Anime and the Misnomer of Christianity
Today’s post comes courtesy of Aelysium, a Red Cross volunteer in Japan and a new voice to the anime blogosphere who’ll add intelligence, depth, and warmth to the community. I hope you’ll read his terrific piece below and then visit his brand new blog, Anime Elyisum.
There is an old legend (which TWWK beat me to) that back in the winter of 1945, during the start of the American occupation in Japan following their fall in WWII, a Japanese Department store eager to bustle business and interest from both Americans and Japanese, set up a life sized Santa Claus hanging from a cross. Now, as ridiculous as the image is, it highlights well what I’m going to be talking about. A ubiquitous fellow, Christianity has spread throughout the world – it’s central tenants and dogma are generally known throughout the west and even to the rest of the world, such a mix up would seldom be made, if only satirically. It’s quite a different story in Japan though and nowhere else in modern Japanese culture is this more obvious than in anime and manga.
The Japanese celebrate very few Christian holidays but even when they do, they don’t have any Christian meaning nor sincerity. Not to say the Japanese are insincere, but the spirit from which the Christian holidays originate, is not reflected in the Japanese holidays. The most obvious, as the example at the start showed, is Christmas. As opposed to being a holiday about the birth of Christ, it is a rather irreligious holiday; more a kin to a couple’s season. Whilst arguable that Christmas has lost a lot of spiritual value in the West, it’s original meaning is generally understood. Whereas in Japan, the 25th of December being Jesus’ birthday, is more a kin to a piece of uncommon trivia. Similarly, Valentine’s Day (though, arguably has no Christian meaning in the modern west either) is celebrated without any common knowledge about its origins and more and more Japanese couples of the last few generations have been opting for ceremonious Church weddings – none of it having anything to do with Yahweh, Jesus or Christianity. Hence the common phrase: “Born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist”. However, not only is Christianity hardly understood but also greatly misunderstood.
What does this mean for anime then? It means we get shows rife with queer portrayals of Christianity. The crudest way to put would be as Alucard, of the controversial Helling Ultimate, did “Neither of us can back down in front of an enemy, come on then Judas Priest”. Christianity is primarily portrayed as a religion of clashes, of oppositions, power struggles, purification and of unwavering moral imperatives. What is right is right, and what is not Christian, is not right. Christianity is described best in anime probably by the following passage:
Be wise now therefore, O ye Kings: Be admonished, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.
- Psalms 2:11
Christianity is portrayed in anime thus as the religion of benevolence but also cold morality. Cold morality simply being the ability to do anything, regardless of how heinous, if for the absolute “good” of the ‘Church’ i.e. the means justifies the ends. This often leads to very questionable morals – and churches. Now, irrespective of how man has treated Christianity throughout history, much of what anime depicts as allowable by Christianity is facetious. The fundamental problem isn’t just that anime doesn’t show Christianity in any informed manner; rather that it seems to play on a few words and run with them to the n-th degree. From the angels of Evangelion to the more recent portrayal of the Church in Fate/Zero, if someone had never experienced Christianity in any form and their only frame of reference was anime; what would they think of the belief? Probably: puritanical and unwavering, Christianity is the champion for love, moral indulgence and divine punishment.
Even more than anime’s less than coherent morality for Christianity, is its characterization. Complete with gun toting nuns, vampric demons fighting for the Church, demonic angels bringing Armageddon in the name of God, lesbian Catholic schools and gay angels – it’s suffice to say that anime, or at least the way in which anime has gone about portraying Christians, is not very accurate. But what’s the cause? I would immediately point to a fundamental difference in epistemology, that is, what we know. Buddhist-Shintoism gives us an explanation of general Japanese ontology i.e. the nature of our reality. The Japanese would be pluralist in the sense that they believe that everything we know is temporal, flawed and incomplete (Wabi Sabi). So much so, that we cannot ascertain Truth. The pluralist would maintain that we can only observe our immediate reality and cannot know the Ultimate Reality. [Interestingly, this is another major cog in the machine of Shinto deities, but that is another story for another time] In this sense, we can make moral and truth claims but we cannot actually know objective morality or truth. Due to this, the pluralist is generally skeptical of those who claim to have ascertained Truth.
Here is where traditional Japanese ontology and epistemology clash with Christianity. Christianity asserts the opposite – not only can we make propositional (absolute truth) claims, but that we have access to truth in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Typically, two types of Christianity exist: exclusive and inclusive. The exclusive Christian would claim we know truth because of Jesus, and it is by his sacrifice but also knowledge and acceptance of it that sacrifice, that we are saved. In this sense, Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills the ontological criteria for salvation and we have to fulfill the epistemological. If we do not know and accept the message, we cannot be saved. The inclusivist however, whist accepting of the ontological criteria for salvation, denies the veracity of the epistemological requirement i.e. one can still be saved even if they have never heard of Christ. Either way, the two agree on propositional truths which are in contrast to pluralistic, Japanese tradition.
This is the primary culprit I would say in the misunderstanding of Christianity. Given the skeptical attitude the Japanese would have in regards to the imperative Christian dogma, it shouldn’t be surprising that they opt to portray Christianity in a pluralistic light. Coupled with the anti-realist metaphysicalism of Dao-Buddo-Shintoism influences which label gender, sexuality etc as just unstable constructs which are neither ultimate or defining, should it surprise us to see bishounen popes and gay angels? It doesn’t matter if it is proscribed that certain actions are immoral, in the eyes of pluralistic belief, it is simply a prescription; as valid as any other. The Bible is a confusing thing in this sense. Littered with commands yet seemingly devoid of the ability to know ultimate reality, surely its okay to be a bit… liberal, with the belief? Or so I imagine one might think. One of the best portrayals of this is in Trinity Blood, where Armageddon has fallen on the earth, but instead of the new promised world; a new race of vampires and humans emerge. Of course the vampires don’t follow God and fight with the religious humans. However, I suspect depicting traditionally fallen creatures as not all bad (some are “good”) and humans, who are the will of God, as not good (some are very “bad”) is a typically pluralistic way of seeing morality – good and evil are just categories which can be overcome by seeing past them, after all. Clearly Buddhist-Shinto pluralism and Christianity fail to engage at a fundamental level. Is it really any surprise then that anime and “proper” Christianity fail to engage at even a base level? I would say, no. And whilst this abstraction of the faith is entertaining, I cannot help but wonder whether it’s entirely appropriate.
Just as Christianity has become a commodity to the Japanese class system, have it’s central principals become a triviality to the general mass? A shame, I would say, for an anime based on a sound understanding of Christianity could be very interesting. But what do you guys think? Is Japan out of touch with the faith? Do you think anime creators generally understand Christianity? Is Christianity slowly ebbing away from the importance it once held in Japan?