Concerning Superflat

Yes, I know the topic of moe has been done to death on this blog, but I feel like throwing my two cents in. However, I am shifting the focus a little bit: to the Superflat genre of anime. The Superflat movement is an artsy, postmodern movement that currently receives most attention in the West due to a) pretentious xenophilic art enthusiasts in America, and b) Takashi Murakami’s relationship with Louis Vuitton in designing decidedly anime-inspired designs with the obligatory art house-spin added to it. However, apart from the trendiness of the postmodern art movement, the Superflat movement’s biggest influence on anime stems from a much more mundane source: Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki’s character designs are reflective of his stance on moe culture: the women drawn are anti-moe, and are given qualities that contrast with the archetypes of moe culture (note that for the sake of argument I’m generalizing moe to make a cultural point).  From this deconstruction of the female as an object of beauty, Miyazaki seeks to unravel the “shallow emptiness” of Japanese consumer culture. However, the Superflat movement strikes me as, if anything, contradictory to its intent. Rather, I would contend that moe is a return to Japanese aesthetic values, and that through moe as a critical lens, Japan can regain, at least in part, its culture.

Moe is distinctly and utterly Japanese. Moe is one of the few instances in which Japan can take something authentically Japanese (anime) and celebrate it as an aesthetic design, in a country that is increasingly Westernized each year. Nearly every aspect of Japan is converging upon some sort of Western ideal, and yet moe as an aesthetic design is distinctly Japanese. Sure the origination of the anime aesthetic to begin with was influenced by American cartoons like Betty Boop, however it has evolved into something that represents Japan and Japan alone. Superflat, on the other hand, by reversing the tables on the moe design, is an increasingly Western encroachment into Japan’s culture. Feminism, environmentalism, even Socialism in Miyazaki’s older works, are all Western concepts that are at best introduced concepts into Japanese culture. Though one can possibly make the argument that feminism is an ideal that all should strive to, if feminism as a movement supplants the pre-existing distinctly Japanese anime art style, then it is achieving an ideal that comes with the cost of obscuring, if not eradicating, an integral aspect of Japanese society. Without the ability to appreciate the human body as heavily stylized and objectified (male or female; think Kabuki), anime loses a part of its identity that closely attaches itself to Japanese culture.

Perhaps viewing moe through a critical lens is giving it too much credit – it is, after all, primarily used for fanservice. However, I’m trying to get at the root of what moe represents moreso than what it is, and in that sense, it represents a highly idealized conception of aesthetic perfection, something that has been at the heart of Japanese culture stemming back to ancient times. I think that, if anything, moe is a means to return to that culture, away from the forced Westernization of Japanese society and a rediscovery of the design ethics. Hell, if all else fails at least we get to ogle some adorable eye candy.

7 Responses to “Concerning Superflat”

  1. This is why I was trying to encourage you to write blog posts. Holy crap. I’d certainly never thought of the moe v Superflat conflict in that way before. Nonetheless, I do think it’s pretty safe to say that superflat is a dissenting reaction to the over-proliferation of moe. Would you say that superflat is reactionary?

    In all honesty, I don’t know all that much about superflat (certainly not as much as I thought), but was its intention anything other than a “protest” of the influence of moe? If it did genuinely intend to be a way to return to a more traditional Japanese cultural sense, free of Western influence, then I think you’ve made a really good argument why that’s little more than a pretense.

  2. “I think that, if anything, moe is a means to return to that culture, away from the forced Westernization of Japanese society and a rediscovery of the design ethics.”

    I too appreciate moe as uniquely Japanese aesthetics (and not as fanservice material). I also agree that it’s a movement away from Miyazaki/Western values. But there are plenty of other Japanese aesthetic choices that aren’t associated with them. Just as few examples, characters from Production I.G, Satoshi Kon’s, Yuasa/studio 4c, which all look distinctly Japanese in their own ways without having to objectify women.

