Consider the case of Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakamatachi, a show which, while ultimately unapologetic about its use of moe elements, is bound by the demands of its target audience (or something) to include one of those episodes. You know the one — the episode that goes beyond mere self-awareness, that subjects moe itself and its effect upon fans (though the two may be one) to proper scrutiny. This is no mere played-straight moe romp; this show knows the culture that birthed it. Or so it purports, anyway.
To be honest, and so you aren’t without perspective, I genuinely enjoy Ookami-san; I suppose that, after all, I’m one of those viewers who, consciously or otherwise, equates self-reference with an “intelligent” use of tropes and traditions. But I’m also a little troubled by the gulf between how the show deals with its female lead and how it presents most everyone else, and we probably have more to learn from that uncertain space than from the most genre-savvy of disembodied narrative voices.
Ookami-san and the Third Episode
We should start with the self-reference, I suppose, because it’s most visible; this is the sort of thing that might influence us overtly as we watch, if we’re inclined to let it.
And I suppose I am so inclined, in this case, as it’s been a little while since I’ve simultaneously laughed and fist-pumped at a single anime episode so hard as I did at Ookami-san 3.
The episode serves up a pageant-like contest (with overtones of — well, you know) between a character who, in terms of discrete moe elements, is perhaps somewhat lacking, or even “flat” (so to speak)…
…and the school’s resident loli idol with a heart of obsidian, voiced, of course, by Rie Kugimiya.
No, well, there’s more to it than that. Predictably enough, our heroes find themselves saddled with the task of swinging the votes in favor of Otohime (as in Otohime), insofar as she’s their friend and all — which of course means they’ll have to deal with hardcore fans of Usami’s moe-moe. A daunting prospect, as you may imagine.
Things proceed well enough at first. Our heroes aren’t ignorant of their fictional circumstances; they know they have their work cut out for them, as, in having a boyfriend, Otohime commits that most heinous of offenses against potential fans. Moe is “pure,” after all. But Usami’s moe isn’t an unequivocal boon; the student body includes a fair number of moe-haters, and, at the outset, opinion seems divided fairly evenly between the moe paragon and the plain but genuine-seeming character. A campaign of defamation vs. Usami seems like just the thing Otohime needs to gain an edge.
Perhaps needless to say, however, this sort of thing never works; the other side has an annoying tendency to defame back. Otogi Bank must consider other strategies.
Thence plan B:
I guess Zero no Tsukaima cosplay seemed like a good idea at the time (I’m not complaining). And it works, after a fashion.
It’s a twofold victory: Ringo succeeds at stealing votes from Usami (character overlap, after all), which was the primary objective of this impromptu photo shoot, but it isn’t lost upon anyone that Otohime’s in there, too, doing her best Henrietta impression. Remarkably, while the campaign to lessen Usami’s moe value failed practically as it began (or, rather, backfired practically as much as it worked), the effort to fight moe with moe evidently succeeds.
But it’s a short-lived success, as, when Usami shows up, both sides allow themselves to be goaded into verbal fisticuffs the likes of which just aren’t appropriate where moe is involved. It’s an aimless conflict from which no one emerges unscathed — this has become something of a recurring motif at this point.
And, once the motif is in place — and once we see where this episode’s going, metafiction-wise — it’s easy enough to guess how the whole thing ends: neither Otohime nor Usami wins the Miss Otogi contest. In fact, they both lose utterly, and Otohime only manages a single vote because her boyfriend (Urashima Tarou, of course) casts his ballot in accordance with the moral of the story, i.e. Otohime really only ever cared what Tarou thought of her anyway.
Now, let’s review. Pro-moe and anti-moe factions clash. Everyone loses. The fan who just wants to like what he likes and be left alone (in this case, Tarou — he’s unusually monogamous in this episode) knew how it would end, of course, but who cares about that guy, anyway?
In short: yes.
Never have I so adamantly agreed with a metafictional representation of the moe debate.
Ookami-san and Ookami-san
That considered, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the show’s eponymous character, who for all intents and purposes seems like a case study in tsundere. And this is unusual not simply because Ookami-san devotes an episode to poking fun at its roots, but also because, while most of the show’s female characters bear certain moe markers, they aren’t unequivocal moeblobs. Moe is often merely the catalyst for examinations of troubled pasts and personal faults (some of which threaten to undermine the moe reaction itself), and while this may be true of Ookami, to some extent, she’s played remarkably straight in a show that rarely resists diving beneath the surface.
Simply put, Ookami is the irritable yet sensible character whose independence is depicted as a fault, a mere byproduct of trust issues.
Our hero standing up for his woman, ladies and gentleman.
I have a problem with this; in a way I feel obligated to, tsundere fan though I may be. Maybe it’s my typically American valuation of self-reliance; maybe it’s my academic background in the humanities, which these days necessarily includes a healthy introduction to second-wave feminism. But, in any case, I have a hard time stomaching scenes in which, far from admiring how far Ookami has come as an independent young woman, certain characters contemplate how strange and unfeminine it is that Ookami won’t rely on anyone else.
