Defining ‘Moe’

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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 (), 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.

33. picture2In 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.

33. picture3Needless 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.

33. picture4In 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.

33. picture5Understandably, 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.

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Question of the post: What do you think of moe anime shows in general? Do you have some you love and others you hate, or do you tend to fall on one side or the other of the moe fence?

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39 thoughts on “Defining ‘Moe’

  1. To answer your question: I’m not a fan. BUT, if it is being parodied (you mention TMoHSuzumiya and Lucky Star) AND I *realise* it is being parodied, then it becomes fun.

    Otherwise … hmmm, I guess it starts pushing my proto-feminist buttons a bit. (Hell, most anime does! Who makes 98% of it, after all?) – (And thereby hangs another suggestion: Could you write, please, about anime and manga created by women? If it exists!!)

    Have a merry freezing Xmas.
    Spare a though for us back home frolicking on the beaches and having barbecues. Oh the suffering we endure!

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    • “Could you write, please, about anime and manga created by women?”

      Already on my list of things to post about for 2014. 🙂 I very briefly touched on the fact that the vast majority of anime is produced by males in an earlier post (https://otakulounge.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/japan-and-gender-inequality/), and ever since then it’s been at the back of my mind to write something on the topic you’ve just suggested. But thank you for reminding me – it’ll definitely get done.

      Thanks! I really miss New Zealand Christmas, and just went back there last week for a few days to attend my brother’s wedding. Now that I’m back in Japan it seems colder than ever!

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  2. Re anime made by women – Sailor Moon’s mangaka is a woman; Inuyasha’s mangaka is a woman; Gin No Saji’s mangaka is a woman. All three have incredible skills and if I had time I would write a thousand words about them, but I don’t have time so I encourage everyone else to do a quick search on those shows and their creators.

    Re “Free” – well, those young men are very sexy, but I don’t think they’re moe, because (to me) moe is a sort of cuteness that the viewer wants to protect – both from internal sadness and external danger.

    Nausicaa is very cute, but she’s not moe – she’s more competent in combat and survival than I would be. Nausicaa is a competent, self-sufficient grown-up in all respects but age. In fact, most Ghibli girls are not very moe to me, because they seem pretty capable of taking care of themselves.

    Conversely, Yuno from Mirai Nikki is kind of moe, despite her super-powers. She’s insanely overpowered, but she’s not a competent adult in psychological or emotional terms. My heart goes out to her; I want someone to save her from her inner darkness.

    The hero’s mother from Kyoukai no Kanata is just cute, but not really moe. She’s sexy, and she’s cute, and I would instinctively take her side in a conflict. But she doesn’t really need anyone’s protection.

    The hero and the romantic lead of Steamboy are both totally moe, because while they’re adventurous, they’re really not capable of protecting themselves well. They both need to be nurtured for a few years before they can be action heroes.

    The wizard-sister from Scrapped Princess is charming, sexy, and cute, but she’s not moe. She’s totally capable of taking care of herself and others. The main character from Scrapped Princess is totally moe, because even though she’s physically an adult, I feel she can’t protect herself. I would love to date/marry a girl like the wizard-sister; I wouldn’t be too thrilled about getting involved with a girl like the heroine; she’s ditzy to the point of incompetence.

    The lead from Kill La Kill is deeply moe because she’s very sad, deep down, about her father’s death. That makes me want to hug her and let her cry. Her sidekick might be cuter, but she’s less moe. She doesn’t really need protection or sympathy.

    Lucy from Fairy Tail is somewhat moe because she is a giant black hole of neediness, which makes her anti-sexy to me. Juvia from Fairy Tail might seem ditzy to the point of idiocy, but she’s a fortress of emotional maturity in comparison to the rest of the cast.

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    • I certainly agree with what you’ve said about most of these examples. Not sure about the males of Free! though – there’s definitely sufficient angst there to make at least a couple of the cast members bring out that protective, ‘needs-a-hug’ streak from the viewers. I also disagree about the lead from Kill la Kill being moe – in part because of her physical prowess, but also because of her overt sexualisation. While she may be in the general age range of other moe anime characters, I just don’t see her being on the cusp of anything other than a nipple slip.

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    • An excellent start! Thx, zhai2nan2.
      And Rumiko Takahashi of Ranma 1/2 fame.

      But: Any actual women producing/directing actual anime yet?

      And also … “Ah!”
      If it’s about the *response* to a moe character, then I guess I’m either deficient, insufficiently perceptive, not up with the ‘code’ of moe (need to watch 10,000 hours of it to reach expert level!), or I’m an Apsie. Or all of the above.

      Clearly I need to open my heart to the delicate/tortured souls being delivered to me, and RESPOND!

      Which brings me to Ayumu Kasuga (‘Osaka-san’). Is she moe?
      She is the one, out of all the many many anime titles I’ve watched, who I *do* have a kindly care-y response to.

      Whaddaya reckon?

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      • If it’s between a definitive yes or no answer as to Osaka-san being moe, then I’m tempted to go with yes – if only because I view Azumanga as a whole to be one of the ‘classic’ moe anime shows. (Also, while Osaka-san doesn’t come across as especially fragile in the traditional moe sense of the word, she still does need protection, if only from her own stupidity. I say it with love.)

