The “moe” style problem PART 2

Since I wrote the article about the “moe” illustration style problem, this issue kept being (and still is, to be honest) a thorn in my side. I continued to think about what can be done to improve the situation we face in the Japanese visual industry. Still, it’s tough to do something without knowing from where precisely this problem originates. While looking around for clues, I finally came upon this text in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Starting Point” book. (This book gathers his interviews and essays published between 1979 and 1996.)

I’ll write the fragment (in its English version) for you here:


At a certain point in life—that unbalanced time of transformation from boyhood to youth—young males with a certain tendency start to see a sacred symbolism in stories about girls. I do not intend to analyze the reasons for this. All I know is that, for better or for worse, such youths are recreated year after year. Their repressed feelings are too deep to be dismissed by insisting that they just have a Lolita complex or that resolving it in role-playing games is perfectly fine. This type of youth begins to feed the girl within himself. The girl is part of him, and a projection of himself. She is someone of the opposite sex who offers him unconditional forgiveness. What is more, she is not like his mother, who swallows him up in her womb and strips him of his strength. Instead, he is able to take action and display his strength for the sake of this girl. Some call her an idealized female, but I disagree. The ideal is universal, whereas in this case, it is someone of the opposite sex who exists only for him as an individual.

(“Starting Point: 1979-1996” by Hayao Miyazaki,
translated by Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt, VIZ MEDIA 2009, page 130) 


When I read this passage featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s comment on two student films starring young female heroines, I felt like someone shone a bright light straight at the problem I was trying to reach, and a lot of thoughts clicked into place at once. I felt like the spot in my mind that felt sore and connected with the “moe” problem was suddenly naked and revealed for me to analyze.

I think this happened mostly because I know what he is writing about all too well. I have once been a troubled youth in the “unbalanced time,” maybe even more strongly as it coincided with me moving to Japan and completely changing my lifestyle and surroundings. Thus I know that what Miyazaki-san is telling is true. At one point, I also had been nurturing a fictional girl in my head.

To be honest, even in my teenage years, I was never interested in the opposite sex very much. I was single for so long (with just one short relationship at the end of high school) that my parents suspected me of being gay or completely asexual. But when I started watching anime in my late teens, something weird happened—my mind was contaminated with this image of a girl that was significantly different from anyone I met so far in real life or other media.

In Japan, there is a word for this time of life when teenagers tend to imagine that they really have superpowers or are wizards or have exciting hidden destinies—it’s called the middle school sickness (Chūnibyō). Well, I guess now we created the Imagined Female syndrome as well. And because the images of young heroines are so omnipresent in popular culture, I suspect it’s not only young men who catch it. 

Why does this happen? In his article, Miyazaki-san refuses to answer, but I will speculate that gender segregation in Japan is one reason. To a degree, in Japan, it’s still difficult to have mixed and diversified social groups. Especially from the teenage age, boys do (socially approved) boy stuff and generally don’t socialize with girls so much, don’t have girls as peers.

Let me give you an example. When I studied in Japan, I had a friend who also wanted to draw manga. We were both new to Japan and had similar interests so we would go together to lectures, bookstores, cafes, and we would just hang out often. Seeing us, people around would often ask, “Is she your sister?” When I answered that we were not related, they would follow with, “your girlfriend then?”, when I denied that too, they would usually look unconvinced.

Social norms in Japan are complicated. Standards are stiff. It’s very easy to get ostracized or labeled as something or other. It’s easier for young men to just stick to themselves or their small circle of friends, and instead of meeting real women, they end up raising and relying on that one in their heads.

I also think that the strict social ladder that still stands strong in Japan can be blamed for this syndrome too. Study hard to get better, so you can get good grades, so you can go to a renowned university to go into a well-paid job at a respected corporation. Stray from this path, and you will end in the defeated group. This lack of freedom can make the need for someone, even imaginary, who will accept you unconditionally even stronger.

But what does it have to do with anime or illustrations in Japan?

Well, I think the visual market’s focus on cutesy and fake young female characters fuels this “Imagined Female” syndrome and is fueled by it in return. (This is exactly what I meant by the young creators being influenced by anime in their youth in my previous article.) I think that many things like comics, animations, light-novels, idol groups, etc., are intentionally made in a way that plays on this fake girl image, exploiting this peculiar vulnerability. Such media make the idea even more concrete, stronger, and present everywhere you look.

