We have a treat for you today—a guest post from JeskaiAngel, an anime fan with a PhD in history, who has an interesting take on GeGeGe no Kitarō, a series that deals extensively with yōkai, demons of Japanese folklore, from a Christian perspective. Enjoy!
“There’s no such thing as yokai, dummy!”
“Yes there are! We just can’t see them!”
“Then show us.”
“My grandma said so!”
This exchange from the first episode of GeGeGe no Kitaro really jumped out at me as I watched. Replace “yokai” with something like “God” or “hell” and you’d have a variation of conversations that have played out countless times in real life. A materialistic worldview contends that there’s nothing to life beyond the physical, nothing more than what we can perceive and measure with our senses. If you can’t see miracles or can’t subject heaven to scientific analysis, then they must not exist. And yet some people do believe, not because they’ve seen, but because a trustworthy source tells them so.
The episode continues to build on this theme, when the eponymous Kitaro and his father (a talking eyeball) explain to Mana, “Young miss, the world you see isn’t all there is. There is also a world you can’t see.” Later, following a dangerous encounter with a hostile yokai, Mana acknowledges, “I couldn’t see anything, but it was there.” While I can’t imagine the show’s creators were intending Eyeball-dad to challenge philosophic naturalism, that’s exactly what he does when he answers back “Humans think their world is all there is. But what you see isn’t everything.” Finally, in a second encounter with the hostile yokai, Mana does perceive it, and is told, “You’ve begun to believe in yokai. That’s why you’re beginning to see them.” It’s striking that belief comes before sight, isn’t it?
This theme seems to be common to many anime, though not all of them tackle it quite so explicitly as do the quotes above. I only really started watching anime a couple years ago (I’m not 100% certain, but I believe I discovered Crunchyroll sometimes around summer 2016 when a Twitch streamer I was watching showed the stream Bananya). The ability to see and interact with normally unseen spirits caused a great deal of trouble for Chise, the protagonist of The Ancient Magus’ Bride. In Elegant Yokai Apartment Life, Yushi learns to see yokai and crazy antics ensue. Although not dealing explicitly with spirits, Libra of Nil Admirari is another show this season where the protagonist’s ability to see what is normally unseen plays a key role. I have no idea how many Japanese actually believe in an unseen spirit realm, but the idea certainly appears widespread in their cartoons.
All of this, but especially the way it was presented in GeGeGe no Kitaro, really resonates with me. As a Christian, I believe there are invisible spirits, both benevolent (e.g. angels) and hostile (e.g. Satan) at work in the world. I believe in places that can’t be found on any map (heaven and hell). Most important of all, I believe in a God I’ve never seen. I believe so because someone told me about him – not through a grandmother’s story, but through the eyewitness testimony of the apostles and prophets as recorded in the collection of ancient documents we call the Bible. The unseen world in which Christians believe is quite different the one presented in these anime, but we share the view that there’s more to this world than what meets the eye.
The scriptures are full of statements recognizing that we grapple with unseen realities. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” “We walk by faith, not by sight.” “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The unseen is nonetheless real. For the present, we must rely on trust, but we look forward to a time when, like Mana’s first clear glimpse of the yokai but incomparably more glorious and joyful, we get to see our Creator. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” As you view GeGeGe no Kitaro, or any of the many other anime that play in the space of “protagonist who can see normally unseen spiritual phenomena,” let its depiction of an unseen spiritual world remind you that there truly is a world of spirits that we can’t see. There is a Lord and Creator who we trust now and who we look forward to seeing one day. “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”
JeskaiAngel is a stereotypical millennial: thirty-something, single, unemployed, and living with his parents. On the bright side, he graduated in December 2017 with a PHD in history, so maybe he’s not completely failing at life. Although he vaguely remembers catching glimpses of shows like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon as a kid years ago, he really only discovered anime back in 2016.