Weird tropes find their way into anime, and I’m not just talking about tentacle porn. Judgment aside, cat girls, superpowered transfer students and Vespa-riding aliens are objectively a little eyebrow-raising as television plot hooks. To be an anime fan, you get used to things you wouldn’t normally poke with a five-foot pole. Regardless, I was completely unprepared for Uma Musume Pretty Derby, a “moe anthropomorphism” anime that, like others of its genre, portrays non-human subjects as megacute girls.
Uma Musume, translating to “horse daughter,” is an upcoming anime about teenaged girls who are also racehorses and musical idols. The preview opens as the girls escape a cage and excitedly launch into a foot race, their horse ears and tails trailing behind them. Each has her own look—sullen with long hair, spritely and cat-eyed—for viewers to fall for. J-pop plays in the background. In one moment, a horse-girl is catching her breath by a pool. In another, one’s sitting alone at dinner, stomach bloated with carrots, sighing cutely. The girls are offputtingly compelling, their human characteristics over-emphasized despite the fact that they’re…. horses.
What gives? Where did this come from? I stared into the void and the void winked back.
Uma Musume is an extreme example of so-called “moe anthropomorphism,” an anime trope in which protagonists are non-human but possess exaggerated human qualities, especially of the adorable variety. Debra Occhi, a linguistic anthropologist at the Miyazaki International College, describes “moe characters” as “constellations of various cute traits that fans will find appealing to various degrees.” In this sort of anime, computers, countries, animals and household objects have been drawn as super-adorable humans, all with big eyes, heart-melting expressions or youthful sexual appeal. The sort of nurturing, protective love that “moe,” literally “to bud or sprout,” elicits in fans can animate entire television shows about anything from soft drinks to bread buns.
Hetalia, an anime in which countries involved in World War II are portrayed as handsome young men, blew up in 2010 and is in its sixth season. Italy is the protagonist, drawn as a carefree, pasta-munching day-dreamer. On his own, he’s incompetent, so Germany, an over-serious, muscular blonde, lovingly babysits and trains him. The anime follows each anthropomorphized country-boy as he goes through daily life, everything an allegory for historic World War II events.
Jacob Ward, a Hetalia fan, says he got into the anime because he’s a history buff. “Seeing the stereotypes in Hetalia matched almost perfectly what I’d expect,” he told me over e-mail. “You can have countries yelling at each other as if they represent the stereotypes of the country itself.” Ward cited a scene in which America decides that he wants to end global warming because, America says, he “is the hero.” “That refers to the stereotype in which Americans are self-centered in their political views,” Ward explained. “This sort of idea wouldn’t be able to be conveyed as well if the show’s cast was just people from each country instead of the whole country.”
Patrick Galbraith, a Japan-based anthropologist studying otaku culture, told me that his first exposure to moe anthropomorphism was through the 2003 manga Afghanis-tan, which Hetalia is reminiscent of. In Japanese, the “-tan” suffix is an honorific, but it’s also the end of many South-Asian countries’ names (get it?). Afghanis-tan follows a big-eyed Afghan girl who, through her actions and interactions with peers, Pakis-tan and Tajikis-tan, acts as a vehicle for modern Afghan history. Since Afghanist-an hit the market, Galbraith has noticed that moe anthropomorphism is in fact a trend:
“Now, it’s part of a regular phenomenon within anime,” he told me. “Creators are interested in one thing and bring it to others by transforming it into cute girl or boy characters.” When drawn as moe characters, the subject matter elicits an emotional reaction that, for example, WWII or Afghan history may not on its own.
“Moe characters have big faces and round eyes—the kind of face that science tells us triggers a prosocial reaction,” Galbraith added. “When you transform a subject into a cute character, you can interact with it in expanded ways.”
Perhaps the most popular moe anthropomorphism anime is Chobits, an early 2000s coming-of-age story about a young man who stumbles upon what appears to be a beautiful girl in the trash (she is, in fact, a PC). The only sound she makes is a mewing “Chi.” Immediately, she devotes herself to the protagonist, who is enamored of her… girlhood. His sexual attraction to the computer acts as a metaphor for young men’s clumsy but fervent sexual awakening. Galbraith describes Chobits as a “critique of male desire,” but also an exploration of men’s love for fancy new technology, like computers.
Weapons, one of the most impersonal subject matters, thrive in moe anthropomorphism. In the video game Kantai Collection, warships are drawn as cute girls, their incrasingly mature figures reflecting how deadly they are in battle. The anime Upotte!! takes place at Seishou Academy, where the students are anthropomorphized guns. High schoolers are snipers, middle schoolers, assault rifles, and elementary schoolers, machine guns. Funco, the protagonist, speaks with a bubblegum voice, but is also deeply involved in gun warfare. Military-heads can get their gun fix while they watch cute, sexualized girls wax poetic about artillery.
Predictably, marketers have taken advantage of the genre’s ability to humanize basically anything. Already famous for their mascots, Japanese companies have spun anthropomorphized product advertisements into entire anime. Bincho-tan, an anime bout coal, was inspired by the Japanese company Alchemist’s cooking charcoal. In Akikan, Occhi told me, “soft drink can girls have tabs for earrings that control their power. . . drinking the soft drink bears sexual connotations.” The phrase “sex sells” typically refers to clothes or movies—but apparently, drawing sexless products as objects of desire can increase their desirability.
Galbraith elaborated: “Companies are realizing that, if they use a character, they can tap into Japan’s character culture and this affective economy,” he said, referring to consumers’ tendency to shop with their emotions. “Sometimes that works to spread your name.”
Moe anthropomorphism is meant to make dull topics palatable to audiences who would typically be uninterested. When objects are painted as young women, it’s almost a sort of reverse-objectification, indicating to me that objects and female bodies are similar, if not interchangeable. Despite the strength of marketing inanimate objects in the skin of an adorable human, I still can’t quite stomach Uma Musume. At least I can rest easy knowing that, maybe, somehow, it will be flush with information about horse-racing.