And of course, sadly, these types of works succeed commercially and become very popular, even though they show young people only something they crave—not something that’s good for them or what they need.

Now that I know what I’m looking at, it’s easy to spot the “Imagined Female” used purposefully (weaponized almost) in many works. Even though I got disillusioned about the cutesy characters and managed to get rid of my own “Imagined Girl” a few years back, I still cannot watch most Japanese animations. I feel like someone is trying to hack my mind by exploiting a weak point.

OK, so this is bad—a vicious circle of exploitation powered by greed. It propagates this fake image of girls and women, making everyone more isolated, confused, and angry. What can we do to break out of this?

I think that the answers lie in social diversity, fighting social barriers, and feminism. These things are luckily sloooowly creeping into Japan turf from outside. From the art perspective, though, I think it’s really important to make popular culture’s characters more realistic and less idealized. For example, in Western animations, we get this notion that we don’t need more princess-like characters that just wait to be rescued. Someone in Japan visual industry has to break the mold and show real people and not imaginary ones. 

Looking at the industry’s current state, I think it will be hard to get this done soon. If anything, the “Imagined Female” image is still on the rise and being (often unwittingly) accepted in more and more places. Even morally conscious creators like Miyazaki-san himself, in my opinion, still struggle with their imaginary heroines.

Maybe the needed impulse that will start the change will have to come from foreign creators. 


If you have a bit (or more) free time, I recommend reading both “Starting Point” and “Turning Point” books that gather Hayao Miyazaki’s thoughts published between 1979 and 2008. It’s really interesting how his views on many subjects (also on the heroine character) changed and matured over the years.

12 thoughts on “The “moe” style problem PART 2”

  1. It’s really interesting to hear the perspective of a foreign artist working in Japan. Thanks for these posts.

    In the future, if you do a Part 3, might you be able to share with us the perspectives of native Japanese artists? That’s one thing I find hardest to come across online — Japanese professionals giving their own perspectives and insights at length.

    I wonder how Japanese artists not producing moe content feel about all this. What they think the solutions to this problem might be. Further, I wonder what those who ARE pushing the moe style think. What are their justifications? I’d love to hear it all.

    And uh, I’m new to blogging so I’m not sure how to go about this, but I did end up writing a lengthy response to these two posts of yours, if you’re at all interested…

    https://quartsclock.wordpress.com/2021/02/25/the-moe-problem-response/

    (I’m not sure about the etiquette of responses. If this is considered self-promo or spam or whatever, feel free to delete this comment and accept my apology, haha.)

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  2. “Looking at the industry’s current state, I think it will be hard to get this done soon.”
    That’s good to hear, and I’m glad Japan hasn’t yielded to foreign influence in this regard. There’s a certain arrogance in coming to a place and trying to change the culture so that it bends towards giving you more of the kind of representations you desire, especially when there’s already plenty of content out there that caters to your tastes (as you said in the last article, “there is still a lot of good stuff being made to choose from”).

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  3. I think the same happen with girls and how they view boys. I remember having conversation with a girl in high school (in France) and she had the same sense of idealization toward boys. I did a lot of daydreaming myself. You can see it in both western and japanese media that are marketed toward teenage girl (Twilight of course, and whatever high school shojo like Fruit Basket).
    I think dreaming of the Charming Prince or the Special Girl is not an issue by itself, but coupled with a society with growing loneliness issue (not just japan), unrealistic model, and the kind of gender separation you talk about, it can get quite unhealthy.

    So I wouldn’t say let’s get rid of it like you seem to suggest, and I wouldn’t say let’s not question it like the previous commenter Tolu either. I say let’s have a society that have people socializing more to understand that the other is a human first, a gender second, then let people have fun with their stories. But I would say that right now we’re going away from that (at least tons of article keep talking about how lonely and disconected we are becoming so…).

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  4. I read both parts on moe style “problem” ( and I use in purpose the quotes) and I think that your arguments, are reasonable but also wrong on both of these posts. And that because you judge the Japanese society that is expressing itself with the moe style or whatever other style, according to your principles and the way you have been raised in Poland that are NOT their principles and their way of living.

    You claim for instance that “moe” style expresses the sexism in Japanese society. Yes, but this society is not made only by males, but also by females, who if anything else are not uneducated, neither uninformed about what is going on outside their country. Japanese women are half of Japan’s population, or perhaps the two thirds of this population ( as I read somewhere that they are more than Japanese men).

