Inception. Black Swan. The Matrix. These Hollywood hits have a common thread—each was heavily influenced by Japanese animation, aka anime.
Anime has settled in as a permanent part of American entertainment. Besides serving as inspiration for filmmakers, some anime movies—particularly those by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro, The Secret World of Arrietty, and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away)—have found a Western audience. Still, it would a stretch to say that Americans have embraced anime. It remains an oddity—a medium filled with large-eyed characters and unfamiliar cultural references.
As with many adults, when I first watched anime as a child, I didn’t know about its Japanese origins. Dubbed versions of Speed Racer and Voltron stood side-by-side with Disney, Looney Tunes, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons as favorites. Years later, in college, I rediscovered anime and became gripped by the medium’s mature themes, fanciful artwork, and yes, the foreignness of it all. Younger Americans, meanwhile, have grown up with anime, from kiddie fare like Pokemon to action series like Naruto.
Many viewers are drawn toward anime’s storylines, which are far different from those in typical American animation. Despite a growing trend to the contrary, American toons are still typically aimed at children. In Japan, animation is produced for both children and adults. Anime films are routinely among Japan’s highest grossing and most adored movies, while most anime TV programming airs during primetime or late at night. Because it is often made for older audiences, the animation, storylines, and dialogue are typically more mature than in western counterparts, often including heavy doses of violence and fanservice (a term usually used to describe the animation of scantily dressed characters). In America, there’s a certain shock value to seeing something like the hyperviolent anime sequence in Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, because it remains an exception.
Anime also frequently portrays Shinto and Buddhist practices, reflecting the habits of the majority of Japan, where only 1-2 percent identify as Christian. Not unlike American media, it’s more typical to find a vampire-hunting priest or an irreligious Catholic schoolgirl in a show than a Christian character simply living out his or her faith.
Still, it’s interesting that many of these anime series espouse actions that are encouraging, loving, and even biblical—though sometimes you need to look past the chaff to find the wheat. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a good example. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Part of the “magical girl” genre, in which adolescent girls transform into heroes who fight evil, this series turns the typically light-hearted form on its head. Kyubey, a cute mascot later revealed to be a devil figure, offers teenage girls any wish they desire in return for their commitment to fight against a deadly force about which they know little. Many of the girls accept, not realizing that they’ve been tempted into trading their souls for temporary gain. But the dark series ends on a hopeful note when one of the protagonists uses her wish to become a savior to Kyubey’s victims, giving up her own life in the process. Viewers quickly noted the Christlike sacrifice, and its timing: The finale was released during Passion Week in 2011.
Another such series is Trigun, a sci-fi western featuring Vash the Stampede, an outlaw who so devastates towns that an insurance company sends two agents to follow him, assessing the damage as he goes along. Though branded a criminal, Vash soon makes it clear that his mission isn’t one of destruction, but to live by his motto of “love and peace.” Indeed, it’s Vash’s brother, a villain with a vendetta against humanity, who uses otherworldly means to manipulate his twin into leveling a city against his will. Vash refuses to take the lives of even murderers, finding every conceivable way of saving everyone. Entire towns of residents try to take Vash’s life, but he evades all the bounty hunters and instead finds ways of aiding the townsfolk. He pays the consequences for his actions, as displayed in a scene where the insurance agents walk in on Vash while he’s changing. His body is crisscrossed with scars, as we’re reminded of Jesus, who suffered for the very people who inflicted his wounds.
The story deepens when Vash encounters Nicholas D. Wolfwood, a traveling priest who carries a life-sized cross, which he declares is “full of mercy”—but, as Vash soon discovers, it’s actually a cross full of weapons. Although Wolfwood has a heart for children and tries to do what is right, he will resort to violent means to achieve his goals. But because of Vash’s influence, Wolfwood eventually makes a dramatic decision to show mercy to an enemy. Soon after, we see the series’ most poignant scene, when a severely injured Wolfwood kneels before a church altar, weeping as he seeks forgiveness for his sins.
