Things That Aren’t Moe: Lips

Possible exceptions to the rule, courtesy of Inoue Makito.

Among the things pondered during my long blogging hiatus was the theme of lips. If you’re a human, you’ve got them in some capacity. If you’re an anime character, you likely don’t – especially if you’re a conventionally moe one. The understated mouth as an element of manga-style character design has been discussed since the days of BESM and before – if you’re a character classified as bishoujo, odds are good that your mouth looks a lot like the period at the end of this sentence.

The moe lips drinking game: take a shot for every lip you find in the doujin section of Toranoana’s online shop.

Where lips do appear, in most anime and manga it’s in the context of characters who would be charitably described as “assertive”. Less charitably, characters with pronounced lips tend to be loud, obnoxious, abrasive, and pushy, if not overtly threatening the masculinity of the protagonist. Lipstick is a statement: wear it and you’re a force to be reckoned with. On the extreme end, lips denote the sluts of anime.

Genshiken‘s Sasahara Keiko: lips and a personality to match.

Suffice to say Julia Roberts does not fit the paradigm of oral moe. But why is this? Why are the lips, and the mouth in general, so decentralized from the conception of “proper” 2D sensuality? In anime and manga at least, part of the reason may be the taboo nature of the kiss, the act treated in so many works as a stand in for sex. Grooming the lips to prominence implies sexual maturity, and with virginity so enshrined in the Japanese concept of kawaii and the otaku moe ideal, the sexually confident female is often viewed as undesirable.

14 volumes of Love Hina manga and 26+ episodes of anime were built around this moment.

Even in the 18+ market, rife with overt sexual situations, female characters with pronounced lips are more the exception than the rule. As I write I realize that this is less a commentary on design, and more on the (lack of) desirability of characters who have self-selected for sexual traits. The heart of moe is the lack of awareness of ones own allure (as I’ve argued elsewhere), and the application of any sort of obvious makeup violates this implicitly – the lips are just the most visible culprit.

Despite the oral emphasis of his doujinshi, Hitsuki of circle Frapper Spirits keeps the lips minimal. | Nise Kurosaki draws lips, sometimes!

What it boils down to is that lips, especially prominent, pigmented, collagen-injected ones, have very little place in the moe-dominated 2D visual culture of Japan. This isn’t a new thing, and the original reason for a demure presentation of lips in Japanese art is likely a more interesting topic than harping over their current absence. That said, for those of us who are fans of a good puckered pout, it’s clear that whatever it is we like, it’s not moe.

Shingo has been lamenting the dot-mouthed heroines of anime since 2008. He anticipates that this will be just the beginning of a lip-fueled exploration into the heart of what it is to be human – or at least what it’s not to be moe.

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26 Responses to Things That Aren’t Moe: Lips

  1. pelotedelaine October 1, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    that’s why Real Drive is an awesome anime :3

    • Shingo October 1, 2010 at 12:21 am #

      So true. That’s among the many I need to finish. ;_;

      Not just for the lips, either…

  2. mefloraine October 1, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    I recall reading somewhere that Japanese artists don’t tend to draw lips very much because their society is less vocal, whereas the eyes are large because they reflect what a person is truly feeling.
    But more Western artstyles often emphasize lips more than anything else on the face, because we are a more vocal society.

    Of course, I can’t vouch for how true this is, but it’s fascinating.

    …and characters with large lips are often loud and irritating. How very American? ;3

    • Shingo October 1, 2010 at 11:11 am #

      That’s a good point. I’ve seen similar comments regarding the use of large eyes to convey emotion, though I’m not sure about the relative lack of vocalization in Japanese society – that’s a more nuanced topic that would be interesting to explore (the use of silence, pregnant pauses, etc. in Japanese media, I’m sure there are more). Defining ‘vocal’ seems to be key to a discussion along those lines.

      Part of the issue may also be a matter of production techniques and budget – Disney films that animate lip flap based on the actors’ recordings will naturally feature the mouth more prominently, while most TV anime has the voice actors synching their speech to the pre-animated (and relatively static) mouth movements of the characters.

