A DVD copy of Spirited Away has sat in my room for over a month, still shrink-wrapped. I’ve wanted to watch it for years—or, should I say, re-watch it. I first saw it when I was twelve, before I knew what anime was. I hated it. It was dark and bizarre, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Three and a half years later, I stumbled across Naruto and was sucked into anime fandom. I stuck mostly to TV series, but I kept hearing about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. After a few more years, I heard that Spirited Away won awards, and I often heard people call it their favorite Miyazaki film. Clearly, this movie—just a strange memory by now—was part of a greater legacy, one that, as an anime fan, I wanted to better understand.
I’m getting ready to put on the movie as I write this. But if I really want to know more about anime’s rich history, there are other, older titles I need to stop procrastinating on, including Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and at least a few more episodes each of Dragonball and Astro Boy (not to mention some of the anime Medieval Otaku writes about in his articles). I’d also benefit from reading old manga, especially that by the iconic Osamu Tesuka. Ideally, I’d spend time with even older Japanese art and literature. Why? So I can spout knowledge about “classics”? No. By learning about anime’s history, I can learn more about what’s inspired today’s creators, and better understand their references. And as a lifelong story lover, I love learning the heritage of any story-telling medium. It makes the current literature that much richer.
When I first think about anime history, my mind goes back about a hundred years, to animation’s earliest days. But as I indicated above, the history stretches further into the past, through days of woodcut printing and old fables. Anime classics are only the latest Japanese aspects of a worldwide storytelling heritage. If we forget that, we do ourselves and our predecessors a disfavor.
Why dwell on this now, in this post? Different kinds of heritage have been on my mind lately. Part of it comes from volunteering at a thrift store where people carelessly toss aside 100-year-old books and 200-year-old Bibles. A larger part of it comes from conversations about Catholicism and Church history, and from reading 1 Kings—part of Israel’s history and my Christian heritage. As I do, I realize how shortsighted we often are. Sometimes, American Protestants like to talk about “our Christian heritage.” Such conversations recall our Founding Fathers—who we wishfully repaint as faithful Christians—and occasionally go as far back as the Mayflower. And these conversations are usually, in my experience, fear-induced reactions to current events, such as the legalization of gay marriage, fear for our religious rights, abortion, etc. This can lead to political activism, even beneficial activism, but I think it’s healthier to step back and take a much broader view. By looking at a history between us and God that stretches back several thousand years, we can gain a lot: a bigger picture that emphasizes God’s role, rather than our own.
When I read the Old Testament, the theme of remembering stands out to me. The Israelites are commanded to remember what God has done for them, and to pass on his great works and his laws to generations to come. In the historical Bible books, authors carefully record Israel’s history and God’s sovereignty throughout. In the Psalms, poets tell the people to remember and teach God’s wondrous works. They remind Israel of the times they have been unfaithful, and of God’s continued faithfulness (i.e. Psalm 78). One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 136, highlights God’s fierce love as the psalmist recalls his great works, both as Creator and as Israel’s God.
Remembering what the Lord has done, from the ancient days to last week and all the centuries between, gives us a chance to glorify him. It can also provide a warning, as we remember what happens when his people depart from his ways—not only as the Israelites did, but as the Church sometimes has. It is also valuable to look at Church history, to read the teachings of our predecessors. All of these things gives us context, a chance to glorify God, and much more. Remembering “Christian heritage” shouldn’t be about securing our identity and safety in our own country, but rather about glorifying God and seeking to follow his ways.
Now, back watching Spirited Away…. I watch it with a better grasp of cultural context than I did almost ten years ago. I value it more because I know more about the director, Japanese anime, animation, and even film history. I’m a little more mature, too. I watch with more respect, and I’m excited to see artistic beauty that reflects God’s creativity. At the same time, I anticipate proof of darker heritage, elements sprouting from a worldview that does not include the Lord God, and is instead influenced primarily by Shintoism. I am no student of Japanese culture, but I know enough about their history and about Miyazaki to expect this.
As I start to watch Spirited Away, I recognize some things from Shintoism. The neglected shrines that Chihiro’s family drives by are the first obvious elements. The fact that they’re neglected does not bode well. A few minutes later, as the family gets out of the car to explore, I notice statues that I don’t think are purely decorative. But there are other parts of the story I don’t know how to place. I wonder how many cues I miss because I don’t know enough about Japanese culture. Finishing the movie will help, of course. So will watching bonus features and, eventually, re-watching the film. But that can’t replace a dedicated study of Japanese folktales, literature, and mythology.
And in my daily life, nothing can replace a dedicated study of the Lord’s Word and what he has done for us throughout the ages.