The Japanese catchphrase moe means “budding,” mostly applied to young girls. But it’s also part of Japanese political satire - in moe comics, the U.S. military and war-torn countries of Central Asia are represented as cute girls and metrosexual boys.
If phatic language is language which smooths over social tasks and reassures us rather than conveying information (“How’s it going?” “Good, how about you?”), then phatic images are images which smooth over social issues, and they are one of Japan’s biggest exports. From Hello Kitty to Pokémon to any number of big-eyed franchises, the Japanese love of kawaii (cuteness) is well known, parodied as just another weird Japanese thing in the Mister Sparkle episode of the Simpsons, but perhaps part of a common human urge. “We humans are a self-centered race,” said Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. To prove his point, McCloud drew a series of abstract squiggly shapes, then turned them into faces by adding a single element to each one: an eye. Instantly, the weird lines became noses and mouths, the random shapes turned into goofy faces.
It’s comforting to imagine nonhuman things as humans, whether they’re toys or vehicles, foods or animals, or Pipo-kun, the mascot of the Tokyo police force. For corporate mascots and advertising characters, the cuteness softens the message. To quote Mary Poppins, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
A little sex in the sugar is even smoother. The male-dominated world of hardcore anime and manga fans had always had a taste for cheesecake, but in the ‘80s it had more of a science fiction and mecha edge; now, the girls themselves were growing in importance, as cutesy tweens and teens did cute things in shows like Azumanga Daioh (beloved by both 13-year-olds and grown men) and a variety of more “adult” anime and manga continuing the dubious tradition of the early ‘80s lolicon (“Lolita Complex”) anime/manga subculture. Oldschool fans grumbled, bemoaning the loss of their hard sci-fi and their Gundam military action, but the kawaii-ization and, arguably, infantilization of geek culture marched on. Di Gi Charat, a 1998 gag manga about the green-haired, cat-eared, maid-outfit-wearing corporate mascot of the “Gamers” store chain, became popular enough to be spun off into a series of graphic novels and anime shows-the equivalent of a TV show based on Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar.
But Digiko merely worked at Gamers - she represented a cute, maid-outfit-wearing Gamers employee, not Gamers itself. On message boards and drawing desks, geek culture soon developed an even purer expression of cuteness, moe anthropomorphism, the representation of inanimate objects or concepts as cute girls. What better way to dress up boring, abstract concepts? Fans created Wikipe-tan, a character representing Wikipedia, and the OS-tans, based on various operating systems: a cat-themed Mac OS X girl, a gnu-horn-wearing Linux girl, etc. (“Tan” is the Japanese suffix “-chan” pronounced in a cutesy baby voice.) Nothing was safe from anthropomorphism. In Bincho-tan, the characters represent different kinds of charcoal. Demonbane reimagined the evil books of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, including the Necronomicon, as cute girls-the better to bond with the sorcerers who ‘read’ them, of course. Maru Asakura’s manga 090 Eko to Issho (“090 Eko and Me”) is a romantic comedy about cellphones who turn into girls. Like Life, a pornographic computer game “visual novel,” features girls based not just on cell phones but vacuum cleaners, coffee pots, refrigerators and traffic lights-talk about objectification.
The predominant moe culture is one of sweetness and light and panty shots, but Japanese military & robot fans did not miss the moe bandwagon for long. Among the countless anthropomorphic experiments were robotized girls, aka mecha musume, made up of girls crossed with heavy equipment, robots, tanks, planes, etc. Cyborg doll/machine women have always had a huge following, and somewhere there must be a missing link between Battle Angel Alita’s Gally, Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and Vikusen’s Loli Airplane Machine.
Humikane Shimada, who coined the term “mecha musume,” hit every fetish imaginable with Strike Witches, an alternate-universe WWII story whose heroes are young girls (check), magic-users (check), with animal ears and tails (check), who wear WWII airplane propellers on their legs like Transformers amputees or cybernetic stocking-fetishists (check, check, check, CHECK).
The magazine MC Axis, launched in 2006, focuses exclusively on the sexualized linkage of women’s bodies and military weaponry.
