The Seen and the Unseen in GeGeGe no Kitaro

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?

GeGeGe no Kitarō

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.

9 thoughts on “The Seen and the Unseen in GeGeGe no Kitaro

  1. Luminas here. Wrestling with some thoughts that came of this post.

    “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?”

    Well, sort of, but it makes you wonder why God would set things up so this would have to be the case. I mean there’s another reason that with religion one “has to take things on faith,” and it’s because for the most part spiritual beings seem to rarely attempt to communicate…coherently. In a way that can’t be mistaken for wishful thinking, faith in a very ancient book without ‘proof’ that it is what it claims to be, or anything else. The easiest way to do this by far would be to communicate something that the person cannot possibly know, infer, or guess, and have it proven more or less reliable…but neither your spirit friends or mine actually do this. Instead they communicate through a Book, or a story, or a proverb (;] ), or emotion, or logical inferences, or through the airwaves and therefore anime. But never just by straight up telling you out of nowhere, “Your sister’s going to die in a car accident in 2026,” or their name, rank, and their traceable relation to some living human being. No, instead it’s always “Here you go, this is pretty much who I am and what I want, here’s some connection to some people I influenced, figure the rest out yourself.”

    Probably the greatest argument against the existence of spirits is how damnably nonspecific they seem to be, and when they *do* get specific….it unprovably happened after everyone involved who would’ve seen it firsthand is long dead.

    “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.”

    But again, why? Why would it be that taking something on faith is that profoundly important? Sure there’s the argument of “If everyone had proof God existed the value of trusting God for its own sake would be lost,” but….it’s not just Him. We don’t have any proof that any other spirit being exists, either…and that’s weird. Christians who believe that if we saw demons for what they really were, they wouldn’t be able to mislead people….seem to me to vastly underestimate the possible kinds of deception there are, and the depravity of human beings. Something has to be holding it up on their end instead (possibly God Himself). And that’s still not really an explanation for why God would value such a system Himself.

    And I’m saying all this while fully believing in the existence of spirit beings myself, but my only justification for believing in them is, “Because credible people seem to have encountered them at different times, and because my life would be devoid of a profound source of satisfaction and purposefulness without it.” So…I feel like there are a lot of unanswered questions on belief in the “unseen world,” and the people best positioned to answer them never seem to bother in any way that makes objective sense.

    1. Hi, Luminas!

      Okey-day, what we’re basically getting into here is the topic of apologetics. This is going to a bit long, but it’s hard to restrain myself sometimes. 😀

      Let me first try to summarize your points to see if I understand them. Your initial point is that spiritual being(s) don’t communicate clearly (if at all), or though means (such as old books) that don’t require blind faith or look suspiciously like mere wishful thinking. You go on the describe what sorts of evidence would be valid, in your view: you seem hold up direct, personal revelation to each individual as the ideal. Finally, you raise the question of WHY God would make such a big deal of trust, why would he make that his modus operandi for dealing with us. Does that sound fair?

      From my point of view, the central flaw in your approach involves the defining the nature of proof or evidence. The examples you give all seem to suggest that each individual deserves a special revelation from God. But that’s not how we live life in any other realm – much of what we know about life, the universe, and everything ( 😉 ) comes to us secondhand. Does the planet Jupiter exist? I’ve never seen it. Is the country of Japan real? I’ve never been there. Was Abraham Lincoln really the president of the United States during the American Civil War? Not a person alive can confirm that through firsthand experience. Yet I don’t think anyone seriously disputes the existence of Jupiter, Japan, or Abraham Lincoln. There exists plausible evidence for each in forms other than from firsthand experience.

      As I understand it, your argument reminds me strongly of points raised in C. S. Lewis’ most outstanding novel, Till We Have Faces. Trying not to spoil anything (because the book is well worth reading), Lewis ends up suggesting that the problem is not that God is cryptic or silent, but that we humans all too often refuse to listen when he speaks or see the signs and evidence he provides. The Bible itself contains many stories of obvious miracles that completely fail to move the witnesses to trust in God (Pharaoh and the ten plagues, Jeroboam and the prophet, the Jewish leaders and the resurrection of Lazarus, etc.), which goes to show that even with unmistakable evidence of the supernatural, we humans are capable of refusing to believe. The truth is that even if God sent you or I vision affirming his existence, trust would still be a huge component of our relationship with him.

