Glory from the Gory, Grace in the Salacious, & the Controversial Lessons in Anime

Hello, everyone. In the spirit of the season of October and all of the spooky that comes with it, we have a somewhat appropriate topic for you. Its going to be a slightly different format than usual, but that’s because we wanted to try something new. We wanted to invite our readers, as best we are able, into a conversation that occurred amongst some of our staff members. Several months ago, in our Beneath the Tangles Staff Discord chat, someone made a passing comment about their simple inability to see value in the series Elfen Lied. Our very own Negative Primes was the next on the scene with quite a detailed and thoughtful defense of the series, one which I had never considered with regard to Elfen Lied but which sounded very much like my own apology for the series Berserk! And after I said as much to him, Negative Primes and I thought it might be interesting to do something like a group discussion with questions related to the overarching question of, “What are Christians to make of series with graphic, gory violence and/or  hyper-sexual content” or, put another way, “Is God glorified through series that contain hyper-violent and hyper-sexual content?”

What follows are some of the questions and responses from a conversation Negative Primes and I held with our fellow staff members: Emdaisy, thathilomgirl, and our fearless leader TWWK. We’ve tried to reproduce the conversation in a way that shows how we can agree as Christians in unity under Christ but still draw lines in different places because of our individual propensities toward sin and experience. We hope you find it an enjoyable read and a beneficial one as well.

This may seem like an odd first question given our topic, but I believe our shared Christian faith makes it the heart of the conversation we will have: What kind of book is the Bible?

Matthew G: I ask because, as people who spend a lot of time trying to connect anime to the bible on a regular basis, we ultimately treat the two differently. All of us are entitled to our anime preferences. A person might like mystery, slice of life, battle shounen, and idol series, or only a few of those. However, as Christians who believe 2 Timothy 3:16 and that scripture is inerrant, we don’t get to pick and choose our preferred genres, books, chapters, and verses. Our theology can’t be limited to only what looks nice in cursive on inspirational Instagram posts. Is there anything wrong with being reminded that God has a plan for your life and that He is working all things for the good of those who love Him? No, and as Christians we should live our lives resting in that promise. However, Judges 11 and 19, which recount filicide, rape, and dismemberment, are also in the Bible. Not only that, but God tells us He is glorified by their presence there. It’s our responsibility to understand how and why that is. Does the existence of those Judges passages and various other verses like them in any way make it your “Christian duty” to watch Berserk!? To enjoy it? No. That’s not the point I’m making. However, we do need to recognize that the complex characters, the heinous violence and abuse, and the depravity that is on display in Berserk! Is painted in some of the same dark colors we see present in the Bible. That doesn’t make the Bible any less glorious or a cause for embarrassment. It makes God’s grace toward us and His providence all the more glorious, and, in so far as they reflect that glory and eternal truths inherent in it, any series from Berserk! to K-On! can be glorious.

TWWK: The point is well made—the Bible isn’t some sanitized book. It’s raw and real and authentic, and all of it points toward God and our relationship with Him. The passages you mention are extremely difficult and just a couple of famous examples among many that we can’t ignore. We’re meant to read these passages and get something from them, and maybe to struggle with them.

As we’re children, and likewise when we’re young in our faith, we often stick to passages that are “happier,” those that show us a God that’s easy to understand and love. And perhaps that’s best. But as we mature, we need to challenge ourselves to grow more deeply in our faith; part of how we accomplish is that is reading scripture as a whole instead of picking at passages here and there. There’s growth to be had here if we’re willing to open ourselves to it, if we’re willing to allow for discomfort, which is of course the feeling we often have when we’re experiencing our greatest growth.

thathilomgirl: My “objective, Sunday School” answer for this would be that the Bible is a collection of shorter books of varying genres and categories that connect with each other by/because of God and His promises. My personal experience of consistently reading the Bible for the past few years, on the other hand, has showed just how much it has to teach me despite learning about certain passages numerous times as a kid.

Matthew G: thathilomgirl, that’s the truth. I routinely have that same experience of rereading passages or hearing them preached and being shocked at how much depth I had simply glossed over because my brain made a habit of switching to autopilot whenever someone referenced them. I’d say experiences like that, while humbling, help train a critical eye and mind.

