Introduction: Attack of the Cake-Demon
At 11:56, on January 20, 2011, the popular Western imageboard 4chan’s (link not safe for work/life/anything) anime and manga board, /a/, was watching live Japanese TV. This was not, in itself, unusual- although not as (in)famous as its sister board /b/, /a/ too boasts a very active community of Internet addicts more than willing to while away a few hours in the middle of the day (or night) with scabrous chatter and streaming video. Nor was their choice of show particularly surprising: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica,, a mahou shoujo (‘magical girl’) program from the reliably competent SHAFT Animation that had been getting muted, but positive, buzz. It was not shaping up to be overly original, of course, but that was beside the point. Madoka was being marketed as a genre piece; therefore, as with many such codified forms, its appeal was one of familiarity: an ‘ordinary’ middle-school girl is offered supernatural powers, accessed through a talismanic gem and associated with a change in costume, that she might fight for her ideals and to protect others.
Up to this point, Madoka was familiar ground for the denizens of /a/, steeped as they were with the tropes of magical-girl anime. It had, by turns, an innocent and idealistic protagonist, a dark and mysterious deuteragonist, a cat-like ‘mascot character’ with an unusual name, (“Kyuubey,”) and the obligatory frame tale of an eternal struggle of good against evil and hope against despair. All recall countless other genre progenitors. And if, perhaps, there was something a tad unsettling about that cat-thing’s expressionless pink eyes as it offered (most insistently) to make a “contract” with the main characters, they set aside those reservations: genre conventions demanded optimism and idealism. It came as a bit of a shock, therefore, when 11:57 rolled around and, right on the heels of a joyous montage sequence celebrating the titular Madoka’s forging a new friendship and resolving to take on Kyuubey’s bargain and use that power to fight the evils of the world, /a/ was treated to the sight of this same friend being beheaded and devoured by what appeared to be a toothier version of the Very Hungry Caterpillar, only made of cake and polka-dots:
Archived threads from that evening show the precise instant that Madoka stopped being received as just another by-the-book genre piece with a somewhat unusual aesthetic and became something else entirely: an Internet phenomenon.
Within hours, 4chan and Reddit were ablaze with posts, and seven episodes later, /r/anime showed literally hundreds of mentions of “Madoka” and related strings. By March, with barely two-thirds of the planned twelve-episodes aired, the little show that beheaded a main character three episodes in had handily beaten the Japanese imageboard 2chan’s lifetime threadcount record, previously held by the perennial nerd favorite Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu.
Common Threads, Common Characters
This popularity did not come out of nowhere. Rather, it reflects a particular mode of media engagement, both in Japan and in the US, defined by the seeking of familiar and desirable character, narrative, and thematic components out of a shared and internally coherent taxonomy of media products. According to the literary theorist Hiroki Azuma, anime programs, their elements, and their derivative products, can be treated not as complete creations in isolation, but rather as entries into a vast “database” of fictional elements. (Azuma, 47-48) Consumption of this database media, therefore, is less an act of ascribing value to a grand political or ideological narrative or to a specific work’s validity than it is a concerted demand for media incorporating appealing elements and combinations of elements. The rise of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica and anime series like it is therefore predicated on the consumption of simulacra, or, in this case, one simulacrum in particular- a certain juxtaposition of the exaggeratedly twee and the gorily violent: a ‘grotesque cute.’ Without grotesque cuteness, triumphantly ushered in by the climax of its third episode, Madoka would not have been catapulted into the Internet zeitgeist.
In particular, this grotesque cute meme can be seen to be operating with its strongest degree of influence in the creation of characters. This can be accounted for in part by the vast influence that character design choices hold over the popularity and success of anime productions- as Azuma notes, the process of formulating the dramatis personae has become emphasized over narrative creation to the point of becoming the first stage in the media development process. (Azuma, 48) Database consumption is distinguished by its valuation of character creation over narrative structure. For the purpose of seeking out the most important mechanisms, therefore, this discussion will center upon a character-driven syntax of cute, characterized by a certain admixture of adorableness and edginess- the grotesque moé.
Girls, Gore, Gut Impact
Although moé could be translated as ‘cute’ or ‘cuteness,’ to define it so broadly would be an oversimplification. moé is a special breed of cuteness, expressed solely in a certain kind of character. It is not strictly a visually oriented cuteness, although visual elements can contribute to its expression. Nor is it synonymous with other brands of cuteness, such as the syrupy ‘kawaii’; rather, its defining appeal is lodged in vulnerability, and especially in emotional vulnerability. The draw of moé characters is derived from the fan’s gut instinct to desire to shelter and comfort them. (Dela Pena, 9) In a more lighthearted setting, certainly, there can be a great degree of overlap between moé and a conventional conception of cuteness as innocent. Such a moé character might be drawn as a mawkish blob of large eyes and youthful enthusiasms and appear with an attendant selection of other component traits in the broader simulacrum of ‘cute,’ such as shyness or clumsiness. When these traits are used in contribution to an expression of moé they are selected for an association with a schema of innocence or, at least, dependance.
