The “moe” style problem.

This article has been brewing in my head for quite a long time. Not only is this an intricate and delicate topic, but it’s also hard to explain to someone not immersed in the Japanese visual scene. I don’t feel like the best person to describe this either. Still, because of my unique position as a foreign artist working in Japan, this is a topic that I’m constantly thinking about and battling professionally. I finally decided to write down some of my thoughts about the moe style of drawing characters, so popular currently in Japan.

Some recent work offers and e-mails that came to my inbox directly prompted me to write down my thoughts. This type of message I’m talking about here is easy to spot. Most of the time, the e-mail will have these words in the first paragraph: “we would like you to paint this in the anime style” or “we want it to be a manga-like drawing.” Because the word “manga” means “comics” and “anime” is just “animation,” these requests mean something similar to “we would like you to write us a novel.” The problem is that when I ask the sender what exactly do they have in mind, and to send me some examples of art in the style they want, what comes back, is usually moe style

Here is a quick explanation of this term. I know many videos are explaining what is and what isn’t moe, but bear with me. In the Japanese “otaku” — mania culture, this term means to be “excited,” “roused,” “hot for” something. For example, one can be moe about a specific kind of train or feel moe about boys love comics. That’s the word’s original meaning, but I want to talk here about the more common usage of “moe illustration style.

Some tips on how to recognize the moe style:

  • The female characters are portrayed in a style that makes them look a lot more like children or adolescents of “ideal proportions” as imagined by the artist. Usually, this means designs that are really slim, with thin arms and legs, small hands and feet, but bigger heads that make them look childlike. At the same time, they can have disproportionally big breasts and thin waists. The legs are often unrealistically far apart, with a big thigh gap, and bent inwards in the “uchimata” way.
From Google Image search for “uchimata” 「内股」
  • The clothes the characters wear are drawn in a way that reveals their figure — shirts that cling to the bodyline better than a swimsuit, really short skirts, etc. 
  • Even if the main protagonist is male, the whole thing revolves around all the female characters. I was told by a university professor researching manga that this is a characteristic inherited after Japanese young adult novels where, in the harem genre, the main male protagonist is just a colorless stand-in for the reader.
  • Even if the female characters themselves realize that they are being treated in an erotically charged way, they often let it slide with no or little consequences and are not so much embarrassed about it.
  • The female characters are often shown in embarrassing, private situations, in a way that suggests a voyeuristic point of view.
  • The female protagonists are often portrayed as unreliable, weak somehow, not good with people, klutz, etc. Often they will have a bandaid or two on to show this. The important thing is that these are not just character traits but convenient “moe cuteness points” to be exploited.
  • The moe characters are often stereotypical — a tall “sporty” type or the short, silent “bookish” type or the “class representative” type, and so on, with just small variations.
  • Often the female characters are in some artificial way forced to be dependent on the male protagonist.

Ouch! Even writing these examples down was painful. Now that we more-or-less can identify moe style, I want to explain why I’m writing about this in the first place. 

Why does the “moe problem” require attention:

Again, there are more comprehensive materials about this, but the problem with moe style art as you might have guessed from reading all the points above is that it depicts female characters as just a cute, often sexual “treat” for the viewer. In my opinion, a lot of art in this style uses fake, eroticized, simplified, objectified images of women aiming mostly for financial gain, popularity, and self-indulgence. I’m not talking here only about the representation of women in fiction. The popularization of such images and how they are overlapping in the common consciousness with real girls and women, negatively influences how women are viewed and treated in Japanese society.

The moe image does not stay in the picture; it spills into everyday life.

Of course, one could argue that the moe style is a reflection of the inequalities between men and women that have been going on in Japan for decades and are still firmly present today. In many cases, it is still the default role of women and girls to be the “pleaser” and men to be on the receiving end. I’m not a sociologist and can only speak based on what I observed living in Japan for more than ten years, but it seems that these socials standards create a very dangerous, feedback loop with the visual industry. The moe style seems to be getting further and further away from reality but at the same time is getting accepted in more and more places.

