Anime Today: When Tradition Becomes Legalism

In the time between the Anime Today of two weeks ago and today, we have seen two more episodes of Gingitsune and more development of the Shinto-inspired story and cast. In particular, the nature of the local deities (or heralds to them, apparently) has been getting much of the attention, beginning with a tortoise (kame/亀) and ending in the most recent episode (episode four) with a fox (kitsune/狐) named Haru (ハル) to complement Gintaro (銀太郎). With this focus, the show has spent quite a bit of its time on the Shinto traditions or customs with which Makoto (まこと) must interact. In the case of the tortoise, this came in the shape of his need to dwell in a shrine of his type, which facilitated some interesting exploration of the setting of the anime. In the case of Haru, on the other hand, this came in the shape of his personal desire to follow Satoru (悟) as well as his indignation towards Makoto’s apparent lax following of the Shinto traditions.

These two areas of Haru’s episode are what we will be focusing on today in the topic of, as the title suggests, when tradition becomes legalism.

Makoto Saeki and Ukanomitama
Art by 三巴

First I would like to present the importance of tradition. Tradition is a part of human culture, and that includes Christianity. Christianity, via its Jewish routes, can trace itself back to innumerable biblical traditions (emphasis on the biblical part). Traditions, one could say, even ordained by God. One obvious example of this could be Jesus’ celebration of the Passover (the commemoration of Israel’s liberation from Egypt in the time of Exodus). Clearly Jesus was not against this tradition, and, thus, clearly not against tradition as a concept. To take this to another level, consider the more contemporary ordinances of baptism and communion. Both of these ordinances were not only accepted by Jesus Christ, but instituted by him as traditions of the Christian beliefs. All of this is to say that traditions, in and of themselves, are not (necessarily) meaningless. The last two that I mentioned here, for instance, symbolize important parts of the concepts of regeneration and atonement, among other things.

So, just as these traditions have great importance, several of the Shinto traditions in Gingitsune reflect a similar importance. The “tradition” (if you want to call it that) of the heralds staying in their respective shrines is not merely for show, but, in fact, gives them sustenance (as revealed by the tortoise herald). On a similar note, one tradition that struck me was the custom of not walking up the center of the stairs leading to a shrine, nor walking down the center of the path. The reason for this was to reserve that area for the gods (as stated in episode two). As far as I can tell, this serves two purposes: (1) reverence and (2) avoiding collision with that which you cannot see. When, in episode four, Haru is picking on the areas where Makoto fell short from being a proper priest, this particular point was made as she unknowingly stood in the center of the shrine’s path.

Here is where the problems with tradition begin to arise.

When Haru continues to voice his (childish) complaints about Makoto’s apparent inabilities, Gintaro finally gets fed up with him and angrily states, “None of that matters!” Although Gintaro may simply be reacting against the aggravation Haru is causing him, Gintaro seems to be subtly highlighting an important part of tradition, particularly in religion: its function. In the custom of a herald staying in his or her own shrine, the function that serves is to preserve that herald’s life. In the custom of avoiding the center of a shrine’s path, the function it serves is to allow a space for the heralds/gods to walk without collision with the humans that cannot see them. Now, how exactly does this apply to Makoto? Well, first of all, Makoto has the “Sight,” or the ability to see heralds. Practically speaking, this makes her following that custom nothing more than a formality, for she has the ability to see the heralds for which the custom is reserving the middle space! Specifically, how would she risk running into Gintaro if she can see him?! Haru’s complaint over this has no reasonable base and serves only as an annoyance.

I am immediately brought to the Gospel passage of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, the day of the week that Israel reserved for rest (in honor of God resting on the seventh day in the creation story of Genesis 1). On that day, according to Luke, Jesus miraculously healed a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. After this, the leader of the synagogue in which the event took place spoke out against Jesus, claiming he was not honoring the commandment of keeping the Sabbath holy by “working” (healing, in this case). At this ridiculous claim, Jesus rebuked the leader in the following passage from Luke 13 (NIV):

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

The pharisees had, according to Jesus, taken the tradition of keeping the Sabbath holy, as commanded in the ten commandments, too far by becoming legalistic. No longer was not working on that day in honor of God, but simply in honor of itself, the Law. Indeed, the fulfills the very definition of legalism: performing the law not for the sake of why the law was created, but for the law itself.

In all, tradition has value, which can be witnessed both in Christianity as well as Gingitsune, but it has value because it serves a purpose. The moment tradition becomes for its own sake and no longer for its original purpose, it has become functionally useless and nothing more than cultural amusement (this is often a criticism of Catholicism due to its seven sacraments compared to Protestantism’s two, thought it is not my place to say which approach is more correct). I am very excited to see how Gingitsune continues to explore these concepts in the duration of this anime season since it continues to, as Jonathan points out in his FunBlog, focus more on Shinto and spirituality as an end, not merely a means to a fantasy end.

3 thoughts on “Anime Today: When Tradition Becomes Legalism

  1. YES, oh my gosh yes, this sort of legalism and others like it (i.e., “even if God didn’t specifically mandate it in Scripture, I’m still going to treat it like a Scriptural absolute”) drive me crazy.

    1. I feel your pain. It’s a common problem among many Christians (and, I assume, other followers of other religions as well). Of course, taking the opposite route and taking all Scripture to be relative can lead to problems on the other side as well. There’s always a happy medium to be found!

      Anyway, thanks for reading!

      1. You are welcome!

        Honestly I think I personally see this a lot in the areas of fashion. Speaking anecdotally, sometimes when I hear someone telling someone else to “dress modestly,” at least a part of what they really mean is, “Don’t show [X arbitrary part of your body],” even though I’ve never found any specific guidelines on what body parts the Lord has given us should be considered “dirty,” for example.

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