A Coming-of-Moe Story
July 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
In my mission to join the conversation about last year’s anime a bit too late to be heard, I just finished Stella Jogakuin Koutou-ka C³-bu, the latest from the once-storied studio of GAINAX. In brief, I enjoyed myself enough watching it for what it was, but more for what it made me think about my own tastes.
The best way to put it is that I have a thing for what I’m going to call the “moe bildungsroman.” It’s everywhere, once you know how to look for it, probably because it’s the easiest way to feminize the stock shounen format. A girl comes to a new place and, after a few episodes of self-discovery, finds that she really loves something, some kind of ideology or activity, and makes close friends doing it, becoming a better person in the end. It takes the theme of fellowship through excellence that we see in Naruto, Bleach, and their ilk and inverts it into excellence through fellowship, something no doubt viewed as more appropriate to a cast of female characters.
I confess, I love shows with this specific format, even though watching all of Rurouni Kenshin a couple years ago put the nail in my coffin for its male counterpart. 2012’s GIRLS und PANZER is the example of “moe bildungsroman” par excellence. Miho discovers that she really loves tanks and makes friends with her crew, becoming the best tank commander she can be. 2010’s Sora no Woto takes a similar motif of cute girls in combat environments, but the protagonist Kanata has a love of bugle music that she learns from her squadmates and that she uses to lessen the horrors of war. It’s not just war that gives anime the excuse to structure shows this way. The second season of Genshiken in 2007 features Ogiue, who overcomes her self-hatred with the help of her fellow otaku and becomes a successful leader as well as an artist. Even 2002’s Haibane Renmei conforms to the broad strokes of what I’ve outlined above, although it does so in service of a deeper emotional resonance. You can most easily identify this format of anime because it’s the one that always has a shot like this one front and center, letting you know that it’s an ensemble show about girls and friendship:
The “moe bildungsroman” is not ubiquitous. In the above paragraph, I kept wanting to bring up 2009’s K-On!, which I count among its number, but for the life of me, I couldn’t encapsulate it in a way that supported my point. Sure, Yui makes friends and plays the guitar, but nothing really changes. If you watch too many episodes in a row, you get a sense of the stasis there. Even though the girls grow up and go to college, somehow they’ll still be there in that clubroom forever. It’s almost subversive, but I’ll have more to say about K-On! in a different post.
What I like about C³-bu, what I find most worthy about it, is that it makes the subversion of this standardized format entirely explicit. Yura arrives at Stella Women’s Academy with an urgent desire to change herself and meets a club full of weirdos who are willing to teach her how to be the best at something. In the beginning, we see Yura’s confusion and revulsion towards airsoft, which gives way to obsession as she realizes its potential to give her an identity. In true GAINAX fashion, this isn’t a good thing at all. Yura does discover that she really loves airsoft, but then loses all her friends doing it because it makes her a worse person, manic and bitter and entitled. The best moment in the anime, better than all the battle scenes that you’ll find if you google the show, is at the end of the fifth episode, when everyone’s cheering about having fun, but Yura’s cheering about having won, and her mentor Sonora notices it. She looks like this:
Isn’t that fantastic? That’s really just as far as their confrontation goes, too. It feels a bit silly for me to be talking about an emotional beat in an anime as “authentic” for me, not unless it’s Shinji screaming about stuff in End of Evangelion, so I won’t. What I will talk about instead is how great it is to have an anime about how being good at something, about how caring for something, doesn’t always make you friends or even friendly rivals. Sometimes it freaks people out, it pushes them away, it makes you feel unloved. That C³-bu attempts to make a show about such things, especially framed in a format that is about exactly the opposite, leaves me rolling my eyes a little at anyone too fond of declaring that GAINAX is dead post-exodus.
That’s not to say that C³-bu is particularly successful in its attempt. Yura is supremely grating, even though her character arc is interesting and the emotional core of the show. Her ending, the ending of the show, is ultimately regenerative, as with almost all anime endings that aren’t just trying to fuck you up like Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Other elements, like Yura’s reality-altering delusions, go nowhere instead of feeding fully into the central theme I’ve laid out above. Overall, it’s a good show but not a great one. Writing about it just now has brought to my mind Serial Experiments Lain, another anime that’s about an antisocial obsession, at least in part. That’s the show I think of when I think of a successful subversion of a given format, because I could watch it without having seen anything else and understand the commentary that it was making anyway. C³-bu only makes sense as part of a dialogue between the shows I listed at the beginning, which I’m saying as if it were a failing. I don’t know, maybe it is a failing of C³-bu, but it still brings something new to the table. Hopefully, as the new GAINAX gets its feet under it, it can start to make anime that follow through with interesting ideas, whether about the “moe bildungsroman” or anything else, rather than just using those ideas to swim against the current for a while.
I still don’t have much hope for Magica Wars, though. A bunch of cute girls, who wants to watch that?