Of fangs and maid outfits...
In the field of behavioral psychology, there is something called classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning is a form of associative learning that was first discovered by Ivan Pavlov. Classical conditioning, when put into layman's terms, makes one think of "Pavlov's Dog". The idea behind Pavlov's Dog is that the dog would automatically salivate in the presence of meat powder, but that if the presentation of meat powder became associated with another form of external stimuli (such as the appearance of the person who typically feeds the dog), then that other form of external stimuli could, in and of itself (separate from the presence of meat) cause the dog to salivate.
Pavlov took observations like the one above pertaining to dogs, and used them to formulate classical conditioning.
Now, classical conditioning certainly has its practical uses, particularly in the field of psychology. But its not without its limitations and critics. One obvious criticism of it, of course, is that its a form of reflexive learning, where autonomic reflexes and vague mental associations takes the place of a person applying critical and self-aware thinking to the problems at hand.
At this point, you may be asking "What does all of this psychobabble have to do with anime?"
Excellent question, good reader!
And that is exactly what I'm going to delve into now.
In the world of entertainment (including anime), there is frequently a Pavlovian element at play. For example, there are specific and frequently seen sequence of events that lead to the viewer having a very specific expectation of what will come next. One of the most prominent and well-known examples of this is the following: When Lois Lane falls (or is pushed) off of a high-rise rooftop or ledge, seemingly about to crash to her doom, we expect to see this happen...
For some, the scene above is vintage Superman. For many Superman fans, it is a comforting and nostalgic reminder to them about why they love The Man of Steel. So when they see Superman catch a falling Lois Lane, they crack a grin and think "Good ol' Supes to the rescue of Lois again, just as I expected! Great to see the genuinely noble hero rescue the girl, eh? This is why I want to be like Superman!"
However, for some, this is a disliked cliche, or an example of a trope that has overstayed its welcome.
Still, whether you like it or not, it's not that big of a deal, as long as other elements of the specific Superman narrative that contains it, constitute a good story with compelling characters and gripping character moments. In other words, there is something in the narrative that appeals to our intelligence in order to compliment Superman saving Lois which appeals at the level of classical conditioning.
But... what if a Superman story was just about him going around and doing cliche Superman-y things? Rescues a cat out of a tree, gives a plummeting airplane a safe descent, catches Lois falling off of a high ledge, and caps off the day by stopping a couple thugs (brandishing hand guns and wearing handkerchiefs over their mouth and face, of course) from making off with a little old lady's purse. To all but the most hardcore of Superman fans, this would likely bore them to tears. It may even elicit sighs and eye rolls.
And this brings us to modern anime, and what I think is the real issue plaguing it, which moe has ended up being the whipping boy for.
Consider the first episode of the highly anticipated Winter 2011 anime Infinite Stratos. Now, this anime is not without it strengths (solid male lead, good character designs, excellent mecha action). Also, I don't want to go too hard on it since it's only had one episode so far, and it could certainly get much better as the series goes on. However, the comedy portions of that one episode is pavlovian entertainment if ever there was any, and hence is helpful here for demonstrative purposes.
So far, the female characters are pure archetypes, even moreso than our previously referenced Kryptonian friend. Much of the comedy is of a situational nature, and those situations are ones that most long-time anime fans have seen myriad times before. This comedy, by the way, takes up a very large portion of the first episode. The tsundere behavior in this episode is prototypical tsundere behavior, and comes largely from... wait for it... the childhood friend of the male lead! Who woulda thunk it?! ;)
Oh, and the male lead also has a sister that is harsh to him. ...Where have I seen that before?
In fairness, there's nothing wrong with having a few Pavlovian elements in one's entertainment. Like Superman saving a falling Lois Lane, or Tsuruya flashing the lone fang smile while wearing a maid outfit, they can be a pleasant reminder of just what made (some of) us fans in the first place. Furthermore, cliches and tropes are cliches and tropes because they tend to work; they tend to achieve the desired emotional effect.
However the key, again, is complimenting such cliche and trope elements with a good, solid story. While some "individual trees" can stand out as testaments to the conventions that have shaped their particular entertainment genre, "the forest" still should be awe-inspiring and
thought-provoking in its totality. The problem is that too many anime fans are no longer seeing the forest through the trees: they're no longer caring about the story or character development, and are only caring about desired pavlovian elements.
