In this essay, I’m talking about heterosexual, cis-gendered men. When you come across terms like men, male, masculinity, etc. the “cishet” is implied — though to be clear, women and LGTBQ otaku do, have always, and always will, exist as integral to otaku culture. Though the topic is narrow, please don’t take the scope of this essay as an erasure of those identities and experiences.
In Japan, there’s been a good amount of discourse about “otaku” and what they represent.
The word sparks different ideas: from pop culture nerds to fanatics to anti-social to sexual perversion, even pedophilic. Others argue that otaku reflect the Japanese “kawaii” culture— from cat-eared girls to Tamagotchi pocket pets to cosplay — an “obsession” with cuteness, childhood, and media that “postpones the pressures of adulthood.” There are ways in which the “Japanese-ness” of otaku can’t be taken out of the term, but in America, otaku is mostly just a word to describe people who like anime.
Patrick Galbraith traces the origins and meanings of otaku in “Otaku: and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan.” In “Beautiful Fighting Girl,” Saito Tamaki does a psycho-analytic deep-dive into male otaku psychology. Though the book is far more nuanced than what I’m quoting here, Tamaki puts it very crudely: “you can tell an otaku by whether or not he is able to use the image of a female anime character as an aid to masturbation.” What ties all the definitions of otaku — whether positive or negative , simple or nuanced, conventional or perverse — is that male otaku have an affective response to female anime characters. For these characters, men feel “moe.”
In “Beyond Maids and Megannekko: Examining the Moe Phenomeon,” Michael Bowman says that the Japanese meaning of “moe” is debated — somewhere between “budding” like budding affection or “to burn” like burn with passion. Bowman makes distinctions between narrative moe (derived from a character’s actions, personality or back-story) and non-narrative moe (specific visual characteristics like physical appearance, clothing and costume). In his book “The Soul of Anime,” Ian Condry defines otaku as “people who express love for virtual 2D characters.” So, simply put, moe is the positive feelings otaku have for anime characters. Just like there are different kinds of love, moe can range from friendship, familial love, the awe you feel when you see a puppy or kitten, infatuation, eroticism, etc.
Though I have watched a lot of anime and even more regular television shows, as far as I can remember, I’ve only felt moe for two characters in my life: Denise Huxtable in A Different World and Rem from my favorite anime Re:Zero. In both times, my feelings were similar, but unique. For Denise, I experienced a level of para-social attraction that seemed really absurd and embarrassing. At one point while binging the show, I stopped watching it after a kind of “wait…am I falling in love with Denise? Tf? lol” moment. This would fall under a more non-narrative moe.
For Rem, I was surprised at how fond I was of her as a completely fictional character. I was, again, embarrassed (though less so) over experiencing emotional attachment to a character who doesn’t exist, but also felt what I can only describe as “protective”— guarding my admiration of her and avoiding drawings or merchandise that sexualized her (though to be fair, I’d be lying if I denied the extent to which Rem’s character is erotic in the anime). Bowman argues that this sense of protectiveness is one of the roots of moe. It would fall under a more narrative moe.
For Denise, I was off-put by the fact that I was viscerally attracted to someone (the actress) who is real but doesn’t exist (Denise is a fictional character and that “version” of Lisa Bonet doesn’t exist). For Rem, I wanted my moe to stay the way it was—affective, but not erotic. Ironically, I was treating her as “real” by not wanting the “real world” to objectify her, or for it to persuade me to do so as well.
This experience gets at how moe is a paradox; a mix of reality and perception that makes the one-sided nature of fans’ attachment to their favorite media both fascinating and weird. Condry writes that “Moe is not just a feeling; it is also a way to talk about one’s feelings and, without giving much explanation, share the glow of affection with others who might have similar feelings.”
Though female characters are drawn even more unrealistic than the fictional medium requires— huge eyes compared to male characters, idealized bodies, disproportionately large breasts, etc. — eroticism is an important factor in what makes these characters feel alive. Tamaki argues that sexuality is necessary for a narrative to seem real. While I would pushback on his essentialism (“necessary”), his point does get at some truth.
However, I do think male otaku should consider how the male gaze affects their moe for female anime characters. The male gaze centers the male pleasure of looking at women, whether in anime or any other medium. We see it in films or video games where the camera deliberately pans over women’s bodies. In anime, women and girls are often drawn as sexual objects. Related to the male gaze, Bowman nuances moe and explains why it doesn’t have to be sexual, but does acknowledge arguments that connect it to objectification and “lolicon” (or Lolita complex, the pedophiliac undertones in some moe characters).
From the prevalence of bikini armor to the camera cutting on to shots of women’s butts to characters like Tamaki Kotatsu (who “clumsiness” causes her to lose her clothes accidentally) in Fire Force, the male gaze in a lot of anime is pretty on the nose. Any serious critical analysis of the genre could not dismiss that fact. Eroticism is certainly not inherently bad, but it doesn’t mean objectification isn’t problematic. Without being too facetious, I giggle at how anime creators will recycle the same story lines and characters archetypes, but will spend, what I surmise to be, considerable time making sure that they animate a female character’s breasts jiggle.
