent, since they would otherwise be in no need of protection. Even more importantly, they cannot be too old since they would then be past the age of ‘blooming’, so to speak. And finally, assuming that the concept of moe is grounded in childlike charm and innocence, this must be made obvious in their physical, and usually also behavioural traits – perhaps a generous spirit paired with a blushing naivety and an earnest clumsiness, or a sweetly exuberant character endowed with silly yet adorable speech patterns. For this reason, many moe characters also fit certain physical stereotypes; a short and slight figure with a comparatively large head, enormous eyes, and a tiny nose and mouth seems par for the course. Add some bangs that flop over the eyes and maybe throw in a pair of glasses or an oversized sweater, and you have yourself a moe winner.
Occasionally, these sorts of characteristics are blended into an anime and the rest of its cast without seeming too out of place, as with Sakura from Cardcaptor Sakura, Saya from Peacemaker Kurogane, or Chii from Chobits. At other times, the moe ideal is taken to a far more extreme level, which goes a long way in explaining most of the cast of Lucky Star or Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. But then, Sakura’s moe qualities appear more or less incidental, whereas in Lucky Star, moe is essentially the entire point of the show as well as being a parody, so the differences between the two actually make a great deal of sense. Meanwhile, other moe-centric anime seem to be aiming for character designs that fall somewhere between the two ‘levels’ (i.e. obviously pandering, but not with complete bobbleheaded dolls), such as in K-On!, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Kyoukai no Kanata.
Needless to say, like so many other concepts that originated or were popularised by anime and manga, moe is one that’s constantly evolving and adapting. While it may have very well begun purely as a form of protective adoration, the word has lately been applied to just about anything that is seen to ignite the viewer’s intense fervour over something perceived as cute – glasses-wearing moe (Yuki from Haruhi Suzumiya), cat-ears wearing moe (that infamous scene in K-On! involving Azusa), maid moe (Sanae from Ladies versus Butlers!), and even bandaged moe (made fashionable by Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Rei and used again as a base concept for the likes of Chise from Saikano).
Moe has also become widespread enough for many anime to blatantly parody the idea, often explicitly using the word itself as a shout-out to the viewers. The host club customers of Ouran High School Host Club produce “flames of moe” after seeing what they believe to be a young man’s awkwardly burgeoning love for another male; Haruhi recruits Mikuru for the S.O.S Brigade in Haruhi Suzumiya precisely because she wants a moe mascot character (specifically, a baby-faced female with large breasts who can conveniently be stuffed into a maid outfit and made to pour tea); and the two main male characters in Welcome to the NHK attempt to create a character for a dating sim by combining nearly every single moe-type in existence, with predictably horrifying yet hilarious results. And then there are those moe anime with premises downright weird enough that you just know they have to be tongue-in-cheek such as Upotte!!, whose overwhelmingly female cast is made up of anthropomorphised guns dressed in sailor fuku.
In all fairness though, I should point out that moe is definitely not limited to a male audience. One only needs to look at anime such as Hetalia: Axis Powers or the previously mentioned Ouran High School Host Clubto see that moe can also be aimed specifically at a female audience – in fact, it could be argued that a lot of anime involving effeminate bishounen and implication of boys love (not to mention all that crossdressing) could be a form of moe in itself. Let’s not forget Free!, which made a lot of waves (yeah lol see what I did there) – in part because it was produced by none other than Kyoto Animation (of Haruhi Suzumiya, Lucky Star, and K-On! fame), but also because its implausibly muscular and inevitably shirtless male protagonists were responsible for making the first season of this anime a massive commercial success.
Understandably, moe is becoming an increasingly difficult concept to pin down. To make matters potentially more confusing, the word is commonly used as a noun (“that’s a moe anime”), an adjective (“that character is so moe”), and even an interjection (“mooooeeee!!!”). However, I think probably the easiest way to understand the idea behind the term is to recognise that moe has more to do with the feeling the viewer gets rather than a definition of an anime or character. Manga and anime creators may or may not have consciously ‘invented’ moe, but I believe it’s certainly the audience who has been responsible for transforming this trope into what it has now become, and is still becoming.
This is Otaku Lounge signing off for 2013, and wishing all its readers a very moe Christmas and happy New Year. While I’ll still be around for the next week (Christmas being not a public holiday in Japan), it’ll be sometime in January when I’ll be back with new articles.