The Moe Aesthetic and You: A Study

Share Button

 by Darren Lignowski | staff writer

Moe is a concept that can’t quite be narrowed down to a single definition, no matter how much you might try. It doesn’t matter if you ask a Sherpa on the Himalayas’ tallest inhabitable peak or a seasoned anime fan, trying to parse a clear, succinct definition of moe out of anybody is a task that even our greatest contemporary intellects can’t quite achieve. So the next time you’re at a wild Mensa kegger and they’re discussing the best way to end world famine using Fermat’s Last Theorem between bouts of calculating the best way to win at beer-pong using trigonometry, casually bring up the concept of moe and see how many of them degenerate into weeping piles of filth within the hour after trying to explain it.

When moe’s brought up in conversation for whatever reason, it generally means one of two things: The bafflingly complex concept and the aesthetic that tries to evoke the concept as much as humanly possible. We’ll mostly be covering the latter here, and what either makes it work or snaps its legs before the race even starts.

Visually, the moe aesthetic is easy enough to boil down to a cuteness singularity, wrung through the various trends and differing tastes prevalent in modern Japanese animation. In other words, this:

Handily describes the appeal of this:

Saki Koromo

Or this:

Milky Holmes

The qualifications are all there: Big eyes, small mouth/nose, short stature and big heads; basically everything that’s adorabubbawable. Many anime series try to use this aesthetic to get the desired response of compassion out of the audience: Saki (shown above), Strike Witches, Girls und Panzer, Haganai, the vast majority of Kyoto Animation’s output, Hidamari Sketch… the list extends far into the horizon and circumnavigates the globe three times over.

Of course, a cute shell of a person is still only a shell, not the least bit lovable until it’s given the gift of a personality. For the sake of making a character as appealing as possible, these personalities often include positive or endearing traits usually associated with childhood or immaturity. Timid personalities, propensities for crying, and unceasing optimism are only a few qualities that characters of this sort have. Try to think of more that you’d expect to see in children, and you’re bound to have a meaty checklist within minutes.

However, putting every creative egg into this basket of youth and naiveté doesn’t guarantee success, in the same way that the Titanic being ship-shaped upon departure didn’t guarantee it not plunging into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. What some people find to be irresistibly cute, others (mostly me) might find creepy and disquieting in what I like to call the “Raggedy Ann Phenomenon.” The internet’s chock full of examples stemming from reality, but here’s a relevant one from anime that uses the template presented above and molds it into an unspeakable horror the likes of which have only been whispered in humanity’s darkest nightmares.

Bottle Fairy

Just look at that for a few minutes without breaking eye contact. That chill creeping up your spine is Bottle Fairy using the unintentionally creepy, fixed stares of its characters to burrow into the audience’s subconscious through their eyes. What’s supposed to be cute ends up disturbing because of the big, dead eyes and extremely slight forms. That diagram of cuteness above was just used to create four monsters that would make Lovecraft weep for his very soul.

Personalities are similarly difficult to balance, the utmost care needed to avoid becoming annoying or as disturbing as Bottle Fairy. All too often, characters made in the moe mold degenerate into mannequins with the minds of children that you know would give their life savings to an out-of-sorts Nigerian Prince. One such example is that of Nagisa in Clannad, a crucial component of the show’s emotional core that can barely express herself on an adult level. While I’ll avoid spoilers, I’ll say that she’s at the heart of nearly every gut-wrenching moment in the show’s much-touted second season, something that her gormless personality and near constant state of dopy obliviousness do little to assist with. In short, it takes what should ordinarily be instant moe and flubs it by giving its vessel all the appeal of a damp sponge on a grimy floor, which isn’t exactly conducive to the biblical flood of tears that the series promised.

Clannad Nagisa

There’s at least one character that excels at displaying the aforementioned traits without coming across as a cynical amalgamation of sympathy and tears. When watching Chihayafuru, it’s evident who this person is, partly because her name’s right in the title in front of the –furu. Chihaya is many things: Beautiful, determined, likable, but she’s also hopelessly clumsy and unable to relate to anything that isn’t slapping cards after poetry verses like an extremely well-trained seal. It’s hard not to warm up to her attempts to not only get others involved in the game, but to improve herself to the fullest extent of her abilities, entirely because she’s moe incarnate in everything but appearance, and that’s used to its fullest while exploring her dreams and relationships. Simply put, Chihayafuru is the perfect moe show.


So despite all of the above laying the foundation for a myriad of properties aimed toward the very profitable market of the 13-30 year old male, moe isn’t completely the domain of emotionally-stunted teenage girls with the mentalities and voices of children. It’s quite a generalization and doesn’t quite convey how surprisingly multifaceted the feeling is, but at its simplest, moe boils down to approachability and tolerability. In other words, if you saw this person sleeping in a gutter, would what you’ve seen of them so far compel you to offer them a hug and a warm place to stay for reasons other than pity, without fear of being knifed? If they asked you to be a reference while they look for a job, would you take up the mantle? If they accidentally crashed your car in a ditch while learning how to drive, would you reprimand them or let bygones be bygones? If so, you probably think them moe, or you’re obligated to because they’re family.

So yeah, moe’s kind of a big, multifaceted deal. There are a few common characteristics with the ultimate evil goal of making characters loved by the audience, but there isn’t such significant overlap that moe can be discounted as belonging to one trend or another.

[NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SPJA.]

Share Button

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “The Moe Aesthetic and You: A Study”

  1. Mike says:

    Cool article. I would really like to know the copyright information/source of the Western Style Animation diagramme above which describes the “cute character.” It is intriguing and I can’t seem to find its most original location.

    • Marlan Moore says:

      According to, it’s “Disney’s definition of “The Cute Character” as illustrated by Preston Blair, who animated Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia and other characters.” Hope that helps!