Some folks would say that only the Japanese would have a word distinctively for young and cute girls, and the love of them. Yet that only touches upon the concept of moe.
What is moe (“mo-eh”) exactly? Like the notorious definition of pornography, it seems to be a case of personal taste, that you just “know” moe when you see it. In general, a moe character is physically young (i.e. a child) or emotionally young (i.e. naïve, innocent), cute, and usually has some weakness that they try to compensate for. Other than that, moe is an open field, as artists view moe more as a personality characteristic to elicit audience empathy than as a character type. The viewer should want to hug or protect the character like an older sibling, not desire them. Female otaku have pushed the term to include boys as well, especially ones in shoujo, but moe is still tightly tied to its original meaning in anime.
Classic examples of moe include Cardcaptor Sakura’s Sakura and Peacemaker Kurogane’s Saya. They are essentially just cute little girls. Add cat ears and you have Di Gi Charact’s title character and Tokyo Mew Mew’s Ichigo.
For older characters who are young at heart, we have Yomiko Readman of Read or Die, who maintains an innocence fueled by her passion for books, despite her job as a spy. Additionally, most of the teachers in Happy Lesson have a simple outlook in regards to raising their “son.”
Kurumi from Steel Angel Kurumi, and her sister Steel Angels are all moe in their childish need to seek approval, as well as learning to do daily tasks from an “older brother” character, their Master. Chii from Chobits also embraces moe through her education from her owner, and through her original state as a tabula rasa, literally free of emotions and knowledge as a robot wiped clean of her previous memory.
Many bishoujo anime contain moe characters purely as a designed marketing move. For example, Omishi Magical Theatre: Risky Safety is choc’ full of moe, with a chibi sized apprentice angel and shinigami, and a girl named Moe, who is, moe. It seems to be that many shows set in schools seem to require a character with moe, the character who doesn’t understand the double entendre in conversations, the one who requires an older sister to explain the world to her.
Of course, there’s a dark side to idolizing children as attractive, and this is where things get... uncomfortable. Moe has been accused many times of straying a little too close to child pornography more than once in the media and among the otaku community. Fans of moe defend their preference by explaining that the character isn’t implicitly sexual, unlike lolicon and shota.
However, the moe concept is used for sexual purposes sometimes. As yaoi usually consists of a pairing of uke and seme, yuri usually has a moe character matched with an oneesama, an older sister character. Love happens, and the moe character learns something new, losing a little of her innocence. (Wow. That just felt dirty, just writing that.)
Serial Experiments Lain’s Lain opens as a moe character, whose innocence is painfully stripped away thorough the series. By the final episode, Lain has lost her cuteness in bear pajamas, turning into a digital deity corrupted by The Wired. If you want to see the despoiling of a moe character, look no further.
Famed director Hayao Miyazaki has gone on record against the moe trend and all that it represents through an utterly submissive character idolized by the otaku mass. A feminist, Miyazaki’s all of female leads are strong-willed and resourceful, while remaining cute. He views females in traditional roles as wish fulfillment by otaku, eagerly supplied by the animation studios, and finds keeping the balance between his ideal female character and that of the market’s difficult. Experimental anime has explored female characters as female heroes versus idolized objects, one example being Rei Ayanami of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
And where does moe end? When female characters become too strong-willed or mature, or when they lose their eagerness to please others, they shred their skin of child-like innocence. Faye from Cowboy Bebop, not moe. Love Hina, definitely not moe. Those ladies are much too strong-willed. It’s a tough rope to walk, between the cliffs of innocence and experience in Otaku World, both for the characters and their creators, and for their viewers on the other side of the TV screen.