It doesn’t help that, in Ryoushi’s case, there’s kind of an inconsistency here.
How are we supposed to take this? Maybe Ryoushi spends too much time listening to other characters go on about Ookami’s chewy center (I’m looking at you, Ringo), and thus allows himself to be goaded into the “Ookami’s not strong!” rhetoric of the fifth episode. Maybe it’s wish-fulfillment on his part; Ookami’s physical competence looks nice from a distance, but when Ryoushi moves in for the kill, he discovers that he truly wants Ookami to be weak enough to require his manly protection, at the very least. Most probably — and this is what bothers me — Ookami’s self-defensive shell really is a flat-out weakness in the world the show constructs.
But, now, wait a minute. We’re supposed to wag our fingers at Ookami for not wearing her heart on her sleeve and making her personal hangups readily apparent to all? Allow me to rephrase: we’re supposed to demonize (or at least unfeminize) Ookami for her having reached a point at which her insecurities no longer prevent her from getting through the day — for doing something that everyone does?
“But Pontifus!” you cry. “You said you were a tsundere fan, but here you bemoan tsundere itself!” Yeah, fine; I never promised that my visceral responses to things would adhere strictly to logic (that being a patently absurd promise). But, in all fairness, a tsundere character is at the very least a character whose hard-won strengths I can recognize even if the narrative doesn’t, and whose weaknesses make some sort of sense in that we all have problems we don’t like to talk about, problems that may threaten our connections with others.
I maintain, though, that Ookami is a particularly egregious example in that her co-characters continually draw attention to her “weakness;” it’s something of a moderate-sized issue in the show as of my writing this (i.e. nine episodes in). It would even seem that both Ryoushi and Ringo have fallen in love with that perceived chink in their companion’s armor; Ringo’s typical advice to Ookami amounts not to “open up a little and combine your strengths with those of your friends,” but to “lean on this man the narrative so benevolently placed in your path, for such is the way of the girl.” And that seems a little troubling to me. Your mileage may vary.
As if that weren’t enough, there’s one other thing that gets under my skin a little. I’m talking about a certain scene in the seventh episode…
It doesn’t bother Ryoushi that Ookami may have been a victim (read: a victim) of sexual assault. And, given how the scene is presented — Ryoushi’s in super-manly, admirable mode here — I can only assume that we’re supposed to interpret this as some heroic and benevolent act on his part.
It’s probably worth noting that Ryoushi is “rewarded” for said heroism/benevolence:
Oh, well, that’s one less thing to worry about, right?
No. I’m not buying it. He doesn’t hold sexual assault against a victim thereof — in no way does that make him a mighty hero, worthy of song and statuary; that just means he’s sane, much less decent. We should all aspire to Ryoushi’s accomplishment of not being a goddamn idiot.
Alright, wait — before you leap, mouth frothing, in the general direction of the comment form, let me explain. To some extent I’m willing to cut Ookami-san a break for this one, and to concede that my reading of this scene largely results from my acquaintance with victims of sexual assault who became objects of scorn for having been victims. We bring our experience into our art because that’s how consumption works; it can’t be helped.
There is, after all, a more reasoned way of reading this scene. Surely the writers responsible knew of the strange condition of otaku sexuality, the ability to consume all kinds of weird porn balanced mysteriously with a preference for “pure” women. This is a generalization, of course, but it’s a trend evident to many, the likes of psychologists (Tamaki Saitou) and cultural critics (Hiroki Azuma) included. And please note that I’m not trying to condemn anyone here (no, really); as a wise blogger once said,
This is, to me, no more and no less valid than demanding pettanko, nekomimi, dojikko, megane, or any other fetish of a show. True, when my friends in the US say something like “I won’t watch X show; it’s not moe,” they are aware on some level of how absurd that is, how very self-serving and subjective their criteria are. But so what? They are watching anime for their own enjoyment, and that is not something that other otaku tend to criticize as “unrealistic.” Nor is fan-rage something that otaku are incapable of appreciating… [moritheil, “On Kannagi and Virginity”]
In some ways we’re dealing with a fetish like any other. We don’t have to read too far into it; Ookami-san is capitalizing on how its audience tends to feel about a particular thing, which is hardly unique.
Still, we’re talking about a fetish which, in certain (3D) circumstances, can prove profoundly damaging. Maybe Ookami-san means to confront us with ourselves, to turn our scrutiny inward. And, really, I can only appreciate that sort of move — but then why take the easy way out and leave Ookami “pure” after all?
It’s a troubling scene, to be sure, and it may portend interesting things to come. But let’s let that simmer for now. The important thing to take away from this is that, as of the ninth episode, Ookami-san’s heroine proves strangely straightforward, given all the subversions and semi-subversions and interesting iterations going on around her.
Ookami-san and Those Ironies I Mentioned
And that’s weird, isn’t it? Ookami-san seems to be a moe show that actually subverts moe that actually doesn’t subvert moe, or subverts its subversion of (subverted?) moe, or something. Roland Barthes would wet himself at the prospect.
It seems like a proper mess. And maybe we shouldn’t untangle it; maybe it’s far more interesting as a proper mess. But we can’t just leave it lying there.