      • mefloraine October 2, 2010 at 7:04 am #

        Ooh, that is also a good point.
        It would also explain why non-commercial, Japanese artists lean towards lips more so than the commercial artists. But still not as much as Western style, or I wouldn’t consider them an example.

    • Marigold Ran October 13, 2010 at 1:48 am #

      Wait a second. But Asians have small squinty eyes.

  3. cosmosmith October 1, 2010 at 5:10 pm #


    …But yeah, the lack of lips in most moe-art styles bothers me A LOT.

    • Shingo October 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

      Lips just make everything better, it’s true.

  4. OGT October 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    I do think it originated as a cost-cutting measure that became sort of essential to the “otaku” aesthetic, which is probably where a lot of these things originated from. I also constantly forget how most otaku also want their ladies (girls? women? female-shaped objects?) to be demure, non-assertive objects to be pointedly not-had-sex-with (except when it doesn’t violate Madonna/whore). This is possibly because a) a lot (not a majority) of people I know in real life who like anime are either assertive ladies or guys who are in relationships with same and b) OH I TOTALLY NEVER OVERRATIONALIZED MYSELF ABOUT THIS. NUH-UH. NOT ME.

    Anyway this is a hell of a way to make a comeback. Or resurgence. Or something that I can say that doesn’t sound like a terrible double entendre.

    Also WATCH REAL DRIVE. <3 Nyamo.

    • Shingo October 5, 2010 at 11:36 am #

      I think the lack of animation in the lip department was likely due to cost savings, but was also a happy coincidence with pre-existing aesthetic tendencies in the portrayal of the mouth in Japanese art. The lips not being more fully rendered, even when still, points to this (there are exceptions, of course). Like Real Drive, which I watched like the first five episodes of and really need to finish. :<

  5. 2DT October 2, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    Lovely work you’ve done here. :)

    And yet, mouth shape is often so important for determining moe. You have the :3 face, the kind of rabbit-face that Misaka Mikoto makes sometimes (like here And Kyoto Animation is so good at doing the peanut-shaped mouth of moe girls in distress… Know what I mean? The implication of lips is rather important, even if they’re not there.

    • Shingo October 5, 2010 at 11:39 am #

      You make an important point, I think – the mouth shape does contribute a lot to character expressiveness, even if the lips aren’t explicitly rendered. The :< face is a classic, and all the animated renditions of monar-inspired faces that have cropped up in the past several years certainly count. The vast majority of these aren't at all sexualized, though they can certainly be moe.

  6. Shadowblade Edge October 3, 2010 at 4:18 am #

    Personally I’m throwing my vote in for the belief that this is merely a cost cutting thing that became “just how it’s done”. The cause is ultimately irrelevant to me though, but the lack of sexy lips is not. Though I suppose that their uncommonness makes them more delightful when they do show up.

    On artists that buck convention I think Yamashita Shunya deserves a nod.

    • Shingo October 5, 2010 at 11:48 am #

      Agreed on Yamashita Shunya, though I think his work tends to fall in the “sexy” style more than “moe” (especially given the makeup-style blush on the cheeks he often uses). He’s one of the few artists whose art arguably straddles the divide between the two, though.

  7. erejnion October 3, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    Btw… what about Nadeko and her lips in the opening theme?

    Oh yes, we just file it under “another design practice SHAFT fucked with”?

    • Shingo October 5, 2010 at 11:58 am #

      I’d need to see an image of this to be sure what you’re referring to, hmm. I haven’t seen Nadeko with lips in the art I’ve seen of her, but if SHAFT did a shot or two that sexualized her in that way it would seem in keeping with things they’ve done before.

      • CMWilly October 5, 2010 at 11:25 pm #

        I think with mouth flaps and charts in Japan, is slowing changing to a more American style. Instead of a static mouth, you’re finding more shows are using mouths to help with the acting and expressions of words. From what it seems, it’s more of a artistic expression then a conventional technique.

