Of Kami and Buddhas is a series of semi-regular posts examining religion in Japan.
Ano Hana concluded last week in a teary episode, and though some disliked the finale, I found it fitting and emotionally realistic. The group was now finally reaching its goal of sending Menma on. They were able to bring peace to their good friend.
While I think most of us took the storyline for granted, as I finished the series I was again struck with a question that I had right from the beginning. Why did Jinta and the rest assume that Menma had an unresolved issue? The entire group assumes that much is true – there’s never an alternative given.
The answer to that is one deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and in the society’s conception of ghosts. After individuals die, they move from konoyo (“this world here”) to anoyo (“the world over yonder”). The same is believed to be true in any of the Japanese religious traditions. However, unfinished business can keep an individual in the konoyo area, where their problems must be resolved by culturally acceptable means for he or she to pass on. This is the position Menma is in, and it is quite familiar to the Japanese.
Meanwhile, Jinta is cast in the role of the one who witnesses the ghost. Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken state the following in their excellent book, Ghosts and the Japanese:
…[the person] who is confronted by a ghost who needs help to resolve an unfinished task is cast in the role of an observer or witness to the existence of both worlds [konoyo and anoyo] interacting, as well as a living testimony to the validity of the resolution.
Jinta is playing the necessary role in being a witness of the existence of Menma’s ghost. In fact, he is the only evidence for her existence throughout most of the series. Because of the idea of on, which is a Japanese idea of obligation, Jintan feels an absolutely necessity to help Menma. This idea is strongest in familial relations (think of honoring one’s ancestors) and would likewise be strong with a close friend, especially because Menma provide such love to the others, who all feel a sense of guilt in her death.
Why do Jintan and the others feel such guilt so many years later? It’s possibly intertwined with the idea of gimu, a never-ending debt associated with filial piety. The Japanese often carry such feelings in regards to those they are close to (think of the frequent apologies given in anime). How much more a sense of debt would they feel to one such as Menma?
And so, while we view the show through western lens, understanding the characters’ mission to free Menma from a purely emotional standpoint, there are other considerations. Their (sometimes ready, sometimes eventual) acceptance of Menma’s ghost; their assumption that her wish is impeding her journey to the other world; and their attempts to meet her wish are also tied up with cultural norms that any Japanese person would immediately understand.
Thus, AnoHana becomes not just a story of devotion and love for a treasured friend; it’s also layered with Japanese individuals’ cultural obligations toward each other – both to the living and the dead.
Note: All the information above was paraphrased or quoted from Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends by Michiko Iwasak and Barre Toelken (Utah State University Press, 1994).