There are likely many people seeing the title of this article and wondering what exactly it is we are trying to accomplish with it. Some might see it and expect that we’re about to be extremely liberal with our answers to these questions, maybe even licentious. So, why do we be a little purposefully forward: WHAT exactly and WHOM are we aiming to encourage with this article?

Emdaisy: As far as WHAT we’re encouraging through this discussion… I’d say it’s just that – discussion. Healthy discussion. We’re encouraging those who, like some of us here, do watch and enjoy some series that may have some gore etc. Media is always, to some

Kaneki Ken Ghoul
art by カピバラ (reprinted w/permission)

degree, some reflection of reality. So, brokenness in media is to be expected. Perhaps, like I often find with the darker shows I watch, we’re just intrigued to see how characters act and react while facing the darkness in their world. I find that a lot of the shows I enjoy despite the gore and/or other darker elements also hold some of my favorite lessons or reminders in anime. One of my all-time favorite shows is Tokyo Ghoul, in large part due to Kaneki. His character and the growth and change portrayed in him is something I LOVE discussing with others, particularly with respect to if he’s an accurate or inaccurate representation of a real human’s response to the events he faces. Also, these shows may be the only common ground that we as Christians may share with someone who is not saved. So discussion on these topics can be a great doorway to open up a discussion with others who hold different views, values, etc.

Matthew: I think it might be the person who feels that their conscience won’t allow them to watch certain shows but still feels the FOMO. I also think that our discussion — per Romans 14 — is meant to confront those Christian fans who self-righteously sneer at a brother or sister for arguing there are any merits to an admittedly problematic series, or insisting that God is still glorified through it.

TWWK: I think you’re hitting the nail on the head, Matthew. Those two segments of our audience are particularly who we should be writing to. A lot of these audience members come from conservative congregations, many from evangelical churches that are quick to dismiss shows that show content that isn’t exactly family friendly and qualify them as glorifying sin. They might not be wrong, but the danger is that in that frame of mind, we can become Pharisaical and miss out on what God is revealing through these kinds of series.

To be clear, are we asking people to push themselves toward those limits where they might compromise their consciences?

NegativePrimes: It might seem that by encouraging someone to move toward what his or her conscience is uncomfortable with, we’re encouraging them to sin. And certainly Paul warns us both that our conscience can make a freedom sinful for us and that we should take care that our freedom not become a stumbling block for others’ consciences.

At the same time, the Acts of the Apostles depicts Peter going beyond what his conscience was comfortable with, and at God’s own command! The end result is that Peter entered the home of Cornelius and ate with him and his friends, and they received the Holy Spirit. So it’s possible for one’s conscience to be too restrictive or sensitive in cases where God is granting us freedom, just as it is possible for it to be insufficiently observant where He calls us to be. A mature spiritual guide is probably indispensable in navigating such situations in one’s own life, I’d think.

Matthew: I agree. I think that 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23-33 are in effect here. All things are permissible for us in their proper context with an appropriate mind of gratefulness, but not everything is edifying for us. Some of us will struggle to see the finer philosophical point of a series for the blood that’s flying all over the place, or the overwhelming fan service, and so on and so forth. And you are not obligated to get over your weakness and eat what’s in front of you despite your conscience. But you are also not to shame the person who does and can watch those shows without sinning. I don’t throw these textual references around flippantly as though I’m handing out “get out of jail free” cards, and I hereby and preemptively rebuke any of you who try to say something along the lines of, “no you don’t understand. I’m not affected by hentai, so it’s okay.” But, there is, of course, a degree to which this is between you and the Holy Spirit in those moments when He elbows you in the ribs. And that’s what makes this a little less “hard and fast” and a little more “case by case.”

NegativePrimes: They should totally hand out Rebuke cards in Monopoly!—Anyway, simply saying “I’m not sinning” is also a pretty low bar in one sense. Is it possible to find something redemptive in a work that portrays something that is severely evil? Can we be the better for watching shows like this? I think it is possible, depending on an individual’s disposition and whether they reflect properly on what they’re viewing; but I’d like to hear what others think.