We see here evidence of a moe (if I may) in conflict with itself. The moe database or the moe hive mind or whatever has, like the dodongo that it is, swallowed some foreign, explosive things — criticism of itself, traditional ideas of plot and value — and now it has to change to accommodate those unfamiliar shapes, or else it’ll burst. And before you start going on about how that’s a good thing, please be aware that the explosion may prove well and truly nuclear. We aren’t talking about some small and isolated counterculture movement; we’re talking about moe, which, at this point, essentially shares a border with all things anime.
But I really don’t foresee an explosion. Ways of making and thinking about art aren’t so volatile; they shift, they divide and give rise to new things, though they generally remain more or less intact for quite a while afterward.
This seems terribly exciting to me. Perhaps we’re on a cusp, or perhaps the cusp is five or ten years off, but we’re seeing the first signs of moe’s going the way of the expansive, all-encompassing, socially-engaging narratives (e.g. UC Gundam, the Leijiverse, Mamoru Oshii’s resume) that preceded it atop the throne of popularity (and which remain the refuge of the old guard, as they’re so loudly wont to tell you). So what’s next?
It may be too early to tell, but, if nothing else, this brings us at last to those ironies.
Let’s pretend for a moment that there’s some motivated intent behind Ookami’s characterization. Intent isn’t something I generally require in my interpretations, but it’s something that many consumers still value, so, for the benefit of those consumers, let’s pretend.
In giving her qualities we recognize as admirable or valuable (to someone, if not to us personally) — besieged purity, the tsundere type — Ookami-san sets its heroine upon the familiar moe pedestal. The rest of the cast, narrator included, then comes along and proceeds to hammer at the pedestal until there isn’t much left. But Ookami remains a fairly straightforward sort of moe character. What keeps her aloft? Well, we do — and when we realize this, we realize also that Ookami’s weight is familiar to us, that we remember something that we allowed to be effaced: we were the pedestal all along.
What does it really mean to like a character like Ookami? Liking characters whose flaws more aptly evoke real human failings and idiosyncrasies — the sometimes cold Ringo, the unfaithful Tarou, the clingy and perhaps vindictive Otohime, the conceited Usami, the obsessive Tsurugaya, the airheaded Liszt, even the timid Ryoushi — feels at once more difficult and more natural. Initially, Ookami’s greatest problem seems to amount to an inability to embrace her own girlishness; when we learn that Ookami wasn’t explicitly sexually assaulted, the show bends over backwards to elicit from us a sigh of relief, while nonetheless making certain that there was still some sort of assault involved that we may or may not remember when we finish sighing.
What do our singular responses toward Ookami mean? What does it mean that we’ve learned to like a character type whose continued existence owes itself to our liking it? There’s a weight here and no pedestal to heft it for us. There has never been a pedestal.
Ookami-san does not seem to suffer from that ubiquitous complaint, the total inward-looking nature of moe and its products. Perhaps Ookami-san is a small mirror set in an intricate frame; perhaps my rage at the framing of Ookami’s “weakness” and “purity” is the rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass.
These are things I’ve tolerated in shows that I’ve liked. I’m being confronted with my own value systems here. And the result may not be pretty — but it did inspire a hefty blog post, didn’t it?
Without presuming too much, maybe this is what we want now — after all, Ookami-san’s being animated suggests that the light novels became somewhat popular. Maybe this is why we tolerate nisiOisin’s crazy oceans of dialogue and Negima’s hundred-plus-chapter arcs. Maybe we’re ready to see our irrational loves honed into needles and turned against us in excruciatingly subtle ways; maybe we’re about to tumble headfirst into a sort of moe modernism, an upheaval that looks back with longing almost as often as it looks eagerly forward.
But let’s stop pretending now — we were pretending, remember? — and ask ourselves what it means if the disparity between Ookami and her supporting cast isn’t strictly “intentional.” That is, rather than interpreting it as a clever narrative move, let’s think of it as an accident.
At the very least it seems to demonstrate a tension or an irony evident in moe itself, an irony with which we’re familiar by now — the moe show must poke fun at itself and its viewers whenever it takes moe seriously (Strike Witches notwithstanding). And Ookami-san does this, certainly; maybe the supporting cast and the third episode give us enough of an excuse to watch the show for Ookami herself. I tend not to think that excuses are necessary, that we should ever apologize for what we like, but Ookami-san (among other shows) may suggest that my opinion is not that of the majority.
Or, then again, maybe there’s a kind of masochistic appeal to watching our preferences undermine themselves and our love for them. I do enjoy seeing my favored tropes scrutinized, when it’s done reasonably and not unkindly. But this brings us again to the idea of moe as a closed system — the moe show doesn’t often tackle broad cultural concerns, but can we really accuse moe of being wholly inward-focused when it wrangles social issues at the personal level? Surely an investigation of the virginity trope isn’t simply an investigation of virginity as trope.
Ookami-san is, after all, a singular example — but it’s an interesting example, I think, and I wonder how far the possibilities I broach here would go when applied to other franchises.