Moé for Moai

A few months back, a new geek-centric clothing line popped up in Japan. Nothing too out of the ordinary: some geek-chic shirts and tote bags featuring logos from old anime all for eye-boggling, “this-much-money-for-a-t-shirt?” prices.

One item caught my eye, though: a shirt emblazoned not with an anime series, but a corporate logo — the dual moai heads instantly recognizable by nerds of a certain age as the symbol of Emotion, Bandai’s home video label. Logos come and logos go, but those towering moai, which appeared on the top of a countless number of 80s and 90s VHS tapes, were considered nostalgia-inspiring enough to print on hipster T-shirts. I ordered one immediately.

The Emotion logo was created in 1983 — around the same time moai statues made a surreal appearance as spacefaring, laser-vomiting opponents in shooting game series Gradius. And what about those random moai outside Shibuya Station? Just why is Japan so moé for moai?

It’s 1983. VHS is making serious inroads into Japanese households, and Bandai has decided to set up its own home video label. The name, Emotion, has already been chosen. Now Emotion needs a face, and the top brass at Bandai want “something with impact.”

According to a 2019 article, when Bandai’s logo designer heard the phrase “impact,” his mind immediately went to the ancient archaeological sites he saw as a high schooler in a documentary series called Mirai e no Isan.

Mirai e no Isan (“Heritage to the World”) aired on Japanese public broadcaster NHK between 1974 and 1975. The series focused on various wonders left by ancient human civilizations, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt and, yes, the moai statues of Easter Island. The special was a large-scale project created to celebrate NHK’s 50th anniversary, and the broadcaster spared no expense, shooting in 44 countries and recruiting the storytelling services of director Naoya Yoshida, better known for producing several of NHK’s “Taiga Drama,” its popular fictionalized accounts of historical figures.

Mirai e no Isan was the kind of show you might catch on The History Channel (or YouTube) these days, but this was the ‘70s, long before cable or streaming video. And the show aired at prime time, on Thursdays between 7:30 to 8:30. In short, the mysterious wonders of the world, including moai statues, featured in Mirai e no Isan were emblazoned in the minds of many Japanese TV viewers, including Bandai’s designers.

According to a 2020 tweet from Bandai producer Shigeru Watanabe, several archaeological sites were considered for the logo, but another manufacturer was already using the pyramids, and the sphinx didn’t read well in monochrome or small sizes. That left moai.

The first draft of the logo featured just one moai statue, but the word emotion had been chosen to represent “the emotions created by people being communicated to even more people.” It made more sense, then, to have multiple faces. Two moai were then arranged in a triangle shape to “represent the mysterious power of a pyramid” (another nod to Mirai e no Isan?) and the now-iconic logo was born. The first animated version of the logo debuted on collections of Lupin III and Magical Girl Minky Momo released November 21, 1983. It featured music composed by Tsugutoshi Gotō, who’d written songs for Onyanko Club, the precursor to AKB48, and Kenji Sawada’s hit “Tokio.” To date, there have been four versions of the animated logo, all of which are permanently seared into the brains of anime fans over the age of 30.

Meanwhile, around the same time, video game company Konami was at work on a new arcade shooter called Gradius. The horizontal shmup, which would spawn an entire franchise, introduced a revolutionary new mechanic to the genre: a weapon bar which allowed players to strategically choose their power ups. Like many shooters of the time, Gradius was blistering difficult, but players who managed to successfully pilot the Vic Viper to stage 3 were faced with a bizarre new enemy: spacefaring moai statues.

What were moai doing in space, belching lasers? The in-game story goes that the big baddies, the Bacterians, had taken moai statues and equipped them with batteries, bringing them to life. In real life, the designers of Gradius were inspired to add moai by a member of the company’s music team, Yoshinori Sasaki. Sasaki’s face so resembled a moai that he was dubbed “Moai Sasaki.” It’s not known how happy he was with this nickname, but a 1992 photo from a Gradius-related interview in BASIC Magazine reveals that, well, he really does look like a moai statue.

Sasaki, who worked on the music for games like Twin Bee, Majou Densetsu and The Long Ranger, eventually turned to programming. His first job as a programmer was the x68000 port of Gradius II, which featured the enemy moai statues modeled after his own visage. Eventually, Moai Sasaki’s moai went on to star or cameo in a huge number of Konami games in and outside the Gradius series.