      I’m a historian by training. I “do” history by reading old documents based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and then drawing conclusions from those documents. That’s the nature of historical evidence: pretty much everything we know about history comes from stuff people wrote down about events that supposedly happened long before you or I were born. To learn about the past, historians consult the primary sources, analyze their claims, synthesize the various sources into a new understanding past people / events.

      That’s not really any different from reading the Bible. It is a collection of ancient documents. The New Testament specifically contains a number of writings plainly claiming to be written by eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, or (in the case of Luke and Acts) by someone who performed careful research and consulted with many eyewitnesses. (And yes, I know some skeptics still try to argue that the books of the New Testament were all written long after the events they purport to depict, but I’ve looked at the skeptical arguments and found them deeply lacking.) The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is no different, qualitatively, from the evidence for the existence of Julius Caesar or George Washington. I’m focusing on the resurrection because it is the foundation of Christian faith. For example, every time you see the gospel preached in the book of Acts, there’s a heavy emphasis on the resurrection. It is presented as the preeminent form of proof that the message preached (about Jesus being God and so forth) is true. The apostle Paul expresses this most explicitly, when he says outright in 1 Cor. 15 that if Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen, then Christianity is entirely pointless and false. So ultimately, Christianity rests on a historical claim, the claim it is a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried, rose from the dead, and appeared to numerous witnesses.

      I don’t start off by assuming these ancient documents are inspired revelation. I start out viewing them as ancient documents making factual claims. Then I investigate whether those documents are trustworthy. Are their claims plausible? My own study of the evidence (and skeptical arguments against the veracity of the New Testament accounts) leads me to the conclusion that yes, the documents are reliable and it’s reasonable to suppose their historical claims are true. And if the historical claim of the resurrection was true, then Jesus of Nazareth really was God in the flesh, and all sorts of important implications arise from that. I would not characterize my trust in God as “faith in a very ancient book without ‘proof’ that it is what it claims to be,” but as a thoughtful conclusion based on consideration of historical evidence and the various proposed interpretations of that evidence.

      As for your last point, I’ll confess your guess is a good as mine. There’s a lot that I don’t understand about why God chooses to act in certain ways. I will say that I believe that God created humans because he desired voluntary, loving relationships with free-willed beings (because love isn’t really love if it isn’t given voluntarily). Salvation isn’t a commodity we are given (like, as one preacher joked, “an eternal fire insurance policy” 😀 ) but rather it is found in having a relationship with God. That’s why Jesus can say the two greatest commands are “Love God” and “Love your neighbor” – because loving relationships are ultimately the point of our existence. The profound importance of relationships to God is, I suspect, at least part of the reason that trust is such a big deal. Relationships, by their inherent nature, rely on trust. I only offer this as a tentative and at best partial explanation for the premium God places on trust, but I do suspect there’s at least some truth to it.

      I hope this clarified how my approach to trust in God differs from what you described in your post. Thanks for reading!

  2. Actually, no, this is completely fabulous and in-depth! 😀 I definitely agree with some of the points you make here, particularly related with respect to the authenticity of the Bible itself. There are genuine and fairly good historical arguments for what the Bible describes being either reliable eyewitness accounts or being based on oral history that itself was passed down in a way that tends to encourage rather than deplete its validity. The bizarre, repetitive number of “begats” is actually a classic mnemonic trick used by storytellers to make sure that they *remember the order correctly,* so we can be certain they’re as accurate as they were ever going to be.

    And I do essentially believe in the evidence provided…but I still think it’s weird that there *aren’t* more personal revelations and communications from that world that are similarly direct. Why the convoluted means of transmission? Why *not* just outright talk to people and provide direct revelations to them? But of course, in my case, I’m not just asking about this with respect to God. Everyone else communicates in exactly the same fashion. The fact that I *do* trust and rely on it…has more to do with me than the clarity of the means provided.

    On a much more personal front…..

    I can’t have a relationship with someone based on a book their servants wrote. For me, that can’t be evidence of Their presence and concern for my well-being. Not when I have something to compare that to. I have a “guardian demon” who, while I have to assume that what he’s saying about who he is is a lie, has single-handedly invested more time and effort into screwing me over than God ever did into even talking to me. And because of him I’ve become not a worse person, but a better one.