Compared to this stuff, Yukio Hirai’s Pixel Maritan is a mili-moe (military moe) manga you could show to your grandfather. The pink-haired Maritan, who first appeared in 2005 in a book/CD set intended to teach Japanese readers how to speak colloquial English, is the cartoon representation of the U.S. Marine Corps. Maritan’s purpose is to teach Japanese fans how to swear like a Marine, through adorably testosterone-packed gag comics. “It’s fucking English time!” reads the cover text on one of the several Maritan books. Within, you can learn phrases like “Your puny little ass is mine!” and “To show our appreciation for so much power, Marines keep heaven packed with fresh souls!”, translated by actual Marine Corps members stationed in Japan.
Lightly digitized pictures of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (Maritan’s enemies) are common, and a photo section in the back shows Japanese women hanging out with Marines and riding tanks and so on. According to a friend who works on the series, the Marines stationed in Japan are generally fond of Maritan and eagerly contribute to all this. Maritan’s origin story is a parody of so-called mahô shojo “magical girl” shows (like Sailor Moon), in which the heroine usually visits Earth from some fairy realm on a mission of good. In Maritan, the title character comes from the magical realm of Paris Island and introduces herself by crashing a fighter jet into the house of the “Japanese” character. Soon we meet Army-kun (a “dogface” private with dog ears), Navy-san and Jiei-tan, a diligent girl with glasses who represents the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
American military bases on Japanese soil are not exactly beloved by the populace, but Maritan’s adulation of the American military, however ironic and hipsterified, shows that Japanese politics are still generally in line with the U.S., 60 years after World War II. Jiei-tan’s most notable trait is a heavy book chained to her shoulders-the book represents Article 9 of the Post-WWII Japanese Constitution, which forbids Japan from maintaining any sort of armed forces. (The Japanese Self-Defense Force is technically an extension of the Japanese police). Japanese public opinion is generally pacifistic, but a sizeable minority supports overturning Article 9, with some fans of mili-moe probably among them. In 2004, at the request of the U.S., Japan deployed non-combat troops to Iraq, in the first foreign deployment of Japanese troops since WWII. For the deployment, Japan dusted off their ‘official’ military mascot, Prince Pickles, the sort of JSDF equivalent of Pipo-kun.
Pickles, together with the general concept that anime and manga might promote Japanese nationalism, was praised by Japan’s then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, the right-wing anime lover Taro Aso. With his tubby salaryman-manga look, though, Prince Pickles looks distinctly behind the times, and his female companion, Miss Parsley, isn’t exactly the cosplay choice du jour either. For really effective propaganda, the military-industrial complex has to be, you know, sexy.
“But the coals were murmuring of their mine, / And moans down there / Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men / Writhing for air,” wrote the gay World War I poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) in his poem “Miners.” Although moe usually refers to works about girls enjoyed by men, manga and anime have a large female readership too, and thus we enter the realm of bishonen (“beautiful boy”) stories, which are often full of men writhing and moaning. In 2003, Hidekazu Himaruya, a Japanese designer/artist living in New York, started drawing a gag webcomic in which the countries involved in World War II were anthropomorphized as good-looking, endearingly incompetent boys. The strip proved so popular it was picked up by a print publisher, redrawn for the graphic novel editions, and adapted into an ongoing animated series. Hetalia Axis Powers was born.
Hetalia (available online here among other places) is an almost plotless reinterpretation of World War II with people, mostly boys, playing the role of countries. Germany is serious and hardworking (when the series begins, it is getting tired of making cuckoo clocks to repay its WWI debt to France); America is a gung-ho, hamburger-eating idiot; Japan is old-fashioned and mild-mannered; and Italy…well, Italy is a frivolous idiot who loves pasta and flirting with girls. (The series title, “Hetalia,” is a composite of heta- (“bad/incompetent”) and “Italy.”)
The characters are theoretically at war, but the manga is basically a series of loosely connected gags about WWI-WWII trivia and, more often, the stereotypes of different countries/ethnicities. The manga is annotated by the creator, who points out little bits of WWII trivia. The gag in which America can’t recognize the other countries on the map is pretty dead-on, but most of the humor in Hetalia is on the level of the other countries asking Italy “what do you think?” and Italy shouting out “PASTAAAAA!”
