The thin line between moe and masturbation.

Talking about moe was the third article we ever did for the blog. Moe is, for a wide variety of reasons, a topic that Narutaki is forced to discuss and debate with me on a regular basis. So this is an article that has been fermenting in our minds for quite awhile. A small discussion about the nature of moe and sexuality broke out on twitter. Scott VonSchilling was arguing that moe and sexuality are separate traits and should not be considered connected. I then used one example that turned the whole conversation into a fire storm of debate, Mikuru Asahina. She is a character who is famous for being extremely moe and extremely sexualized but more importantly sexualized for and by her moe. The conversation quickly spiraled out of anyone’s control.

It has been many moons since we last discussed this growing term and I don’t even remember what spurned on our first article. I honestly try to avoid such discussions when I can, it’s true but it still comes up pretty often whether I see it on Twitter or on a bus ride to Otakon. Sometimes I participate and sometimes I just take in the discussion going on around me. Moe, everyone’s got an opinion about it so what we are adding here is not just our overall perspective on the genre/term/thing, but rather a specific instance of it.

As I mentioned in our Otakon 2009 report I am still not sure people in the anime business in Japan comprehend the full meaning of moe let alone anyone else. I am better at defining what moe is and detecting it when it exists in a show but on the other hand I am still light years away from a perfect understanding or acceptance of the term. As far as I can tell moe has maintained its bizarre dual meaning. In a general sense it means an attraction and devotion to any trait. You can be moe for maids with glasses, blond boys who are in gangs, or curry joints that serve their dishes on trains. In a more specific, pure, and otaku sense it means the desire to protect weak characters that cannot protect themselves. In its ideal and stated definition there is no sexuality in moe. You want to protect the moe character and have a chaste love for them. Some describe it as a fatherly need to protect and nurture someone weaker. This more specific definition is the one that causes the most problems and is the focus of the discussion.

Up until a couple of years ago I had no idea this word even existed or held a place in fandom. Obviously, since then a lot of anime watching has happened, a lot of reading has gone on, and numerous discussion have taken place and still there is no consensus on what exactly moe is. Luckily, we are telling you which popular theory of the word is up for debate. Moe is about security and affection given through supporting and protecting a character who for some reason can’t do so on their own. There are a myriad of reasons why characters exude this need. Despite the many things I could say about this scenario (and the many problems that arise), they aren’t all relevant to this particular discussion. It’s worth noting that while some moe characters are very young, many fall into the high school age so always equating moe and lolicon is a stretch even though that is a popular assumption. And by extension moe does appeal to the lolicon crowd. However, what is important for the current theory we are undertaking is that the characters aren’t supposed to elicit eroticism but rather endearment.

Let’s set up my chessboard for a little Socratic dialogue about moe. The starting move is the following statement: Moe is a pure love; it is the desire to protect and nurture the helpless without any sexual motive. The simple counter to that argument is that moe characters can be found in sexual visual novels, harem anime, sexually-themed comedies, and romantic dramas. All of these shows have moe characters either in sexual or romantic roles. And what of the large merchandise market that provides plenty of service of these moe characters. However, it can easily be argued that merchandise is a totally separate thing entirely outside the intention of a work. But doesn’t fan made materials such as doujinshi reflect the wants and desires of fans? They say that their love of these characters is pure but their actions show otherwise. If moe characters were all in chaste scenarios a convincing argument could be made for moe always being pure in intent but that is clearly not the case. That is a definite sexual component to moe. What ever the intent is said to be it, many of the people enjoying these characters are sexually attracted to them because they are moe. I find this fact avoidably true. No matter what the stated intent of moe it seems to build an empire of sexuality around itself.

When a character is both moe and sexualized, are the two things coexisting but not overlapping? There are many hurdles to either side of this argument but let’s approach that moe is indeed related to sexual enticement. All of these words that come up such as purity, innocence, and virginity have been fetishized throughout history itself. It can’t be denied that their places in anime have been exploited as well. And all of those words are thrown around constantly when talking about the moe genre. It is pretty easy to see how those ideas become sexual in any context. Or take an example of backlash against a moe character that is implied is not pure, Nagi from Kannagi. In this instance, a character has seen a little more of the world so she loses her moe appeal. Why would this occur if not for a sexual desire for them and a want to be their first and only. This also leads into an issue of control. Dominance while it can manifest itself outside of a sexual relationships, it is once again some thing that is surrounded by erotic fantasies. And it fits right in with moe and it’s sheltered connotations. But just because these desires are a truth for some individuals, it doesn’t mean that every instances of moe is trying to be pillar of sex nor does it mean that everyone enjoying moe is watching for these reasons.