TWWK: In light of a desire not to put works above grace, I’m hesitant to make this comparison, but I’ll do it anyway: the ability to take a piece of media that would perhaps culturally be seen as “sinful” and to view it a work that might have the potential to actually help us love God more feels like a +1 in a person’s spiritual walk. I think it was that way for me, at least. There was a time when I was both a young Christian and in-too-deep otaku, and with less knowledge of God than I thought I had, I rejected many of my favorite anime series. In fact, I sold my collection of Evangelion DVDs to a friend, as well as my Serial Experiments Lain boxset, because I felt those series were dishonoring to God in how they reflected him.

Lain 1
Serial Experiments Lain

As I grew in my faith, and eventually started this blog, I began to see media in a different way. Instead of condemning a piece that didn’t fit my Christian values, I stepped out of that box and looked at anime for what it is: creative works that I could find great spiritual value in, not because they perfectly reflect a Christian worldview (of course very anime few series are developed by Christians), but because I see the story of salvation all around me, even and particularly in media. It took me a while to get there, to step out of the black and white box and to see a fuller spectrum. But now, I’m right in it, maybe best reflected in the fact that all these years later, I’m going through Serial Experiments Lain again and blogging through episodically, finding rich value in that series.

Emdaisy1: NO. Most definitely no. I would never encourage someone to watch something that may cause them to stumble. If they are aware of their own areas of temptation or the things that may cause them to trip up, then they’ll know what to avoid and what they can watch. My stance on things is rather the opposite: if you’re watching something, because it doesn’t make you stumble/fall, and you enjoy redeeming elements you have found in it, go ahead. If it’s not leading you into sin or tempting you to sin, I see no issue. Still do be cautious. We are, after all, told to “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart”. If you do try a show that you think you’ll be fine with, but after maybe a few minutes or even a few episodes, find yourself facing temptations, then I encourage you to reflect on if you should really be continuing that show or not.

At what point do we know we’ve compromised our consciences with regard to a show?

thathilomgirl: When it gets to the point where I feel obligated to watch a show despite the constant internal debate of “should I really continue with this even with [X] in it?,” that’s how I know I’ve compromised my conscience. I may enjoy other parts of the show, but if they lead me to make excuses for that problematic element, I know that I’m just fooling myself.

TWWK: This is really tricky because are minds don’t work in a robotic sense of “yes” and “no,” one way or another. For instance, a thoughtful show that’s also full of fanservice might begin by engaging my mind with philosophical questions, but I may end up drifting from that toward sexual thoughts and pornography.

One reason I dropped Elfen Lied was that a specific scene in the series filled my mind with violent thoughts for days in a row. I didn’t like being absorbed by those images, or the idea that I found some pleasure in the gore. I felt that I was bringing in something that was harmful to my soul, something that was leading me to dwell on things that were not good. At that point, I was compromised. I could certainly see some folks feeling the same now when it comes to a show like Goblin Slayer, with its pervasive sexual violence.

Emdaisy1: This is a hard question to answer. I think this honestly varies by person. My experience is much like thathilomgirl’s in that I’ll find myself overthinking the media in order to try and “justify” it to myself. “Well, it does have ____ really GOOD element, so maybe that outweighs ____ bad element?” I’ll also find myself “negotiating” with God sometimes. “I know this show has some REALLY excessive violence that maybe goes too far… but I can use it to talk to (name) so we have a common ground so that’s good right?!” As soon as I start having to overthink it and justify to myself or even to God that it’s okay to watch, it’s a good sign I’m about to compromise, or already have. Also, for me personally, if I watch something that makes me uncomfortable I’ll actually feel a knot in my stomach. I legitimately feel queasy and that’s a good sign something’s not sitting right with me and I need to shut the game/show/movie off.

Your mention of that knot in your stomach is actually a good segway to asking, “what are your own criteria for deciding whether you will continue series like these?” Your criteria may be different than those of others, but they also might help someone with similar struggles.

