This essay discusses how strongly the anime genre in film and television is influenced by the religion and culture of Japan. Using theoretical perspectives and examples from anime programs it examines the significance of religious symbolism within these films and television series, the ideology they portray, and the meanings or messages they deliver or aim to deliver. Whether the directors or writers set out to include aspects of religion in their works is unknown for the most part, however where there is insight it will be discussed. This essay primarily deals with the films of Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli, though television series such as Bleach, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Dragonball Z are included in the dialogue.
Japanese religion “is a variegated tapestry created by the interweaving of at least five major strands: Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and folk religion.” The emergence of Christianity and New Religions, whilst present in modern Japan, are still very much new to Japan comparatively. Whilst all of these may be considered very different religions, it is common to find Japanese people believing in a number at the same time, never prescribing to one, as Ian Reader says - “There is very little differentiation, especially at the explicit levels of religious action, between apparently separate religious traditions in Japan, with Shinto and Buddhism in particular interpenetrating to form an amalgam in the eyes of the general populace.” How then does one ascribe beliefs to the Japanese people? Earhart notes that -
“the recurrence of six themes indicates the unity of Japanese religion: (1) the closeness of human beings, gods, and nature; (2) the religious character of the family; (3) the significance of purification, rituals, and amulets; (4) the prominence of local festivals and individual cults; (5) the pervasiveness of religion in everyday life; and (6) the intimate bond between religion and the nation.”
These themes are prevalent throughout Japanese animation. The concept of ‘kami’ for example signifies the influence of Japanese religious thought. Kami is, in a poor English-equivalent term, the ‘spirits’ of “not only human beings, but birds, beasts, plants, and trees, seas and mountains, and all other things whatsoever which deserve to be dreaded and revered for the extraordinary and pre-eminent powers which they possess.” Kami is also used to refer to gods and deities. “The personification of natural objects and powers springs from some glimmering notion that the so-called inanimate world is really alive. Everything physical has its meta-physical counterpart.”
The most prevalent theme seen throughout anime is the concern of the link between nature, gods and people. Miyazaki Hayao, perhaps Japan’s greatest animator, explores this link in the majority of his films. In My Neighbour Totoro the two girls, Satsuke and Mei and their father move to the country to be closer to their sick mother in hospital. Various images of folk and Shinto beliefs are shown in the film, from Satsuke thanking the stone statue for sheltering them during the rain to their father’s prayer thanking the ‘King of the forest’ (Totoro) and asking him to protect them forever. The camphor tree is a Shinboku (sacred tree), the house of a kami, in this case Totoro, which is actually Mei’s mispronunciation of the Japanese word for ‘troll’.
Images of other kami can be seen in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke with the kodama, little child-like spirits, littering the forest. A feature of religious belief that appears in this film is shown through the village at the beginning. Through Ashitaka’s words to an angered boar demon, the reverence of deities is displayed: “Calm your fury o mighty lord! Whatever you may be, god or demon, please leave us in peace.” Unable to calm the beast Ashitaka kills it. Immediately following this the townspeople gather around the body of the boar and kneel whilst the village wise woman prays - “O nameless god of rage and hate, I bow before you. A mound will be raised and funeral rites performed on this ground where you have fallen. Pass on in peace and bear us no hatred.” That evening the wise woman consults her stones in a form of divination for guidance.
Another religious aspect that is seen in this film is the importance of cleansing and purification. Ashitaka receives a cursed wound from the boar demon, which is instantly treated by pouring water over it. Later on, as the curse spreads and he finds it harder to control, he immerses it in the lake to abate its evil influence. “Ashitaka's character resonates with Buddhism's commitment to asceticism, peace, and compassion, as well as Shinto's call to harmony with the natural world and respect for tradition.” The excessive use of blood in the film may be a portrayal of the Shinto belief that killing is unclean. Further on in the film Ashitaka meets San, the wolf-girl, in the forest, who is revealed as Princess Mononoke, the “princess of the spirits of ghouls, beasts and ancient gods.” Susan Napier reflects on San’s relationship with nature -
“Obviously, San’s connection with nature is far from romantic and mystical. The ‘nature’ that San epitomizes suggests assault, destruction, and profound, unstoppable rage. In this regard, San’s character is a link to historical Japanese beliefs, such as the kami in Shinto… Although not a kami, San is clearly a luminal figure, infinitely closer to the animal and other kami characters, who are at least as important in the film as the human protagonists.”