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      • Rumiko Takahashi is a difficult case to assess. She may be simultaneously the most successful female comic artist ever, AND one of the least feminist comic artists ever. The gender roles in Ranma 1/2 are horrifying.

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    • I don’t really agree about Kill la kill’s leading lady being moe. She does have that sad background story but she overcomes it with her physical abilities, there’s no ” oh, she looks so cute ” or ” i want to really hug her ” moments in Kill la kill, she is the main centre of attraction of attraction cause of all the fan-service , but moe? i don’t think she falls into that category.

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  3. The definition of moe is sufficiently blurred and subjective so that arguments over whether any particular character is moe are ultimately inconclusive and futile, beyond just being part of fan interaction. After all, “your moe is not my moe.” But because of that very disparity in interpreting the term, I find it interesting and worthwhile to read what people across the decade have written about the meaning of moe. One of my goals this coming year is to collect a list of such references, posts, and articles. I sometimes shake my head when moe is criticized or dismissed by people who demonstrate only the narrowest understanding of the term, so it would be good to have such a resource available to share.

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    • “Osaka-san doesn’t come across as especially fragile in the traditional moe sense of the word, she still does need protection, if only from her own stupidity.”

      Now, now! Our beloved Osaka-san is not stupid. I could make a strong case for her actually being a genius, but so extremely autistic (Aspergers’ Syndrome) and additionally suffering ADD and narcolepsy (all these things are in my family, BTW, so I know them well!) and maybe toss in a bit of a learning disability …
      Anyway, that’s how I hold her in my heart.

      Azuma-san, like his genius cartoonist American counterpart Bill Watterson, knows what is like to be a child and a genius and totally misunderstood (ref: Yotsuba).

      Anyway, drifting off topic.
      Thanks for this exploration of Moe.

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      • Osaka-san may not be stupid, but she sure puts on a convincing imitation of it.
        The point is not whether we can make up details that would cast Osaka in a different light. We can do that for anyone – why is Chiyo-chan so precocious and hard-working? Well, it’s to do with her parents, who have made her feel that the only way she can be accepted by them is if she is top of the class in everything. Chiyo-chan does not have a stable and loving family life – it’s borderline abusive, a cruel facade maintained by money. She’s very loyal and helpful to her friends, because she’s terrified that the same tragedy she sees at home will be played out at school.

        So it’s always possible to come up with something that justifies whatever you want. But the more special pleading you have to do to in order to produce your desired outlook, the harder it is to justify. In this case Osaka requires a good deal of work if she is to appear as anything other than, say, as dumb as a box of rocks.

        In the end, of course, we’re all free to come up with our own ‘head-canons’ about these characters. We all start from the same on-screen evidence, but go to different places with it. You may choose to think of Osaka as a misunderstood genius, and that’s fine. Others may choose a different explanation for her behaviour, and that’s fine too. Difficulties may arise, however, if we start telling each other that they’re wrong because they don’t share the same head-canon we have constructed.

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        • I’m with Anon on this one. I think a decent enough argument could possibly be made that Osaka is some kind of misunderstood genius, and I have nothing against either Osaka’s character or anyone who chooses to believe whatever they wish to believe about her. At the end of the day though, it’s still belief rather than fact – if there’s no conclusive evidence to back something like that up, it can probably only ever be described as head-canon.

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    • That’s true – as noted in this article, ‘moe’ isn’t a term that allows any one concrete definition, and I think you’re right in that arguments about what/who does and doesn’t qualify as moe is ultimately subjective. This post is intended mainly as a loose starting point, with my own two cents added just for fun.

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      • I’d be very interested to see everyone’s reactions to the notions of moe at:

        http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/articles/2009/Galbraith.html

        I only found it because I was gathering references to respond to Artemis, but it’s so good that I want to see as many reactions to it as possible.

        It is pretty academic, and some people will think it’s too dry to be worth reading, but I endlessly analyze and re-analyze this kind of writing. Here’s a short sample:

        Manga artist Akamatsu Ken stresses that moe is the ‘maternal love’ (boseiai) latent in men,[xxi] and a ‘pure love’ (junsui na ai) unrelated to sex, the desire to be calmed when looking at a female infant (biyoujo wo mite nagomitai) (Akamatsu 2005). ‘The moe target is dependent on us for security (a child, etc.) or won’t betray us (a maid, etc.). Or we are raising it (like a pet)’ (Akamatsu 2005). This desire to ‘nurture’ (ikusei) characters is extremely common among fans. Further, moe is about the moment of affect and resists changes (‘betrayal’) in the future, or what Akamatsu refers to as a ‘moratorium’ (moratoriamu). Moe media is approached as something of a sanctuary from society (Okada 2008), and as such is couched in a discourse of purity.

