Every war brings sorrow and suffering. There is a different perspective, though, as people have long been attracted to images of heroes, tales of fantastic exploits, and powerful weapons. But what if, say, World War II became an unserious mass culture thing and a source of entertainment? This is exactly what Japanese military moe looks like: TV shows and comic books about young and beautiful female pilots, tankers, and sailors. Let’s take a closer look at this exciting phenomenon.
The world of Japanese pop culture is truly immense. A single article will never be enough to fully describe how wars and other militaristic topics are portrayed in the mass culture of contemporary Japan. We will only examine the peculiar style of military moe in terms of the most popular and financially successful franchises of our time. Anime, manga, and games that we will explore below barely have outstanding artistic merits, yet they perfectly characterize the very phenomenon of military moe as a product of pop culture.
Moe is a hard-to-define term describing one of the main categories of contemporary Japanese pop culture. In a very simplistic way, we can identify it as the embodiment of everything cute and pleasant in appearance and nature, which is associated with images of charming and pure (kawaii) young girls. Accordingly, military moe stands for the affection for cuteness associated with the world of the military. For example, beauties named as warships of World War II sing in their song “shells of my love cannot reach you.”
The term fanservice most often refers to the deliberate sexualization of heroines of commercial anime and manga targeting their male audiences. Playful erotica, also known as ecchi, is a frequent, but by no means mandatory element of moe.
There are currently three main formats of commercial anime. Series are released to be aired on TV and broadcast on legal streaming services (including those English-language), and are then sold on DVDs and Blue-ray discs once the show ends. OVAs (original video animation) are mini-series, individual bonus episodes, and short films that are originally released on discs. Finally, feature films are made for movie theaters (mainly in Japan, although international distribution has also evolved). After they have finished their run in theaters, they are sold on discs, just like TV series.
There are numerous types of printed goods associated with anime, but we will focus on the three fundamental ones. Manga is the established name for Japanese comic books, which are published in magazines and in separate volumes (various formats of digital distribution are increasingly implemented now). There are also doujinshi books, unofficial manga based on popular works. Another exclusively Japanese format is the ranobe, or light novel. These are illustrated novels catering for the younger audience and with their stories close to anime and manga.
A little background
Animation and comics were quite popular back in the times of the Japanese Empire (before 1945) and even then some of them exploited military themes. In the atmosphere of militarism that engulfed the country, the then purely childish genres and styles became a propaganda tool. Some comic books designed for the youngest audience glorified soldiers of the Imperial Army in the 1930s. The first real anime feature films, released in 1943 and 1945, were explicitly manipulative. In those pictures, a popular hero of Japanese folklore, Momotarō, used various animals to crush the Americans, the British and their allies.
The real advent of powerful animation and comic book industry came after World War II and the American occupation. By the 1970s, the studio and editorial systems had been in place, and some of the formats of commercial feature films, television series, and manga series that emerged back then are still there. The main genres of animation and comics were gradually outlined, and their standards still apply today. Mahō shōjo is a notable genre format that was later reflected in military moe. These are stories about good and noble young female witches, their friendship and exploits in their fight against evil forces. The old classic mecha genre is as a rule associated with combat robots, but the depiction of fantastic combat vehicles in anime is not uncommon for military moe as well.
The subject of World War II has long been marginalized in Japanese popular culture. If this complex and poignant issue was ever raised, it was taken seriously and was well beyond commercial exploitation. As a rule, only those who survived the war personally were allowed to speak out. For example, one of the “founding fathers” of modern manga, Shigeru Mizuki, published the autobiographical comic book Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths in 1973 about his service in the Japanese army in New Guinea. Keiji Nakazawa, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a child, published his autobiographical manga Struck by Black Rain in 1968, which underpinned the internationally acclaimed epic Barefoot Gen.