    The question here is why are moe so dominant when there are plenty of other Japanese aesthetics as alternatives that have less to do with Miyazaki/Western values? My personal answer is that it’s less concerned about moving away from Westernization of Japanese culture and simply more about finding a cheaper, easier, shallower and proven method to satisfy otaku community, which happens to be different to Western audience and as a reaction, rise of totally different aesthetics.

    I guess my point is that moe is NOT a movement or a reaction against a certain ideal, as was the case for Modernism against Classicism’s attempt to represent life as realistically as possible. Apologies if I misinterpretated your article ^__^b

    I also have this problem with Korean dramas with their perfect looking actors/actress, over the top acting, corny lines, ballad OSTs, plot driven by misunderstandings and conveniences and so on…when there are in fact other Korean characteristics you can find in good Korean films (films generally tend to be tons better than dramas).

  3. SK: I would say that superflat is reactionary (and from what I’ve seen in the academic community most label it as such), though I think moe is just one aspect of the superflat movement, as the superflat movement criticizes otaku culture altogether (moe being a fairly integral aspect of it). Confusingly, a lot of the superflat movement would suggest that otaku culture is against the ‘true’ Japanese culture, but a lot of people (and I fall into this camp) think that’s misguided, and that Superflat is an increasingly Westernized approach to ‘correct’ Japanese culture (social assertiveness, feminism, etc).

    gaguri: I use the word “return” in the article to imply that moe as a design convention is a force that pushes back against the increasing Westernization (that’s how it’s used in critical analysis, but I guess it’s a fairly obscure context for the term). You pose an interesting question, because I think anime is one of the last few remaining spots of authenticity (or as close as can be) in Japanese culture. So in that sense, I would say Superflat is a response to moe, but that moe is just representative of the cultural resilience going on in the anime subculture. To use your analogy, I think that moe is the Classicism, and Superflat is the modernist reaction. How successful it is, no one really knows yet, but it’s tricky to tell because Superflat is wildly popular in the Western world for entirely different reasons (perhaps that’s why us Americans like Miyazaki/Ghibli so much… but I digress).

    As for the other Japanese aesthetics, my point was not that moe is THE true Japanese aesthetic, but rather that it is A Japanese aesthetic, albeit one that’s come under the most fire as of late (Westernization etc, insert trendy post-colonialism argument here). I think that the objectification of women is key to the moe aesthetic, and a key representative of Japanese culture. Whether or not you think that the objectification of women is horrible or not, it’s a key aspect of Japanese culture, and historically the objectification of women as an aesthetic ideal is a big aspect of (especially ancient) Japanese culture. That’s not to say it’s the only ideal, but I think it’s a pretty big one. You do make a good point about moe being cheap, shallow, and easy to sell, and that’s the Superflat argument, but I think that there’s a lot of subliminal discourse underneath the surface that gives moe its justification for existence. Of course, this is all highly theoretical and hard to prove, but it’s interesting commentary and happens to be what I’m studying (i.e. wasting money on) in college.

  4. “So in that sense, I would say Superflat is a response to moe, but that moe is just representative of the cultural resilience going on in the anime subculture.”
    Yea that was my POV as well. For some reason I read the writing as moe being direct response to westernisation of Japanese culture.

    I didn’t think you were saying moe is The Japanese aesthetic, I certainly hope Japanese art offer bit more than moe (…^_^b). My apologies if I sounded like that, I only wanted to mention other aesthetics in anime to better explain why I saw moe less as a reaction to an idea.

    I too think there is more than enough justification for moe, just that it’s reduced to, well, pretty much cheap tool to mass produce generic anime in most cases.

