In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Four)

Your interviewees suggest that initially, at least, manga and anime producers had little awareness of the adult consumers of their property and that when they discovered moe enthusiasts, they still sought to ignore them for the most part to focus on their targets – children. Is there a point at which this changes? Is there now content produced specifically for this niche, or does it remain a kind of “surplus” audience?

It’s a bit complicated, but manga “grew up” in the 1960s, when gekiga striving for realism and social commentary drew in adolescent and then young adult audiences. Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s works read like a critique of capitalism and the “economic miracle” in Japan that left marginalized people behind in the gutter. Shirato Sanpei’s stories about ninja who fight for the people against corrupt officials electrified a generation of young radicals, even as Tsuge Yoshiharu’s psychological explorations of dreams earned him artistic credibility. By the time Chiba Tetsuya’s Tomorrow’s Joe came out in Weekly Shōnen Magazine (from 1968-1973), it was possible for members of the student movement to say things like, “In our left hand we have Weekly Shōnen Magazine,” and for members of the Red Army, a far-left terrorist group, to claim, “We are Tomorrow’s Joe.”

Given that gekiga was incorporated into the mainstream, and even Tezuka Osamu had adapted to its challenge, it wasn’t really a surprise that adults were reading manga. In the 1970s, shōjo manga underwent a renaissance, the Comic Market was founded in 1975 male fans of shōjo manga and, by the end of the decade, there were news stories about students at the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, reading manga magazines intended for little girls.

The gap between the audience and the content might have been a surprise, but by this point it was clear that manga was not something just for children. In the case of anime, in the 1960s, it was still really for kids, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that it “grew up.” Some point to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea, 1972) as a benchmark, in that it in the end undermines the hero’s righteous fight against “evil,” attracted adolescent viewers and inspired the formation of fan clubs. It is likely that Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975) attracted more mature viewers, but it wasn’t until the TV show was reedited into a film in 1977 that the full extent of the fandom was understood. In June 1977, Gekkan Out ran a special issue on Space Battleship Yamato, which quickly sold out, thus demonstrating the existence of the mature or fan audience. This in turn led to the founding of numerous specialty magazines for manga and anime fans.

By the time Tomino Yoshiyuki, who directed Umi no Toriton, released his Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-1980), it was clear that anime fans were here to stay. Famously, the series was far too dark and complex for children, who were alienated from the show and did not buy the toys released by its sponsor, which then pulled the plug on the series. However, the realistic depictions of politics, war and psychological suffering earned Gundam devoted adult fans, who turned out in droves to buy scaled model kits of the robots featured in the story.

This fan activity revived the franchise, which was then released theatrically as three films. At the release of one of these films in February 1981, Tomino gave a speech to 15,000 fans about the “new age of anime.” There is no question that there was wide awareness of adult fans of anime at this time, and indeed groups of anime fans began to produce anime for other anime fans, for example Gainax’ Daicon films (1981 and 1983) and Studio Nue’s Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982-1983).

This “otaku market” has steadily grown in Japan, even as the number of children has decreased. With piracy and illegal digital distribution eating into DVD sales overseas, many say that anime is becoming more and more insular, as otaku produce for otaku, who will buy DVDs, merchandise, attend events and so on. So, adult fans are no longer really a surplus market.

What is clear in the history of moe, however, is that male fans responding to cute girl characters in anime was not an entirely expected or welcome development. Miyazaki Hayao’s debut film as an anime director, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), was not really a commercial success, but it earned him a lot of adult fans. It seems that Miyazaki was a bit taken aback, and perhaps even angry, when these fans began to produce fanzines about Clarisse, the princess who is saved by Lupin, the master thief. Indeed, when this character, and by extension Miyazaki, was linked to what was being called a “Lolita complex boom” (lolicon būmu) in the early 1980s, Miyazaki responded that, while he, too, had once fallen in love with a fictional character, he nevertheless “hates” (kirai) those who dare to utter the word “Lolita complex.” This actually sounds a lot like contemporary critiques of moe!

Over the years, Miyazaki has distanced himself more and more from otaku, which Saitō Tamaki claims is a reflection of a struggle with his own legacy and contribution to moe culture. Unlike Miyazaki, others, for example the female artist Takahashi Rumiko, were obviously aiming at the market of adolescent men with works like Urusei Yatsura, a smash-hit manga (1978-1987) adapted into an anime (1981-1986), which features Lum, an alien bombshell in a tigerskin bikini who is impossibly in love with a young male loser.

But fans were also attracted to series that were not intended for them, for example Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982-1983), which was supposed to be an extended TV commercial for toys sold to young girls. The producer of that show, Satō Toshihiko, admitted to me that he was shocked, even a little weirded out, by adult men who approached him to form a fan club. In contrast to this, Nunokawa Yūji, who worked at Pierrot, the company the animated Urusei Yatsura, was surprised, but not as upset, by the presence of adult male fans at events for Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel (1983-1984). Given that Minky Momo and Creamy Mami are similar series with similar target demographics, this shift in perception seems significant. After all, as Nunokawa states, more people supporting the show means greater sales, which is certainly a welcome development.

A decade later, in the early 1990s, it seemed like the crossover viewership of young girls and adult men in Sailor Moon (1992-1997) was entirely intentional. These days, shows ostensibly for young girls such as Pretty Cure (2004-present) and Aikatsu! (2012-present) predictably attract an adult male audience with their charismatic female characters, and magical girl shows like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004-2005, 2007) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) are produced by and for men! This again has to do with shifting demographics and market concerns in Japan, but what’s striking is that the magical girl, originally intended for young girls, is now a moe character for male otaku.