The serious attitude to World War II was also characteristic of anime works of the second half of the 20th century. The epic manga Barefoot Gen that we mentioned above recounts the sufferings of the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and had two feature-length film adaptations (in 1984 and 1986), which turned out to be very popular. One of the pinnacles of the 20th century Japanese cinema was the dramatic feature Grave of the Fireflies (1988), created at the famous Studio Ghibli by classic director Isao Takahata, who himself survived the 1945 bombing. This piercing story about the fate of children during World War II won international acclaim as a vivid and powerful anti-war manifesto.
As times changed, authors, readers, and viewers appeared, for whom the disastrous war was only history. Japan had enjoyed decades of peace, its Self-Defense Forces were not engaged in combat, and by the end of the 20th century, military themes had been perceived as something too distant from Japanese realities. However, the community interested in military history and military affairs turned out to be quite broad. Most fans of militaristic themes have nothing to do whatsoever with history as a science or military service — they are high school students, college students, young office workers, etc. These people are simply excited to learn about the flashy events of the past, attractive characters, and powerful machinery. It was only a matter of time for a product designed for such an audience to appear within the realm of moe aesthetics.
The article is too brief for us to explore in detail all of the trends in the depiction of wars and weapons in Japanese pop culture at the end of the 20th century. Let us only note that by the 1980s and 1990s, military adventures of all sorts had been firmly “established” in comic books and on the screen. Even back then “kawaii militarism” — young beauties with weapons or military equipment — was a thing. However, no direct connection between military history and commercial anime and manga was observed — it could only be manifested in the form of individual phenomena, which did not have any influence on the overall picture.
The situation changed during the first years of the 21st century, when the mecha musume style (loosely translated as “mechanical girl”) became popular among Japanese artists close to anime and manga. Many authors started drawing ships, planes, armored vehicles, and even firearms shaped as attractive kawaii girls. Often the very image of a drawn heroine was based, in one way or another, on the fate of her historical prototype, peculiarities of its construction, etc. Naturally, the drawings seemed to have some stories behind them: permanent characters and relationships between them. The commercial potential of the style was appreciated by business: in the 2000s, collectible mecha musume figurines (the Konami Corporation series being the most famous one), art books, and thematic magazines became available to the public. It was literally one step away from the birth of anime and manga.
Mecha musume connoisseurs can find traces of the beloved genre in the works of certain authors dating back all the way to the 1980s-1990s, but the heyday of the style in terms of its popularity and commercial success was observed in the early years of the 21st century. It would be safe to say that artist and screenwriter Fumikane Shimada made the pivotal contribution to the genre. As a lover of military history, it was he who linked mecha musume with the images of World War II weapons. All of those trends perfectly fit in the phenomenon known as “moe anthropomorphism”, a popular tendency among contemporary Japanese artists to depict various tangible (and even intangible) objects as cute girls (and occasionally even guys).
The phenomenon of moe anthropomorphism in general and mecha musume in particular played a significant role in the emergence of military moe, paving the way for a new trend in Japanese pop culture that made a loud statement.
The abovementioned artist and screenwriter Fumikane Shimada, who collaborated with manga magazine Comp Ace and Konami Corporation, was the first one to create a full narrative concept based on the trendy style — a world of the 1940s, in which Strike Witches fly on devices resembling World War II piston-engined aircraft instead of brooms. The idea was approved, and in the fall of 2005 the first issue of the manga Strike Witches: Maidens of the Blue Skies was published. The book was not a success and was quickly discontinued, but the idea was never lost. A year later, a series of ranobe books entitled Suomus Misfits Squadron was published. It was not a hit, either, but it attracted public attention.
Finally, in January 2007, the first anime was released, a short 20-minute OVA, a sort of pilot for a promising series, introducing the audience to the fictional world and its characters.
