On Exploitation

Am I being exploited?

During my recent trip, I noticed that not much has changed in Japan since I came last summer, but one can see the commercialization of moe progressing rapidly. The new rage in Japan is what my friends and I have facetiously dubbed “life goods” (after Kyoto Animation’s booth at ‘ket, which sold K-On character “life sets”, featuring coasters, pillow covers and other such kitsch)— goods which have no real practical value such as the ones mentioned above. These life goods are part of a vast scheme of exploitation, which we typically consent to.

My basic argument is that most (possibly all) commercial anime is inherently exploitative. Shows can exploit us in a few ways: through moe character designs, or through deliberate and heavy-handed parody and referencing.

We’ll begin with the most obvious kind of exploitation: moe. Is moe inherently exploitative? Or is it the moe-industrial complex which is exploitative? I argue that it is the latter— the former, for me, denotes a specific artistic style. Saying that “moe is exploitative” is akin to saying “Art Deco is exploitative”, and doesn’t make too much sense in my mind. Moe only becomes exploitation (“moexploitation”, as you will all remember) when it is deliberately framed to incite a response from audiences. (For an example of moe not being exploitative, try showing a Tony Taka doujin to one of your non-otaku friends. They may be disgusted by it, as my roommates are. The art style has not changed. The doujin simply doesn’t elicit the same response from them as it does from you.) The distinction is non-existent in the mind of a seasoned otaku. Moe character designs will almost always elicit a response from him (usually, a sense of attraction or an impulse to spend money on life goods). In this manner, when we are attracted to a moe character and spend our time and money on said character, we are consenting to be exploited.

How about now?

Let’s look next at parody. Parody, especially as it is done in most anime, is incredibly easy to understand. It usually involves some kind of gag featuring cosplay or referencing some other series. The humor here is deliberate— we laugh not because the situation itself is funny, but because we realize that the creators are parodying one of our favorite series (usually) and thus respond favorably to our beloved show getting a shout-out. Once again, the humor is inserted to elicit that specific response from us. If you show someone else who doesn’t understand otaku culture the same show, it ceases to become funny. (See: Lucky Star) Therefore, the popularity and success of shows which rely heavily on parody is predicated upon its audience understanding referential humor; the show is not funny in its own right, but merely amusing to those who understand what it’s talking about. When we find these kinds of shows funny, we are playing into the creators’ hands and consenting to their exploitation of us.

The two scenarios I have outlined above are extreme cases. Most anime, thankfully, are not that exploitative (or are they? They certainly seem to be getting more and more exploitative by the season.) Neither moe character designs nor parody is inherently bad— it’s only when a show relies on one (or both!) of these aspects as its main selling point when this sort of exploitation becomes problematic. We tend to think of shows which are not exploitative as being better— this is because shows which are non-exploitative tend to be deeper and feature more real content. When a show is exploitative, there is no need for heavily-developed content. Simply having exploitative characters prance around and do nothing is enough to garner a favorable response from most viewers. (See: K-On!,  Strike Witches)

As I’ve discussed in my article about touhou, the danger with moexploitation is that it can be easily replaced. This point becomes crystal clear if one visits Comiket— every time I go back, there’s a new block partitioned off for the Moe Flavor of the Week (Kirino, during this ‘ket), and older characters fade from collective memory.

However, like I’ve said before, we consent to being exploited. The reasons behind this are not wholly clear to me, but I do know that I actively engage in it (mostly through watching re-runs of Railgun or Strike Witches). Perhaps it is because those of us who consent to being moexploitated view anime primarily as escapist entertainment. When we desire to escape from our lives, our willingness to be exploited increases dramatically. Thus, we have no problems with watching girls prancing around, or getting a few cheap laughs out of a cosplay joke. This need for escapism is the main driver behind the moe-industrial complex.

As long as there are people who view anime as escapism, moexploitation will exist to pander to their tastes. We all need an escape from our regular lives sometimes, and a mindless and fun anime is a pain-free way to alleviate the pain we feel from living. A true masterpiece, however, does not exploit— or, perhaps, it exploits incredibly subtly, so as to not alert us to our exploited condition. Good anime comedies tend to do this rather well. Look at Working!! or Moyashimon. One perhaps doesn’t even realize the exploitative elements contained within either show (Kotori-chan or Poplar’s short stature for Working!!, implied lesbian sex scene in Moyashimon) until long after the show is over. This subtlety is a mark of excellence, and we, as viewers and critics, reward shows which are subtle by acclaiming them. Perhaps we dislike shows which are moexploitative because they are too obvious, too heavy-handed and too straightforward. As human beings, we like to think, and shows which exploit subtly allow us to think about what we’re really watching.