The anime industry has responded to such fans by giving us a lot of animes that are more fusions of pavlovian elements than a true story. This has raised the ire of some older anime fans that became anime fans due in large part to animes with engrossing narratives. Animes such as these:
All of the above anime shows have their pavlovian elements, which I won't deny. But all of the above also have sincere narratives and genuine character development. They're not just a mechanical assemblage of genre conventions aiming to make anime fans salivate like Pavlov's dog.
Sadly, too many modern anime are little more than mechanical assemblages of genre conventions. Furthermore, too many fans respond positively to that. Just look at the avatars of many message board using anime fans; many (perhaps most) of them are from particularly pavlovian scenes. Just look at many anime-based internet memes. They, too, tend to arise from the reinforcement of pavlovian genre conventions rather than from truly epic moments that are great even in the context of the wider story that they arise out of.
I hate to say it, but many anime fans have endured a lot of classical conditioning, and don't seem to be aware of just how much they're turning their brains and critical thinking off in order to wallow in pavlovian entertainment.
Now, many modern moe critics are also fans of old-school (i.e. pre-2000) anime, and were drawn into the industry by anime shows with gripping and intellectually satisfying stories, and multidimensional characters that were more than one or two-note archetypes.
Many of these anime fans are wondering "What happened?" They have a vague sense that something is not quite right (and perhaps have a very nebulous notion that its related to what I'm talking about in this blog post), but they have a hard time putting their finger on it. So they look around the modern anime industry, and they've noticed the greatly increased prominence of moe over the past few years. Moe itself is frequently a pavlovian element: much of it operates on the same level as Pavlov's classical conditioning.
So they say "Aha! That's it! Moe is the problem!"
But then, moe fans (like myself) can counter that by pointing towards good modern animes like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and the Nanoha series.
So it's not moe, per se, that's the problem.
The problem is that anime, in a wide range of shows (not just moe-centric shows), has increasingly become pavlovian entertainment. Pavlovian entertainment means that the pavlovian elements (such as Supes saving Lois Lane) are considerably overwhelming other elements of the entertainment.
This can probably be said to be the chief difference between K-On! and K-On!!.
The first season (K-On!) is mostly pavlovian entertainment, with its beach episode, its (thus far) shallow characters, and its aim to please through a collection of pavlovian moments rather than through any sort of meaningful character development or intellectually rewarding story.
The second season (K-On!!), however, gives greater depth to its key characters, fleshes out their wider world making it more real and immersive, and has a keener eye for continuity and character development and theme.
K-On! and K-On!! are both very moe, but one has the real problem that modern moe critics are concerned with, while the other doesn't.
And what the moe critics said about moe in this ANN podcast (kudos to acejem for linking me to it) are valid complaints... it's just that they're valid complaints about the increasingly pavlovian nature of anime (and some of its fandom), and not about moe, per se.
Zac and friends are partially right: What they call "moe" (i.e. pavlovian elements) can become effective masks for crappy stories and shallow characters, as fans obsess over the cute maid outfits and the generic pantsu shot while the story surrounding it might as well not be there at all. These pavlovian elements can let animes get away with being abysmally weak in certain key areas. The "comfort food" defense is a good defense of shows that are moe, but aim to be more than just pure pavlovian entertainment. I say this because true comfort food has a certain wholesomeness to it that classical conditioning often lacks.
I'd even go a step further than Zac and friends - genre-based pavlovian entertainment erects massive barriers for new fans. Genre-based pavlovian entertainment is largely "insider jokes", after all, and so to Joe and Jane Average Outsider, it does come across as very alien and inaccessible to them. The anime industry may have a hard time expanding its fanbase if it continues to rely so heavily on genre-based pavlovian entertainment. It really is the same sort of problem that Star Trek ran into with excessive technobabble and time travel shenanigans, and what comic books ran into with insanely intricate continuity knowledge requirements for its readers (i.e. Superman's comic book background would take a thick book to sum up in detail, and comic book readers are expected to know it all).
So... I'm actually very sympathetic to (some) moe critics. I would simply say that they're good police officers that have unfortunately caught the wrong culprit. Oh, the culprit can be found in moe-centric shows, but it can be found in mecha harem comedies like Infinite Stratos too. The culprit is the entertainment equivalent of classical conditioning. The culprit is Pavlov's dog. Time to take that dog to the dog pound, and give us more shows with good multidimensional characters (and moe characters can be this) and strong stories.
I know that this post will likely be a controversial "hot button" one of sorts. It might piss off a fair number of people. But I felt compelled to write it, because I want more compelling anime stories. Any and all comments are welcomed, though. :)