In the defense of the moe fan, much of the opposition is just as narrow-minded in their arguments. Moe can just as often not be sexual. Take series like the Kamichu! anime, GA: Geijutsuka Art Design Class, Yotsuba&!, Taisho Baseball Girls, plus many others can be categorized as moe but are not sexualized in the text they are presented in. People who dislike the moe trend will over analyze and pick apart these shows to show how it is sexual when it takes a bit of mental acrobatics to see it. The problem comes from the difference between statements, implications, and projection. A sexual visual novel with moe characters makes the clear statement that the moe characters within are sexual. Some shows don’t blatantly make the characters sexual but there is much implied just looking at the camera angles used on certain shots. This leads to the third most important part, projected sexuality. Certain shows that are not sexual have sexuality projected on them by people who for one reason or another want the show to be sexual. This does not make the show sexual. What you project on a show does not change what the show is. If you use a keyboard as a hammer in does not inherently make keyboards into hammers.

Just about anything on Earth can be seen as sexual by someone. People can be attracted to scarves, knife-wielding muscle men, or girls who work at okonomiyaki restaurants but every instances of these things is not there as a fetish element (or is it!?). Everyone is seemingly aware of this, but when it comes to moe (and certainly other things, magical girl shows anyone?) that message and knowledge can get lost. In addition to that, there are lots of different degrees of moe shows. Some shows wear it like a badge of honor and every moment has moe written all over it where as in others series it is subtle and has other components besides a moe character. Just think about the different tones of moe shows out there, they range from sad or sappy romances to light-hearted slice-of-life stories. The depiction of characters is different each place you look. But there is another important to piece to this puzzle. Some people cherry pick what they like about characters or series for that matter, they compartmentalize. While I don’t wholly believe you can take a sexual element out of a character that is clearly exuding it, there is an argument for it.

In conclusion, like most everything else it is absolute statements that are extremely captivating and pithy but almost always incorrect and overgeneralizing. They are also almost always argumentative statements made to push an agenda or provoke a reaction but not to come to any sort of understanding. Moe can easily be sexual in nature but that does not mean that all moe characters are sexual. If people find them sexual that is in their own heads. Moe can be synergistic to sexuality but they are not synonyms or subcategories they are merely traits they can and often have influence on each other. To say that moe must or must not be sexual is to ignore whole shows and characters to push a certain agenda forward in the defense or rejection of moe. The truth almost always lies in the middle if you are willing to open your eyes. In that middle path there is a greater understanding of moe and a greater understanding of anime itself.

Everyone has a line, a limit, when it comes to sexual connotation and certainly everyone has things they find unseemly. When it comes to moe this seems to come up tenfold and the divide becomes a deep chasm of people unwilling to yield to a middle ground. I admittedly have a lot of problems with moe in general but I have to defend the ability to enjoy a show or character without an underlying sexual motive. At the same time, it is ludicrous to say all moe has no erotic intent. Certain watchers get different things out of a show is what this all comes down to. My brief mention of dominance and my non-mention of growth is a whole other can of worms that will certainly see itself made into an article further down the road. As always, this conversation never seems to have an ending.

Top 5 Moe shows that I actually like
5. Taisho Baseball Girls
4. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
3. Risky Safety
2. Kamichu!
1. Azumanga Daioh

7 thoughts on “The thin line between moe and masturbation.

  1. Vampt Vo says:

    Absolutely fantastic article, guys. So much discussion of the moe debate has gone on recently, but I’ve usually only seen arguments from the two very polarized sides of the issue. As you guys both know, I lean heavily toward the hypothesis that most moe has a sexual connotation, but I very much enjoyed reading a mature, non-argumentative discussion of moe.

    That said, to me it seems like some of the non-sexual stories (Yotsuba&!, etc.) are actively trying to pull away from the sexual undercurrent that pervades moe, so I would be interested in finding out exactly how the subculture evolved. It seems like nobody has pinpointed when moe started (as in, what shows were the “original” moe shows), so we really don’t know if it started off as a sexual thing or evolved into that. Knowing such evolutionary information about the word would give better clues into what the honest intent of moe is, however it might have been twisted over the years.

  2. OGT says:

    @VamptVo: As far as I know, the earliest explicit “moe” product was Leaf’s 1997 To Heart, which followed several characters in high school as they lived out their (oft romantic) lives. AIC made a 1999 anime based on it, but removed all of the 18+ elements. If you’ve seen it, you can definitely tell from the structure and stories that it’s an early example of the phenomenon–all the basic situational and character archetypes are present. Key’s 1999 Kanon probably popularized both the eroge as a vehicle for something more than pornography and the “moe” feeling. It never ceases to amaze me that Toei was responsible for the original 2002 anime series. Again, all the 18+ elements were removed, leaving the structure of the story intact.