However, this makes me wonder: does a female character need to be sexualized for male otaku to feel moe? As Bowman argued, I would say no. There seems to be plenty of examples in and out of anime where this is true — from Riko in Made in Abyss to Emma in The Promised Neverland to Eleven in Stranger Things. I would also ask: when the male gaze is present, is it always affective? To put it more simply but possible more crudely, do men always get aroused by sexualized drawings of female anime characters? I’d argue no (but wouldn’t dismiss the extent to which they are).
To illustrate the point, I wanted to talk about Rem a bit more.
Subaru and Rem’s friendship is the reason Re:Zero resonates with me so deeply. Subaru is trapped in a foreign, magical world were he has to replay horrible situations over and over. When relives his death and the death of people he loves until he learns from his mistakes and does the right actions to keep time from rewinding. At first distrustful of Subaru, Rem is the person who encourages him to keep fighting. Her love and friendship sustains Subaru when he is at his lowest point.
Using Re:Zero as an example, we should think about why, as Condry writes, much of the anime that otaku watch “contains troubled male protagonists who essentially reimagine the hero as vulnerable, conflicted, and anything but all-powerful.”
Tamaki argues that popular fiction “is sustained by relatively simple principles of desire. Namely, sex and violence, otherwise known as romance and adventure.” I think Re:Zero certainly displays this dynamic in an endearing way. Subaru and Rem’s story is romantic — a boy and a girl whose emotional connections are built through shared trauma. Both are vulnerable individually but stronger together (Rem is powerful but can die, Subaru is weak but can’t die). They may want each other (though their relationship is also partly an unrequited love story, as Subaru is in love with someone else), but they certainly need each other.
At heart, I think this is why so many male otaku are enamored with beautiful fighting girls. They are allegories that flip the gender expectations of chivalry. In these stories, the male protagonist is the damsel-in-distress saved by Princess Charming. Whether main characters, mutual partners, sidekicks or members of the party in harem anime, women do as much or more of heroic work. I can’t state this definitively, but I’d surmise that anime has more heroines than any other contemporary pop culture genre.
Though contradictory, the anime girl gives male otaku the opportunity to both live up to and subvert masculine expectations. As both visual objects to be consumed and as narrative subjects that produce, anime girls provide some catharsis for male viewers.
I’d argue that Rem’s character embodies the quintessence of male moe for female anime characters. Tamaki argues that, in watching anime, the male otaku keeps repeating the same trauma over and over. Since female anime characters are “absolutely unobtainable objects of desire,” male otaku have to keep searching for new anime to watch, new characters to fall in love with and then lose over and over again. Like Hiroki Azuma discusses in “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals,” male otaku are consuming narratives more so than any individual character. Turning Re:Zero’s duo into metaphors — every male otaku who feels moe is the tragic Subaru, every anime girl is the faithful Rem.
To be perfectly clear, we should be critical at the sexism and misogyny that comes from patriarchal media. Patriarchy is a power hierarchy that should be questioned and challenged from people across gender, but especially by men who want to cultivate more restorative ways of being a man.
Yet to be vulnerable but frank, I have often struggled with fulfilling masculine expectations, particularly the ones that will impose themselves in my real life. I struggle with the extent to which being feminist in my personal life doesn’t free me from the everyday or long-term expectations of masculinity in my interactions with people across genders. I can explain to you the feminist and queer theory on why chivalry is a sexist concept. Even so, I have to be honest and admit that some of my favorite books, shows, comics, anime, etc. have had some form of chivalry in them. It didn’t take me too long to realize why I liked Re:Zero so much or enjoy watching anime in general.
These perspectives are offered not to defend the male gaze in anime or any other art form. It also doesn’t mean anime creators should be irresponsible at how they depict female characters, even if they aren’t “real.” But just as we should consider that fantasy is both wish-fulfillment and escapism, I would like us to consider that something may be happening within the male gaze besides the more obvious forms of objectification. Doing so could tell us more about men — their thoughts, attitudes, and desires — than just the ways patriarchy is reified by them.
I almost feel like when we talk about male otaku, the “boy gaze” may actually be the more accurate term— an in-between space between adolescent and adult masculinity, where the gaze is affected by patriarchy but not consumed by it. When a 31-year-old watches an anime where the main protagonists are teenagers, I’d argue that the fact he is a grown man identifying with young boys or girls creates both nuance and dissonance that should be explored.
But regardless of how we frame it, thinking about the male gaze is useful when understanding how anime, in its production and consumption, is shaped by men. It could give us insight into society and the type of otaku it creates, whether they are from Tokyo or Chicago.