  5. I’m really happy that Sorrow-kun linked this to NihonReview’s main page. This was a great read, and I think it’s a great choice to exemplify the diversity within this blog.
    This was a breath of fresh air for me, as I find “moe-hating” reviews to be particularly agitating. It reminds me of a conversation I was having with my friends a week ago. I stated my opinion that the American reaction toward moe is due to a culture clash between Japan and the US. If you ever have the opportunity to go to a Japanese supermarket, look at the advertising on all the goods. Japan sells “cute” as Americans sell sex. Everything, and I mean everything, has a smiley face on it or a little panda waving. Now of course this isn’t as black and white as I may depict it to be, it’s just an observation of mine. Japan in as many other aspects make America look like Puritans. Nonetheless, I think that moe is simply a reflection of the tendency in japan to make everything cute. The Western backlash against moe, I feel, is a consequence of the common Western tendency to make everything Freudian. Ironically, when I said this to my friends, I was instructed that the Japanese sell cute because cute, in Japan, is just a perverse manifestation of the Japanese sexual drive.
    There definitely is an argument to be made that moe is an excuse for producers to neglect original plot and story. But like any other medium, there’s always going to be a lot of crap. In order for a show to be “great” another must be “bad.”
    I’m suspicious that this arguement is more of an excuse to express discontent towards a culture that simply isn’t Western enough.
    All-in-all, I think as international consumers, our criticism should always keep in differences in our culture in perspective. To me it seems counter-intuitive to look to japan for entertainment that perfectly reflects our own cultural worldview.

  6. Forgive the late comment, but I feel you missed a bit concerning the topic of Superflat.

    Superflat is much more in tune with Hideaki Anno’s ideas than Miyazaki’s. Neon Genesis Evangelion is regarded as one of the foundations in shaping Superflat theory. It’s not an artistic/aesthetic movement against moe, but instead a deconstruction of the forces that have brought it about (NGE is an allegory of this very thing). Superflat tackles the themes of destruction/rebirth, aimless consumerism, and postmodern Japanese culture and identity. The appropriation and utilization of otaku imagery is to highlight the state of Japan as social commentary and to dissolve the dichotomy of high/low art as a postmodern art-form. I would say Miyazaki has little to do with Superflat theory except for the native-cultural focus of his work. His concept of moe is lacking (as expected from someone who works so hard to distance himself from otaku culture).

    Superflat is not “Western”, it is about as Japanese as you will get in contemporary art because it deals with themes that only the Japanese will fundamentally understand, namely latent post-WWII sentiments and ravenous capitalism (as a result of western influence)culminating in the tragic hero, otaku subculture. Murakami has voiced his disconnect with moe as a member of the older generation, but some (probably younger) artists of the movement embrace it because they realize it’s a part of who they are.

    >Perhaps viewing moe through a critical lens is giving it too much credit
    No it’s not, and it’s more than simple fanservice. Heisei Democracy’s breakdown of moe establishes it as a uniquely nuanced Japanese aesthetic and emotional response. Critical analysis of moe and otaku culture is exactly what Superflat artists strive to do in order to deconstruct contemporary Japanese culture. It’s simultaneously celebrated and criticized as an ironic, self-deprecating, cannibalistic subculture. It’s the prime example of art/culture democratization and commodification. I think Superflat wishes to recreate a unique Japanese cultural identity around the symbols that have unfortunately been diluted or distorted as a result of mainstream bastardization and the subculture isolating itself. It tries to capture that raw, hidden expression of otaku and channel it into a potent message, not unlike what Anno attempted to do with NGE.

    I do agree with your idea of moe as a kind of return to classic ideals through contemporary form. You’ll notice how moe heroines are often a yamato-nadeshiko archetype at their core. More than this, it seems to be a very primal reaction to a base need (to feel)–a reflection of the postmodern condition.

    Superflat is not as focused as it could be and there are definitely idiosyncratic views contained within, but I think Murakami believes that it’s the expression that’s most important–he believes the current otaku culture has lost that drive and aim. I think the opposite. The more otaku close themselves off, the stronger the message against the mainstream society. Moe is a symbol against the cultural collapse into meaninglessness by being an escape into a simulacrum more meaningful than reality itself.

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