I was fourteen years old, Shinji Ikari´s age, when A Bridge to Terabithia made its movie debut. Like his fated stay in Misato’s house, only in time have I come to realize the influence it has had on me. Leslie Burke, the imaginative and courageous adventurer played by AnnaSophia Robb, did not only unveil a new world (or many) for Josh Hutcherson´s character, but for me, too. Who would have known? The wonders they discovered, the things they built together, their common battle against evil and injustice, their shared experiences, and the way they got to know each other and count on each other made a deep impression on me. And I thought she was interesting, pretty, even beautiful. I´m sure many of you have a story like that. A classmate, a friend, a character, a book.
With my Hachiman antics and my teenage fears, I had been too defensive and self-conscious up to that point to think seriously about romance (even if, as with him, I felt its attraction). But it was from there, if ‘´m not wrong, that the thought of a man-woman alliance—deep, trustworthy,opened to God and to the adventure of life—began to seem like an attractive possibility. An ethic to fit that ideal was one of sincerity, friendship, selflessness, chivalry, self-sacrifice, prayer, loyalty, courage and honoring promises (that of the Code of Kushieda, romantic version). Much has happened since, but the essentials remain unchanged. I wouldn’t forget, or settle for less. Ever since, I have loved stories of hard-earned romance, of mutual discovery, of the fight for the good of the other and complementary communion, and even new life.
Anime, with its gift for depicting deeply personal worlds with colorful symbols, has some great stories of this kind. You have Toradora, Haruhi, OreGairu, Sakamichi no Apollon, Your Lie in April, Clannad, Ore Monogatari, EVA itself, or movies like Ghibli´s Whisper of the Heart. Many are told from the point of view of the guy, but some of the best are not: This is how I discovered shōjo or shoujo. Its best stories brought me a different, yet recognizable world, because discovering human love is, after all, a very human experience. It is also a powerful mystery, which according to the Bible, was expressly established by God himself. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” To which St. Paul comments: “This mystery is profound, but I am speaking about Christ and the Church.”
Last year, during the Spanish quarantine, I had the idea of explaining the Eucharist and its role in my life using examples from shōnen anime. By symmetry, I was wondering if there was some other aspect I could explain with shoujo anime. It turns out that there is. After all, before discovering Terabithia, I had discovered Christ and the Church (according to the Catholic conception), and, as crazy as it sounds, I thought St. Paul’s comment, with its echo at the end of the Book of Revelation, did fit. I read Dante’s The Divine Comedy (this year is his seventh centenary) at 16, and that connection only grew. It still does. Ready for the ride?
Sawako Kuronuma´s Human-shaped Gate
“But… you know that’s just biology, right? Chemical fireworks, so that the species can perpetuate.” I take issue with the word “just” here. God is the author of nature, which is thus full of depth, beauty, and meaning and providentially disposed towards our growth as creatures. There is chemistry, and there is more. While it is important to take everything into account and be careful when discerning our course of action, the faith in Christ is an incarnated faith. Our bodies, our natures, our stories are full of meaning, and we may come to discover it (and not just invent it), little by little. There is a deep wisdom in the created world, at every level, from the atoms to the stars.
In the Book of Genesis we are told that, when God created man and woman, Adam named the animals and witnessed a Creation in harmony. But not until meeting Eve did he discover a creature made of something deeply and intimately his, something he had been lacking without knowing it. She was just like him, and at the same time she was so different. For her, with her, he would go beyond what he knew, and they would be as one from there on. And their complementarity was to be the source of something new, of something great. Even more amazingly, she felt the same way. That was (and is) God’s design, which reflects His own powerful, generous love, “the fiercest blaze of all.” Something like that could only have been God´s idea, really.
Kimi ni Todoke (From Me to You) tells a story that, despite its contemporary setting, feels very Edenic. We have commented on it here a couple of times. I’m not even the first to point the Biblical analogy. Sawako (which means “lively child”) Kuronuma, nicknamed “Sadako” because of her resemblance of the phantom girl of The Ring, is isolated. She has a gentle, bright interior world she cannot share. Her lack of social skills and her terrifying aura get in her way, no matter how hard she tries to get along. She is misinterpreted time and time again. But a certain guy named Kazehaya, cheerful, popular, and sporting, is not fooled by appearances. He calls her by her true name. He supports her, little by little. He guides her. And, starting from there, her world begins to transform.
