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June 25, 2012 / Bradley

The Maturation of Moe: It’s Only Natural to Grow Up

I’m careful about making broad proclamations, in part because you never know when you’re going to get cited as an “expert” on Wikipedia and possibly mislead some poor graduate student, but mostly because I don’t want to fall into the embarrassing trap Brian illustrates here. But I think I’m ready to make one, largely based on five-plus years of observation, even though that’s a pretty flimsy basis for engaging in educated guesswork. But that’s what blogs are for, right? Right.

Last month, I got caught up in a Twitter discussion with another fan about Clannad. He was tweeting something to the effect that he wasn’t enjoying the show, but felt obligated to try and finish it because it seemed representative to him of what anime looks like now, and he had to educate himself on what moe is, even if he wasn’t enjoying it. The problem was that Clannad is almost five years old, and I pointed out to him that it doesn’t reflect much of anything that’s made today. Half a decade ago, visual novels were a primary source for adaptation material, most of them romance simulators between the player and a menu of lovable stereotypes. Today, thanks largely in part to the success of Haruhi, most anime that’s made for an otaku audience are adapted from light novels, which have markedly more variety in their subject matter than visual novels, and on top of that, a lot of the moe cartoons made today are comedies. If you’ve paid close attention to what comes out every season for the last few years, there has been a noticeable shift in what is being made, and who it is being made for. But only crazy people would do that. So here’s a public announcement for those of you who aren’t: moe is maturing. Anime made for a core audience of otaku is noticeably growing up from juvenile harem fantasies and trying to tell new, more mature stories. Some of it is extremely meta or introspective, some of it shows great craftsmanship, especially in animation, and some of it undercuts one of the most fundamental aspects of what makes moe what it is. Not all of it is successful, and it’s not even that remarkable a change, but because it runs counter to some of moe‘s harshest and truest criticisms, it’s worth laying out what has changed in the last few years.

One of the core criticisms of moe is that it relies on a database of stereotypes to appeal to its audience. It should follow, then, that the “best” moe series are those that do the best job of conveying those types in their characters, and since Clannad is still the bestest anime ever according to ANN, it makes sense that Clannad is the best way to get your moe experience and finally figure out what all the fuss is about. That criteria probably held true for a lot of the anime I watched in the mid-Aughts, even the ones I enjoyed. Kanon, LoveDol, Yoake Mae yori Ruriiro na, and many others that I can’t and will never list because they’re too cheap and insignificant to remember, were all series that had little craftsmenship and creativity, and only worked if its moe stereotypes appealed to you. Clannad was probably the most ambitious of that set, since its second half is not a high school fantasy but a melodrama about what happens when that fantasy falls apart and its characters have to grow up. It felt revolutionary in its time and place, but that’s, in part, because anime fans grade moe series on a high curve. It turns out that Clannad wasn’t so much the best representation of moe as it was a look at where the genre could go, and what it could do if it wanted to wrestle with higher-minded themes.

I don’t want to get into the knotty and messy history of moe here, but it seems fair to say that the genre- and I use that term loosely here- primarily thrived and came into its own in the mid-Aughts on small, late-night cable channels. Around this time it also became clear that anime’s promising move towards profundity in the 90’s wouldn’t live up to fan expectations, so the new genre shared part of the blame, perhaps unfairly. When the bubble crashed and the only people left paying for cartoons were a conservative group of hardcore fans, the industry shifted their way, and Western fans felt alienated. There was a lot of talk about how the industry needed to open up, take risks, bring in new blood, try new ideas, and broaden its audience. In retrospect, that argument seems a bit silly- dear very conservative and risk-averse industry, please do something new, signed, the fans who aren’t paying for anything right now. But it was still true. The industry was already changing for the better at the time, it just wasn’t where most of us paid attention.