Emdaisy1: While sometimes certain things fall outside this criteria, I do have a general rule-set I’ll apply for what I will/won’t consume. I have a very firm line on nudity and sex scenes in shows. Those are a no-go. I don’t typically have set criteria for things like swearing, violence, gore, etc. My filter/limit for those usually goes case-by-case. For example, while one show may have a lot of blood and gore in a war-type or zombie-style setting (think The Walking Dead) and may not bother me, another show may have a scene with a graphic depiction of a child or animal being ripped apart. That would usually upset me enough it’s a big fat NO from me. So for me my rule-set comes down to 1) is there a Biblical command about this, 2) how does this make me feel, and 3) how is this negative content being portrayed? As far as not watching something showing sex scenes on TV, I rule that out because I feel the Bible makes it clear sex is a PRIVATE act between husband and wife – so, I don’t believe I should be watching that as it means I’m intruding on something meant to be private. As far as how something makes me feel, sometimes you really do need to trust your gut. I may feel nothing over watching a terrible villain get brutally killed, but if it’s an innocent child, it bothers me. As far as how the content is portrayed… if a show is glorifying the negative elements as being good or positive qualities, it bothers me as it’s I don’t feel comfortable glorifying these things. If the show is full of darker elements because it is showing the consequences of said things (e.g. consequences of hate or violence, like Tokyo Ghoul shows) and the plot works to either warn about those negative things or promote positive elements as a form of redemption, that makes the darker elements less bothersome. In Tokyo Ghoul, the reason I don’t find the darkness of it bothersome is because the plot centers around the attempts of characters to reconcile things and bring about some form of redemption.

Have there been any times where you took the gamble that a show would prove worth the watch but then were let down when it just ended up being unfruitful? Are there any specific series that disappointed your expectations of making that redeeming point?

TWWK: I have a twitchy trigger finger, quick to stop series early in their runs, so I haven’t made it through to the end of a lot of series where I was on that it could be good / it’s not worth it line. But I can think of one—Oreimo. And it’s a series where I should have known better, because I’d read about the light novels and knew where the show was heading. And although the anime eased up a bit on the final conclusion of the series, the anime still went there. The first season, at least a good chunk of it, gave wonderful insights into what it meant be an otaku-in-hiding, but the series insistence on focusing on forbidden relationships covered the good stuff in the series. By the way, again, this should not have come as a surprise, but I convinced myself that maybe a “good ending,” and not in the way the characters would see it, was coming my way.

Emdaisy1: I find typically I’m okay giving up a series if it starts to bother me. However, in other cases, due to pressure from others or just my own curiosity I have carried on with some shows that definitely didn’t wind up being worth it.

Oreimo characters
Oreimo

It’s funny TWWK mentioned Oreimo, because that’s one that comes to my mind. I watched that show mainly due to pressure from a boyfriend to watch it with him. I did enjoy the funny elements of being a less outspoken otaku (at the time I was new to anime and wasn’t so vocal about it yet, haha), but the relationship between siblings became increasingly bothersome (leading to that knot in my stomach I noted before….). By the end of it I regretted watching it at all. One series that I enjoyed but didn’t have as much of a redemption as I’d hoped for was Shiki. While I found the show interesting if a bit disturbing/nightmarish at times, the ending didn’t live up to quite what I was hoping for. It ended on a rather depressing note and I felt it left too many loose ends unhandled.

Matthew: Oreimo really seems to have been problematic for you both, and for good reason. My example may seem strange, but I had more of a problem with the likes of Parasyte than I did with Berserk! and that’s because of the need for hope that we’ve mentioned already. The potential for Parasyte to become a redemptive series was enormous, but instead it ended with a morally ambiguous, “survival of the fittest” argument and tried to pass it off as intelligent depth. People often laud Fate/Zero as a nihilistic masterpiece, but I would argue that there is truckloads of more hope in the Fate series than there is in Parasyte.   

NegativePrimes, you spoke before in our Discord chat about the benefit of effectually hyper-extending a sin for the sake of making a point about that sin. Could you say more about that? Why might it be necessary?

