Not too long ago I half-jokingly suggested that the first moe character was Hilda (pictured above), the heroine from the 1968 animated film Hols: Prince of the Sun. The basis of this was that Hilda was the creation of a young Takahata and Miyazaki, who would later go on to form Studio Ghibli, and if you’ve ever read Miyazaki’s recollection of his first time watching Legend of the White Serpent, you’ll not only see similarities between Hilda and Pai-Nan, the heroine of Legend of the White Serpent, but also between his reaction and the way fans of Key games talk about their beloved works: Miyazaki actually cried the whole night, and fell in love with Pai-Nan. Of course, if Pai-Nan had such an impression, then it’s possible to argue that she’s the first moe character, but regardless of what character has the distinction, I suspect that the tragic element which defines both of these characters also has an influence on the development of female characters in anime and manga, and by extension the idea of moe.
In the trailer to Hols: Prince of the Sun, Hilda is introduced, accompanied by on-screen text saying, “Am I a demon, or a human being?” This highlights the inner conflict of her character, as Hilda is both the sister of the main villain as well as the love interest of the hero. She plays both a romantic and an antagonistic role, and the fact that she struggles over which is her “true self” is the inherent tragedy of the character. Star-crossed lovers are nothing new to media, of course, but according to The Pretty Character Chronicles: The History of Animation Heroines, 1958-1999, the early Toei animated films, of which both Hols and Legend of the White Serpent are included (though these titles are themselves about a decade apart), often feature heroines who begin the movies as antagonists.
Pai-Nan doesn’t quite fit this concept, as she’s more of a tragically cursed character, a princess in need of rescue in the vein of a classic Disney Princess. This makes a degree of sense, given that Toei’s goal was to try to be the “Disney of the East,” but when you look at heroines in classic Disney films, none of them fulfill the role that Hilda or other similar Toei heroines play as partial antagonists. In fact, if you look at Disney animated films as a whole, there’s pretty much only one character who does fit this bill: Megara from Hercules, a film from 1997. In other words, “damsel-in-distress” is not quite the function of these Toei heroines.
What relevance does this have to current anime and the presence of moe, then? My argument is that the tragedy component of heroines such as Hilda has been reduced or compacted to varying degrees, so when you have a character who has traits commonly considered moe, such as a character who suffers from being short in a slice-of-life comedy, what you’re seeing is an on-going series of tiny tragedies, like with Yuno in Hidamari Sketch. The tsundere, especially the more contemporary tsundere type, is another example, as a character who struggles with being true to her feelings can be considered tragic in her own way. Hidamari Sketch also provides one such character in the form of Natsume, whose feelings for the character Sae remain unrequited due to Natsume’s own stubbornness.
While I think the criticism of moe characters as feeding off the desire of men to want to rescue the poor female victim is valid to a good extent, I think that the quality which has transmitted itself from those early Toei days all the way to the current age is not so much that of the “helpless girl” but that of “helplessness.” A girl tragically trapped in a situation can be moe, but what’s considered even more moe is the heroine who can’t be helped no matter what. In such a case, powerlesssness becomes not so much the half-way point in an elaborate power fantasy, but the end point in and of itself, with the potential for empathy between not just the viewer and the hero, but the viewer and the heroine. Of course, that’s somewhat of an extreme case, and the end result really depends on how individual works wish to resolve the inner conflict of the descendants of the tragic antagonistic heroines.