In short, the setting of Strike Witches is a kind of dieselpunk inspired by the classic mahō shōjo anime genre. The plot is built on the assumption that there is magical energy in the world that only witches can control. Humanity is at war with some alien civilization known as the Neuroi, and to fight them, flying machines are used that are powered by magical energy. These vehicles are flown by specially trained female pilots — strike witches recruited from among the most talented girls of various nations. The action takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, when instead of World War II, people of all countries joined their efforts in a grand battle against the Neuroi who sought to conquer the Earth. The initial setting was targeting young men and had a powerful fanservice component, the most striking manifestation of which was the fact that oddly enough, most of the Strike Witches do not wear skirts or trousers and choose to parade in their undies in any weather.
The creation of a full-fledged anime became a crucial milestone in the history of the franchise. Strike Witches was released in 2008 and quickly became a real hit, with an army of fans around the world. New manga and ranobe releases followed (a lot more commercially successful than those previous), along with music albums and audio plays, books, souvenirs, and video games. A massive international Strike Witches fandom quickly took shape, supported by doujinshi, fan art, and fanfic authors.
The second season was released in 2010, a feature was ready in 2012, and three Strike Witches: Operation Victory Arrow OVA series followed in 2014-2015. In 2016, a reboot of the anime series, Brave Witches, appeared, featuring a new team of female protagonists. A series of manga and ranobe focusing on various witches was released almost every year in the past decade. To celebrate the decade-long success, some anniversary project has been announced for the year 2018. It is not yet known whether it will be an anime, manga, or something else. The franchise is showing enviable commercial longevity for such a project.
Girls und Panzer
The phenomenal success of Strike Witches contributed to the immense popularity of military moe. Japan was flooded with anime, manga, and games that exploited the theme of kawaii militarism one way or another. The Girls und Panzer franchise, centered on young female tankers, managed to win public affection. Initially, the project was a product of a team of prominent authors, including members of the original team that created Strike Witches. In the summer and autumn of 2012, the Girls und Panzer manga, light novels and anime series hit the market almost simultaneously. The decision turned out to have been well thought-out: the franchise immediately attracted massive public attention.
Girls und Panzer is set in modern Japan. The fictional world differs from reality in that its most popular sport is sensha-dō (“the way of the tank” or “tankism”, as it is referred to in Russian-speaking communities). The sport envisages team battles on tanks, which use World War II equipment, but all the weapons are absolutely safe for players. Most notably, sensha-dō is a women’s sport that thrives at the school level. Rich and prestigious schools can afford powerful teams with a lot of equipment, but it is the weaker team of newbies whom no one takes seriously that turns into unbeatable champions through perseverance and the power of friendship, as is often the case in the sports adventure genre. A curious detail of the Girls und Panzer setting is that the style of many of the schools is clearly inspired by the World War II-era nations. Brits, Germans, Americans and others try to behave according to their national stereotypes and use armored vehicles that fit their specific styles.
The tanker girl series became a commercially successful hit, whereas manga and ranobe also enjoyed their share of attention. What followed was the typical fate of a commercial franchise, looking a lot like the above example of Strike Witches. New manga series were launched, and games, music albums, books, and memorabilia suiting all tastes were released. Loyal fans remain active, creating doujinshi and fan art. Anime is the “main course”, served to the hungry public, willing to devour new heroines, right in time. From 2012 to 2016, as many as eight OVA series were released, and the story of the vivid Italian team became especially popular. In 2015, the feature film, Girls und Panzer der Film, was released, and in December 2017, a whole series entitled Girls und Panzer das Finale is scheduled to run in Japan. The Girls und Panzer franchise notably collaborates with the World of Tanks game that has the same focus. The images of some of the Girls und Panzer heroines were used in ads of the Japanese Wargaming branch — they appeared in the official manual, offered in the form of a manga.
The military moe franchise centered on the Navy was also destined to enjoy a great commercial success. Underpinning it was the free-to-play web browser game Kantai Collection (“Fleet Collection”), created by Kadokawa Corporation and launched in the spring of
2013 on dmm.com. Kensuke Tanaka remains the producer who played a key role in its design and development. Tanaka’s project quickly gained phenomenal popularity, becoming a new icon for fans already in the first few months after its release. Over the years, versions of the game were developed for PS Vita consoles, Android mobile devices, slot machines, and even a board game became available. In 2018, it is planned to upgrade the online version and move it to a new engine.
