Anime Today: The World is Still Beautiful and the Corrupt Church

“Anime” and “Corrupt Church” are two terms that, sad as it is, seem to fit hand-in-hand all too well. Nearly anyone who has seen any substantial amount of the medium can list off at least a handful of examples in which a corrupt church is written to be a primary antagonist (without referencing any outside sources I immediately thought of Spice and Wolf and A Certain Magical Index).

Indeed, this has been a point of contention for Christians looking to get into anime for decades, ever since it gained popularity here in the West. However, I often wonder… has anyone really stopped to consider this “demonization” of organized, Christian-based religion?

This week as I was watching The World is Still Beautiful, watching as this “corrupt church” trope was used yet again, I began to contemplate this question yet again, which further raised two more questions. Why is this setup so popular in Japanese fantasy writing, and how should I feel about it, as a Christian?

The priests are always jerks...
The priests are always jerks…

The answer to the first of these two newly-raised questions is rather simple, actually: it makes for an interesting, easy exposition. First of all, Western history proves that organized religion has a history of corruption, particularly political. Since most good fiction has some root in nonfiction, drawing on the unfortunate reality of historical corruption makes for a story that is relatively easier to write and also of decent quality.

Second, since much of fantasy usually follows medieval or renaissance archetypes, times when the Catholic Church was at full political power and at the greatest potential for corrupt activities, it follows that a corrupt church would be included as a chief active party. Additionally, as a foreign religion to the Japanese, it is easier to view a fantastical form of Christianity to be mystical and akin to magic in some form (just look at any RPG with a priest/cleric class that essentially acts as a sort of mage), fitting in greatly with a magic-based fantasy world.

All of this is based more on writing style rather than modern, relevant church activity, though, which brings up the second question: How should I feel about all of this?

Well, as I mentioned before, the fictional writing of church corruption is rooted in historical church corruption, so though they might blow it out of proportion, it would be like being offended at Valkyria Chronicles for presenting a fantasy take on World War II, complete with fantasy racism and fantasy concentration camps. The actual inspiration for the people and events happened, and there is no changing that, so why be upset about a fictional recreation of them to tell a story?

But even more so than this, it is worth noting that corrupt religion absolutely does not mean incorrect origin of belief. From the Christian perspective, one easy analogy to make would be the Pharisees in the time of Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees were absolutely corrupt, concerned more with their political power stemming from the religion that they had formed into legalistic nonsense, but was Judaism, based in its core Scriptures and beliefs, wrong? From the Christian perspective, absolutely not! Jesus Christ was, himself, a Jew, come to fulfill thousands of years of covenants, namely God’s covenant with Abraham to bless all nations. The Pharisees were wrong, yes, but the core of what they believed was not.

...or they just LOOK creepy...
…or they just LOOK creepy…

This follows from the non-Christian perspective, though, as well. An example of this might be in the studies of a scientist investigating theories of the origin of life, from atheistic evolution, to theistic evolution, to young earth creationism. If this scientist were to be bribed to operate on a political agenda, what sort of implications does this have on his findings? Obviously, his methods would be brought into question, as he would no longer be researching for the sake of discovery, bu for the sake of discovering something specific for political gains. But does this invalidate the truth of the matter? Of course not! Atheistic evolution, theistic evolution, young earth creationism, or some other theory will still be correct. The belief itself has not been invalidated, merely the interpretation of it.

With all of this said, I would admonish watchers, particularly of anime, to maintain a broader perspective in regard to anime’s common portrayal of a corrupt church. Hypocrisy is an inescapable reality, something that every Christian practices to some extent, whether they realize it or not. However, that hypocrisy (or, to a heavier extent, corruption) does not mean that Christianity is false. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it is speaking about Christianity at all (heck, The World is Still Beautiful is obviously drawing on the Catholic Church for inspiration for the church of the sun god, but it’s technically not even a form of Christianity at all but more akin to the idol worship of the Greeks)!

Corrupt systems do not mean false beliefs, much less fictional portrayals of corrupt systems. And with that in mind, a show like The World is Still Beautiful can still be edifying.*

I wanted to write, “…The World is Still Beautiful can still be beautiful”, but I opted not to because that would have been the cheesiest line I had ever written in my life.


14 thoughts on “Anime Today: The World is Still Beautiful and the Corrupt Church

  1. Reblogged this on Japesland and commented:

    My latest entry in Anime Today at Beneath the Tangles. This week I focused on Anime’s portrayal of the Church (particularly the Catholic Church).

  2. I strongly suspect that your theory about the “corrupt church” trope being a reflection of historical corruption within the Christian church is false. I mean, it makes perfect sense from our /Western/ perspective, because we actually know this history with both its bright and dark points. But one should never forget about the level of ignorance of the Japanese in this regard – the average Japanese isn’t even quite sure how many gods Christians have.