The moe style became one of the standard ways of portraying female characters in many visual industry areas, especially in animated series and illustrations. It also broke out of the “mania” circle into the everyday public space. In a way, because the moe style was used so much by just regular companies, advertising agencies, publishing houses, and even government bodies, the society got used to it and mostly accepted it. 

Real life examples:  

Look at the Draw With Wacom playlist of the tablet maker inviting Japanese illustrators to show their skills and try to count the videos that don’t contain a cutesy female character: 
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL932AB0958975441F

Draw With Wacom playlist.

Or check the lineup of this year’s television animated series: 
https://www.livechart.me/summer-2020/tv 

I would not recommend looking at the “popular” section of the Japanese illustration website PIXIV, either. 

This drawing style became so omnipresent in public that even regular commercials and companies like, for example, train lines use slightly sexy moe images for their mascot characters.
https://tetsudou-musume.net/contents/chara/

This style’s omnipresence problem is similar to the one with questionable female images being popularly used in computer games but on a much larger scale. Imagine having the “sexy elf armor warrior” female characters used everywhere. 

It’s enough to say that it’s hard for me to find any animation to watch with a clear conscience recently — even if the story is good, the moe style is so overwhelming that it spoils the whole thing. Finding something I would feel good to take part in making as a professional artist remains an even harder task. One of the things that pushed me over the edge and out of the animation industry was the ever-present moe style characters. 

One of the things that pushed me over the edge and out of the animation industry was the ever-present moe style characters. 

Here, an episode stands out in my memory. It happened when I was working on a short animation, and the time came to design the look of the main female character. A staff member asked me openly, and without any evident embarrassment: “OK, so what’s your fetish?.” I was so stunned that I just stood there silent, so he just went on “you know, glasses or dropping eye shape, or maybe sexy stockings?.” I just ignored his question at that time, but I cannot forget this exchange even now.

When I look at a new animated series being announced, I cannot forget that the main decision process behind making the female characters probably was just a few guys thinking which “fetish” should they use this time. It makes me feel sick and sad.

Why did it come to this?

I can only speculate why the visual industry in Japan got warped like this. 

One reason I can think of is this “reference effect.” A creator that was raised watching animations with big robots in them, after joining an animation studio, will feel OK with animating big, cool robots.

And if the animations he saw as a teenager had cutesy, two-dimensional, moe characters, creating similar characters will seem like a good way to go too.

What’s more, they will be using past works as references, often without looking at reality at all. And so they become so used to this “moe standard” female image, they will treat it as the normal, base not to be examined or questioned. 

The other point that Kana (my wife, who is also an artist and Japanese) often mentions is this tendency of taking things too far, of trying to push the line of what is acceptable. I have seen this myself too, remember the “fetish” question?

The atmosphere inside the visual industry itself is also peculiar and distorted. It allows this kind of “excited teenager” like behavior for profit. Even if someone in the staff feels that making this character or this scene is morally dubious and is harmful to the female image, they keep their mouths shut before the director or character designer.

Is there anything I can do?

I’m writing this article, not only to raise the awareness of this situation we are facing in Japan, where the visual market is split between the work that utilizes the moe style and “everything else.”

I also want to point out that there is still a lot of good stuff being made to choose from. A lot of comics and illustrations are made that do not use the moe image for their female characters but strive for something better. 

This is, in part, possible because a single artist can create these works without relying on what the whole industry wants, and they can aim their works at smaller target groups that will appreciate them and support them. Sometimes a comic like this gets noticed by the wider public too. Recently the “Metamorphose no Engawa.” is a great example of this.

Looking through the list of animations released in the recent few years, it’s harder to find something with female protagonists that do not follow the moe standards. Still, some directors stand out — Masaaki Yuasa’s cinema movie “Ride Your Wave” and TV series “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!” are good examples.

I want you to be aware of this and take action, remember to try to choose art that is not moe, ask for more non-moe art, ask for more thought, variety, and true to life female characters with depth.

If you feel brave — question. Ask the creators what exactly did they aim for when making this female character that feels morally dubious, harmful, or just plain insulting to you. Finally, educate your peers on this topic.

In many creative fields across the whole world, the standards are changing to better as we speak. I would also like to see this kind of change in Japan.

18 thoughts on “The “moe” style problem.”