1. I am an advocate of taking anime seriously, with reservations. There’s a lot of hubbub on the aniblogosphere about anime as art, and we like to treat anime incredibly seriously here at BtNHRV— but honestly, sometimes, I just want to crack open a beer and watch Kuroko molest Onee-Sama. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.

2. I hate life goods. No one who buys a Mio Life set (soap dispenser, tower, pillow case, tissue box cover and FOUR coasters) will ever need four coasters.

3. Picture credits go to two of my favorite artists, the enormously talented Kantoku (first picture) and Eretto (second picture).

4. Come chat me up and disagree with me at irc.rizon.net/#nhrv! If IRC isn’t your thing, you can also follow me and my shenanigans at @Akirascuro on Twitter.

7 Responses to “On Exploitation”

  1. I don’t think “Poplar’s short stature” is subtle, I dropped Working at episode 1 because her small body is one of her most important traits.

  2. And this is why I hate that damn Zombie show this season. It fits pretty much everything in this post to a tee.

  3. What you say about parody is, in a lot of cases, right on the mark. I’ve seen so many anime that reference drop and people try to pass it off as genuine satire/parody. It’s one thing to drop references, but it’s something else entirely to effective satire something. To call reference dropping exploitation is pretty much on the mark. I think it’s something anime makers realized about 4 or 5 years ago with the explosion of meta-humour, but anime fans and commentators are only slowly waking up to.

  4. “No one who buys a Mio Life set (soap dispenser, tower, pillow case, tissue box cover and FOUR coasters) will ever need four coasters.”


  5. I would be very cautious to use the word “exploitation” in an analysis of the marketing of character goods. You risk misleading in couching this discussion in the same sort of language used to discuss systemic exploitation. We are not discussing, for example, the means by which the military-industrial complex exploits the youth: by packaging them up as soldiers and sending them overseas to be crippled or killed so that Halliburton and friends can see increased profits this quarter. This conversation is not about blood diamonds, mined by a populace forced to work at gunpoint, the profits from which benefit not the oppressed worker but the oppressor holding the gun. This isn’t even about sex culture keeping women in service roles whereby pimps and “managers” exploit their whores, economically compelling their “ladies” to sell their bodies as those running the operation reap the rewards… though a conversation or twenty could certainly be had about the place that misogyny holds in moe marketing.

    I feel it misleading to use the same sort of language used to analyze oppression here, where the question being asked is not “does Mio-chan’s pimp tug her economic strings to force her to perform for her audiences, then take the bulk of her profits, leaving her as poor as ever” or such. Unless you actually believe the fanbase is coerced into buying character goods (at gunpoint? with threat of homelessness and/or starvation?), it’s a bit excessively grandiose to use words and phrases like “exploitation” and “moe-industrial complex” to draw parallels, intentional or not, to situations where such things actually do happen.

    …I’m going to feel really stupid if you tell me this was intended to be an actual parody of analyses of systemic oppression, written to garner the audience’s laughter at the witty parallels drawn, rather than actual concern for the poor, exploited fanbase.

  6. …all of that aside (and what an “aside” it is!), I do agree that the only exploitation going on here is from a consumer viewpoint, and is purely consensual. Fans exchange their hard-earned cash for character goods of questionable utility, but it isn’t as if they are compelled to through threat or force or economic coercion. Those of us not participating in similar transactions might not understand precisely what it is that the fans are getting out of the entire thing, but it is clear that the entire process requires consent.

  7. By your definition isn’t moe more a state of mind then an art style? You place it entirely in the mind of the viewer, as a decision to find a certain character “compelling”, in reaction to art. In this way, it seems more like you are describing a fashion in how one approaches anime than a fashion in artistic style.

    To be honest, I’ve consistently had a problem with the whole concept of “moe”; it seems too vague and too easily deployed to mean whatever the user wishes for analytical use. Yes, there has been a shift, beginning in the late 90s, towards “softer” and “rounder” character art, but what does this have to do with the “budding” which moe literally means, and which drove its initial use as a term referring to early-teen female anime characters? Is it a term of art criticism, or character criticism? How are modern so-called “moe” characters distinguished thematically from “pre-moe” young female characters?

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