In both Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, Miyazaki places the audience in a setting where people are against nature, and the main protagonist is in the middle fighting for equality and the ability for both to coexist in harmony. It is Boyd & Nishimura’s belief that “Miyazaki is reaffirming aspects of the Japanese tradition preserved in Shinto thought and practice that can serve as transformative sources of confidence and renewal for both the young and old.” In Spirited Away, the majority of the film is set in a bathhouse for the spirits, reminiscent of “the solstice rituals when villagers call forth all the local kami and invite them to bathe in their baths.” Within this film several Shinto beliefs are visualised, from the overarching purification and cleansing of the spirits to “the fact that it is ruled by a woman who resides at the top of the bathhouse hints at links to the matriarchal culture of early Japan, out of which came the indigenous Shintō myth of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the progenitrix of the imperial family.”
Spirited Away provides amongst these themes one of major importance, that of liminality, “one of the powers of the ritual arts which connects ritual to purification.” Liminality is a term used to describe the middle ground in a transformation or ritual. Napier examines the concept of liminality in Spirited Away citing many examples –
“The bathhouse itself is a liminal entity, its condition exemplified most obviously by the fact that its business revolves around transients, its fantastic clientele who are always coming and going… Furthermore, the bathhouse and its denizens appear at twilight (a liminal period)… Finally, as is typical of liminal sites, it is a place of ritual and initiation where Chihiro loses her original identity and is forced to undergo a variety of trials before constructing a new, more powerful form of subjectivity, which enables her to achieve the purging of the bathhouse in several significant episodes.”
Napier also suggests that “Chihiro may be seen as having shamanness-like aspects as she deals with the gods inside the fantasy bathhouse, mediating between a variety of liminal worlds.”
Another anime that deals with the mediation between luminal worlds is Bleach. Centred around Ichigo, a fifteen year old boy who can see spirits, the series discusses the link between the spirit world and the human world. Ichigo, after a run in with a bad-spirit, known as a ‘hollow’, is given the power to transform into a Death-God, essentially his spirit form. Death-Gods are tasked with sending wandering spirits to a heaven-type place called ‘Soul Society’ through a ritual involving their sword which could be seen as a purification of the soul. Japanese religion on the whole accepts a “strong belief in spirits of the dead in connection with ancestor worship as well as with more animistic conceptions of malevolent or benevolent soul activities.”
The sword in Japanese culture is more than just a weapon. Within the samurai clans of Japanese history, the sword carried a special spiritual significance, implying “that the sword shall be used with a sense of responsibility and a desire for useful, not selfish activity. The Japanese sword, in fact, represents the three creative characteristics of Shinto – spirituality, aestheticism and utilitarianism co-ordinated as one.” Many modern anime utilise this fact to give extra meaning to their characters. Bleach introduces the concept of each Death-God having a ‘zanpakuto’, a weapon which reflects their personality and soul. A significant part of becoming a Death-God is in the act of learning their weapon’s name which is seen in a metaphysical realm; a world within the soul. Once they have learnt the name of their weapon, calling it out releases their power. Much like mantras, the focusing of words and actions is utilised in Bleach to show an increase in power or ascension in the spirit world.
Mantra’s and ritual action are present in many anime. “It is evident that Shinto liturgical rituals are formalized, elegant performances exhibiting aesthetically honed, repetitive patterns.” This can be seen in the ritual dance around the vegetable garden in My Neighbour Totoro to help the plants grow. “In Card Captor Sakura, Sakura and Li use mantras and mudras - ritualistic hand poses - to invoke the powers of the Clow Cards. In Shinto, mantras and mudras are used to invoke the powers of the good gods; because Clow Cards are summoned in this way, they are fundamentally good.” Even such a simple thing as serving tea, present in many anime contains a religious ritual aspect. “The Tea Ceremony... has for its full purpose not only refinement of the artistic sense but also the disciplining of the mind and the development of powers of concentration for action.”
