The Myth of "Proto-Moe"

I see a lot of fans bemoan what they perceive to be a shift in focus for anime. Apparently, anime used to be about robots, and space, and fighting, and war, and men, but now it’s all about romance and cute girls, as if this is something new.

The fact is, the roots of the moé phenomenon (Put simply, the word “moé” describes an affectionate reaction to an anime character and the tropes and aesthetics that bring about that reaction) run very deep, deeper than those who assert that it’s a paradigm only a decade or so old are willing to admit.

“Proto-moé,” they call it. Moé before moé.

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Macross Frontier’s Ranka Lee is moé, but Lynn Minmay, the SDF Macross character Ranka is directly based on, is proto-moé. The difference? Macross Frontier was created after an arbitrary point in time somewhere between 2003 and 2008. Somewhere in there lies a clear line of demarcation, marking the “moé boom” and the beginning of the “moé era.”

Pointing out trends is one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to ignore the prominence of cute girls in anime until a decade ago.

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It’s intellectually dishonest to suggest that cute girls and moé are relatively new to anime when characters like Noriko Takaya and Elpeo Ple exist. In fact, one could say that the prevalence of moé in modern anime is due in part to the way ‘80s and ‘90s mecha anime built up their female characters. When parts of the story can benefit from the viewer having a sympathetic reaction to a character, it’s important to establish a connection between that character and the viewer. What better a connection than love?

This dynamic created some of the most popular characters in the history of anime, continuing well into the 21st century.

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The 1978 manga “Urusei Yatsura” was adapted into the 1981 anime of the same name, which went on to run for almost five years. The show would give rise to the “harem” genre of anime, popularized by 1992’s Tenchi Muyo! and 2000’s Love Hina. It’s easy to think of the history of otaku as a series of generations: The first generation coinciding with Space Battleship Yamato and the rise of TV anime, the next coinciding with the VCR and the rise of OVAs in the ‘80s, the one after that coinciding with the rise of computers in the ‘90s, and the latest coinciding with the Internet, social media, smartphones, etc.

Former Gainax president Toshio Okada is well-known for subscribing to this way of thinking, as well as for declaring otaku culturally dead in 2008, partially as a result of what he saw as a shift in the tastes of otaku, from a focus on sci-fi, mecha, and technology to a focus on romance, relationships, and cute girls. Ironically, Okada himself had written Gunbuster twenty years prior, an anime combining a sci-fi mecha story with romance and cute girls.

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In reality, it’s more accurate to see the history of otaku as a continuous line, with certain elements coming to the forefront at different points in time. Drawing a boundary between modern moé and “proto-moé” ignores the long-running history of female characters in anime and the ongoing development and refinement of character design elements, character archetypes, and character interactions, many of which have been part of the medium for decades. It ignores Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, Video Girl Ai, Gunbuster, and Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

In addition, the insistence that this era of anime is somehow fundamentally different from other eras fails to take into account the advancements anime has made as a medium. Anime’s cute girls of today didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re the product of a constantly evolving medium, and there's no doubt the character design conventions of today will go on to influence the character designs in the anime of the coming decades.