The magical girl is almost a piece of nostalgia, idiosyncratically kept alive, animated, by the investments of male fans. Itō Noizi, a female artist with a fascinating perspective on male fans of magical girls, pointed this out to me in an interview. Anyway, while some would say that the prevalence of the magical girl is a sign of the closed or insular otaku market dedicated to the reproduction of moe, which they say is killing new ideas and alienating newcomers, I would simply point out that Madoka is to magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) is to giant robots – an extremely creative commentary on the genre that took us to a place that animation had not gone before. It would be a shame to miss such innovative anime by dismissing it for being a “magical girl” series focusing on “cute girl characters.”

What impact has “moe” had on the genres of production and consumption that operate in the contemporary manga and anime industries? What relationship might we posit between moe consumption practices and the emergence of media mix strategies?

Many people are talking about the role of the character in media mix strategies. Ian Condry, for example, suggests that affection for characters, the response called moe, is crucial for the spread of media. That is, for Condry, it is the human social interactions with anime that give it its “soul.” You have said that if media does not spread, then it is dead, and it seems to me that Condry is suggesting that media spreads and is alive because of human social interactions with it. I think that it’s fair to say that interaction begins with a response to media.

A response to what? Well, for many, to fictional characters, which takes us into the realm of moe. Azuma Hiroki and others have pointed out that characters are constructed and placed into stories with the express purpose of triggering an affective response, or moe. This leads to the construction of moe characters, which have been collectively articulated from affective elements as an assemblage that is likely to get a response from viewers.

While I think that Azuma at times drifts into a sort of naïve behavioralism to posit a trained response, I think that he is pointing to something very important in fictional characters that are meant to attract, hold attention and affect. To put it somewhat simply, earlier I discussed the manga/anime aesthetic as “cute,” and the Chinese characters making up the word for cute in Japanese, kawaii, care “potential” (ka) and “love” (ai). Characters that are cute can be loved – they are constructed to be loved. This is the secret of moe characters.

In our interview, Honda Tōru said that nowhere in the world are their cuter characters in greater numbers than in Japan, which he attributes to growing collective interest in manga and anime in the postwar period. Growing up in such an environment, as Saitō Tamaki points out, it is not only possible, but in fact likely that you will fall in love with fictional characters.

This point is very much related to the media mix. If you will indulge me, following Honda Tōru, I will mention Tezuka Osamu once again. Now, as I’ve said, Tezuka did much to establish the manga/anime style in the postwar period. He also, incidentally, produced the first weekly serialized anime series, Astro Boy (from 1963-1966). Famously, Tezuka drastically undersold the series to a TV station in order to get it on the air, essentially ensuring that he would be losing money by producing the anime series. However, Tezuka was not only thinking about the anime, but also how this would invigorate sales of his already popular Astro Boy manga, which provided the characters and world for the anime. Further, there would be Astro Boy toys and merchandise to profit from, and Tezuka actively pursued overseas distribution.

As Marc Steinberg points out, what Tezuka established with Astro Boy was nothing if not a media mix strategy. He was forging cross-media alliances to spread the media, enlist fans and invigorate the franchise. Fans were making connections across media forms, which resonated with one another to intensify consumption. Steinberg insightfully points out how Tezuka tied the anime to a sponsor, Meiji Seika, which then gave away Astro Boy stickers with proof of purchase of Marble Chocolates. Millions of requests came in for these stickers. As Steinberg sees it, children were sticking these stickers on their school supplies and so on to create “merchandise,” which grounded and expanded their points of access into the Astro Boy world. In all of these ways, Astro Boy became ubiquitous – the manga was already popular, 30 percent of households watched the weekly broadcast, children stickered everyday objects, toys and merchandise appeared – and children interacted with media, commodities and one another in an Astro Boy environment. The character of Astro Boy is what crossed over into different media forms, and it is Astro Boy that attracted, held attention and affected. The Astro Boy media mix depended, at least in part, on an affective relationship with the character that encouraged connections to be made across media forms. In this way, as Steinberg notes, it was not just that the Astro Boy media mix spread to externally “colonize” space, but it also spread internally to capture the hearts and minds of children. Children were made productive by cultivating them to do the cognitive labor necessary to follow and make connections across media. What holds the media mix together is the same thing that attracts, holds and affects the child – the character.

Even as the media mix strategy spread beyond manga/anime and children to include games/novels and fans, it was still based on the idea of capturing hearts and minds and making people productive through the character, which Steinberg provocatively calls a “regulatory mechanism.” We could further apply Steinberg’s insights to Condry, who points out that the existing fan base of manga is a sort of “surplus” that can be capitalized on by anime adaptations. To me, it sounds like existing fan attachments and interest are part of the social energy or “soul” of anime, and, to borrow a turn of phrase from Bifo Berardi, that soul is put to work!

This all sounds very dystopian, but it is not necessarily so. As Condry points out, anime fans are often the one’s who evaluate their own activities and contributions, which are not always productive for corporations. The response to the character, moe, cannot fully be captured, and the ongoing personal and collective benefits of interacting with characters should not be reduced to a simple narrative of exploitation. The media mix multiplies the points of entry into the world and media and material forms of interaction with the fictional character, which is what fans want. Likewise, creators such as Maeda Jun see their job as not only providing characters and stories that encourage people to fall in love with them, but also as supporting life, which is a collective project.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).