One of the inevitable outcomes of spending several years writing about something is that it dominates your thinking. After so much time thinking about Osamu Tezuka, I see him everywhere. Rationally, I know that it’s much too simplistic to assign sole responsibility for every movement in modern manga and anime to someone who has been dead for twenty years – yet the further I go into his work, the more I find traces of trends still visible today.
For instance, take the moe phenomenon.
Moe is one of the new millenium’s big anime buzzwords. It’s used to express a strong interest, verging on or tipping into fetish, in a particular type of character in anime, manga or games. The character is usually female and younger, the fetishist usually male, but the overall consensus is that moe is not sexual in nature. It’s described by most commentators as a pure, protective feeling, akin to the love of a big brother or father.
As with many slang terms, its origins are debated: Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saito, whose 1998 study of socially alienated fans, Shataiteki Hikikomori (Social Withdrawal), provided another millenial buzzword, thinks it comes from the Japanese word for ‘budding’, as in the young shoots of plants, while American fan John Oppliger, a webceleb thanks to his Ask John column on his employer’s website AnimeNation, traces it to the names of anime and manga heroines of the 1990s. The link between moe and hikikomori is stronger than simple proximity in Saito’s bibliography. Young men who choose to cut themselves off from mainstream society, whose main areas of activity and interest are the carefully crafted, controllable worlds of entertainment, seem to be strongly drawn to these artificial dream-babies. They buy in to a powerful fantasy of acceptance and adoration by a perpetually dependent, unchangingly adorable, sexually undemanding creature whose world will forever revolve around them.
Moe is bound up with visual image (there is an interesting analysis and discussion of this aspect on the Heisei Democracy blog) but not restricted by it. Character and story function are more powerful. The ‘budding’ aspect of the term requires that a character attracting moe should be in an emergent or transitional state, hence younger and less powerful even than the one the audience identifies with. The character’s potential is undefined, although hints of some past mystery, enormous potential power or talent are often present. But whatever gifts the beautiful infant may possess, its entire life will be defined and determined by its relationships, and its protective father or big brother, though quite possibly insignificant in every other way, will thus be the central figure in its story. (Tetsuya Nakashima’s insanely powerful movie Memories of Matsuko can be read as a study of the negative effects of moe on other relationships.)
Commentators with a wider historical perspective than the latest fan favourites are aware that moe goes back much further than the millenium. Rooted in fetish, some of its imagery derives from porn anime like the Cream Lemon series, which appeared as a result of the emergence of home video in 1984. (Interestingly, Cream Lemon‘s longest-running single strand was the saga of an older brother’s incestuous fixation on his sister.) Anime blog Colony Drop picks up on 1986 porn parody anime Cosmos Pink Shock. Tezuka had already been there, and had already filtered out the sex and replaced it with romantic and protective longing.
Lunn Flies Into The Wind was a 24-minute anime completed in April 1985, though it would not be released until July 1989, six months after Tezuka’s death. The original story first appeared as a complete manga in Monthly Shonen Jump in April 1979. It tells the story of a shy teenager who falls in love with a girl on a poster, treasuring and protecting the image and building a dream-relationship with it. In typical Tezuka fashion, the story moves out of moe territory when the hero acknowledges and acts on his longing to take the relationship into real adult life, despite his fears and self-doubts. Even more typically, there is a strong maternal influence in the final resolution. But the outlines of 21st-century moe are there, waiting to be riffed (or rifled) by subsequent generations.
Lunn Flies Into The Wind was screened at London’s Barbican Cinema in September 2008 as part of a tribute season for the 80th anniversary of Tezuka’s birth. There were a handful of screenings in Australia and the USA in 2007 as part of another Tezuka tribute, but it was and remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world. This is common with Tezuka’s work – he was incredibly prolific in both animation and manga, and the vast majority of the material he created has not been translated into English. The more you experience Tezuka’s work, the more you realise how astonishingly prescient he was.
He first nailed moe, not in 1979, but in 1948, in Lost World.
He was almost twenty years old and a superstar in the postwar Osaka comic market, churning out page after page of comics alongside his medical studies. Many of his early works reflect these pressures, cobbling together influences and ideas from his wide reading and the store of drafts and doodles he’d amassed since childhood. Lost World is a patchwork of ideas, but looming over all is the shadow of Osaka’s war and its aftermath. Like most teenagers Tezuka had been pressed into war work, had watched his father go to war, had seen the piles of corpses after firebombs hit the city. During the Occupation he travelled between Osaka and Tokyo, seeing at first hand the shortages and starvation, the orphans and homeless elders, the Japanese girls selling themselves to Allied soldiers, and the Japanese black marketeers and industrialists exploiting their own people. Tezuka had a powerful and well-fed imagination, but real life is at least as influential as science fiction.
One of the scientists in Lost World has developed a method of genetically engineering females from plants. Naturally, like every savvy manufacturer, he makes his prototypes Ayame and Momiji attractive to possible buyers. He fully intends to exploit their sexual potential himself, but he sees them mainly as a cheap workforce.
When Ayame is molested by another character, heroic teenage scientist Kenichi Shikishima comes to her aid and beats off the cowardly groper. “Don’t be afraid, Ayame, I won’t let anyone harm you.” As he leaves the scene, she muses that if he were her big brother, she wouldn’t have anything to fear.
Later, the pair are stranded on a prehistoric planet, the only humans for millions of miles. Kenichi proposes that they should live as brother and sister, and Ayame is overjoyed.
This is essential moe – an innocent, literally budding, girl, a geeky young man with the heart of a hero and protective instincts to do any father proud, and a completely non-sexual relationship. It may have blossomed in 1948, but it budded before then, in a bullied geek’s passions for science and science fiction, and a young man’s revulsion at the way he saw women and children treated in war and its aftermath.
Tezuka made it into entertainment, but gave it a dark undertow that urges us to question our own attitudes and relationships. For all the ‘development’ of moe into its own self-consciously postmodern industry, I don’t think many current practicioners have even begun to approach his depth and daring.