The Religion of Love in 2D: Roots of Modern Otaku Courtship


Note: The following post was originally published on 7 December, 2011 on the now-defunct Remember XVI. It is presented here edited to fit the visual formatting of Altair & Vega, but otherwise unaltered in content. Yumeka and ghostlightning have written responses to the original post as well.

“Humanity does not pass through phases
as a train passes through stations: 
being alive, it has the privilege of always moving
yet never leaving anything behind.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition

What is 2D love? If you’re an anime fan, chances are that you’ve encountered it in some form. Maybe you were linked to an article about a man getting married to a fictional character. Perhaps you’ve read through (or participated!) in online discussions about people’s “waifus.” Or maybe you’ve seen a parody of it in anime, in the form of a character who can’t be separated from his hug pillow. One way or another, the idea of loving fictional characters is one that comes up often in modern anime-centric subculture.

But how weird is 2D love? The natural reaction, at least from the general public, is repulsion, it seems. But it turns out that the idea of 2D love… may be just as weird as that of love itself?

Let’s turn back the clock a bit. Romantic love is a fairly modern concept; historically, marriages were based on wealth and politics long before they were about romantic feelings. On the other end of the spectrum, we have extramarital lust, based on physical desire. So when does romance come in?

In the West, this was during the Middle Ages, with the advent of courtly love. Modeled after the feudal relationship between a lord and his vassal, courtly love saw the lord replaced with a woman, usually of higher social rank, placed on a similar pedestal. And so began the tradition of modern courtship, popularized by narrative literature called “romances,” from the French language that it was written in.

So what does this have to do with modern love for moe characters? Courtly love is not based on consummation. The knight performs great tasks for the lady, and in return, she returns nary a glance. Unattainability is a virtue here, and is there any woman more unattainable than she who resides in the realm of 2D?

Or take the idea of “lovesickness,” or love as an illness with physical symptoms, which goes back to Ovid but saw a great revival in the literature of the romances. From the sound-based terminology of Japanese, we get a myriad of terms to describe the rapid heartbeat accompanying love: dokidokitokimekikyunkyun. From this, we get perhaps the most poignant expression of lovesickness in Japanese pop culture today: moe moe kyun! The English fandom doesn’t lose out either: we have the ultimate loveinduced ailment: the fatal moe heart attack, none other than the hnnnng. (Related but slightly cruder is the idea, originating from 4chan, of the aching “nutbladder.”)

And so the ladies, commonly called midons, of the French courts of a bygone era live on. They have become mai waifus, or in the Japanese, ore no yome (俺の嫁). And the knights of today show tribute in their own ways, be it through PVC figures, dakimakura covers, fanbooks and doujinshi, or the simple gesture of having her visage adorn your avatar and signature on your Internet forums of choice.

Konata is /mai waifu/

And then there’s this.

Of course, the kicker here is that courtly love may not have existed at all were it not for the romances; the fanciful behavior and codified atmosphere of courtship described in the romantic literature of the early Middle Ages became a reality around the fourteenth century. Truth born from fiction. How familiar the idea must be to the 2D lovers out there!

And so, they, the modern lovesick knights, keep on moving. Down a path of inevitable self-destruction? One step closer to a higher ideal?

Further Reading

For a brief primer on the historical realities of courtly love, I recommend “Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Later Middle Ages.”

And if you’re unfamiliar with mainstream coverage of 2D love, or if you just want a good laugh-cum-cry, then the New York Times has you covered.


Filed under Editorials, Modern Visual Culture

11 responses to “The Religion of Love in 2D: Roots of Modern Otaku Courtship

  1. Thanks for the mention and I’ll update the link on my post :)

  2. Pingback: 2-D love | 毎日アニメ夢

  3. I studied courtly poetry of the Middle Ages at university (wrote a dissertation on the difference between male and female space in the ballad) and so this article was really quite interesting.

    I personally don’t feel that I’ve got that kind of sincere, romantic feeling for a fictional character but at the same time there are some characters that you can’t help but feel something beyond “that’s a nice design” about in part due to the quality of the writing of the series; case in point is Eureka from Eureka 7. The way her character is written is so convincing that you like her as a character in a way that you wouldn’t for many other such otherworldly blank cipher characters (Rei et al).

    Then again currently my favourite female lead in a series I’m watching is old, bickering wife Milia from Macross 7. The whole show is exaggerated as hell and the way that she’s developed as a character from the original series is quite brilliant.

    • Ooh, you actually studied courtly poetry! Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’re the first I’ve talked to!

      I… personally really like Rei, but maybe that’s just because of Rebuild, where I think she’s a lot more likeable than in the TV series?

      And I loved Milia in Macross 7, but I never actually got past the… second episode of the original Macross. I’ll get to it someday!

      • I don’t actually think characters like Rei are bad per se but because they’re so good at being what they’re supposed to be (the blank slate type on which the characters project thing, or the “straight guy” to the zaniness around them ala Ruri Hoshino) it can be a bit hard to actually get very attached to them since they are so “flat.”

        Probably the best examples are Eureka, as I said, and Nia from Gurren Lagann, simply because they take the alien nature of someone without much personality and turn it into something of a character in its own right.

        As to the original Macross? Well worth a watch.

        • Ah, right, I get what you mean much better now (the Gurren Lagann example helps because I never actually watched E7)

          And yeah, I’ve been (very) slowly working my way backwards through the Macross franchise ever since I watched Frontier. I’m not sure SDF Macross’s protagonist can ever live up to the sheer energy of Nekki Basara, though!

          • It’s a different sort of show and I think that’s something where Macross (and Kawamori’s shows as a whole) stand out from the natural comparison point of Tomino and his massive CV of mecha series.

            With Kawamori, you might have the same sorts of themes (relationships (in SDF Macross, AKB0048, etc), sexual awakening (in Aquarion) and so on, but the execution is very different. You’ve got wacky protagonists like Basara and Apollo, and more staid ones like Hikaru.

            On the other hand almost every Tomino protagonist is a conflicted kid out of his depth, whether it’s played for laughs (Judau, Gainer) or as a source of drama (Kamille, Cosmo).

          • Yeah, that’s probably why I’ve been more drawn to the Macross franchise than Gundam as a whole (although continuing with the recurring theme, I’ve not nearly watched as much as I’d like of either…)

            Bah, now you’re reminding me that I dropped AKB0048 1 episode in…

  4. Very interesting read! I hope you don’t mind the late comment – I’ve just come across this blog and found this article, which immediately caught my attention!

    That being said I think one key difference between courtly love and 2D love is that everything about courtly love was socially sanctioned, and a game both parties knew needed to be played. The woman’s unwillingness to reciprocate and perceived “unattainability” were all to be expected of a woman of higher social class. And the knights doing the courting, being typically less wealthy and of a lower social class, knew that appealing to virtues like chivalry would be their best bet towards winning their lady’s heart. As such I feel courtly love was always undertaken with the express intention of wooing a potential mate, meaning they would not necessarily be wholly unattainable (at least in their minds). It’s quite unlike the 2D girls of the otaku’s world who will remain a distant dream, their love forever unrequited with no hope of recourse!

    • I hope you don’t mind my late reply!

      And of course, you’re absolutely right in saying that courtly love had the expectation of… possible reciprocation, at least. It makes you wonder what some otaku are thinking sometimes (like the man who married his Fate pillow).

      Thanks for the comment! …Wow, I originally wrote this almost exactly one year ago. Crazy how time flies.

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