Despite this component of perceived innocence, however, many of the more influential moé archetypes are of the more grotesque persuasion. Of these, the most noteworthy form is a sort of enfant fatale– child-warriors such as the mahou shoujo in Madoka and the pilots in Shin Seiki Evangelion or youthful assassins such as those in Noir, and Gunslinger Girl. Considering at face value the contrast between these characters and the child soldiers of the real world, the the divide between the formalized simulacrum of cuteness and the realism it supplants is stygian. In the logic of moé, however, this cognitive dissonance becomes far less jarring, as these attributes paradoxically enhance their perceived vulnerability. The implication surrounding such characters is that their toughness contains a well of repressed feelings and that, even as they handily defend themselves against myriad deadly foes, they still need a shoulder to cry on. The viewer’s pity, by this schema, draws them to the character as an instrument of catharsis.
The grotesque cute, therefore, can be regarded as a device tailored to tap into a deep vein of moé by raising the emotional stakes for a character. Alternatively, this linkage can be utilized in reverse: traditionally moé character design elements, matched with a gritty setting, as in the case of Madoka or Evangelion, can serve to emphasize the darker aspects of a work by brashly subverting their normally lighthearted associations. In either case, grotesque cuteness represents a hybridization of genres, whereby two opposing sorts of appeal are thrown into relief by their contrasts. Whether cuteness or horror wins out, however, has a dramatic effect on the tone and reception of a work.
Case Study: the Entertainment Value of Grotesque Moé
Carrying the first of these propositions, namely, that ‘edginess’ yields moé, one might expect for there to exist a strong incentive for shows establishing moé characters to go overboard on the violence. It is, therefore, unsurprising, that in some more episodic or fan-service-prone programs, cerebral concerns are casually subsumed in a deluge of raw sentimentality tinged with grindhouse gore. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the aforementioned Suzumiya Haruhi:
Even in the context of the original program, this scene barely tips its hand towards advancing a narrative; rather, Suzumiya Haruhi invokes grotesque cuteness to engage an audience and market a franchise and characters to them. In this case, it is Nagato Yuki (the one with the short, purple hair) being sold, not as a character with individual will, but as an object of moé appeal. To this end a certain, deliberate distance is imposed, both between Nagato and her surroundings and between viewers and the action. Conflict is dissected into an orderly exchange of attacks, counters, and declarations- an extended riff on magical-girl anime that pointedly deflates any sense of desperation or crisis. Where Madoka’s invocation of the cute-grotesque deconstructs mahou shoujo as existentially horrifying, Suzumiya Haruhi instead revels in its ‘debasement,’ twisting a normally innocuous genre into exploitation cinema- a beautiful girl is imperiled by a mad killer but harbors terrible powers of her own(!) The objective is not to create genuine suspense; rather, it is to create a gory and engaging spectacle, populated with archetypal attributes of cuteness and ‘badassery.’ In one respect Nagato is in control of the situation, but, in the final analysis, this agency is a mirage. At the end of the scene normality is restored, wounds heal, and the petty dramas of juvenile sexual politics return to the forefront. The only lasting significance of her battle to the death is a reshuffling of her particular moé elements: she loses the glasses.
The blood and gore, meanwhile, serve to ossify the remainder of her (markedly thin) characterization. There is more than a hint of the previously discussed ‘enfant fatale‘ archetype at play, tied up in a mild implementation of the ‘awkward-cute’ expression of the tsundere archetype: Nagato is unable or embarrassed to admit her devotion to Kyon, (the male protagonist,) but the extremes to which she goes to protect him betray her desire. It’s the old ‘I’m not doing this because I like you or anything’ line, just with the usual blushing replaced with wire-fu and knives. After all, what does the 18-25 demographic adore, save for cute girls and balletic violence?