NegativePrimes: Let me first explain why I think it’s important that sin be depicted in art at all. Emdaisy mentioned earlier how we live in a broken, fallen world. We can’t ignore this fact; we have to think about it, talk about it, and deal with it, and art is one way of doing so. But we also live in a world with hope, that has a Redeemer, and that fact should not be lost in the depiction of brokenness.

So it seems to me that it’s important for sin to be portrayed properly, accurately. There has to be a payoff that brings out the true nature of sin as ugly and wrong (even if it first appears desirable and good), and that provides some awareness of true hope as a contrast. At least, that’s what I look for.

One way of depicting sin correctly is to first show its appeal, and then how hollow it ultimately is. Another is to deconstruct sin’s appeal right from the get-go. Elfen Lied does this: First, it opens with a young woman, naked except for her face, brutally and bloodily slaughtering the soldiers who are trying to keep her contained. What would normally be considered sexual fanservice in this context gets inverted, because there’s nothing sexually appealing about the way we first meet Lucy; and what might normally appeal to fans of violence or gore becomes so heavy-handed, as the minutes drag by and the slaughter doesn’t let up, as to lose any appeal it might have had.

I honestly think it’s rather clever (and undoubtedly deliberate, for reasons too lengthy to go into here): The show takes the images we associate with titillation, both for sex and violence, and places them in a context where the viewer is forced to confront them in a serious and sober way. Further context later on, both as the plot develops and as it culminates in a self-sacrifice and Resurrection, serves to reinforce this interpretation.

Matthew: I really liked that metaphor of hyperextension because of the way it connects the intellectual/emotional to the biological. If you hyperextend at a joint through sports, lifting, or everyday use, your body is not so rigid as to completely disallow the flexion, but allows you to go just far enough to feel sharp pain so that hopefully you reconsider what you thought was healthy form and avoid that in the future. The same seems to be true here, where an artist or director purposefully takes something to an extreme to wake you up to what you’re watching, reassess where the lines of normalcy actually are, and what you’ll be willing to watch in the future. But because the conscience can be dulled by subtle abuse over time to where it doesn’t respond with pain signals like the body, some of us may be at a place where we need a series to come and dislocate our shoulder to get our attention. And I would absolutely agree that such artistic decision can walk a fine line when surrounded by shows that are simply provocative for sales or spectacle without a point, but that’s what makes the shows which use this purposeful hyperextension so important as material for contrast.

Do you believe that this “over-the-top” tactic actually affects a person’s long term perspective of violence or sexual content in the anime/manga they consume from that point forward? In my experience with the anime culture, overtly violent or sexual content can simply become fuel for memes that we joke about or hide our uncomfortability behind. Do you think these scenes can actually feed the desensitization that many people suggest is happening to those of us who are regularly consuming such media?

The specific examples which come to my mind are the infamous “chimera episode” in FMAB, the traumatizing “eclipse episode” in Berserk!, and the infamous death scene in Madoka. All of these have become something like rites of passage, signs of being in the anime know if you understand their reference and have, what is by now, the expected shudder at their mention.

Emdaisy1: YES! The brain is plastic and programmable. So, if you constantly train it one way, that way will become the new “normal”. If you constantly feed it a diet of over-the-top elements because you’re being gratified by them, sooner of later they will no longer feel over-the-top. Think of it like drug use – you always need more to hit the same high. You need a higher extreme before you feel the same hesitation you may have felt with something much less extreme prior. I honestly don’t even know of any of the examples noted as I’m not familiar with FMAB (yet), Madoka, or Berserk!, but I do think that some of these infamous moments become markers of sorts. “Well, I’ve seen a lot worse, so I guess it’s fine.”

FMA Chimera
Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood

thathilomgirl: This feels true from my experience as well, seeing that all those memes I encountered about that FMA “chimera episode” on Tumblr are more likely to make me laugh than be horrified now. On a more serious note, I feel that if my 13-year old self found out about the more violent shows I had seen since that age, she would definitely be shocked by it (then again, one would argue that having watched Rurouni Kenshin at age 5 would have been the true start of a possible slippery slope).

Was there ever a scene that seemed needlessly graphic but later, in light of the show’s arc and conclusion, you could see why the creator included it and how it fit into the story?