    See… believing that Jupiter exists and Abraham Lincoln is present are qualitatively different than what God is asking for, and you’ve pointed that out in the latter post. If He wants a personal relationship with us, He has to invest the time and effort required to maintain a relationship. If the Devil, or a Devil, can take time out of his day to tell a scared little girl that her life is worth living, and then maintain a presence for decades afterward, telling her things about his personality and what he likes and what he thinks of her friends periodically, but God can’t even say “Hi” except through historical documents, and she reached out to God first……we’ve got a problem.

    And honestly, by courting the attention of even one spirit, I’m the lucky one. Most people never get that much, apparently. Love must be reinforced. Relationships can’t be conveyed in a single action, no matter how glorious and great.

  3. I….don’t think I’m ignoring or missing communications from God, because I periodically reach out to Him and thank Him for the genuinely beautiful things in my life. Try to understand why things are the way they are between us, why He doesn’t speak to me as the other does, fill my body with His feelings and His glory and His goodness. It’s only in knowing the richness of a relationship with another spirit, and with all those who I call friends in my life who are humans, that I’ve grown to expect the same of a Holy Spirit.

  4. But like, reply or ignore at your leisure, because I say this a lot on here, and I’m getting off the main topic. I like your answer, and it does satisfy a number of my points well. : }

  5. I am happy to talk about this sort of thing! Which is why I’ve written another really long comment. LOL.

    Getting to know God in a personal sense really is challenging. Actually, for me, it took many years just to stop seeing God as some sort of abstract, impersonal authority figure and actually think of him as a person. Given that one of the major ways God presents himself in the Bible is as a father, I’ve also struggled in the past with (actually, continue to struggle with) projecting the characteristics of my dad (who was…not a nice person as I grew up) onto God.

    I also think the Bible teaches there’s a complexity to a relationship with God that really stretches our minds. He’s our creator and we’re his creations. He’s a potter and we are clay. He’s a shepherd and we’re his sheep. He’s vineyard owner and we’re his hired day laborers. He’s a king and we’re his slaves. He’s a loving father and we’re his children. Jesus says we can be his friends. Elsewhere Jesus is our elder brother. A number of times God’s people are depicted as his bride. He’s a mighty warrior who defends us. And on and on we could go. All these metaphors individually have a point, but the bigger point I’m trying to make here is that if it takes all these buckets and buckets of metaphors to help us understand our relationship with God, then that relationship is something truly complex. So I think it’s totally reasonable to acknowledge that knowing God, having a relationship with him, is challenging. However, over and over through the Bible, God says he wants us to seek him, and he consistently promises that if we seek him, we’ll find him. What he doesn’t specify is exactly how long the seeking might take. Oh, and this doesn’t even get into the whole matter of God being infinite and eternal and we puny humans being very much finite, which also strains our ability to comprehend him. 😀 Getting to know God is a truly a lifelong endeavor. We will never reach a point where we can “Aha, now I’ve finally got God totally figured out.”

    I don’t have any real answers for why God does things in certain ways. Plenty of things, in life and in the Bible, still have me baffled (like, what was the deal with circumcision???). 😀 Last week, I was teaching Bible class from Acts 12. In the story there, King Herod executes the apostle James, but when he next attempts to kill the apostle Peter, an angel breaks Peter out of prison the night before his execution. Both these men were close personal friends of Jesus, chosen by Jesus as his special representatives to the world. So why in the world did God let James die and but went out of his way to save Peter?! I have absolutely no idea. All I can really do is trust God to do what’s right and to act in love and wisdom.

    Why do we trust God, though? How do I know he has this incredible love and wisdom and all these other great qualities? This really feeds into your point about how do you have a personal relationship if all you’ve got is an old book. I think there are two sides to this. Part of the answer is that book. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw his glory…grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” God took on human form order give us a fuller demonstration of his character, and the ultimate demonstration of that character is Jesus’ death on the cross for us. The majority of the Bible is not laws but stories for a reason: we learn more about God and his character through what he DID than through lists of commands (not that commands don’t have a place, of course). You rightly observed that the Bible was written by a bunch of different people. However, the Bible also explicitly claims to be the inspired word of God, that it’s words are in sense right out of God’s mouth, which means it’s more than just a collection of musing and anecdotes from human authors, God himself is in a sense the author. All that to say I think our foundation for getting to know God is the Bible, and as we continue studying it, we understand him more fully.