    In general (and somewhat related to above points), I think one huge problem is that the terms “bishoujo” and “moe” have been conflated somewhere along the line and across the board. The difference is that “moe” is the feeling one feels, and “bishoujo” is the term to describe the (fairly rigid, I’m led to believe) design aesthetics, the personality, and (most likely) the sexual element. The two do not imply one another: you can feel “moe” for a character who is not strictly “bishoujo”, and you can like a “bishoujo” character without actually finding them “moe” at all.

    In the Grander Scope of Things™, what’s really happening here is the replacement of bidirectionally intimate relationships with something much more safe, largely as a result of a breakdown in the Japanese social structure where relationships are concerned. The most frightening part of the first episode of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 wasn’t the earthquake, but the total apathy and neglect of Mirai’s parents. That’s the environment that many Japanese children are being reared in (and have been for at least a decade now to greater or lesser degrees). Being raised in an environment where physical intimacy is at a minimum between parents and between their children would seem to nurture the notion that love between two people is a quixotic desire, and the replacement of components of the love via artificial means such as a host(ess) club, anime/manga/eroge, physical paraphernalia, etc. Which is probably why any discussion of “moe” gets irrevocably complicated fast.

    In America (and probably in a larger portion of Japan than is customarily believed by Americans) I rather largely suspect that it’s more or less indicative of the fact that teenagers are eternally really horny, and justify this via occasionally silly means. Which is (or can be) a similar, but altogether different, issue to the one above.

  3. phatbhuda says:

    As American readers and viewers, we should come up with our own terminology. Using a term like moe which has an emotional definition is flawed. Our culture defines us and in part, determines our emotional responses. I’d be interested in evaluating the moe feeling’s existance in American fiction.

    Also, does the target of moe have to be female? Does love have to be involved?

  4. Robert Kelly says:

    My usual way of dealing with the moe concept as of recent is to try and put the whole thing under two groups, both seperate, but both representing each side of the whole moe debate: one side is all the platonic moe, which adheres to the moe ideal as it’s mostly espoused (purity, innocence, feelings of protection) and is mostly non-sexualised stuff, such as Azumanga Daioh, Kanon, Clannad and Yotsubato!. The other side is all the sexualized more harem type stuff that is prevalent, and is probably what most people actually think of when they think of moe, such as Kanokon, Koihime Musou, Hanaukyo and that. I think it works pretty well…

  5. SDShamshel says:

    The real conundrum of moe discussion comes from the moments where a character’s endearing traits can be seen as both sexual and non-sexual, and the idea that the very same character properties can elicit an attraction that incorporates elements of both.
    I feel that if a person feels both a sexual and non-sexual attraction to the same person, they are likely begin to believe that the entirety of the attraction is sexual in nature. That’s the way sexuality kind of works; it overtakes the mind and confounds emotions.
    “Moe” is a very personal thing, subjective and emotional. “Moe anime” are generally shows which try to tap into that feeling, but the ways in which people react to it can be sexual, non-sexual, or both at the same time, and to describe the feeling to people is to describe something strong but indistinct, and it leads to further misunderstandings.
    Let’s say you fell in love with someone and tried to describe just why you loved them. You could talk about them in a sexual manner, or a non-sexual manner, but in the end it’s the same person you’re talking about and all the reasons can be valid. But then another person might see your expression of “love” and deem it to not be real, and it might be impossible to ever bridge that communication gap.
    It is not my intent to conflate “love” with “moe,” but rather to talk about how easy it is for a single emotion to be incredibly complex. Though in that regard, “moe” derives from strong feelings towards fictional characters. Though they are not and can never be real, we look at them with the assumption that they are somehow deeper than two dimensions. And if to be real, to be human as it were, is to be flawed, then I don’t think it’s that unusual to look at the flaws of an anime character and to feel closer to them for that reason, even if the flaws may not be all that realistic, even if the flaws are manufactured by intelligent writers and profitable marketers.

  6. BakaTanuki says:

    I somehow completely missed this article, despite its strong relevancy to my interests. You guys are great, I do believe this is the best moe article I have ever read. I am a huge fan of moe from a nonsexual standpoint, and its good to see a balanced opinion like this.

    Personally, I don’t even like fanservice and sexual elements in my shows, even if I sometimes become a bit infatuated with a character. I would say that the purity and innocence of a character is a major selling point to me, and added sexualization goes against what I am interested in.

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