The seasons change, their bond is tested, nature surrounds them and echoes what is in their hearts, and she gradually discovers many things she couldn’t even conceive of before. Friendships, joys, sorrows, a place in the world, and Kazehaya, too. There is a chance, now, that her feelings may come across. And Kazehaya is the first step, the destiny, and the gate.
So, what is the Church of Christ? First and foremost, it is a loving bond with Jesus Christ, a real, human and divine person with a physical body, and to His Father, of Whom He speaks which such passion, and the Holy Spirit. Someone who lives, who longs for us to know Him, to open new worlds to us, without whom we will always be incomplete. He is the light, we are vitrals: He will make us shine with our true shape, our true, unique colors. Sawako always shone, but never so much.
Like her, like the characters of the Bible and the Gospel, each of us is called, one at a time, visibly or invisibly, by his or her real name, not the one of the world of appearances, and it is the name of a child of God, and full of life. When we follow Christ, He makes us courageous. He makes us grow. He fights to get us to go forward. He makes us able to truly love, to bond with others. Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of God, the key, the truer, deeper, loving meaning of all that has been created, of every human being. And each one of us, personally but also in communion with others, is his Church, when chosen by Him, when united to Him, when walking to finally reach Him and letting Him finally reach each of us, through all History and Creation. And in being with Him, there is life, everlasting life.
But, even if it is still in us, we do not live in Eden. There was a fall. The world changed. And so…
Futaba Yoshioka and Her Seven Demons
In a moment of cowardice, Futaba loudly denied her newly found love for her classmate Kou Mabuchi. Unexpectedly, he heard her. So it begins.
Ao Haru Ride (Blue Spring Ride) is similar to Kimi to Todoke in some aspects (and has an episode-by-episode analysis by Twwk here), but there is a key difference. Futaba’s misfortune was not brought about by her appearance, but due to her being inauthentic and cowardly out of fear of being alone, or rejected. Kou Mabuchi, returned after a few years of unexplained absence, knows Futaba from the old days. Superficial friendships, cowardly stances, artificial laughs, boyish behaviors planned so she won’t stand out, a deep solitude, a kind of slow self-destruction—he sees through it all. He knows that she has lost herself, that she is longing for something different. So he attacks with words, with acts that point beyond. It hurts, a lot. But something about him says that he is doing it in the name of something truer, that he could guide her there, and that he is no stranger to pain and sorrow…
…which, in my view, doesn’t excuse the disconcerting, nosy, and sometimes cruel behavior Kou often displays towards her (I don´t like this one as much as Kimi ni Todoke). But, to the allegory. After the book of Genesis there is the book of Exodus, the flight. Like Futaba, we are all lying, distorted, trapped from the inside, often unknowingly. As Sarah in the Book of Tobit, as Israel in Egypt or Babylon, as Mary Magdalene in the Gospel, we are oppressed by evils, personal, social or even the supernatural, that often control or manipulate us, that enslave us. The natural development of the deeply ingrained evil is suffering and self-destruction when its inner truth arises. And Christ is the one who knows us and will fight to free us, to open a path, and the Man of Sorrows, who not only bears unbearable suffering but knows our personal suffering, the suffering of each one of us.
In a moment of cowardice, Peter loudly denied knowing Christ, who he had confessed to be the Son of God, who had chosen Him, whom he loved. And like Kou with Futaba, He heard Peter, too. But Peter repented, and Christ had a path for him, a path with others. Futaba, motivated by Kou’s words and deeds, abandons the world of lies and starting anew with a group of misfits, people who cannot advance, who perceive themselves or are perceived by others as failures or phonies. It becomes quite literal when they get lost in the forest during a competition. The Church is, likewise, a scattered group who flee from Christ´s cross, as He had prophesied, but is then brought together again. Founded upon Christ´s love, following His words of eternal life, we are still sinners, ambitious, clumsy, cowards. The old Israel thought that, by perfectly observing the Law, it could fulfill the alliance and bring God´s favor upon itself, but kept betraying Him, even if they sometimes managed to hide it behind a facade.
