In anime, moe is so rammed down our throats sometimes that it is easy to grow tired of it. It’s become a successful component in anime, to the point now that (to pull a number out of my ass) ~90% of anime use the moe art-style for character designs, but like all successful things, it has been abused and overused to the point where it’s use has become stale and unimaginative in a lot of instances, and even blatantly manufactured and manipulative in some of the worst cases (cf. the visual novel adaptations with an array of archetypes that you can check off on a list). Moe itself, though, is difficult to define (I don’t particularly subscribe to the Akamatsu definition) and we’ve basically been forced to go to an upper-upper-upper level to define it, calling it something akin to an art-style, which is sufficiently broad to encompass all things moe but tells you nothing about what makes it special or unique as a phenomenon. The challenge of defining moe in a meaningful way comes from the fact that it’s different things to different people, and I think most people have given up trying to come up with a definition that’s specific enough to describe it comprehensively, but general enough to encompass everything to do with the phenomonen. So, defining moe is a challenge (arguably) no one has completely succeeded at, now I’m going to attempt to define a subset of moe, something I refer to as “natural moe”.
What am I talking about when I say “natural moe”? I think I’m talking about a type of moe which isn’t so blatant in how deliberately its manufactured. It’s much more organic in the sense that it’s not deliberately targeting a common archetype (and their associated fans) like “tsundere” or “dojikko” or “moe-blob” (there’s a lot of crossover between those latter two), and therefore restraining the scope for character development. “Natural moe” characters are cute in an almost incidental fashion, and that there’s more to their behaviour than trying to get a “moe” reaction out of watchers (as Kannagi‘s Akiba says “who says ‘moe’”)… not that there isn’t a bit of that anyway. It’s a type of moe which is far more apparent in anime where restraint and subtlety are the order of the day, so I’m basically talking about more subdued slice-of-life titles, in particular. The charm of the characters is allowed to emanate in a more natural way because you don’t get the feeling that you’re being pandered to, as one would in series where the moe is much more manufactured and deliberately directed. It’s a similar phenomenon to drama, which is delivered more effectively when it’s not forced, and has a certain amount of deft subtlety. I guess a few examples of natural moe are in order.
ARIA The Animation
Akari is probably one of the archetypal examples of natural moe (there’s a decent chance that the phrase itself came from the second season’s title). Akari’s charm is all about her optimism and (somewhat naive) innocence, in that she interacts with the world in such a way that allows her to always find a positive in her experiences. Yes, she’s occasionally clumsy and there are aspects of the dojikko and the oblivious girl in her character, but her warmth and the series’ subdued and tender atmosphere allow her natural charm to resonate. And there’s an ongoing focus from the series on her character development, which means that her charm and place in the anime isn’t simply superficial.
Sketchbook ~Full Color’S~
There’s obviously a few characteristics in Akari that carry over to Sora, such as an innocence and optimism, but she isn’t as congenial and open as Akari; while Akari will talk to anyone and everyone, Sora is naturally shy and takes a lot before she’ll open up to someone new. Sora’s charm is in the fact that she appreciates the little things and likes to walk through life slowly, constantly stopping to smell the flowers and say hello to the stray cats and whatnot. She’s easily distracted, but this allows her to see things differently from those around her (most of whom, in this anime, have their own eccentricities). Sketchbook, I would say, is largely about stopping to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, and I think Sora really embodies that.
Another artist, another innocent and naturally optimistic character. Yuno shares a lot of characteristics with someone like Sora, such as her innocence and a curious appreciation of the world through her art, but Yuno’s character in Hidamari Sketch is much more about her relationships with the various residents of Hidamari Apartments, particularly Miyako. I dare suggest that Yuno is the most “normal” of the residents of Hidamari Apartments, so we see the other characters and appreciate them through Yuno’s eyes. She’s probably a little more quirky than the other two girls in the previous examples as well, and it’s clear over the course of the series that Miyako’s influence rubs off on her a little bit, as well as the other girls’.
Maria-sama ga Miteru
For lack of a better word, Maria-sama ga Miteru is adorable. It’s melodrama in the sense that the girls are reasonably sheltered, and they make big deals out of relatively little things, but it’s good melodrama because their personalities are so attractive. There’s a real concerted effort on Yumi and all the girls’ parts to be tactful in whatever they do… they almost go to great lengths to make it a priority and it is quite interesting (and strangely charming) that they seemingly have their own sense of etiquette which is different from yours or mine, in that they’re much more careful and deliberate with each other. The problem with Yumi is that she’s so naturally open and honest… as we’ve seen throughout all seasons so far, she has the world’s worst poker face. But I think that natural honesty and unconscious expressiveness which all too often betrays what she’s really thinking is a big part of what makes her charming.
Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou
Most of the girls of Natsume Yuujinchou exhibit this natural moe; certainly characters like Sasada Jun and a lot of the female youkai that appeared in the first season in particular. I guess why I picked Taki as an example is because of how her character was developed over the course of her arc, where she was initially shown to be an aloof and isolated person but eventually revealed that she was an otherwise normal girl in unusual circumstances. Her strange sense of “cute” and penchant for odd things make her naturally moe in an idiosyncratic way, but I think what makes her really adorable is that she’s just such a good match for Natsume, as much romantically as the series allows. I realize this show has very little time for romance, but Natsume x Taki just makes good sense to me, since their similar backgrounds allows them to sympathize with each other, which we see a bit in their interactions. They’re both good people and, in my mind, they both deserve each other.
So I guess the point of this post is to float this idea of “natural moe”, and see if it’s credible. Is there really a dichotomy between the type of moe we see in more subdued slice-of-life series and the more typical moe we see in shounen romance series? Also, what are some other examples of “natural moe”? Would series like Clannad or Toradora! count as natural moe? If we want to think about an overly simple spectrum between natural moe and manufactured moe, I’d probably say those two series lie somewhere in the middle, since character development might be the focus, but both series lack the subtlety of most of the examples I gave and the starting archetypes are a little more on the contrived side. What about series like Honey & Clover, Nodame Cantabile or Kure-nai? One could probably say they’re natural, but it’s open to debate whether they’re moe.