        A more nuanced report by and for fans suggests that perhaps both the pure and perverse are potential moe images. The author, Shingo, defines moe as a response to a human(oid) entity who is innocent, gazed at and becomes embarrassed (Shingo 2005). He then establishes four categories of moe based on imagined access to or distance from the character: junai (pure love), otome (maiden), denpa (kinetic) and ero-kawaii (erotic-cute). Shingo proposes four principles to understand moe:
        A moe character cannot be aware of her own appeal.
        The greater an image’s emphasis on style and fetish symbol at the expense of narrative, ambience and relationships, the less relevant propriety becomes.
        The closer the viewer (or his narrative proxy) becomes to a moe character, the harder it is for her to maintain her sense of propriety.
        The viewer’s emotional response to a moe image is a function of the convergence of his position relative to the image with the heroine’s state of maidenly virtue as depicted therein.
        Comparison with Honda and Azuma is fruitful here.

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  4. Excellently done article, as per usual. Moe is one of those things that I want to get upset about as a general trend (because of the infantilizing subtext and the fact that it’s so disproportionately used for female characters) before realizing that there are indeed moe type characters or shows that I enjoy. Then it becomes this black hole of – am I making the problem worse? Do these shows entertain me because of the moe aspect or is it incidental, and is moe harmful in existence altogether orjust as an overwhelming trend (in the early 00s it seemed like you couldn’t have a female character who WASN’T moe)?
    I’d heard before about Hotaru as the root of the actual term, though it’s always Rei I see as ‘credited’ with the explosion of the movement’s popularity (much to Anno’s rage). I’ve also heard reports going all the way back to Castle of Cagliostro (reference quota achieved), saying that Miyazaki was extremely upset by the moe-fying of Clarisse.
    I would love a separate or companion article talking about the superflat movement – Stuff like End of Eva, Satoshi Kon’s work, and even arguably stuff like Higurashi, that were made to be satire of the moe movement and the perceived ‘childishness’ of modern Japanese culture.
    Oh, and in response to the above conversation – The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was indeed headed by female director Sayo Yamamoto (and written by a woman as well!). Yamamoto was also series director of the excellent Mitchiko and Hatchin, and episode director for quite a bit of Samurai Champloo. I adore her.

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    • Thank you for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the article – and I have exactly the same problem at times. I can’t say I’m a fan of moe as a general rule for just the same issues you’ve mentioned, but I’m also aware that since I have and probably will continue to watch shows that I’d certainly consider as moe, I can’t really critisise.
      Ah, and thank you for the suggestion of writing a related article about the superflat movement. I may well see what I can come up with there at some point.

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  5. Nice. This was well thought out. I’ve been asked multiple times to explain this concept, and the best I can do is sight a character and my feelings or the casts feelings towards that character. It’s always been near impossible for me to get the definition across because, like you said, there’s no set definition. At least with this article, I can point someone to a certain site so as to give them better context and insight. I use your post on lolita for the same thing.

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    • I’m glad this article could be of some use. 🙂 It wasn’t the easiest thing to write because of the lack of that set definition, but hopefully it gets the general point across even so.

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  8. Catching up on some great entries now (no time at the moment to leave a separate comment on the Watson entry and I think a lot of things have already been said, but I’m looking forward to more like that in the future)! We’ve talked before about how I’m turned off by moe anime, but as Vrai said, I can’t totally diss moe because I’m quite a fan of some of it myself. For me it’s mostly moe characters I like within a wider cast–reading over this, though, I think you could easily make the same argument for the motherly instincts another friend and I get when we automatically tend to favor the youngest boy in a large cast. He doesn’t need to be physically weak, but it’s more of that desire to save him from inner darkness, whine when he undergoes hardship, and then squeal with pride when he comes out of things having grown from the experience. I can’t say it’s a romantic attraction (ew), and the same goes for Free! and why I enjoyed it despite not following any other KyoAni titles. It was easy to watch and unwind with, and the boys were types designed to pull at your emotional “I want to give him a hug” heartstrings. I couldn’t care less about their muscles or sexy voice actors (with the exception of Miyano Mamoru, but even then I wouldn’t group myself in the seiyuu fandom).

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    • I think that at its core, the moe reaction probably does indeed have more to do with the emotional protectiveness, in that ‘give that character a hug!’ kind of way, as opposed to a romantic/sexual reaction. They can certainly intertwine sometimes – and I think that some anime such as Haruhi Suzumiya, just as the first random example I can think of), toe the line between the two – but I also think that romantic/sexual attraction doesn’t necessarily need to have anything to do with it at all. The mother instinct is a really good example, actually. 🙂

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  9. That was a really interesting and informative article. I was not familiar with the origins or the complete context of that term. Thanks for informing me on that! In regard to the post question, for me it depends on the character and situation I guess as with any character type. Though my favorite as of right now would be Akatsuki from Log Horizon. She has all of physical traits of the moe type but she is well capable of taking care of herself and the other characters fear and respect her.

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    • You’re very welcome, and I’m glad you found the article interesting.
      I’m afraid I can’t comment on Log Horizon’s Akatsuki, as I haven’t seen any of that show. (If she’s fully capable of taking care of herself, and if the other characters fear her, then I’d be inclined to say she isn’t a moe character despite her physical traits, but I really couldn’t say without watching it.)

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