Yes, you read the title correctly. I’m invading your sacred sphere of entertainment and imploring you to think critically about what you watch. I advocate critical thinking for Christian fans especially, because I’m more familiar with the Christian perspective. But I think everyone, regardless of their beliefs, can benefit from some level of analysis when they watch anime. Note that “critical thinking” does not necessarily imply focusing on the negative, as when you criticize. Instead, it’s related to the critical reading skills tested on SATs: when you think critically about an anime, you pay attention to details, notice themes, analyze, and consider its merits on artistic, philosophical, and/or moral levels.
Last week, I emphasized humility’s importance in our responses to anime. We don’t have to like everything; negative opinions can still be valid. But it’s important to set aside disdain and honestly consider the show’s merits and and weaknesses, especially if we’re sharing our opinions with others. A little respect for the creators and for the show’s fans can go a long way, even if you end up giving the show an overall negative review.
But there are other reasons to think critically about what we watch—or read, or even listen to. Here are a few:
- You’re writing a review to help others decide whether to spend their time (and sometimes money) on a given show, movie, etc. You may focus on the title’s technical achievements, from visual affects to plot structure. Depending on your audience, you may note the philosophical value or include a content card.
- You want to grasp the story’s main theme, etc. You don’t want to miss anything the writers/artists/etc. are trying to share with you.
- It’s an academic or philosophical exercise. Your professor is actually grading your written response.
- It’s an academic or philosophical exercise. You are an unapologetic nerd, and you analyze stuff for fun.
- You understand that stories have a powerful influence on us, and you want to be careful what influences you and how.
- Every story, regardless of its medium, can teach us something about the world, yourself, storytelling, or at least the consumers’ whims.
I bolded the fifth and sixth reasons because they’re my focus today.
Anime influences and teaches us, whether or not we expect it to. Yes, here at Beneath the Tangles, we often notice learning opportunities in the anime we watch. I suspect most of us can’t help it anymore. We know truths about God and his creation are often mirrored in anime (albeit imperfectly), and we’re in the habit of finding those parallels. But even if we don’t expect anime to impact our lives, it often does. For example, sports anime has inspired some otaku to set athletic goals, or at least exercise more. Last year, on Otaku Journalist, Lauren wrote about how sports anime inspired her to run a set of 5K races. I’ve been similarly inspired, both by sports anime and shounen like Naruto. If Naruto is driven enough to master the Rasengan, and if Ei-chan can aim for nationals after two years of tennis training, then surely I can stop procrastinating and run three miles.
Motivation and athletic inspiration are fairly surface-level influences. But every mangaka, writer, director, and artist comes to their work with a different worldview: a set of beliefs, assumptions, and experiences that form the lens through which they see the world. Sometimes, they consciously promote their beliefs in their work. Often, their perspective naturally flows into it. For example, anime like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Origins: Spirits of the Past come from worldviews that value nature. There are other themes in these movies, but the environmentalist bent is undeniable (especially in Princess Mononoke and Origins). I’ve watched Totoro four times. Each time, I’m more inclined to appreciate the little flowers and creatures I pass.
Environmentalism is compatible with many types of worldviews. But some anime contain life philosophies that contradict a Biblical worldview, and Christians need to be aware of that. We’d like to believe that entertainment is neutral ground unless it offends us with TV-MA content, but it’s not. Fullmetal Alchemist, for example, is very humanist; that is, it emphasizes humans’ ability to improve, save, and occasionally sabotage themselves, ungoverned by an omniscient and omnipotent God. Yes, there are themes of love and redemption, but it’s human-centered and human-powered. In fact, all superhuman or deity-like characters are either defeated by the protagonists’ crew or learn a lesson from them and come to their side.
Other anime aren’t as adamantly humanist as FMA, but they are rarely written from a Christian perspective. Many do, at least, acknowledge the supernatural—Buddhism and Shintoism strongly influence anime like Hunter x Hunter, InuYasha, Noragami, and Natsume Yuujinchou. But they still promote messages based on faulty assumptions about God and the world. Sometimes, the resulting messages seem to line up with Christian beliefs. Sometimes, they sound good coming from the protagonists’ mouths, but on closer look, they’re incomplete—I mentioned once such message from Baby Steps a few weeks ago. If we hear these untruths repeatedly, without ever stopping to compare them against the reality of experience and the Bible, they can undermine our grasp on truth and good.
I wrote earlier in this post that the mangaka, directors, etc. work from their own worldviews. But we, the viewers, also come with a worldview. Two things happen with our perspective as we watch anime: First, our worldview influences how we interpret what we see. So Westerners like me don’t always interpret details in anime correctly, because we don’t understand the Japanese culture as well. Second, what we see impacts our worldview. This could be a relativey innocent impact—as I watch more anime and Google words like “senpai,” I gain very basic understanding of the senpai-kohai relationship, which enhances how I view seniority in my own relationships. But anime and other entertainment can influence us on deeper levels, too—take a minute to think about how entertainment, both Japanese and Western, has influenced your perspective on gender roles, self-confidence, the origins of life, moral standards, God, and more.
Feminist writers don’t usually use the word “worldview” to talk about our beliefs. But they seem to understand that entertainment can impact how we understand femininity and gender roles. They write about Disney princesses who can’t do anything but wait in their tower for a prince to save them, and how that promotes helplessness, etc. There are other articles about our perception of beauty. And recently, there was that big stink about 50 Shades of Grey (one book/movie that most liberal feminists and traditional conservatives actually agree on). Feminists, regardless of their religion (remember, conservatives, there is such a thing as a Christian feminist), recognize that entertainment can have a big impact on how we see ourselves and our world. Christians need to recognize the same, and to be alert, for our own sake and for the sake of those we talk with. Because once we notice the implicit and explicit messages in our anime and other media, we can consciously choose how it influences us:
- We can accept the message and assimilate it into our understanding of the world.
- We can reject the message immediately.
- We can give the message proper consideration, even if we disagree at first. We might search the Bible for what it says on the topic, ask someone wise what they think, pray, and consider all sides. This is especially appropriate when something challenges a basic worldview assumption about God, sexual or gender identity, etc.
- We can notice a message that reinforces something we already believe—perhaps about love, forgiveness, or friendship—and consider whether or not we truly believe and act on it.
For some of you, this blog post might be frustrating. Five years ago, it would have annoyed me: I just want to watch anime and have fun! I watch this stuff to escape from my busy mind, because I already overthink too much in life. I’m a firm Christian. I don’t need to worry about this undermining my beliefs! I’ll just avoid anything rated TV-MA for sexual content and stop watching demon-related things if they make me too uncomfortable, okay?
Last year, I wrote a related post on Annalyn’s Thoughts, questioning whether or not it’s okay to use anime as an escape. I won’t replicate it here. Instead, I’ll just say that, as you get better at thinking critically about anime, it becomes easier, and it really enriches your experience. It doesn’t just help protect you from false beliefs; it gives you a chance to learn more about yourself, about the world, and about the cultures around you.
A few last tips:
- Recognize that you can’t really separate your otakudom, etc. from your religious being.
- Know yourself, know what you believe, and know the Bible.
- Be humble. Realize that your beliefs and interpretations may be wrong. If anime challenges one of your beliefs, examine it.
Thinking critically about anime might be hard, but trust me: it’s worth it.