Forgiveness & salvation
Grace is also commonplace in anime series with some of its most famous characters, including the namesake of Naruto. A young ninja, Naruto Uzumaki is quick to forgive his enemies; his radical love pierces their hearts, and they in turn repent of their injurious ways. Even more obviously, Haibane Renmei, a series about angelic beings living in a purgatory-like world, features protagonists who struggle with the guilt of sin. At the series climax, one character, Reki, admits that she has hidden her impure heart from her friends, only doing good deeds for them to gain salvation and achieve her “day of flight” from this world. But in the throes of despair, Reki realizes that she cannot earn salvation. Though the mechanics of salvation in this world are unclear, we do see that Reki abandons her own ways and gains it by simply asking. As Daniel Cronquist writes in his monograph, Set Apart, “The instant Reki asked to be saved, the power of her former self vanished. . . . She went from a proud person who was afraid to ask for help, to a new, broken person who could be saved. . . . This transformation is no less than what Paul described when he wrote, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’”
Many anime series explore a dark theme that Hollywood has capitalized on in film series like Batman and Spiderman, that even the most heroic figures deal with a sinful nature. Death Note, one of anime’s most popular and controversial shows, features a character named Light Yagami, who has the power to kill others by writing their names in a notebook. In his effort to cleanse the world of evil, he compromises his soul and becomes a villain. I.e., Light becomes dark, much like Lucifer, who has disguised himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) since his fall from heaven. Further, Light, who has been carrying out his crime in the shadows, becomes a false idol, as cults develop which worship his anonymous persona, seeinghim as both a hero and a god of judgment . The series asks questions about the nature of evil and man’s role (as opposed to God’s) in determining justice: How can any person possess and wield such power justly? The series ends in such a way that implies we can’t, because of pride and sinfulness. Such judgments belong to a holy God alone.
Christian imagery and themes appear in other anime series as well. Goku, the alien superhero of Dragonball Z, is an allusion to Christ with his frequent acts of self-sacrifice for humanity. In Tokyo Godfathers, three homeless characters seek to reunite an abandoned newborn with her parents on Christmas Eve, finding their own measure of grace and healing along the way. Even in Pokemon, a child’s show, the relationship between Ash and Pikachu demonstrates a love that protect and perseveres, reminiscent of that described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
Christianity depicted clearly
The Japanese have addressed Christianity directly, too. Studio 4°C’s short film, My Last Day, depicts the Crucifixion through the eyes of one of the crucified thieves. (Watch the 9-minute film here.) Reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ in its graphic portrayal, the film was conceived by the distributors of the evangelistic JESUS film and dubbed in a number of languages to reach young audiences globally. It joins The Flying House, Superbook, and In the Beginning (the Vatican’s 1980s collaboration with Osamu Tezuka) as works depicting Bible stories.
Bible-based manga (Japanese comics) have also been created, including the recent Paul: Tarsus to Redemption, a three volume, manga-influenced work by American distributor Manga Hero, a company which solely creates faith-inspired works. American publishers have also released several manga versions of the Bible.
Meanwhile, a number of the actors who provide voices for the English dubs of anime series are vocal Christians. Many of them have a loyal following, largely developed through interaction at anime conventions, which can attract more than 20,000, adults and children both. Vic Mignogna, a voice actor with a large following, has led a convention panel on “Christianity in Anime” and together with voice actress Caitlin Glass and others, sometimes leads worship services at conventions on Sunday mornings.
Conventions are the prime example of how anime can engage viewers, changing a form of entertainment into something more personal. Its impact is growing, and as the Internet breaks down international boundaries, it will continue to attract young people. Though anime can seem strange or “foreign” in more ways than one, it is well to remember that God can redeem anything—even stories about 14-year-old, pink clad, big-eyed, magical girls.
Featured illustration by 薯子Imoko (artist allows reprints)