Archetypes dominate anime— so much that when critics find shows and characters which defy classification, they are hailed as revolutionary. The focus of today’s article is not on those revolutionary shows. It’s about everything else— the vast majority of anime which seeks to articulate themselves within a tired niche.
Often times, we use words like “cookie-cutter”, “stereotypical” and “flat” to describe characters that we find boring. Yet, despite our contempt for archetypes and characters which conform to archetypes, we find ourselves unable to articulate our preferences in anything other than the already-established vocabulary of moé and moé tropes. This is a puzzling conundrum, and one which merits analysis.
It’s very easy for a lazy cynic to casually remark that tropes stem fundamentally from laziness. Animation studios need to make a quick buck, and tsunderes and lolis are tried and true cash cows. However, this analysis is lacking. While it may explain the continued persistence of moé tropes, it does not adequately explain their origin.
Ultimately, we are all creatures of history. It is very difficult for us to conceive of experiences and concepts which are completely alien to us. This leads one to suspect that the phenomenon of moé is the product of a historical process. It may be true that studios are simply lazy and unwilling to invest time and effort in conceiving of new, label-defying characters, but the problem runs much deeper. Cultural workers within the anime industry have, in some sense, lost the capacity to think of and articulate characters in a vocabulary which is different from the current industry standard of moé archetypes, and are therefore unable to conceive of characters which do not fall, at least somewhat, into one category or the other.
The same is true of fans. We too have lost the ability to articulate characters in anything other than stereotypes. Japanese fans typically refer to characters as “something-kei”, meaning, very literally, that the character they are describing is of a certain type. This illustrates that the classification of characters into types has become linguistically ingrained within the mind of the fan, a clear illustration of the power of archetypes over the way we think and articulate ourselves when speaking about characters.
The rise of archetypical domination goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the post-industrial “organizational man.” The term “organizational man” was first employed by sociologist William Whyte Jr. to describe 1950s Americans, but I find it to be an apt metaphor for otaku:
The corporation man is the most conspicuous example [of the organizational man], but he is only one, for the collectivization is so visible in the corporation has affected almost every field… listen to them [organizational men] talk to each other over the front lawns of their suburbia and you cannot help but be struck by how well they grasp the common denominators which bind them… the word collective most of them can’t bring themselves to use… but they are keenly aware of how much more deeply beholden they are to organization.
One of the defining characteristics of the organizational man is his inability to articulate himself on his own terms. As described above, he is much more adept at grasping the commonalities between him and his fellow men. As time progresses, organizational men develop a mass-mediated consciousness, one which is defined, in part, by the actions of the collective. His thought processes are not strictly his own— they are borrowed, and he owes his ability to articulate his own thoughts to the organization.
In Japan’s oppressive corporate culture, the notion of cultural workers being organizational men is not at all implausible. The anime industry is a well-oiled machine, churning out goods and products in an unending stream. In order to expedite this process, cultural workers have developed a comprehensive lexicon for understanding their own production. Tropes such as tsundere most likely began as innovations, but quickly became hackneyed and tired as the collective consciousness of the anime industry assimilated the trope within its growing corpus of stock characters.
Fans are also organizational men, especially in Japan, where most anime fans tend to stick together in cliques and online communities. By grouping themselves with like-minded individuals, fans create mass-mediated group consciousnesses. It comes to no surprise, then, that fans are also unable to articulate themselves in terms other than the ones which the anime industry has pre-defined for them.
Thus, in a world in which both cultural workers and consumers are organizational men, there is no incentive to deviate from established cultural norms. What we are seeing here is much more than simple economics— it is an example of cultural hegemony, or spontaneous allegiance to dominant cultural trends and ideologies. The ideology of anime involves the use of tropes, and our acquiescence and use of terms like “tsundere” and “loli” to describe characters denotes our unchallenged allegiance to the rhetoric of anime.
I am not arguing that this is inherently undesirable. I am making an observation, not a critique. In a post-industrial society filled with mass media and instantaneous information transfer, it is perhaps impossible to be anything other than an organizational man. Finding new space for growth and radical departure from established norms is incredibly difficult— hence our lauding of the few who do manage to depart from established norms as visionaries.
1. This is the first part of a currently planned series on the phenomenon of moe archetypes and its social implications. I seek to analyze the origins of moe archetypes and its manifestations, as well as ways in which cultural workers seek to subvert them.
2. The western aniblogosphere also has a collective consciousness. We tend to spurn shows which are mainstream, and praise those which depart from the use of archetypes. The outrage surrounding OreImo is one great example of our collective consciousness at work.
3. It’s not at all unlikely to suggest that archetypes were always extant. They are as old as literature itself. As discussed above, archetypes serve as a handy shorthand which serves to allow the reader to make assumptions about characters, which can then be either reinforced or subverted depending on the author’s choice. However, in the post-industrial age, the rise of the organizational man as dominant (especially within the world of anime) has made archetyping the dominant, if not only, form of discourse.
4. Food for thought: Gap moe is one of the most effective subversions of moe archetypes.
5. @Akirascuro for Twitter, irc.rizon.org/#nhrv to chat me up. Seriously, I’m lonely.