But Christ made clear that He came not for the healthy, but for the sick, the evil, the cowards, those traitors. Peter, the Apostles, and the disciples were chosen not because they had somehow merited it, but because they trusted Him and followed Him, even if stumbling along the way. He would made them able to triumph. Love is radical, and as we are transformed by it, love increasingly needs us to fight whatever denies it within us. It is by no means an easy battle, and Ao Haru Ride knows that. Christ is prophesied champion against the Serpent of Eden, Satan, the Adversary, the fallen angel who tempts us, and against the evil whose maximum he represents. He begins His mission by confronting him in the desert, and fights evil, forgiving sins and expelling demons, one after another, and finally prevailing over them by perfect obedience and love, onn the Cross and in the resurrection.
And His fight goes on. He wants us to have part in His death and His resurrection, from baptism to a death in Christ and beyond. He is the Savior, and the Church is his Noah’s Ark, His people of Israel escaping Egypt through the Red Sea, His plan of salvation for everyone who accepts His personal call and jumps inside to escape self-destruction and death together. He is the lover who needs the loved one to trust Him, and to fight, and will be there to help. Against the entire world, against death, against everything. The plan of salvation won’t work without that kind of love.
When they join the group, Kou lets Futaba do most of the teamwork. He… has his reasons. During His mission, Christ gave Peter and the rest of his disciples the power to expel demons, to forgive sins, to baptize, to teach, and sent them. Not because He, the Almighty, needed them, but to help them, to help human beings through the cooperation of human beings who became closer to God this way. He still does that now. He also gave them the treasures of His love, which they keep. His Sacraments, His miracles, His Gospel and His teachings, all signs and acts of His love, are preserved in the Church, a house build in rock against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail. He will be with us every day, until the end of the world, if there is the slightest bit of hope that we may accept His hand, acting, saving. Heaven and Earth will pass away, but His words will never pass away.
Christ has pleaded in prayer for Simon Peter, that messy, loud self-confessed sinner, that his faith should not fail, so when he has repented, he will strengthen his brothers, feed Christ’s sheep. Peter, who reacted with undue violence (Futaba may need to confront old friends in the name of justice, but it is her own cowardice what she is mainly fighting against) and then denied Christ, will be able to disavow the Sanhedrin and Caiphas, preside over the martyr Church, and die on a cross for Christ and others, to go where he doesn’t want to go right now, and teach others to do the same. All because Christ loves him, and he loves Christ, and that love is fighting and growing. And the messy, loud, cowardly Futaba will also be able to face her demons, and face challenges, darkness and suffering beyond everything she had imagined, to tell the truth, to save others.
Do not be fooled by my criticisms: Futaba is a wonderful, relatable, inspiring character. She keeps the fight. Kou is very lucky. In this fallen world, every relationship, every bond, every friendship, every marriage, demands us to keep the fight. Human love, being made by God, reflects a ray of His own light, a ray that makes us hope and moves us to action. Likewise, the Church of Christ fights on this Earth, fulfilling the command of Christ to Peter and the Apostles, and those who came after them, teaching the Gospel and giving the Eucharist, bringing Christ´s love to our hearts. We, the group of misfits and sinners, keep assisting each other on the way, doing better or doing worse, knowing that He also works outside her visible frontiers, fighting to reach all human hearts. This is the Militant Church, which Christ will never abandon, in perpetual combat against her own evil, my own evil, and against the powers that enslave us, that enslave me, armed with the most powerful force there is—Christ´s love, Christ´s truth, Christ´s own hope. That is her source, her life and her destiny. And so she fights. And so I fight.
But what’s on the other side of the forest? What has it to do with the Divine Comedy? What is Tohru Honda doing at the top? Those are all questions for the next time. So, for now, take care, and Happy Easter!