Case Study: The Perverse Appeal of Ayanami Rei
Popular and influential anime are not, however, limited to the extreme, escapist end of the grotesque-cute continuum that Suzumiya Haruhi inhabits. Hideaki Anno’s 1995-1996 Shin Seiki Evangelion, for instance, can be seen as a direct response to the same sorts of moé excesses that Haruhi deifies. Anno, thoroughly repulsed by the degree of attachment displayed by fans to his previous series, Nadia, and in particular toward its female protagonist, (Lamarre, 179-180) produces in Evangelion the logical extreme of their desire: a hyperreal exaggeration of moé vulnerability and a deconstruction of its inconsistencies and absurdities. The character he creates to fill this role, Ayanami Rei, is a fully realized tragic character in the traditional sense, with backstory, believable motivations, a dynamic, developing persona, and a fatal flaw. Rei’s hamartia is her expression of a host of traditional moé traits: she is socially awkward, single-mindedly devoted to an undeserving man, unselfconsciously lacking a nudity taboo, frequently injured and bandaged, and possessed of mysterious powers. Far from rendering her benignly adorable, in keeping with their normal function, however, these traits force her into a spiral of self-loathing and despair, as she gradually comes to realize that her existence has become entirely delimited by her loyalty to her ‘creator,’ even as he views her as little more than a cloned replacement for his dead wife and an instrument for his political ends. Where a traditional moé character is driven by pathos, with a subtext of eros, Rei represents an agent of thanatos. One scene in particular, from the tail end of Shin Seiki Evangelion, illustrates this rhetorical approach:
A similar basic premise underlies both vignettes: a young woman, fighting with sublime powers against an alien evil, finds her broader political or humanitarian goals entangled with a personal desire (as yet unexpressed and unacknowledged) to protect a chosen man. Where Evangelion diverges is in its treatment of violence and agency. For Nagato Yuki, in the first clip, the combat is clear-cut and gory but emotionally sterile- she maintains a Keaton-esque composure throughout, allowing the viewer to likewise remain at a comfortable remove from the events at hand. At no point does this presentation call into question the propriety of objectifying her self-destructive stoicism as part of a schema of moé. For Ayanami Rei, however, the stakes are wholly different. The violence is, for the most part, bloodless and indistinct, partially obscured under skin-tight latex or wrapped up entirely in internal dialogue. For all that, however the impression given is wholly at odds to the spotless carnage that characterizes Haruhi. By putting self-sacrifice, trauma, and violation back into the picture, director Hideaki Anno openly challenges the protestations of many moé fans that their appreciation is somehow non-sexual or non-objectifying. Rather, he implies, it represents a fetishization of anguish.
Despite his evident best efforts, however, Anno failed to raze the edifice of moé through the character of Ayanami Rei. Instead, in a cruel twist of fate, he gave it one of its most enduring archetypes, perpetuating a blend of traits, originally chosen to unnerve, as an iconic form of grotesque moé. Nagato Yuki’s striking resemblance to Rei, whether a consequence of shared databases or direct reference, is no coincidence. Considering the violent and sexualized contexts in which Anno places Ayanami Rei in Evangelion, however, her insurgent popularity is unsurprising: as much as he tries to make her plight genuinely upsetting, he inadvertently reinforces her moé appeal and her edgy cachet. Grotesque moé, much like a Chinese finger trap, functions as a sort of Catch-22: the more creators like Anno attempt to deconstruct its negative implications, the more victimized and, hence, the more perversely sympathetic, its characters become.
We are presented, therefore, with a variety of uses of the grotesque cute motif: in Madoka chiefly as a tone-setter, in Haruhi as a moé-enhancer, and in Evangelion as a tool for social criticism. Underlying these implementations, in turn, is an external motive; namely, attracting and maintaining fans. As the tremendous success of each of these shows would attest, the cute-grotesque serves well in this regard. Consequently, its recycling and perpetuation as a component of Hiroki Azuma’s anime toolbox is to be expected- whether as exploitation cinema or critical exegesis, grotesque cuteness is here to stay.
Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is being produced primarily for Japanese consumption- indeed, it is presently available only through saved recordings of the original broadcasts and no indication has been given as to when, if ever, it will be licensed in the US. From this, and its phenomenal popularity on 2chan, we know that it appeals to a Japanese audience. Is this appeal, however, the same appeal that draws a Western fan to watch it? To what extent is American demand for grotesque cuteness couched in a perceived difference in social norms, whereby Japan becomes a land reduced to seppuku and seifuku, as it were; from whose media images of violence and cuteness are selectively appropriated by the West as exotic and appealing?
Madoka Magica, Evangelion, and Suzumiya Haruhi all present different takes on the presentation and import of the grotesque-moé motif, ranging from social critique to escapist titillation. Do these differing rhetorical purposes justify each iteration of the meme as an original proposition, or does the use of a shared motif preclude individual creativity?
What other uses of the ‘grotesque cute’ motif do you identify in recent anime? What rhetorical or narrative purposes do they serve?
Azuma, Hiroki. “Database Animals.” In Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, 25-67. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
To see this ‘database’ in action, visit TVTropes, since 2004 a den of anime fanboys and disaffected LCST majors who spend an inordinate amount of time unpicking the particularities and commonalities of all manner of fiction.
Dela Pena, Joseph L. “Otaku: Images and Identity in Flux.” The College Undergraduate Research Journal of the University of Pennsylvania (2006).
Lamarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009
(In order of use)
Shinbo, Akiyuki. “I’m Not Afraid of Anything Anymore.” Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. MBS, January 21, 2011.
Ishihara, Tatsuya. “Suzumiya Haruhi no Yūutsu IV.” PAL. Suzumiya Haruhi no Yūutsu. Tokyo MX, June 4, 2006.
Anno, Hideaki. “Rei III (Tears).” PAL. Shin Seiki Evangelion. TV Tokyo, March 6, 1996.