shonen women part ii: on haruhi suzumiya and moe obsession
As the West and Japan grow more enchanted with each other, our cultural landscape is exposed to new and unique interpretations of the female. This three-part series by Marie Davis explores the characterisation of women in shonen anime and manga, and their relationship with their burgeoning Western audience. Read Part One here.
As Japanese culture has become increasingly popular in the West, we’ve added some new terms to our cultural lexicon. The word otaku, a Japanese colloquialism for a person with obsessive interests, is now most commonly used to define obsessive anime and manga fans. A similar term, weeaboo, defines the obsessive non-Japanese fan of Japanese culture. In most cases, these terms are not used kindly.
We often consume and discard media without much conscious thought, but there are times when something captures our imaginations, and obsession takes over. Take, for example, James Cameron’s Avatar. A widely reported forum thread, where fans detailed their depression, isolation, and hostility towards reality after seeing the film, reached over 3000 comments. In my own life, there are certain books and films I can talk about long after everyone else has lost interest. The last time I went out for drinks with my book club friends, I could not stop discussing the characters from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as if they were real people I knew and hated. None of us are immune to obsession.
Because it’s not incidental—our media thrives on obsession. They need an audience for their stories, and they need consumption to make money. So what happens when our media tries to manipulate us into obsession? In shonen, we get moe.
Essentially, the moe character elicits strong feelings of love and empathy from its audience. They are usually quiet, shy, or naïve, leading to a state of perpetual blushing. Often, the moe character elicits empathy by being put into victimising situations, which causes the audience to want to reach into their screens and protect them.
But as Hiroki Azuma describes in his book, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, the moe character is also one that the audience ‘takes apart […] and objectifies’. As such, there are certain physical characteristics associated with moe. Feminine youth is one. In Tim Hornyak’s book review of The Moe Manifesto by Patrick W. Galbraith, he writes about the moe characters’ ‘dewy saucer-like Bambi eyes,’ and comments on the revulsion he feels for a moe illustration depicting ‘a prepubescent cartoon girl, legs splayed out and crotch thrust at the viewer.’ Moe can also take on certain fetishisms, like the schoolgirl or the lolita-style maid, in order to appeal to a particular audience.
Then again, a moe character may have none of these traits. Moe is a feeling, and you can’t always predict how an audience will feel. But the creators of shonen have at least an idea of how to manufacture a moe character —by making her an object of both empathy and lust.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is an anime series that is self-reflectively creepy in its application of moe. The eponymous Haruhi Suzumiya is, unbeknownst to herself, a god. She is able to manipulate the world around her, creating characters such as aliens, time-travellers, and espers. One of the characters she creates is the time-travelling Miss Mikuru Asahina. Haruhi forcefully volunteers Miss Asahina to join her after-school club, the SOS Brigade, because of her physically moe traits, specifically her cuteness and her ample breasts. And with each new storyline comes a new humiliation for Miss Asahina. She becomes the club’s mascot, and is made to dress in a range of fetishised costumes, from the bunny girl to the traditional kimono. She is also frequently victimised. Haruhi forces male characters to grope Miss Asahina’s breasts, takes suggestive photographs of her, and in one episode, instructs another character to give her alcohol without her consent, in order for her to lose her inhibitions.
But while the series blatantly exploits the moe trait, it also critiques it. The series’ protagonist, Kyon, is an average male high school student, and thus his lens is that of the typical shonen viewer. Whenever Miss Asahina is exploited, Kyon is conflicted. He has strong feelings for her, and is horrified by her exploitation. But he seldom intervenes, as his arousal is intrinsically linked to her exploitation and suffering. In a sense, he even wills it.
Then again, while the series shines a light on how the moe trait works, it doesn’t attempt to change it. Miss Asahina is still a heightened object of lust, both for Kyon and the audience. She rarely acts on her own behalf, but instead is acted upon. In exploring how moe influences the shonen audience, Miss Asahina is reduced to a two-dimensional symbol of the trait, rather than a fully fleshed out character with her own motivations and agency.
In the feature film The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kyon meets a version of Miss Asahina from the future.
‘Back then, I didn’t know my left from my right,’ she tells Kyon. ‘Miss Suzumiya did whatever she wanted with me. She made me wear all those costumes […] It was a lot of trouble at the time, but they’re all happy memories now.’
This statement seems to be reassuring the audience that there’s no permanent harm done in the exploitation of the moe character. I can’t help but be challenged by this assumption. Moe actively encourages obsession, for the audience to treat their loves and lusts for fictional characters as real. So how can we shrug it off, if the means to that end is often female suffering?
In the West, we are not exempt from the moe obsession, but an extension of it. And the traits of moe are not absent from our own cultural landscape, from the sexualisation of underage girls, to sexual violence against women glorified in advertisements. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about moe is not what it creates for its audience, but that it reflects pre-existing elements of desire within both Japanese and Western cultures. Moe is not the root of the problem, but merely a perpetuation of it.