Anime’s Common Grace

InceptionBlack SwanThe 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)


11 thoughts on “Anime’s Common Grace

  1. Very nice I almost didn’t watch Madoka Magika, but when I read the ending I knew that in the end the message is was one of a Christ parallel and not merely a bunch of girls selling their souls.

    1. The ending makes it – it could have been a horribly depressing piece of torture art (and some conclude as much after watching the films), but the ending makes the entire piece hopeful and uplifting.

  2. The thing I like about Madoka is that it explores the logical consequences of a world where “the belief of your heart becomes power.” And the really odd thing about Christianity as religions go is that its myths and folklore continuously imply this is exactly what happens. “Ask and you shall receive. Knock on the door and it shall be opened onto you.”

    The Bible is interesting because it never states that demons have what you could call magical powers. It depicts them as being able to influence humans and events. Manipulate probability and possess people’s minds, basically. Everything Satan does to Job in Job’s book of the Bible is something that could happen without magic— It’s just spectacularly unlikely.

    Back to Madoka. Kyubey’s only true power in the entire show is being able to draw raw Will out of a person and convert it into a usable, physical form. The true power comes out of the Will of the humans he drew it out of. The power of Fate ordained by God, used all at once. This seems to be bizarrely consistent, as in Mawaru Penguindrum the Devil figure offers the protagonists the power to take Fate into their own hands.

    But anime always states that there is a price to pay for defying one’s Fate. In a lot of ways, the things that good anime tends to “explain” to its viewers are the very things other sources explain poorly: The mechanics of the spiritual world, metaphorically. Take a lot of the concepts and mature themes in anime more abstractly and you find Truth in them.

    1. Interesting points, as always, especially in regards to anime. Certainly a lot of anime give reasons for mechanics of supernatural elements in their world, many in-depth as they character build. I will mention that critics of Madoka, though, point out the mechanics of that world, and particularly of Kyubey’s mission, as flawed. It never bothered me, but it did many bloggers, I remember, when the series originally aired.

      As for the “belief of your heart becomes power” comment regarding Christianity…I don’t know. The New Testament consistently hammers home the idea that we seek our own desires and whims, and that by turning to God and His grace, we can become something more than we are. So it’s not by our own hearts – in fact, very vividly, the Bible speaks of us getting “new hearts,” something not of our own design. We live a life empowered, perhaps, but not in some super powerful way – verses like the one you gave indicate change in how we live (Matthew 7:7, more specifically, is likely about receiving forgiveness – not anything material).

  3. I think that may be why it ultimately blows up in the face of the character who tries it. And why “the Devil” is always the one offering the power to change one’s Fate. It also has to do with Buddhist mores and understanding of “karma,” or Fate. It is glorious to defy Fate, vain to defy Fate, and dangerous to defy Fate. But it is also enlightening in Buddhism, and that is why glory gets in there.

    Christianity has the opposite view of Fate to Buddhism. Fate is something ordained by God, and is thus holy. Defying Fate, defying the natural order created by God, is sinful. It is both what made us “human” as we understand the term and what condemns us to death. Christianity’s Prometheus is a tempter, a Dragon, and a snake. It is God who gently leads one back to the proper way of things, and thus heals the wound that’s been open so long.

    Yet still…I’ve found that although that phrase actually describes the transformative power of seeking God…It applies to everything. If you are looking for it with all your Heart, and willing to fight for it…you will find it one day— Although it may not come in the form you expect, or in the way you want.

    Maybe that’s just my life, but often enough I have found it is not. 🙂

  4. It is also interesting (If only from a storytelling standpoint) that the Devil figures offer the power to change one’s Fate but not one’s mind. And in fact the price of the creature’s services IS “one’s mind”— One’s soul or some form of despair. Usually both.

    Whereas God offers instead His unique ability (For He was the creator of that mind!) to change one’s mind in exchange for loyalty to and love of Him. That loyalty also means offering up your Fate to Him instead of seeking hopelessly after your own desires.

  5. Good piece. Coulda been a nice introduction to anime for a lot of people who, let’s face it, aren’t going to come across it in their everyday life.

    I can definitely guess what publication this was submitted to and I think it would have been a good fit for them.

  6. This was a great intro piece for, as Seasons said above, someone who hasn’t been exposed to anime or who hasn’t looked at it as deeply as regular viewers have.

    It’s a shame that it wasn’t put out there, and maybe it will see the light of another publication one day. To be honest, I think the Christian “bubble” isn’t ready for anime, they are still dealing with other mainstream culture issues. It takes a longggggg time for the Christian “bubble” (basically, what is accepted as ‘holy’ or ‘ok’) to say that this is ok to do and that’s not.

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    1. Good point, Michael. Look at the “struggle” that anime and manga have had in becoming “mainstream,” an area it’s started approaching. Magnify that by ten for the Christian community in America!

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