Emdaisy1: I guess one moment could be the disturbing scene in the Fairy Dance arc of SAO, where Oberon assaults Asuna in front of Kirito. That scene was incredibly cringey, and is definitely an example of enjoying the show *despite* that scene. I feel it could have been handled in better taste, but I do see that it was used to show Oberon’s true nature to an extreme.

thathilomgirl: I’m with Emdaisy1 on this as well, it really depends on the series and how it affects the story. With The Promised Neverland, for example, there is this one scene near the end of the very first chapter that would understandably drive a lot of people away from continuing it because of how disturbing it is. However, that scene was also very vital to the plot, as it reveals to the characters the true nature of the world around them, and also gives them the idea of escaping their current predicament. In my case, my enjoyment of this series comes from seeing these characters that I’ve grown very attached to achieve their goals so that none of them would hopefully ever go through what had happened in that first chapter.

Another example I can give is from Blood+. Among other examples that this series will later provide, the first 90 seconds consisted of the main character attacking both vampiric monster and innocent human villager in a frenzy during the Vietnam War. Looking back on that time like 12 years ago, the first time I got into the show was when I caught Episode 15 on TV, where the violence from Episode 1 has since toned down significantly at that point, but some character revelations had been dropped. The show is something I look back on with good memories, but I feel that if my first exposure to it was literally at Episode 1, I wouldn’t even think of continuing it further.

NegativePrimes: While I can’t think of a particular example (apart from thathilomgirl’s excellent example from The Promised Neverland), I think it’s entirely possible to find something to enjoy in a scene despite such things. That’s different from the Oberon assault scene, which could definitely have been left out without much loss to the story as a whole.

Matthew: My inspiration for the question was, as with most of these questions, a scene from Berserk! that is a notoriously brutal rape scene and the feeling it inspires is both horror at what is happening, shock at the fact that it is happening, and both of those

Berrserk 2
Berserk!

things mixed with just a crushing weight of what the act actually means to the characters involved. And that’s only because of how great the storytelling was up to that point and afterward. I would not want to willfully subject myself to such a scene again, but without it the developments that follow wouldn’t be nearly as impactful. Which is to say, there was meaning to the creator’s use of the atrocity, and I think you guys made a good distinction between meaningful use and needless provocation with your examples.

So, to sum some of this up, it seems that there are a few recurring ideas affirmed by each of us. The degree and kind of sexual or violent content that each of us can reasonably bear without sinning is going to be different. But the element which empowers us to handle each our own limits of violence or sex is the presence or absence of hope. We accept the depiction of sin in art because we see it in reality. But in so far as a work of art fails to depict hope or—at the very least, through tragedy—the necessity of hope, it ceases to represent reality. We also realize that, while there may be hope that others can see and cogently defend in a given show, our own current weaknesses, brokenness, or immaturity in the offending elements of the show may mean that we simply take their word for it and choose not to engage the show ourselves. We should not try justifying the show to ourselves if our conscience kicks against it or our stomach knots because God takes our conscience very seriously, even declaring as sin the things which we cannot accept in faith and gratefulness. So let us be aware of our weaknesses and the weaknesses of our brothers or sisters, but let us also be grateful in all things.

As the watermark on the image says, our cover photo was provided by and published with the permission of the talented JaneVindom from her DeviantArt portfolio. Please check her out there or through Instagram @janevindoms_artstuff.

7 thoughts on “Glory from the Gory, Grace in the Salacious, & the Controversial Lessons in Anime

  1. Great discussion. I own the second season of Oreimo but am yet to finish it. Knowing what I know now about the ending, is it worth watching the rest of it? I always liked the show for its otaku culture, not for the incestuous fanservice.

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    1. You know, I’m not sure, Tommy. I ended up rushing through the last portion just to finish it off because I was so invested by that point. But season two is a steady decrease in its emphasis on otaku culture and character development, and steady increase in shipping of the two leads.

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  2. Thank you for giving me the courage to say that I am a Christian and I watch anime. Actually, my daughters and I watch anime together. We even go to anime conventions as a family. Everyone that knows us knows that I am a minister and many of them call me mom and they are my children.

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