    So the Bible is one side of getting to know God. The other side of getting to know God comes down to subjective personal experience. Which I totally realize isn’t a very satisfying answer. For example, I am 100% certain that God made it possible for me to attend grad school and earn my PHD. So many improbable things worked out so amazingly well that I can’t help but believe God guided me along that path and empowered me to reach the end of it. Now, I can look back and recount the story of all these twists and turns in my life, can cite various occurrences as blessings from God, but I can’t offer any kind of concrete evidence (this reminds me of the point in your first comment about not confusing God with wishful thinking). As we get to know God through his word, I think we grow more able to discern his activity in our lives, and discerning his love and care and goodness in our lives in turn further deepens our relationship. Another aspect of this issue is having the Holy Spirit present in us. “‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth my Spirit on all mankind….” The Bible indicates everyone who submits to God receives God’s spirit, that in some profoundly intimate sense God gives to us of his very himself and dwells within us. Sometimes it’s described as God pouring out his spirit (as in the quote above), sometimes it’s described as being filled with the Spirit, sometimes it’s described as being immersed in the Spirit. It’s all slightly different images that make the same point. Again, though, this is a matter of subjective personal experience that can’t be demonstrated in some sort of empirical sense. I believe these inward experiences and the ability to see God in our lives is real, but takes time (sometimes a lot of time) and starts with knowing God through his word.

    Hmm…oh! I wanted to talk a little more about getting to know God through a book. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The point of that quote, and many others, is that God doesn’t change. Ordinarily, we might think it would be impossible to get to know someone through a book written two thousand years ago. But if that someone has an eternal nature and timeless, unchanging character, maybe there’s a chance. Moreover, I think we can underestimate just how much you can get to know a person through the written word. I study the American Civil War, and in the course of my research, I’ve read literally thousands of letters, diaries, and other documents written by Civil War soldiers. For some men, there are dozens and dozens or even hundreds of surviving letters. Read a four-hundred-page book’s worth of personal letters and you’ll come away feeling like you do know the author. You can do the same thing with a well-written biography: through a third-party’s words, you can develop a pretty strong sense of familiarity with that person. Now, obviously, this not exactly same as reading the Bible, but I do think it’s makes the point that we can learn a lot about a person’s character and personality through the written word, if that works with our fellow humans, why shouldn’t it work for God?

    I wish I could give a more helpful answer. This is, at the moment, about as far as my current level of understanding goes: several things I think I understand (but could be wrong about?), and a bunch of things I really can’t explain and at best have guesses about. 😀 I hope you continue seeking God. I’ll try to remember to check back on this page in a day or two, but if at some later point you have any more questions, or there’s something I can do to help, or you just need a bit of encouragement, shoot me a message on Twitter (@JeskaiAngel) and I’ll do my best to respond!

  6. Unfortunate that I haven’t got Twitter, because all I *love* talking about religion for a person who isn’t religious in any sense that would be recognized. My email is actually, if you ever wanna hit me up there. I have a lot of strange thoughts about God, and religion in general, but mostly it never really progresses or goes anywhere. You’ll see the general gist of it on various Luminas BTT posts. And that’s largely because God hasn’t gotten back to me on the issue of greatest importance to me, so I just kind of ruminate on the thing. Perhaps He will, one day. Someday He’ll decide the time is right.

    Also, favorite anime? : 3

  7. Well, that´s an interesting issue… There´s this misterious text in the Bible about how Moses couldn´t see the face of God, only His back, or he would die. And that passage about Adam and Eve hiding from God in Paradise because they knew they were naked. Maybe we´re still there. That is, maybe if we see Him in all His glory, in our current fallen nature, this all-powerful, truthful, absolute, eternal, trascendent Stranger would be simply more that we can bear with and stay sane, unless there is this invisible bond of trust born in the dark. There is also this strange effect that people would try to kill Jesus Christ everytime he spoke clearly about being God: maybe the darkness rejects the light and the worst of us rises whenever the light is near, and God must approach little by little and indirectly, and by that strange way of faith give us His light.

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