    The historical background of the Western church – the fact that it once wielded substantial political power, land, and its own armies, the secrets and intrigues, all of it is certainly the perfect breeding ground for presenting the church as a mysterious, powerful and shady organization. But if we ask for the /why/, the reason behind the drive to get corrupt religions involved in the first place, we should look closer (from the Japanese perspective) – at Japanese history, not Western history.

    And indeed, Japan has in its (recent!) history one of the greatest corruptions of religion in human history. Shinto was incorporated into the WWII propaganda, touting the emperor as god and urging his followers to die for his sake with smiles on their faces, And when Japan lost the war, they had to state “sorry, it was all a lie”. /There are still people alive who remember all of this./ You can imagine the mark left on the Japanese collective psyche – this event basically defines most of the contemporary Japanese approach to religion in general (one of half-ignorance, half-distrust, despite the way religious rites remain a important part of tradition and cultural identity, if not actual belief).

    If you look at most depictions of shinto in anime, you get almost exclusively positive images, that focus on the return-to-the-roots approach to the religion: connection with nature + basic moral values. You won’t see history and politics dragged into the picture, because the topic still hurts, and your entertainment wouldn’t be feel-good at all if you started messing with that stuff.

    So, what do you do when you want to touch upon those topics without scaring away your audience? You address them through a parallel, and the Western church is the perfect tool for it because of the creative reasons you mentioned, the fact that (almost) no Japanese have any emotional connection to the religion whatsoever, and the fact that contemporary Christianity is pretty lenient when it comes to its fictional portrayals, unlike some other great religions (no multinational scandals, threats etc.).

    So how should a Christian look on this matter? If you remember that anime is made for the Japanese by the Japanese, and that /they are dealing with their own issues/ in those works, you can probably find it easier to accept that there is no ill will in those fantastical and oftentimes grotesque portrayals of the corrupt church.

    1. Your comment deserves to be a post of its own! Whenever I think of Japan’s relationship with Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, I think of the persecutions during the Tokugawa era–sparked by fears that Christianity would be the means by which Spain gained a foothold in Japan. But, the persecuted Church of that time does not compare to the kind of organization anime usually satirizes. I would never have thought that anime might be using a Catholic-style institution to point out the evils of government controlled Shintoism. Interesting!

    2. Thanks for your lengthy comment! It was both informative and helpful, and I greatly appreciate your (regular) input!

      I see no reason to disagree with anything you’ve said, but I still hold my point. The Church has had a past of hypocrisy and corruption, contrasted by the much good it has done over the centuries. I think the perspective you’ve provided doesn’t contradict that, but merely narrows it down more specifically (or at least it doesn’t contradict what I was trying to say, regardless of if I communicated it effectively).

      As a side note, I am actually rather familiar with much of the Japanese religious corruption you mentioned.

      Would you consider writing up a guest post for Beneath the Tangles with everything you mentioned? I’m sure we would all greatly appreciate it!

      1. Yeah, we don’t really disagree, do we xD. I was in a rush yesterday so my wording was a bit off in places, sorry for that.

        I do get ideas for religion-oriented posts on a semi-regular basis, but as always, there is never enough time to do everything I want to. I appreciate the invitation and I’ll be keeping it in mind!

  3. Another thing to note, portrayals of corrupt Buddhist monks who preach about things, and then go off to brothels and pubs, is not uncommon in the Meiji era Japanese literature I’ve read. As a Buddhist I used to be annoyed by it, but in the end, it was based on things which happened, and it’s possible to find the ideas of Buddhism helpful in daily life, without feeling like those who call themselves Buddhists, yet do bad things invalidate the ideas of the religion itself. It should be similar for Christians.

    Actually Japan tends to think of itself as very un-religious. If you ask a Japanese person what their religion is, they will likely say they don’t have one. All this despite that the country is full of shrines, and temples. Most of them only visit them on certain holidays & special occasions. They only count someone as having a religion if they go to a place of worship regularly, which most don’t.

    Anyway, interesting article! I’m not Christian, but I’m glad I found this blog, as it’s interesting to read, and seems to cover some of the deeper themes in anime. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for your input, and I appreciate your different perspective! One thing we aim for here at Beneath the Tangles is providing a venue for people of many beliefs to read and discuss a judgement-free Christian worldview as applied to anime and other aspects of Japanese culture. I’m glad that you’re getting something out of reading these (it at least makes me feel better about writing them!).

    2. I think the way you approach media as a Buddhist is very similar to how I approach it as a Christian. And like you, I was once annoyed by how my faith and practitioners of it were presented, though I now take a different perspective. In fact, I rather like it when a Protestant or Catholic-like institution is presented in anime or another medium, even in a negative light, as it gives more opportunity for discussion about religion!

  4. And it’s those all too rare moments when anime (or manga or a visual novel) gets Christianity exactly right that keeps me watching, negative depictions notwithstanding.

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