  1. I just wanted to thank you for this eye opening article. In recent years i’ve had trouble enjoying the latest animations being released and always thought that perhaps maybe i was the problem for “not being fun anymore” or just being “out of touch” with the trends since some of my friends just dismissed some parts, which would make me uncomfortable watching or much more finding it perfectly acceptable to be shown without question. And pretty much this article, having put it down into words, gave my mind some clarity.

    Like

  2. I completely agree with you! Gender in Japan is a topic that although it needs a lot of attention, it is hardly brought into discussion…

    It is so hard to put on words how much the manga style character behavior (and that includes the moe style’s) reflects on everyday life in Japan. Sometimes it is so clear how someone is trying to act like a manga character, almost like when you just ended to watch a Jackie Chan movie and you want to start fighting with everyone! It is also weird, in a sense that at first, animators and artists were trying to portrait the human behavior in a way close to reality so that the reader could identify himself with the characters. But now the opposite happens: people try to incorporate the manga’s unique behavior into real life!
    Another thing to take into account is that great part of those animations and mangas are targeted to younger audiences or even children. In a way, this could be helping to shape a not so accurate vision of the world in a life stage where those concepts are still early in development. Is looking at girl’s panties, or big breasts being awesome the standards that should be being taught?

    I ended up in a similar discussion with a friend about a youtuber girl who posts videos of her playing the piano. The point is that she clearly focus the video recording into her breasts and body, which results in many stupid comments like “I just played this videos to see her breasts” . It is really sad to diminish her skills, and what should be the focus of the video to such sexist comments. By the other hand, she clearly continues to use this “technique” to attract views to her videos from that audience. I wonder if that is what she really wants to do or if she is doing what she believes she is expected to do…

    I think that this kind of discussion is so avoided that some people have never stopped to think about how a woman is portrayed in a animation and what are the consequences of doing it in that way. Sometimes what is needed is to just realize that those issues even exist. Having articles like this one and talking more often about this is really necessary! I’d be really happy to see more articles like this one, relating to society in your perspective as an artist!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I know the channel you are talking about as it pops up in my feet sometimes. Recently I was really surprised at how she looked so I scrolled down her upload history to see if it’s really the same person. It’s a shame that she decided to go for this style to use the “moe image”. Maybe she will have more followers and views now but I don’t think it’s a good thing to do.

      Like

  3. Thank you for writing this! This was a very interesting read. I’ve always felt very similar thoughts regarding this topic. Even though I understand some of the appealing and cutesy design of (some) characters I completely understand where you are coming from. For this reason I also have a hard time picking what japanese animations to watch each time. A good solution to find more manga/animation that has a refreshing look in characters and stories is to find female authors that draw original work (not exactly BL). I strongly recommend “My Broken Mariko” by Waka Hirako. Its a one-shot with two women as main characters where the important thing is them, their story and what happens to them instead of their design. Im glad you brought this topic to the table. I was always interested in what you had to say about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article Mateusz. Glad you put in the few hidden gems that do exist, hopefully more of that will be made and the “moe” genre will fade. Especially with more anime being funded by netflix and other companies.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for writing this. I love art and animation but I can’t stand this over sexualization that is happening. My dream is to create a cartoon and my #1 priority is to avoid this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this article. Through the years, I’ve found myself increasingly unable to relate to anime and manga. Perhaps, partly, it’s the traditional thing that you “outgrow” cartoons. But, I’ve also felt that the J-Pop culture has been feeding off of itself and has become very insular. Each new work is merely tweaking with what has worked before. Nothing new seems to take from one’s personal life experiences in an inspiring and meaningful way. And I don’t think it’s just in anime and manga. Most modern J-Pop music feels so derivative for me. For these reasons, I find myself looking back to 80s (and earlier) music, manga and anime, which I somehow find more relatable and satisfying. Again, perhaps, this is just and old “me” reminiscing about the good old days, but then again, good art should be timeless, no?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. agreed. I came to a similar realization some years ago. I would always look forward to the ‘new anime’ charts for the coming season and year, until I noticed that the variety became less and less, full of moe saturating the market. It’s so disheartening, especially knowing there’s thousands of great stories out there but they don’t choose to tell them.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you for writing this. It’s made me consider my own experiences with anime fandom, and I think this is the most clearly I’ve understood why I fell out with it.

