In Praise of Moe

The anime industry is not in a good place right now. Animators are still underpaid, studios haven’t scored an international hit in years, and Japan’s anime market is shrinking its focus to either children or over-devoted, undiscerning, fetish-addled nerds. Blame for this is often placed on moe, the art of presenting frequently underage anime girls to be fawned over by those lonesome and desperate for the innocence of youth. Moe is cute turned creepy. Moe is veiled pedophilia. Moe is blushing, gooey-eyed anime girls who look like The Family Circus run through a grotesque anime filter. In a strange way, moe is a blessing.

Consider the situation that faced casual viewers of anime as recently as five years ago, when there was no simple way to pick out the rare decent title at a glance. A lot of anime used stylistically similar character design; sometimes the eyes were bigger or the noses sharper, but there were plenty of perfectly boring and terrible series that unfairly resembled Cowboy Bebop or FLCL. For example, it wasn't easy to find the single worthwhile offering from a lineup of Cybuster, Mirage of Blaze, Z-Mind, Takegami, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, The Dark Myth, Biohunter, Getbackers, King of Bandit Jing, Shadow Skill, Darkside Blues, Space Pirate Mito, A.D. Police: The New Files, Ninja Cadets, Eden’s Bowy, Real Bout High School, Shinesman, Tokyo Project, Vandread, Aura Battler Dunbine, Zenki, Licensed by Royalty, Blue Seed, Nazca, Dai-Guard, Nightwalker, Rune Soldier, Assemble Insert, Infinite Ryvius, Sorcerer Hunters, Saber Marionette J, Harlock Saga, Neo-Ranga, Yamamoto Yohko, Those Who Hunt Elves, Power Dolls, Doomed Megalopolis, Zaion, Bounty Dog, Hades Project Zeorymer, Geobreeders, Kurogane Communication, Queen Emeraldas, Demon Fighter Kocho, Betterman, Nuku Nuku Dash, Gunparade March, Dangaizer 3, My Dear Marie, Sonic Soldier Borgman, Space Travelers, Photon, Sailor Victory, eX-Driver, Brain Powered, Chance Pop Session, Miami Guns, Gate Keepers 21, Steam Detectives, Burn Up! Scramble, GranDoll, and Princess Rouge: Legend of the Last Labyrinth. You could make educated guesses, but most anime of that era wasn’t conclusively revealed as crap until you watched a little bit of it.

Today, moe dispels that mystery. If a new series abounds in garish, big-eyed girls gazing shyly at the would-be viewer, it’s all but guaranteed to be garbage intended for no one but devoted moe fans. There are exceptions (Gunbuster 2 and not much else), but most of the people making moe shows nowadays are the same sorts that produced vapid, boring direct-to-video chaff and cheap, ugly TV series in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as a moth’s wings bear eye-like patterns to frighten predators, the empty stares and heavy blushing of moe warn off any sensible viewers. Their message is simple: you don’t have to concern yourself with this.

Some lament the faded standards of bygone anime eras, when directors worked largely in pulp violence or silly excess. Yet for every delightfully stupid bloodbath or beautifully animated trinket, there were dozens of failures that only lured in the unsuspecting and wasted their time. Today’s anime may indeed be worse than it was in decades past, but at least it’s better about warning us.