It takes roughly two or three years for an anime to go from conception to release, so there’s a lengthy lag between producers trying to change the market, and the market actually being changed. Haruhi aired in 2006, was clearly a huge success by the end of 2007, and ended up being the forerunner of the current light novel boom. Light novels have become the easiest way to make a blockbuster, and is so closely tied to anime fandom that studios have started publishing them. On balance, this was a good change. Visual novels were inherently a more amateur, juvenile source for stories, and the switch was a small step up. Going to light novels meant making more creative, plot-heavy anime, without the whole “choose the girl” aspect of visual novels that made for some piss-poor adaptations. It meant a shift from sources that were primarily about wish fulfillment, to sources that were primarily about stories.

The second change was one of money and talent. Making an anime is expensive, and prior to the bubble crashing, most moe cartoons were made on the cheap, and possibly even by a staff who didn’t care for the source material. But now, much like how much of the best giant robot anime was made in the eighties and nineties by the fans of giant robots who grew up wanting nothing more than to make giant robot cartoons, we now have new animators who like cute girl cartoons and want to draw just that for a living. And since these anime are clearly profitable, more money is being poured into them. The best example of this is The Idolmaster, which had sky-high production values and a staff that loved the property and wanted to do right by it. Their love and fandom-fueled obsession with detail was probably the key reason it was a surprisingly solid, enjoyable anime. Kyoto Animation is a studio that seems dedicated to making elaborately-animated cartoons that can even appeal to children and adults who wouldn’t consider themselves moe fans. This is a natural, unsurprising development, but still an important one.

Another change, probably more annoying, is that since the fans now run the asylum, they’re producing more meta stories that openly struggle with issues that are important to them, like social isolation. This is a step up from a bunch of in-jokes as humor- series like Haganai and Oreimo openly vent otaku‘s frustration with society and themselves, and it makes for a fascinating into their mindset, even if the rest of the show is bit more typical of what they like. Inserting autobiographical and meta elements might make this a little more isolating to those aren’t intimately familiar with the culture, but it is still a step-up from pure fantasy.

Which brings me to what I think is the most important change, and the one that radically reshapes our understanding of moe by undermining one of its core traits, and weaknesses:

There were quite a few original anime worth checking out in 2011, shows like Mahou Shoujo Madoka☆Madoka (hereinafter Madoka), Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai and Mawaru-Penguindrum. They came one after another, and perhaps part of this was coincidence, but I think quite a few producers understood that times were starting to change. In recent years, adapting best-selling light novels into an anime became the easiest way to create blockbusters, but anime originals are definitely becoming a new trend.

This is from an excellent interview translated by Akirascuro over at Moe Fundamentalism, and I highly recommend you take the time to read it. Here, Producer Ooyama Ryou is explaining why anime is more likely to move towards more original works, and while that’s encouraging, there’s a second thread of thought I want to pick up here. If you look at his list of successful original anime- and I’ll add Hanasaku Iroha to the list- you’ll notice they all have something in common: they’re about growing up. They’re about leaving childhood behind and becoming a better person to tackle the challenges of being an adult. And that’s huge for what were clearly hot otaku properties, because they undermine what might be the key factor of what makes moe alienating: it fetishizes childhood. It idolizes a high school life that doesn’t exist for anyone, never has and never will. Its characters can move to college but they can never grow up or become recognizably like adults because that would break the fantasy. But as the success of these shows and Clannad Afterstory demonstrates, there’s a demand for these stories among otaku. And this didn’t happen because one cartoon about moe kids growing up was really successful so producers felt the need to capitalize, no, all of these anime came out in close proximity of each other. It was a natural evolution. But you can bet that after their success, there will be more stories like this.