If the designers of either Emotion or Gradius had the occasion to pass through Shibuya Station during this period, they may have been unconsciously inspired by another source: the moai statues outside the station’s west exit. The statues, installed in 1980 (and still there today, sucking in sickening amounts of secondhand smoke daily), were a present from Niijima, a volcanic island 100 miles from central Tokyo that’s technically a part of the city. The nine-square-mile island is currently home to 2,700 people and something called the “Shibuya Youth Center.” It turns out Niijima and Shibuya have long fostered friendly, sister city-like relations, hence the gift.

But why moai in the first place? A dad joke, basically. In the dialect of Niijima, the word “moyai” refers to a spirit of cooperation, or help-each-other-outness. Say “moyai” three times fast and you get “moai.” Voila. It’s unclear — to me, at least — whether moyai has any connection to the moai (模合, “meeting for a common purpose”) social support groups of Okinawa, but they are both related to community and cooperation.

In any case, there are actually statues from Niijima in Tokyo’s Hamamatsucho and Kamata neighborhoods, too. Which kind of feels like a betrayal of that special relationship with Shibuya, but hey.

Incidentally, there’s a high chance the moai emoji was inspired by the Shibuya, not Easter Island, statues: its official name in Unicode is “Moyai.” 🗿.

Niijima is just one of the many places throughout Japan that have created faux moai. Ersatz statues with, uh, varying levels of fidelity to the originals can be spotted throughout the country, from Miyazaki to Kagawa to Hokkaido to Wakayama. But a visit to Minamisanriku in Tohoku will bring you face to face with a real Easter Island moai statue — the first ever given to another country, no less.

You might want to break out the tissues for this story, which starts all the way back in 1960. That’s when the Valdivia earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, hit Chile (including Easter Island, natch). The shockwave also traveled 17,000 miles across the Pacific, generating a tsunami that killed 41 people in Minamisanriku.

It was a tragedy, but it did lead to a bond between Chile and the coastal Japanese city. A visit from the Chilean ambassador in 1990 commemorating the 30th anniversary of the quake prompted Minamisanriku to erect a replica moai statue in a public park the following year.

But tragedy struck again on March 11, 2011 in the form of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Minamisanriku suffered enormous loss of life and property — including its moai statue, whose head was washed out to sea.

In response, Easter Island decided on an unprecedented move: sending a moai off the island and to Minamisanriku to stand as a symbol of recovery. The three-meter statue arrived in May 2013, and now towers over Minamisanriku’s Sun Sun Shopping Village.

This may be the most emotional Easter Island-Japan story out there, but it’s not the only one. There’s also the long-standing relationship between the island and Tadano, Japan’s largest manufacturer of construction cranes.

This story begins in 1991, the same year Minamisanriku was erecting its original moai statue. That year, the governor of Easter Island appeared on Japanese TV and ventured that if only the island had a crane, it could lift and restore its long-toppled statues.

Whether the governor was fishing for a Japanese crane is anyone’s guess, but the folks at Tadano decided it would probably make for some good PR to pitch in. With a lot of work from the Chilean government, archaeologists and a donated Tadano crane, 15 moai statues were successfully un-toppled in 1995. In 2019, Tadano donated its third crane to the island, keeping the relationship (and good PR) rolling.

It ain’t all heartwarming, though: the history of Easter Island-Japan relations also features an unfortunate incident from 2003 in which a Japanese youth visiting the island scribbled his name on a moai statue and was subsequently arrested. This was clearly not a young man raised on Bandai anime. Even now, his sad story serves as a warning to not to be a jerk when abroad on Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (complete with a cute manga-style illustration, of course).

But that incident wouldn’t have been a foreign affair at all if a certain decision had gone another way back in 1937. Back then, Japan was in the midst of expanding its empire, and Chile was hard up for cash. This led the Chilean defense ministry to open secret negotiations with the Japanese navy to actually sell Easter Island to Japan. Ultimately, it seems Japan decided the island was too far away and that its purchase would likely increase tensions with powers like the US and Australia, and negotiations ended after just two months. Still: it turns out the Japanese interest in Easter Island goes back to long before Mirai e no Isan.

Ultimately, it’s hard to pin down one reason why Japan is so moé for moai (okay, first you have to accept that premise itself, but man, I don’t see America erecting fake moai all over the country, putting them in video games and VHS logos or selling moai-shaped chocolates). There seems to be at least a superficial linguistic component: “moai” is easy to say in Japanese, to the point where islands like Niijima and Okinawa have similar or even identically-sounding words. With their compressed bodies and oversized heads, moai might appeal to that same strand of Japanese DNA that can’t resist kawaii, super-deformed characters. And despite an obvious difference in size, Easter Island and Japan are both islands, subject to the whims of earthquakes and tsunami. Whatever it is, there seems to be something in moai that appeals to Japanese… emotion.

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