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.