    To go back a bit, I got into anime as a 13 y/o girl, and I’d always felt an unease about moe – it was like this constant reminder that the female character wasn’t there for me to identify with, but for the male audience to get off to. I remember watching K-On! as a teenager, and just wanting to enjoy a story about girls my age starting a band, but the panty shots and the blushing and the body pillow merch made it so obvious that this show wasn’t really for me. I was made to feel like this all the time, and as the years went on, it got worse. I lost interest in anime at about 16, because frankly, I felt alienated by it.

    I can also remember critiquing my own appearance against to moe standards, which seems completely ridiculous considering *no-one* looks like that, but I really did. And there was a boy we hung out with who started crushing on one of my friends because he thought she was the ‘glasses type’ – this kind of stuff really does sort women into boxes, and invites its audience to do the same. It disturbs me what you’ve shared about your time in animation, and how literal this sorting really was with the whole ‘fetish’ angle.

    I so appreciate you putting this out there. This stuff really is damaging, and I think this piece will go a long way it making people actually think about why – it’s certainly made me think today.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. It must have been hard to work in the creative industry, especially in Japan where the objectification of women has been so normalised :/ I worked in Japan for a while myself and this was pretty hard to deal with on the day to day – hypersexualisation of everything about young women in that country, perpetuated and normalised by the images presented in Anime was pretty unsettling as colleagues at work openly talked about their favourite moe characters and had no notion of any of these lines of thinking being wrong.

    Even the young women in my cohort internalised it, accepting it as something that should be a standard of desirability from the opposite sex. It was nuts thinking about this now

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you, Mateusz for sharing early draft of this article with me. Now, with actual *non-moe* manga and anime examples, it shows that there are non-conformist creators in the Japanese visual industry.

    I also agree with the previous comments that this one-dimensional moe perspective on female characters is alienating. Even though I’m a heterosexual guy and the visual industry seems to be dominated by the narrative that moe is the best way to advertise towards people like me. Thing is – this it’s off-putting.

    The global music industry, especially at the streaming age is a great analogy of how I approach it. American pop songs may be the mainstream and there’s never a shortage of girl singers, somehow resembling moe standards. Fortunately, a whole catalog of niche and fascinating creators is just a few clicks away. Dig deeper. Look and support art that resonates with your values.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Good job Mateusz, tackling this issue. I think it’s wider than moe in Japan, for it’s a real question about patriarchy and feminism. I’m glad you wrote this article to point out the problem. The more I educate myself, the more I’m aware of the female character objectified everywhere, the less I can bear it. Hopefully, people will get a better education in the future, and this way of thinking about women will get to an end, considered archaic and morally wrong, likewise colonialism is considered nowadays.

    PS: I was stunned when I read the “fetish” part.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I was at a conference once where a member of the industry addressed the moe issue saying that it’s what sells and what companies want to profit from because they know otaku fans will spend money on it. That’s why it’s oversaturated the market so completely. I know it’s left a mark on myself as well because I can no longer tell what shows were made for girls and what were made for grown men.

    I think one of the major problems with this too is that so much of it overshadows all other anime media. So many people in the west use these aspects of anime to delegitimize the entirety of Japanese comics and pop art, marking it as all the same, when in reality it’s an issue rooted in sexism and women’s objectification. Too many people associate anime as being something wholly dubious and pornographic, and therefore okay to treat with derision while being racially condescending. This leaks into all aspects of media too.

    You get the common one, art teachers saying they’ll fail you if you remotely draw in the style, or try to beat it out of you by insisting it’s of poorer quality.

    Western Exclusionists have taken to violently going after BL fans and authors online, claiming them all to be heterosexual and cisgender. It’s an argument that’s largely perpetuated by trans exclusionists in the west, trying to delegitimize trans men. Because so many people already see anime as inherently problematic, people more quickly jump on the bandwagon, spreading racist rhetoric and painting the west as morally superior. LGBTQ+ media (like BL) is delegitimized and considered “incorrect” representation despite it being made largely by queer women and gay men.