The player acts as Admiral (Teitoku in Japanese, so players are often called this name), who gets a fleet of kanmusu (derived from kantai musume — fleet girls) under his command. The kanmusu are named after World War II warships, and their combat capabilities, appearance and personalities relate in some way to the design and fate of those ships, from support ships and patrol vessels to battleships and heavy aircraft carriers. Smaller ships (frigates, destroyers, and submarines) are portrayed as very young girls; larger ships (cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers) look more like grown-up girls. The game was originally dedicated to the Japanese Imperial Navy, but gradually ships from other World War II nations were added: Germany, Italy, the U.S., UK, France and the USSR.
Unlike Strike Witches or Girls und Panzer, the creators of the KanColle (as the game is abbreviated) universe never sought to offer a coherent story or a more or less detailed world view. The admiral and his fleet fight mysterious monsters that are eager to take over the sea and known to players as abyssals (from “deep waters”). The origins of the kanmusu and abyssals and the reasons why they fight are not revealed in the game. The anime and manga series offer various theories, none of which are declared to be official by the developers. It can be assumed that the navy girls embody the souls of the World War II ships, but there is no consensus on this, either.
The fast commercial success of the game was supported by the traditional franchise-promotion techniques: the release of several manga series, printed products, music, and numerous souvenirs. The role of anime in the promotion of the Kantai Collection was slightly different: the series, released in early 2015, was not the locomotive of the franchise, but was rather originally created as a promo product for the game. To be fair, attempts by anime writers to create a storyline have had a mixed reaction from orthodox gamers. However, the series achieved its goals by becoming popular with viewers and recruiting a new audience. A full-length feature was released in 2016, and reports about the second season of the series (or an OVA series) are not more than rumors. The powerful fandom plays an important role in KanColle, tirelessly putting out enormous volumes of doujinshi, fan art, and other fan stuff.
Readers of this article may get the impression that the frivolous attitude toward the tragedy of World War II is typical of Japanese society, which turns it into a source of entertainment. First of all, one should remember that the grave and painful episodes are deliberately avoided by the authors of military moe, so it is hard to accuse them of insulting someone’s feelings. Second, and most importantly, the tradition of serious depiction of the past in Japanese mass culture has never been interrupted. This is evidenced by the intellectual anime films centered on World War II, which have been released one after another and which have been a success with audiences and critics alike. Examples include Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island (2014), and Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World (2016), etc.
The first encounter with military moe may cause a viewer wonder whether all of this is apologia for the Japanese Empire, a manifestation of revenge-seeking, or an advertisement commissioned by Japan’s contemporary armed forces. It is hard to give a simple answer. Indeed, it is easy to find fervent Japanese patriotism and the glorification of heroes of the past in such works. On the other hand, military moe is markedly apolitical; its authors try to be as politically correct and neutral as possible. As for the Self-Defense Forces ads, there is no evidence of any state order for their creation in anime, manga, or game formats (unless you are ready to delve into a conspiracy theory). Under the influence of the “kawaii militarism” fashion, the Japanese armed forces order cute mascots or hire models and actresses for their campaigns, but nobody disguises this as a commercial endeavor.
Last, but not least, the key message of military moe is notably not Japanese military power, but friendship and understanding, including international friendship. In these stories, representatives of various nations either get together to fight a common enemy (as in Strike Witches or Kantai Collection, where heroines from countries that used to be enemies in reality fight shoulder to shoulder) or simply live in peace and mutual respect (as in Girls und Panzer, where young Japanese girls are inspired by the history and culture of other nations). The simple fact that such works resonate in the hearts of people all over the world is convincing evidence that military moe deserves its right to exist.
- Alt Matt. Japan`s cute army https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/japans-cute-army.