        It’s also cool to see anime characters emoting their words, it brings more life to them!

  8. Annubis October 4, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    Moe = young
    Lips = adult (lipstick)
    Moe != lips

    BRB, need to go look at some sexy Battle Angel Alita puffy lips.

    • Shingo October 5, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

      Those observations are pretty spot on, but the application is what’s interesting, and how those rules are selectively broken. Battle Angel Alita is a perfect example of how the scheme breaks under scrutiny. Gally was created before moe was a term in the otaku vocabulary, and she seems to be much more complex hybrid of characteristics than a lot of modern characters. On the one hand, dem lips and the powerful/empowered body to go with them. On the other hand, in many ways she’s very childlike, innocent. On the third hand, she’s not contextualized against a moe backdrop in the story. Analyzing her character fully would take a lot more space than one comment has room for, but the original GUNNM would be fascinating to go back and look at from a moe perspective.

      Also, best email address ever. :V

      • Annubis October 6, 2010 at 10:03 am #

        Moe in itself was probably created as a reply to women becoming more independent. Males lost their authority and security; becoming scared of the female gender. To alleviate that moe (young, weak, cute, ditzy, virgin, etc.) was created.
        I guess the modern otaku fears a post pubescent looking, independent woman. Thus, most shows are designed around making the male audience feel ‘safe’ just to avoid trouble (Which would explain the whole Nagi – Kannagi fiasco).
        I’d have to check to confirm, but I’d say any show with lips is probably a show which took a couple of risks in the artistic direction and/or the storytelling.

        I just love when people see my email in their databases.

  9. Nemo_N October 7, 2010 at 2:03 am #

    I can’t delve into pop psychology arguments (I find them to tell more about the person making them than the subjects being analyzed), but I have drawn since I can remember and have been doing so until today, so here is my personal experience on drawing lips and lipstick.

    First lipstick; I find it a take it or leave it feature.

    I usually draw full body figures, so when it comes to lipstick my options are a) make a smidge that kinda resembles lipstick and leaves me not to so satisfied or b) make fully detailed lips with lipstick… and have them lost at the size/resolution.

    I have usually kept them in my full body works, but the more I do so the more I think about leaving them out. I only find them satisfying when doing close-ups, since I can work them to my satisfaction, but then again I find close-ups more restrictive to body language.

    Some artists switch between both smidges/dots and fully detailed depending of the focus (faraway or close-up), but I find them not so appealing in full body shots with lipstick/lips since (I feel) they can’t just appear and disappear like that, so I’m not so comfortable doing that trick.

    Full bodied lips (no lipstick) are less tricky, but again, the lack of detail in full body shots makes them kinda pointless for me.

    I don’t know what other artists reasons could be, but these are mine.

    • Nemo_N October 7, 2010 at 2:31 am #


      Crap, I went on without saying that first, sorry.

      I hope you figure out a way to make this work for you! Ganbare!

  10. Gasaraki October 12, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    One thing I think is funny is that I seem to see much more prominent lips in female artist’s work. Especially in ecchi/eromanga. Or maybe that’s just my selective vision lol

    And yeah WELCOME BACK, best animu/figure blog ever yo

  11. polty October 31, 2010 at 1:34 am #

    definitely agree with several posts above that the lip issue in anime was originally for cost cutting
    plenty of serious artists i’ve seen on pixiv include lips in their drawings; many of the ones who don’t include the lips are mostly fanart and revolve heavily around the moe ideal. so i would think the lack of lips has not much to do with japan’s society and culture, but more like a trend that was slowly derived from the cost-cutting concept

  12. suneo November 8, 2010 at 11:28 am #

    I love the lips that Ryuuta Amadume draws :3


  1. Negative Spaces of Cute: Observations of Emergent Mouth Moe « 2-D Teleidoscope - October 12, 2010

    […] post is a response to Shingo’s recent post on the newly revived Heisei Democracy, “Things That Aren’t Moe: Lips.” If you haven’t seen it yet, I must insist you do.  It’s good […]

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