What Is Moe?
Moe is an adjective that can be used to describe anime shows or characters. It's defined by TV Tropes as the ability of a character to instill in the audience an irrational desire to adore them, hug them, protect them, comfort them, etc. To evoke a sort of Big Brother Instinct, in men and women.
So, a small boy or teenage girl can be moe, but it also describes shows that are character driven and focus on moe characters, like Lucky Star (comedy) or Clannad (drama). Usually this is tied to youth, so "moe" is often used by some critics to complain about the fact that so many popular anime and manga involve Jr. High or High School aged characters.
Moe is polarizing in the anime community, to say the least. People who like mature, serious anime hate it, but it's popular enough to turn the wheels of the industry. Moe characters are often one-dimensional and cliché, making it basically many people's definition of a bad anime. But that's not the whole story, other people like the shows. Girls like them because they can relate to the characters, some people find them endearing, and other people fetishize them.
What Is the Impact of Moe on the Anime Industry in Japan?
Let's face it: moe is profitable. One issue is that in Japan, people rarely buy DVDs as they're very expensive, so studios make a lot of their income by selling merchandise such as body pillows, figures, key chains, toys, plushies, etc. of their anime characters. In America, Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, and other companies/franchises do the same thing, they make huge profits from the sale of merchandise, and the merchandise also contributes to exposure and brand awareness. In America though, what sells is sparkly pastel princess things for girls and explosions and super hero things for boys (in general, with some cross-over obviously). In Japan, they sell dolls of cute schoolgirls to girls who want to be the doll characters and boys who want to uh, think about them in a certain way.
With that in mind, designing a character the way characters are designed in a more avant-garde anime like Mononoke or Kaiba is risky, because you can't make a standard moe doll from the mold for characters like that. So, a big problem with the popularity of moe for the anime industry is that it causes the industry to profit more from stories that are not in any way creative, original, or unique, and actively punishes/marginalizes stories that are because they won't sell merchandise as well. It makes anime girls into commodities instead of characters, and means that creativity, pushing boundaries, and artistic innovation are not as economically competitive as mundane bullcrap.
Problems With Moe
I know there are good moe shows out there, and they can be fun if you're into it and just want something inoffensively cute and entertaining. BUT, moe shows are hated by critics for a reason. Namely, they're driven by character clichés. The shows are also typically lacking in narrative structure and originality; they have the same school settings and the same girls doing the same or similar things as you can find examples of from the 90's or even earlier. Early examples of moe though were in shows that weren't just plotless slice-of-life stuff though, they were in magical girl shows like Sailor Moon or other types of show. The cute moments were just a kind of fan service, icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.
Some shows react to moe. In Gunslinger Girl, the moe characteristics of the girls are juxtaposed with the brutality of their training and use as assassins for tragic effect. In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, you get kind of the same thing, with the girls being tragic and wonderfully complex, but still moe.
But what's happening now is the problem of making shows that are all this hyper-kawaii fan service, without any real story going on. So you get shows that have no plot, no effort, take place in a school in Tokyo, do all these cliché character archetypes like tsundere, kuudere and so on, and are totally devoid of risk, uniqueness, or innovation. And that erodes any charm the characters would otherwise have. Moe characters can end up becoming empty dolls representing types, rather than interesting fictional characters we can relate to as if they were real.
But Wait! The Defense of Moe
Objection! In order to be rational here, we have to point out that there are in fact two sides to this issue. This blog entry titled "The Hypocrisy of Moe", by which the author means, the hypocrisy of moe hate, points out astutely that moe elements are found in our most endearing and beloved anime classics of all time, like Studio Ghibli movies and Cowboy Bebop, and that there are even moe characteristics in many western fictional characters. Heck, I would even call Yoda moe in the original Star Wars trilogy. He has quirks, and an odd way of speaking, and sometimes acts in ways that make no sense, and yet is charming and endearing to fans. That's pretty moe if you think about it.
As the aforementioned blogger said, "I believe moe is being used as a scapegoat for the Vocal Community. If you are an otaku and have seen more than Dragonball Z you have seen (and more than likely enjoyed) a show with moe. If you have been watching TV or movies, you've seen moe. Moe is everywhere. Let's stop blaming moe for everything, moe is just a feeling! An adjective not a noun!"
So yeah, we should stop using moe as a way of saying "it's cute and girly and saccharine so I just plain hate it". If it's not a genre you like, you don't have to hate it. But, I do remain concerned about the effect that unoriginal, slapped-together moe anime might have on creativity in the anime industry. We don't want anime to become an industry that manufactures fake, mediocre, paint-by-numbers crap for the lowest common denominator. But, on the other hand, loving K-On doesn't make you dumb or a bad person. Live and let live.
Thanks for reading!
Max on December 30, 2018:
Nicely written, thanks!