At the beginning of this year, BTT announced the theme of 20/20 in 2020. What we could not have foreseen is how much 2020 would become an example of a period in time which makes such a mark that life afterward can never be the same. For those of us old enough to remember, 9/11 was much the same way: a point in history that made it impossible to view the world through the same eyes as before, leaving an indelible mark on the period to come after.
But what if there were a way to predict the future? Something that combines the best features of prophecy and Isaac Asimov’s “psycho-history”? What if there were a way to read the “signs of the times”? I don’t mean the kind of literalism that sees the locusts in the Book of Revelation as Soviet helicopters, or which forms the foundation of the Left Behind series; I happen not to buy into this way of interpreting the Bible, but if you do that’s great. What I want to lay out here is a way of ‘reading’ that can shine a light on the human condition in 2020, and which—believe it or not—finds value in anime.
My educational background is in literature—epic literature to be precise. And one of the defining features of epic stories is that they are always written when a culture is ending and giving way to the next one. For example, Virgil wrote the Aeneid on the cusp of the transition from the Roman republic to the Roman empire. Dante composed the “Divine Comedy” as the high middle ages were giving way to the Renaissance. The anonymous author of “Beowulf” wrote at the end of England’s pagan era and the dawn of its Christian one.
So I found it intriguing a few years ago when it hit me that Western culture has begun generating a high number of epic stories. JRR Tolkien was ahead of his time when writing the Lord of the Rings—a story about the transition from one Age to the next; in my life, I’ve seen the rise of the Wheel of Time, the MCU, and Game of Thrones. Star Trek is an interesting case study: The original series was mainly episodic in nature, while The Next Generation was episodic but with an overarching plot provided by the characters’ interactions with Q; and from Deep Space 9 forward all the series have a defined story arc from beginning to end, effectively making them epic in scope. And Star Wars has gone from a one-off film about destroying the Death Star to… well, we all know.
However, there are a couple of traits that set modern epic apart from the epic of the past. Today’s epics are either interminable or apocalyptic. “Interminable” epics can’t end: They never completely make the transition to a new age. The MCU hits the reset button and changes the past to restore the present; Star Wars and Star Trek keep getting more movies/series; and George R.R. Martin just won’t wrap up Game of Thrones.
“Apocalyptic” stories, on the other hand, do end—but they never make a transition to a new culture either, because there isn’t one. The old order ends, but afterward comes only complete destruction in which the survivors (if there are any) have to rebuild civilization from the ground up. Our age has even given rise to a new kind of story: post-apocalyptic, “beyond the end.”
If there’s a new kind of story, it’s because there’s a new kind of cultural imagination. In other words, our society as a whole sees that it cannot last (nothing wrong with that—nothing lasts forever) and is in fact inexorably approaching its end, but it cannot imagine anything that could replace it. That’s different from the epics of yesterday, from Virgil’s warnings about the dangers of the coming empire to Beowulf’s mixing of new Christian elements with the old pagan myths. What does it mean when a people as a whole cannot imagine a future other than complete annihilation of all social structures? Can such a culture even have hope?
And here is where I keep my promise to bring in anime. One of the reasons why I find anime compelling is precisely because so many series provide examples of positive changes to a new age. Dr. Stone is one that stands perfectly in line with the European epics of the past: Much is lost in the transition to the new age, and yet much is recovered and built upon to create a new civilization. Isekai as a genre is literally about individuals transitioning to a new world and, often, on how the main character influences the new culture with the wisdom from his or her old one, while finding a place in the new society. My Hero Academia takes place after the new world begins, with the appearance of quirks and after society as a whole has accommodated them (unlike, say, X-Men, in which the mutants are always on the defensive from the rest of society).
It seems to me that if enough people believe their society is headed a certain way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stories are the pulse of a people, and if you keep your finger on it you can see where it is headed—or at least where a sizeable portion of the people intuit that it is headed. Simple, really—and yet, there’s a very powerful corollary: that if you can change a people’s stories, you can change their destiny.
And that’s one reason why I love anime, and why I believe it’s important to cultivate it here in the West. In stories like Dr. Stone or MHA, I find a reminder of hope. The reason for hope is, of course, Jesus Christ himself, who split all of time into two periods and ushered in—indeed, is ushering in—the ultimate new age. But in the flood of headlines and tweets, it’s easy to forget that: It’s easy to focus on the waves of the storm all around us, rather than on the Lord, until we’re sinking and like Peter have to cry out, “Lord, save me!” And when Our Lord takes our hand and leads us back to the security of the boat, he may very well do so by means of such stories. I know he has done so with me.
And wouldn’t that be ironic—and divinely humorous—if the recovery of the Gospel in the heart of the West were made easier by the growing popularity of anime?