I’ve been talking about moe for a while without really defining what it is, and as I wrote out my thoughts I resisted trying to pin it down. Some of it is that I don’t think it can be pinned down, and that moe operates on the Stewart test, as much as I loathe that simple way of approaching something. It wasn’t that long ago I probably could have given you an iron-solid definition, but not anymore. And I think that reflects what is going to be the biggest change- we will never be able to comfortably fence off moe in the future, but that will be okay. The aesthetic, the character types, and its love of cute will continue to blend into other things that I like. And, most importantly, I won’t have to like any of the character types or to think cute girl cartoons are fun to care about the story or what happens to these characters, because I’ll get an increasing number of reasons that will have nothing to do with the characters being cute. We will have arrived at that point when we stop this annoying habit of grading moe on a curve, in part because we’ll have a harder time fencing it off, but also because its increasing ambitions will demand tougher criticism, and more of our respect. That’s not to say we’ll send an end to creepy wish-fulfillment because- there seems to be no end of people’s appetite for that- but that will see a rise in quality from places and genres we normally wouldn’t expect.

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4 Comments

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  1. wavedash / Jun 26 2012 7:47 am

    Great article, would read again. The term “moe” itself always kind of pissed me off because I don’t what it means, even after closely following anime for almost two years. I know what “moe” means to me, but I don’t have a concrete definition for it. Because of this and, as you pointed out, the term’s evolution, I try use the word as little as possible. I hope that someday the word is just completely phased out of usage to describe anything but old shows, because there’s too many ways to interpret it.

    However, I don’t agree with your statement that “visual novels were inherently a more amateur, juvenile source for stories.” Fate/stay night is a wildly popular visual novel, and spawned one of the most successful franchises out there (it’s rare that a month goes by without a handful of Saber figures being announced from large manufacturers). The upcoming Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse is getting a lot of hype, which is understandable considering it’s a spin-off of Muv-Luv Alternative, which happens to be the highest-rated visual novel on vndb. The vast majority of anime fans would agree that Steins;Gate was in the top three best shows of 2011. And on the topic of current visual novel adaptions, fans were ecstatic when an adaption of Little Busters! was announced. They were so ecstatic that their happiness transformed into the red-hot anger of a thousand suns when they found out JC Staff was producing it.

    Anyway, back on topic, basically visual novels aren’t all dating sims (though I’m sure you know that, just wanted to hammer in the point).

    • Bradley / Jun 26 2012 11:49 am

      Not all of them, sure, but three of the ones you just listed are! Romance sims dominate everything else. Heck, even one of my favorite games from this year is a hate story with some romance that feels tagged on simply because that’s what visual novels DO: http://store.steampowered.com/app/209370/ Heck, I only say “three” cuz I have no idea how Steins;Gate works- betcha there’s an element in there where you have to choose which cute girl you really want to date/time travel with.

      • wavedash / Jun 27 2012 6:28 pm

        My interpretation of “romance sim” or “dating sim” is that the visual novel is based around romance. Calling Fate/stay night a dating sim is a bit of a stretch. Sure, there are dates, but that’s not what the VN is about. The same goes for Little Busters and Muv-Luv.

  2. Michael is Low on Hit Points / Jun 27 2012 2:57 pm

    I gave up a few paragraphs in, but here are few remarks:

    The industry is not a hivemind. It is a collection of individuals. The industry is not “maturing” or “immaturing” or whatever. You have excellently produced series (that you may label moe) then and now, and failures then and now. Good auteurs come and go; bad ones come and go. I do not believe that mediums “mature” or necessarily “change”; they simply expand with more works, from more creators, and thus they diversify, and critics can read in any “changes” they wish to use to push their own agendas.

    “Kanon … had little craftsmenship and creativity, and only worked if its moe stereotypes appealed to you.”

    I wonder if you know what “craftsmenship” means (or more likely your words got away from you), and I think you’re conflating “creativity” with your own subjective biases. The latter half of the above is close minded, which is up to the viewer to be or not to be, but for an authority or objective voice… here I would say “read ‘on narrative'”, but at this point, I’ve accepted that seemingly no one (or so few) can draw out the damn point of it anyways, so…

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