    There was even controversy on Patreon because they began going after artists based on anime style specificially. It’s not restricted to female characters either. Just last month they quietly flagged ‘yaoi’ and similar terms in their system because how some of the characters may appear ambiguous in age despite being adults and could therefor qualify for their definition of “underage pornography”.

    It’s just a mess and so disheartening when you know how much good media is out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You say “[it] negatively influences how women are viewed and treated in Japanese society” and then proceed to not give any examples of how women are negatively treated in Japanese society. Write a better article.

    Like

  13. General critique:
    “The popularization of such images and how they are overlapping in the common consciousness with real girls and women, negatively influences how women are viewed and treated in Japanese society.”

    You did not establish a direct link here. The ending of your post indicates you wrote this to persuade the reader to:
    1. Agree with your stance on A) what ‘moe’ is, B) that it is the cause of or adds to some negative social effects C) that the overall thrust of it is a net negative rather than a tradeoff of positives and negatives
    2. Take action to choose things that are not-moe over moe, asserting that not-moe is, as you called it, ‘better.’

    You said you’re not a scientist, but you still have to provide a logical for the reader to follow. You did provide a bunch of examples in 1A but there’s nothing in 1B or 1C to convince the reader. Without 1B and 1C, 2 does not follow if the reader is not already in agreement with such a post, as you haven’t provided much of a comparison between moe and not-moe to show, not simply tell the reader, that one is ‘better’.

    Specific issue with the “Reference Effect”:
    This “reference effect” you claim happens among artists is… normally just called someone taking inspiration from a thing. Some people will see a piece of media and find it impactful enough to add it to the things they like, some people won’t, some people will see aspects that resonate with them in a negative way and avoid it.
    To use your giant robot example, there’s a divide between the “real robot” and “super robot” genres. Some people prefer series like Gundam or VOTOMS lean more towards being scifi military stories, with a heavier emphasis on the mechanical elements of the robots. Contrast this with those like Gurren Lagann and Getter Robo that use much more stylized machines and the equivalent of super powers, and appeal to a different demographic. There are people who like both! But you usually will someone has a preference one way or the other, and which they prefer – if they are or decide to become an artist – usually is part of their “references”.

    I’m not really sure why you paint this negatively. Yes there are feedback loops to where people can take inspiration from something that takes inspiration from something else (look up the documentary “Everything Is a Remix”), but that just seems to be how the evolution of ideas works.

    Issue with a general theme of the article:
    I’ll make a guess that you see certain subjects as “wrong” – the only examples in the article have to do with ideas that focus on sex appeal, and you seem to prefer what people would call “wholesome” art from a quick skim of your blog and the examples you put at the end as good anime, so that’s all I have to work off of really. I don’t personally see this as a negative. Sex appeal usually leads towards stories that are pretty positive, empowering, or inspirational. It also can draw in new viewers – consider how part of the reason romance subplots are added to action films is an attempt to draw couples rather than bachelors. The same can happen for that piano player you showed. She benefits from more viewers, and a portion of them will end up recognizing her talent. She found a way to appeal to people outside of those who are already looking for good piano music – which may not get her recognized at all among the thousands of others who can play it well. This is actually a theme among musicians and pretty mild for her – Elvis and Michael Jackson are immediate examples.

    But that’s really just a matter of taste and preference. Some people like wholesome art, some like action, realism, fantasy, raunchiness, horror.. and so on. Some people can’t stand swearing, some don’t like to see blood, some can’t deal with nudity and some can’t handle jumpscares. Some people really prefer happy endings, some enjoy tragedies.

    That’s the wonderful diversity of art, especially now in the global times we live – something out there is for everyone and the mainstream can easily be exited.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for writing this! As a teen, I was really into anime and completely enjoyed the Otaku subculture, but as I got older, I became more aware of how anime’s were more and more commonly portraying their female characters in a moe way, and it made me so uncomfortable. I’ve completely stopped watching anime now, because the sexist depiction of these female characters just turned me off to the story, no matter how good it was. It feels so great to have an animation artist seeing this issues and speaking out about them. Thanks so much for writing this!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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