I often receive questions from concerned viewers of anime who struggle with certain aspects of the medium, or in some cases, the entirety of it. On occasion, it feels appropriate to share that question with our broader audience, as well as my response. Here’s an example I recently received:
Is it okay to watch Naruto / Dragon Ball even with the underlying messages in them?
I found this question fascinating because it touches on something other that which I normally encounter. Oftentimes, and for good reasons, Christians are concerned with content in anime that isn’t necessarily particular to the form—namely sexual scenes and fanservice, though also violence and language. When answering, I’m able to draw from other media we consume to create a broader picture of what we’re viewing and what the culture is creating. It’s not just anime, in other words: We’re examining what humans are creating for our enjoyment, and have to consider how we’re approaching those forms.
But this question seems to infer something beyond those largely surface-level decisions made by animators and mangaka. Setting aside the rich themes of many shounen series (friendship, teamwork, sacrifice), many also exude ideas that are deeper in a more religious or spiritual way; both can be connected to a human desire to seek God and do what we were made to, but they can also run contradictory, especially when considering that the latter usually reflect non-Christian religions. But that’s to be expected. Surveys have told us that Japan is only 1-2% Christian. Most Japanese are a mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and atheist, a conglomeration of culture, practicality, and modernism. Rumors abound of certain Japanese directors and voice actors in the industry being Christian (I personally attempted to ask the question of a seiyuu during an interview but was flatly denied by the interpreter), but rarely confirmed, while tendencies to see Christian principles on some series, like Haibane Renmei and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, are countered by Japanese religious themes just as strongly, if not more so. Naruto and Dragon Ball (and its sequel series) reinforce the spiritual ideas of Japanese culture very strongly as well. Animism, reincarnation, and the such are part of life in those character’s worlds. My assumption is that the asker is referring to these non-Christian worldviews.
The answer to whether it’s okay to watch them or not is a complicated one. It’s both yes and no. I’ll start with that earlier, more positive response.
In a vacuum, the act of watching Naruto is not a sin. Neither is watching something that shows sin. If it were, reading the Bible would be the greatest sin of all! Speaking of other religions, how much worse can it get than child sacrifice, rape, and murder? So yes, you can watch these series.
The issue arises when something becomes an idol, when it takes God’s place. Media, and anime specifically for all us otaku, is a danger in this way. Let’s face it—anime is most likely in some degree an idol for all those reading this article. We’re capable of incredible feats, and also susceptible to the influence of culture; if anime affects pushes us away from God, that’s a problem. Further, the anime viewer finds herself reveling in things that are not of God. Even one like me, who spends a great deal of time looking for signs of the invisible God in anime, can’t help but to be aroused sometimes by fanservice, laugh at crude jokes, and be awed by even vile violence. So as I enjoy those things, probably far more than I realize I do, I am sinning. There’s the danger.
Particular to this question is also the hazard of accepting an entire worldview as good, when only God is good. And I’m not talking about watching an episode of DBZ and thinking, “You know what? I think that when I die, God has prepared a training place for me in the clouds!” I mean in a more subtle way as one embraces ideals that aren’t godly, as in a warped view of love, a desire to focus on ourselves (and even others) above God, and a view that ultimate aims in life are separate from worship of the creator. Watch enough anime and see if these ideas don’t become a part of your worldview, a temptation that takes you away from doing “good,” from actively worshiping God by loving and obeying him, and by reaching out to others in order to share the good news.
And yet, I continue to watch anime. Is there a hypocrisy there, a concession to the world? Am I playing with fire? Perhaps! But I also believe that the goodness that God imbues in us often shines through anime, and can be something that reflects the goodness of God, that draws us closer to him. Thus, Beneath the Tangles exists, a place where we take the goodness expressed through our favorite art forms and then worship God all the more by pondering upon his greatness in love, creativity, power, justice, and holiness, which then hopefully convinces us all the more to directly do his work. When I approach anime with eyes looking for these wondrous things, I’m more able to enjoy the wonderful qualities of God, like beauty and humor, expressed through anime, and enjoy less the sinful aspects (and rather disdain them as I grow in my faith). I find that I’m approaching anime this way when my personal life is dedicated more to Christ, when I’m desiring him, enjoying him, loving him. If I’m not in that place, I probably should avoid anime that is more able to tempt me to sin, and focus on getting right with God.
And so, the answer, again, is both yes and no. As with so many things in life, God parents us by giving us choice. As you grow in faith, so too, will your decision-making ability increase. And as you love God more and more above the world, my hope is that you’ll also be impacted far more by him than by culture, media, and anime, so that this question becomes an easy one for you to answer as every fiber in your being reminds you—God’s will be done.