It's almost a like competition. Time after time, manga and anime creators have one-upped each other, escalating the arms race that will one day destroy us all. The weapons here aren't of the ballistic variety -- they're girls. Or rather, things that are not girls that also happen to look just like girls.
"Moe anthropomorphism" is the practice of assigning manga/anime girl characteristics to non-human animals and objects. It's not what you'd call new, but the concept has become more commonplace in recent years. Folks over at Reddit have been tracking the uptick in this trend, assembling a giant ongoing list of girls that are not girls. When I first began researching this article, I thought it would be fun to explore the most ludicrous examples, making easy jabs along the way. But as I dug deeper, I hit a rotten vein that led me all the way to the putrid heart of this trope.
Compared to some other examples of moe anthropomorphism, My Girlfriend is a T-Rex (pictured above) is pretty tame. At the core, it's just another romance manga, except you know, the cute girls are also dino-centaurs. But since cute girls -- sometimes cute women, but most often high school-age girls -- are the foundation of so many romance mangas, tweaking them means radically shifting the universe that revolves around them. In the case of My Girlfriend is a T-Rex, that involves a pseudo-scientific explanation of how the world got that way.
Manga and anime often frontload their stories with worldbuilding, but here it was just unnecessary. The real reason that the dinosaurs look like girls is that some people are just into that kind of thing. Rushing out some kind of lore-clad context on the second page of this manga feels like an up-front apology, a self-conscious attempt at justification. When it comes to manga and anime, a lizard lady formula is some basic normie shit. But hey, some people just need an info-dump before they can enjoy busty dinosaurs, right?
As the anthropomorphication slides into the slightly more bizarre, you start to see a disturbing pattern. Take the cell phone-girl manga, for instance.
Eko to Issho stars a boy named Hiroshi, who finds a strange, broken flip-phone on the street. After taking his magic garbage to a shop for repairs, Hiroshi soon receives a large package in the mail. Instead of a replacement phone, it's a replacement... girl. A girl that is also a cell phone. A girl that is now Hiroshi's cell phone.
The term "objectification" gets thrown around a lot, but in this case the cell phone character is literally an object. She exists solely for her "master," constantly pleading with Hiroshi to use her features. She doesn't even have a name until Hiroshi deigns to call her Eko. A predictable courtship plot ensues, but the romance isn't between a boy and a girl -- it's between a boy and his property.
Eko to Issho isn't what you'd call unique in anime and manga. In fact, it kind of plays out like a ripoff of the popular Chobits, which centers on a boy who finds a girl who happens to be a personal computer. The moe anthropomorphism trope has been so prevalent that it's inspired a number of parodies, like Ren-Chin Girl.
The term "parody" is used in a loose sense here. Yes, a man's microwave doubling as an attractive woman is ridiculous, and the comic knows that and leans into the absurdity. But at the same time, the one-shot comic has no problem ogling its glistening home appliance, just as any run-of-the-mill thirsty manga would.
Lots of anime get away with having their cheesecake and eating it too. A recent scene in My Hero Academia poked fun at the typical shameless hot springs episode, only to then indulge in the fanservice cliche with a lingering shot of girls frolicking in the water.
To be fair, I myself haven't avoided this double-sided pitfall. This article may be styled as a dissection of moe anthropomorphism, but the thumbnail image was specifically crafted to showcase the sexy doorknob lady and her inexplicable tube top. You could argue that since I pointed out this hypocrisy, that could qualify as some kind of metacommentary, but the end result is still a horny thumbnail.
Even in its most ridiculous incarnations, the trope holds a strange, disarming appeal. By embracing the ludicrous, moe anthropmorphism allows readers to indulge in guilty pleasures under the pretense of comedy. It's an empty, self-assuring excuse that sits alongside "I read Playboy for the articles" or "Honey I swear, these big-boobed dinosaur ladies are part of my research for work."
The guilty pleasures in question aren't all carnal in nature. Like Eko to Issho, manga that uses moe anthropomorphism often offers a troubling depiction of teen romance. The same goes for Hitomo no Naka no Ai, which centers on yet another cute high school girl -- only this one happens to be an eye floater.
"Eye floater" in this case means the annoying semi-transluscent gunk that can obscure your vision. The idea by itself is about as bizarre as it gets, but the plot plays out with the same rote and predictable rhythm you'd come to expect from manga directed at young men. Though Hitomi no Naka no Ai doesn't have an official English version, a Reddit user named rpg_gamer_ was kind enough to do the legwork on a rough translation.
The main character is a salaryman in his mid-30s, who has an existential crisis when a schoolgirl starts appearing in his eye. The subject of a possible hallucination is brought up but brushed aside; for the most part, the story is about a man being annoyed by a girl only he can see and hear. At one point, he even brings out eye droppers in an effort to flush her out.
