The recent Sailor Moon redraw challenge that hit the internet last week returned attention to the distracting and obvious differences in Western vs Japanese amateur artists—‘amateur’ in this case used only as a term to distinguish them from the LA-NYC flunkie nepotists who get their work paraded around empty art museums for grant money. This time, I’m talking about the democratized artists who take to Patreon for support, receive commissions from fans, and inevitably have their work distributed across the -booru sites.
Out of courtesy to the artists (and the logistics of sifting through the thousands of images that have surfaced in the last few days), I won’t be reposting any of the artwork in this post. This is mostly because there’s such squeamishness from certain corners of the internet regarding repostings and misplaced appeals to copyright or whatever that I just don’t feel like jumping through the hoops. Feel free to do a few quick searches to see for yourself, however, that I’m not just cherry picking my examples.
And one more note before we begin, a lot of the redraws were charming. In general, there seemed to be three or four categories of takes: replication, western replication, and satire. We won’t be looking at the satire category here, since jokes are jokes; they won’t tell us anything significant about the nature of the fanbases that the former two won’t have already. Also, I mention ‘western replication’ to distinguish it from just ‘replication’, and the reason for this should be self-evident by the end of this post. There are the artists—predominantly the Japanese artists, but by no means limited to them—who approached the challenge with an intent to do alternative stylistic takes on the base material. And then there are the artists—predominantly Americans (or Westerners in general)—who injected something unique into the replication without crossing into the realm of satire.
What we’re looking at is how particular groups of fans depict Sailor Moon herself, within the context of doing a redraw challenge.
Most of the challenge has unfolded on the Japanese site Pixiv, an amateur art hosting site populated predominately by the same demographic that runs it: Japanese otaku and the otaku-adjacent. A short perusal of the hashtag conjures up images of widely varying quality—from the stunning to the cute to the blobishly disproportionate. However, with some exception, we can see even in the blobishly disproportionate recreations, the gaze, posture and features of the titular character evoke direct homage to the original frame. There isn’t much added to the image. While these don’t fall into a genre consistent with actual artistic recreations—the sort that talented art students might try to hoc to art dealers in order to scam the Picasso market—what’s clear is that there is a love for the original itself, removed from the context of these artist’s personal lives. There is, of course, some personal in the creative property, as otherwise they probably wouldn’t be drawing it in the first place, but they aren’t looking for themselves in Sailor Moon; they’re looking for Sailor Moon. By drawing, they find her.
Trundle on over to Tumblr, if you dare, or DeviantArt, and you’ll begin to see a slightly different story. We can’t speak in absolutes here, because you’ll see plenty of examples on Tumblr and on DeviantArt that resemble the sort of recreation so abounding on Pixiv. But you’ll see the stereotype of the Tumblr ‘style’, too, that uniquely western-amateur illustration of the grotesque that attempts to the ugliness of disproportionate noses, ears, or lips with quirkiness rather than moe. If you’ve been near any of the creative corners of the internet in the last five years, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
You can tell the fan artists I’m referring to by the following marks: Is the nose drawn bright red? Is it too big? Too bulbous? Are the eyes too small or too far apart? Do they look cross-eyed? Are the cheekbones too high? Too fat? Does the face look pudgy, or exaggeratedly racial? Does the chin look big? The lips too puffy? The ears too wide? Does the skin shading evoke unhealthiness or discoloration?
There’s a certain uncanny valley between realism and anime’s superflat characteristics, and these artists not only find that valley, they live in it. The cartoonish imitation of real facial proportions, the exaggeration of all the wrong elements of the face, and in some cases, the hyper-racialization all come across as deliberate inversions of what anime artists are working for. The Japanese imitators of anime exaggerate proportions in order for the characters to appear cuter—bigger eyes, smaller noses, mild lips, flattened skin tone. These artists, on the other hand, do the exact opposite in an attempt to do the same thing—shrink the eyes, enlarge the noses, bulge the lips, discolor or blotch the skin. The problem is that pursuing the opposite means results in the opposite ends here. You’d think this would be intuitive, but there’s an ulterior motive at play here.
By emphasizing this sort of uggo-realism, are the fan artists here looking to depict Sailor Moon’s cute characteristics, or are they looking to inject something from outside of the original’s framework? Fan art is generally a fan’s particular take on a subject, but that isn’t really saying anything. What the fan has to determine before he even puts pencil to paper is this: does he make the fan art because he appreciates how the work caters to his interests, or does he do it because he wants to read into the work a particular approval of who he his? Does he want Sailor Moon to be cute because he finds cute things attractive, or does he want Sailor Moon to be cute so he can see himself reflected somehow in the aesthetic?
These opposing mentalities are not unique to East or West, of course, but the need to use amateur artwork to find self-validation seems to be an overall indicator of cultural decline more obvious in Western society than in Japan’s. We hear more about ethnic representation, sexual identity representation, fat representation, disabled representation, you-name-it representation in film and TV nowadays than we hear about character motivations or narrative conflict. The push of identity politics into geek hobbies—from tabletop gaming to western anime circles—has been the natural expression of the rubes and unwashed masses consuming a social justice narrative tailored to suit their own set of various dysfunctions. While most of these people aren’t terribly political, they’re more than willing to pursue an ugly aesthetic if the validation they find with it makes them feel better.
In a certain sense, you could consider this the impact that politicization has upon even amateur artists. Taken this way, what we see here are the reverberations across geekdom that first hit national attention back in 2015 during Gamergate. That there are people with vested interests in undermining even isolated communities of hobbyists in order to bend them to particular political agendas isn’t news today, but back then it was. It’s such a foregone conclusion today that it some of us are more surprised to see art on sites like Tumblr that doesn’t subscribe to this sort of uggo-realist, self-affirming style.
But on the other hand, that these communities were so easy to subvert, and that the source content that these communities draw from—in this case, anime consumed in a western market—speaks to a greater problem. Too many fans were drawn into the social justice narrative for the relationship between social justice seekers and geeks to be coincidental. The nature of being a geek, of enjoying geekish hobbies, and the nature of being a social justice warrior must share some common ground. Maybe it’s a fear or firsthand knowledge of ostracism, or a spitefulness directed at vague notions of society, or maybe they just hate their parents. I’m not here to psychoanalyze strawmen, but rather to point out that the obnoxiousness of social justice pockets found in geek communities is plainly evident to anyone who’s spent time there. Uggo-realism, when it comes to amateur artwork, is one of its expressions.
I have no particular advice for these self-styled artists, except maybe a suggestion to widen their background. Take time—a lot of time—to study not just the techniques of artists from olden days, but also their subject matter. Try to understand their frame of mind, their world, the purpose behind what they were doing. Art will, hopefully, cease to be a petty and somewhat meaningless exercise in ‘self-expression’ once even a moderate study of the past is undertaken. If what you’re looking to do is depict something beautiful, you have to recognize what beauty is first.