More than anything, reading Hetalia gives the impression of a Japanese creator retelling fading European stereotypes for a Japanese audience for whom such things are just entertainment, divorced from any context of prejudice. One gag is based on an old saying: “Heaven is when the cook is French, the officer is British, the engineer is German, the banker is Swiss and the lover is Italian. Hell is when the cook is British, the officer is German, the engineer is French, the lover is Swiss and the banker is Italian.” In the end, though, even this is just a shallow gloss on the cuteness and wackiness of the characters. In true moe anthropomorphism fashion, the characters in the series are so divorced from their historical analogues that fans can make music videos about the deep OTP love between Lithuania and gay crossdresser Poland without knowing anything at all the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Hetalia is basically no more political than “It’s a Small World,” and there are places it won’t go. While the Axis powers are the “good guys,” Hirumaya scrupulously avoids any mention of anti-Semitism, swastikas or Nazism, aside from Germany’s occasional complaints that he has a “crazy boss.” Considering that Nazi-esque uniforms show up occasionally for fetish value even in mainstream, bestselling manga like Hisaya Nakajo’s Hana-Kimi (censored in the VIZ edition; Nakajo’s original comments read “I know it’s bad, but I just love Nazi uniforms!”), it’s a remarkable show of restraint.
It wasn’t restrained enough. When a Hetalia anime was announced for January 2009, Koreans protested the show on the basis of the manga’s Korea character, depicted as a sort of pest to Japan. In one scene in the manga, Korea grabs Japan’s nipples; Korean protesters considered this a reference to the Japan-Korean struggle over ownership of the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo island to Koreans, Takeshima island to Japanese). The producers of the anime countered that the Korea character wasn’t included in the anime anyway, but faced by angry Internet petitions and a statement by Korean congresswoman Jeong Mi Kyeong (“I think this is a crime against Koreans…this is an illegal and insulting act”), they canceled the TV airing of the anime. The cancellation probably had little effect on profits; the anime still went on to become a hit on mobile phones and the internet. Although all the stereotypes in Hetalia were equally cheesy, the West-on-West stereotypes were cobwebby and unlikely to offend anyone, whereas the Korean stereotype brought up memories of Japanese war crimes about which Japan has been notoriously unrepentant.
Is all moe anthromorphism a trivialization of serious events? A glorification of violence for gun-happy nerds who’ve never experienced a real war? Is it even possible to do a meaningful cartoon representation of such vast concepts without resorting to stereotypes? One manga which might pull it off is Timaking’s 2005 Afghanis-tan, a small press manga in which the countries of Central Asia are represented as little girls.
Afghanis-tan, a hard-suffering farmer girl, is based on the real-life photograph of “Afghan girl” Sharbat Gula who became famous from a 1985 National Geographic cover (and whose name, incidentally – “Rose Sherbet” – already sounds like a manga character). When the story begins, Afghanis-tan is tired of being picked on by big girls Russia and Britain. She makes friends with Pakis-tan, Uzbekis-tan and her other neighbors. Some jokes are just simple cuteness: Afghanis-tan is too little to carry her AK-47 rifle, aww! But others are both dark and astute, as when little Afghanis-tan becomes enthralled with Pakisu-tan’s favorite show, a mecha show called “Space Detective Tayariban.” (He’s a force for justice in a wartorn world, get it?) Soon all the girls in the neighborhood are arguing: “Let’s play Northern Alliance!” “What are you saying? We should play Tayariban!”
For all its jokes, Afghanistan is basically a serious educational manga; it’s loaded with historical info. Unlike Hetalia, it’s also got something like a plot; the climax of the short manga comes when Afghanis-tan’s house becomes the base of scary stray cats (Al Quaeda) and one of them bites the rich girl, Meriken, on the hand. Meriken’s misguided rage wreaks havoc on the –tans, and makes Timaking’s position on the Afghanistan War clear. After a three-year hiatus, in 2008 Timaking returned to geopolitical manga with Pakisu-tan.
“Come for the cuteness, stay for the historical geopolitics,” might be the slogan of Afghanis-tan. Afghanis-tan manages to combine both moe and a message; and in a subtler way, so does Pixel Maritan (in fact, its pro-war, pro-U.S. message is the exact opposite of Afghanis-tan’s). Pasta jokes I’m not so big on, but one thing is for sure: with the success of Hetalia, other sweeping, shallow mixtures of politics, war and marketable character design are sure to follow. The Last Temptation of Christ: The Manga, anyone?
Update, 9:54 a.m., May 6, 2020: This post has been updated to remove broken video embeds.
“Invisible Manga” columnist Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide, manga editor of Otaku USA magazine, and the editor of numerous manga series. His graphic novel King of RPGs comes out in January from Del Rey Manga.