As the story progresses, the man begins to grow fond of his secret eye booger. The relationship seems to land at something resembling a father/daughter dynamic, but not before the typical romance manga farce (he takes a bath when he thinks she's asleep, wackiness ensues). Their arc comes full circle when the man bequeaths a name to the girl floating in his eye: Ai. The corny pun belies the revelation that, like Hiroshi and his cell phone girl, the salaryman is tasked with naming his floater because he is Ai's possessor, her master. Ai is beholden to the man she is trapped inside, and the manga treats this horrific sentence like a fun, fantastical twist of fate.
You might have noticed a pattern by now. When moe anthropomorphism transforms girls into objects, there's always a dopey dude who claims ownership over that object. You can't just have a cell phone teenager hanging out and living her own independent life! That would be ridiculous. And so, this trope has become a convoluted way of creating scenarios where boys are given total control over another human being through innocent happenstance. Don't blame Hiroshi, a magical cell phone just showed up at his doorstep! It's not the salaryman's fault that he woke up with a magical girl inside his eyeball! Someone drew a guy who owns a subservient microwave lady and I can't think of anyone that could possibly be to blame for this!
The concept of a "pocket girlfriend that no one else can see" has hangups separate from living appliances. The most famous example of the pocket girlfriend is perhaps Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, but we've also seen various forms of the skewed power dynamic in video games -- Master Chief has the AI Cortana in the Halo series, and Link has Navi the fairy and later Fi the sword spirit. These range from boring to troublesome (Navi is a bland tutorial cipher while Fi refers to Link as "Master"), but the pocket girlfriend's worst aspects surface when moe anthropomorphism is tossed into the mix, as seen in Midori Days.
Most of the manga we've discussed so far has had a limited publication run, but Midori Days managed to graduate to a full-fledged anime. In the first episode, a punk student named Seiji wakes up with a miniature girl named Midori fused to his body where his right hand should be. As it so happens, Midori was previously a classmate that pined for Seiji from afar, and she's overjoyed to be so close to her crush. Seiji is mortified like anyone else might be, but because this is a romance anime the pair eventually grow close. Seiji now has his own pocket moe anthropomorphic girlfriend, one he keeps a secret from the rest of the world. Midori now belongs to to him.
It's "fun" in the manga and anime because Midori has been super into Seiji from the start, but even a simple tweak to the premise corrupts the tone. What if Midori didn't like or didn't know who Seiji was? Suddenly the idea of being grafted onto his arm is less a flight of fancy and more of a horror story. These manga mask their use of tropes with coincidence and acts of god, because without them they are exposed as abominable creepfests.
It's fitting that the most naked use of moe anthropomorphism would come from hentai. The one-shot called "Keyhole" is so explicit that I can't show you most of the pages, but the first page sets the tone.
The narrative unfolds from Door-Knob's point of view, as she regales us with the legend of the man known only as "Him." This man lives in Door-Knob's apartment, and appears to have no idea that part of his front door is a sexy woman in a tube top -- the part facing inside is the top half, and her bottom half "hang" outside. The only real interactions the two of them have is when He comes home and inserts his key into the lock, which... is where the baffling and disturbing hentai part comes in.
There is no subtext here. These encounters are sexual in nature and they are Graphic with a capital G. Imagine if a sock puppet in Toy Story could really feel when Andy was playing with them, and you're partway there. I know that when someone says "Don't Google this" it can be a coy way of provoking them into doing just that, but seriously, I would strongly advise against seeking out what cannot be unseen.
The story gets even worse during a break-in, when a would-be thief attempts to pick the lock. Whereas Door-Knob's interactions with the apartment dweller are the closest you can probably come to "consensual" intercourse between a man and a lock, the burglar is an unknowing rapist. What was once a merely creepy hentai becomes abhorrent torture porn.
The scene is so reprehensible that I almost didn't include Keyhole in this piece at all, but the ending proves that the most ghoulish version of moe anthropomorphism is also the most revealing. On the last page, the apartment dweller comments that he won't change the doorknob because the break-in wasn't successful.
The last line in Keyhole belongs to the apartment dweller, who praises his lock for its perceived loyalty. His boasting that "only I can open it" is intended to refer to Door-Knob's chastity, but also does a great job of summing up the dreadful core of pocket girlfriends (and in many instances of moe anthropomorphism): Men controlling women in totality. Monogamy is not enough. The purest form of pocket girlfriend doesn't have even a shred of an independent thought; instead, their entire universe revolves around the one dude in their life.
This scenario is so wrong on a base level that it makes more sense to authors if the women and girls are given characteristics of inanimate objects. The owner-object dynamic is baked into the premise, and somehow that makes it more palatable.
Okay, I lied. Keyhole isn't the most honest version of moe anthropomorphism. That honor belongs to "I Am My Wife," a manga about a man who wakes up 10 years in the past, inside the body of a girl who goes to the same school as his younger self.
As you may have guessed by the title, I Am My Wife eventually puts the two versions of the same dude in one room so he can flirt with himself. This is the culmination of these tropes, the logical endpoint of their design. The main characters in these crummy romance mangas don't want girlfriends, not really. They want a sack of clay, a pliable hunk of nothing to shape in their own image. Anthropomorphized pocket girlfriends aren't just extensions of these boys, they ARE these boys. Except, you know, cuter.