    The Japanese manga and anime industry wouldn’t be able to survive if at least part of the female population didn’t consume their products. And as it seems not only they consume these products, but they embrace them, they get dressed like this ( there is a fashion industry who depends on the women that get dressed in the moe style) and even doing business that is inspired by the moe style anime and manga. And there are women who work their on their own will. Nobody forces them. See it below.

    And in case you think that they are oppressed and forced to do this job check what they get those who step out of line by the otherwise cute professional moe girls….lol

    Does this moe style waitress looks like some sort of very oppressed and forced to please the sexists males, woman?

    Moe style might seem extravagant for those who have been raised with different ideas about how a society should be structured, but if Japanese society didn’t like it, it wouldn’t have embrace it the way it does.

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    1. I agree that some Japanese women also like the “moe” themed media and feel that it’s part of their identity. But I think that most don’t even if they don’t voice this. For example, my wife is born and raised Japanese and she tells me that such illustrations, comics, and anime made her feel inadequate, lonely, and depressed all her life, and even now they just feel disgustedly sexist. Especially when you think that most of these are made by guys in their 40s and 50s for your men.

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  5. If Japanese women in particular don’t like it, they can always use raise their voices and cancel it. But I’m more than certain that currently the majority of the Japanese population ( men and women ) like this moe style, and that is the reason why it is still on fashion and keeps going strong.
    Your wife, along with other women of course, belongs to a minority that is the exception to the rule. And she is your wife because you both have similar ideas and principles.
    Tell her not to feel this way because she doesn’t have and its not obligatory to comply with the majority’s standards. Fashions don’t last after all all that long. They are coming and going and are usually replaced by something else when people get bored of them. Let’s just hope that the next fashion trend won’t be Japanese men dressed like maids…. lol

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    1. You should definitely canvas more native Japaneses’ opinions on this topic, more than just your wife, because as it stands, your (our) take on this can seem jingoistic at best, and very “white man’s burden” at worst.

      This article is definitely better than the last one though, better researched into the crux of the problem–and I will admit to it being problematic.

      In the days of Lucky Star and K-ON it wasn’t as widespread, but now laziness and cheapness gave way to oversaturation.

      This article does a more nuanced look at the merits of moe:https://thevaultpublication.com/2018/01/27/moe-animes-largest-debate/

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  6. I have several questions.

    Would you have anything to say to the people that disagree with the 2 main posts on this topic?

    Would you agree that Japanese society must strive to expel the moe style from everyday media and online art sites such as Pixiv? Or atleast put it under a controlled state if it’s even possible?

    Do you think that artists whose main style consists of moe should abolish this part of their art and adopt another artstyle that is not moe?

    I am a 17 year old artist whose style also consists of the examples of moe that you provided in the first post. Would you have any advice to give? Even if it were something I would not choose to adopt. I would be interested to hear your opinions.

    If possible I would like to ask more questions if you would be inclined to answer them. Thank you for reading if you do.

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    1. Hi, It’s difficult to answer everything in a comment, so maybe I would have to write another part of the article as a result, but I’m interested in what else you would like to know about this.
      I’ll try to answer the most important part – about what you should do as an artist about the MOE part of your art (in my opinion):
      The problem with MOE is not about the technique/style – if we compare making an illustration to taking a photo – it’s the camera, lens, film, lighting, pose, and so on you like to use. That’s fine – you can draw in h¥whatever style or technique you like.
      The problem is in the contents – MOE illustrators in Japan show CHARACTERS not PEOPLE in their art, and to make that art appealing, they make the characters appear cute, or sexy, or helpless and dependent, or answering a specific character role or fetish, to get the emotional response from the audience. This can make the art shallow and hurtful.
      I think artists should show REAL PEOPLE (realistic – they can be made-up, of course) using their pictures, not CHARACTERS. Think about drawing or painting like making photos of real, feeling, thinking people.
      How to check if you are doing it? I think I have a simple method: After an artist finishes a sketch, they should stop and think: “If this was a photo of my dearest friend, would I be comfortable to upload it online so ten thousand strangers see it and comment on it.”
      I think it’s a good test to check if empathy, feelings, and realness are right in the picture.

      Anyway, I’m really happy that you are thinking about this and are willing to see others’ opinions!
      Best!

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