A large number of anime films and series utilise a meditative aspect that can be seen in the Buddhist tradition. Often referred to as ‘powering-up’ the character in question has to concentrate and focus their mind. In Dragonball, but more so in Dragonball Z, the characters harness the power of ‘chi’ or ‘ki’ a concept of energy or life force present in many aspects of Japanese religion and culture, particularly in martial arts. Using the character of Goku as an example, in various episodes he utters the mantra ‘Ka-me-ha-me-ha’ whilst focusing on solidifying his ki into a large energy blast. Goku also spends a lot of time meditating and training, through which he reaches different levels of power. He refers to reaching these as ‘ascending’, a potential mirroring of the attaining of an ultimate truth. Similarly in Bleach, Ichigo must meditate on what his ‘resolve’ is in order to overcome his enemies.
Beyond the traditional Japanese religion one can see the influence of the Judeo-Christian faith, particularly evident in Neon Genesis Evangelion with references to the book of Genesis from the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls and mystical aspects of Kabbalah. Assistant Director Kazuya Tsurumaki discussed the topic at the 2001 Otakon anime convention -
“There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice.”
Though the intent of the Judeo-Christian symbols was not intended to meaning anything, the fact that the story utilises so much imagery shows the influence of the religion on the writers and directors. The result is a Japanese take on Christianity.
One final point to be discussed is the aspect of good and evil. Particularly in reference to Miyazaki’s work one can find that there is no ‘bad guy’ who has no good qualities. In Spirited Away the two old ladies, “from a Shinto perspective Yubāba and Zenība do not represent fixed opposites of good versus evil as you might find in films such as ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Rather, these crone figures and No Face reflect a Shinto ethical outlook that views events in one's life as either reducing (polluting) or promoting (purifying) one's ability to participate fully in the life energy that permeates all of Great Nature.” In Princess Mononoke, Lady Eboshi is the main antagonist and “by making her a female who can both destroy and rebuild, the film problematizes any facile stereotyping of technology/armaments/industrialized culture as evil. Eboshi’s tragedy is that she is not evil and is coerced into her destructive attack by her natural desire to protect a collectivity that is in many ways a utopia.”
This paper has shown how thoroughly influenced anime is by Japanese religion and culture through some of the most popular films and series. Whilst images of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Christian thought appear, the majority of anime have at their heart the Shinto belief system, particularly in the references to purification and cleansing, the concept of kami, of spirits and nature, and the link between nature and humanity. What has been examined here is but a drop in the ocean of what could be discussed, and a mere eight works have been mentioned in the thousands of anime produced in Japan. The ability to create stories influenced by religion without preaching religious beliefs is thanks to the culture of Japan. Anime is certainly an important medium through which religion can be viewed.
Anno, H. (1995) Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gainax: Japan.
Aston, W. G. (1905) Shinto: The Way of the Gods,
Longmans, Green, and Co.: New York.
Noriyuki, A. (2004) Bleach, Studio Pierrot.
Boyd, J.W. & Nishimura, T. (2004) “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki's Anime Film ‘Spirited Away’.” Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 8, No.2, October.
Boyd, J.W. & Williams, R.G. (1999) "Artful Means: An Aesthetic View of Shinto Purification Rituals," Journal of Ritual Studies, Volume 13, Number 1, Summer, p37-52.
Earhart, H.B. (2004) Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity Fourth Edition,
Thomson Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.
Hori, I. (1968) Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change,
University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Jamieson, B. (2001) Neon Genesis Evangelion: Frequently Asked Questions,
Kerr, B. (2001) Spirituality in Anime,
Kraemer, C.H. (2004) “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrifice in Princess Mononoke.” Journal of Religion and Film, Vol. 8 No. 1 April
Mason, J.W.T. (1967) The Meaning of Shinto: The Primaeval Foundation of Creative Spirit in Modern Japan, Kennikat Press, Inc: New York.
Miyazaki, H. (1988) My Neighbour Totoro, Studio Ghibli: Japan.
Miyazaki, H. (1997), Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli: Japan.
Miyazaki, H. (2001) Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli: Japan.
Napier, S.J. (2001) “Confronting Master Narratives: History As Vision in Miyazaki Hayao’s Cinema of De-assurance.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 9.2, p467-493.
Napier, S.J. (2006) “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki's Spirited Away.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2, p287-310.
Nishio, D. (1989) Dragonball Z, Toei Animation: Japan.
Poitras, G. (1999) The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation?”
Stone Bridge Press: Berkley, CA.
Reader, I. (1991) Religion in Contemporary Japan,
University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu.