What Naruto Gets Wrong: The Real Shinobi

For many anime fans, Naruto introduced the world of the shinobi, or the more familiar word ninja. Sadly, Naruto plays fast and loose with the history of the shinobi. It gets some things right, but it gets far more wrong. This isn’t to beat up on the series. It’s fiction, and fiction makes reality its own. But you may find the reality of the ninja just as interesting as Naruto’s world.

Throughout this article, I’ll use the words shinobi and ninja interchangeably. The words come from the same Chinese word, which traces to the 7th century. Japanese kanji comes from Chinese writing and typically has 2 different pronunciations, the Japanese and the Chinese. The Chinese word, ren zhe 忍者, didn’t appear in Japan until the  15th century (Bertrand, 2006). In Japanese, this is pronounced as nin sha. Ren zhe means “one who endures or hides” in Chinese, but in Japanese, the phrase shinobo mono means the same. Because of this, the words nin ja (or nin sha) and shinobi were used interchangeably (Bertrand, 2006; Man, 2013).

The History of the Shinobi

Nothing is mystical about the true tradition and correct way of ninjutsu

–Natori Masatake, Shoninki.

Ninja enjoyed their height of activity during between the 15th and 16th centuries when Japan was in its Age of the Warring States (1480-1600), a period of conflict between the various samurai families as they vied for power. This period of constant warfare erupted as the shogun and emperor lost their grip on power.  Ironically, the successfulness of the ninja led to their downfall. However, ninja existed long before the province of Iga with its own hidden villages. China had their own version as early as the 600s and perhaps long before. In Japan, the first appearance of a ninja strike dates to the mid-10th century. Ninja don’t become part of the official record until 1488 when government annuals mention the Kawai family’s involvement in a siege. The family originated from Iga province (Man, 2013).

Shinobi reached their apex of ability during the time of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, two daimyo who eventually united Japan under a single shogunate. Oda began the effort but died before he could finish it. That left Ieyasu to finish the job and found a 250 year period of peace and isolation.

Oda started employing shinobi after he barely escaped an assassination attempt in 1573. The ninja attempted to kill him in his sleep, but the ninja was captured by Oda’s bodyguards. The ninja killed himself and Oda had his body displayed in the local marketplace to discourage further assassination attempts (Bertrand, 2006). However, the experience taught Oda the value of ninja, and he began to use them to gather information about his enemies.

The effectiveness of the ninja and the independence of the ninja villages led Oda and his son Nobuo to eventually march on Iga province, the heart of the shinobi villages. Iga also stood between Oda and the lands of his archrival, Mori Motonari. Although the ninjas of Iga held off Oda’s armies for a time using their ninjutsu, eventually they succumbed to Oda’s superior resources. Of course, Oda also hired other ninja families to turn against their neighbors in Iga (Man, 2013).

Ieyasu relied heavily on ninja during his final years of unification for reconnaissance and espionage. Ninja had pivotal roles in several fateful points in Ieyasu’s campaign. The information they gathered proved vital for his victories; on October 21, 1600, ninja helped win the victory that allowed Ieyasu to become the first shogun to fully unify Japan and found a shogunate that would last until Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit in 1858. Ieyasu rewarded the ninja by granting them a special status as a security detail in his capital Edo (Bertrand 2006; Man, 2013). This job gave them prestige and wealth, but Ieyasu’s victory began the end of the ninja. Even the eradication of the ninja couldn’t end them, but peace did.

Life as a Ninja

The way a good ninja works is to know about people without letting them know about him.

–instructional ninja poem

Being a shinobi was a family occupation. Few people born outside of a ninja family or village were accepted into training. At a young age, future ninja learned the arts of balance, swordsmanship, camouflage, and wilderness survival. They trained in groups and learned climbing techniques that served as inspiration for stories of ninja’s flying through villages. A shonin (village ninja leader) watched over these ninjas-in-training until they were deemed ready for their first mission when they reached their late teens (Bertrand, 2006).

Contrary to Naruto and other stories, ninjutsu wasn’t a hand-to-hand combat system. Ninja didn’t have specific fighting techniques. Rather, ninjutsu was a set of skills used to infiltrate enemy positions and gather information. Fighting was a final resort (Cummins, 2015). Size and strength wasn’t considered as important as being aware of surroundings and the weaknesses of the opponent (Dawson, 2000). Ninja were unable to stand up against samurai in a direct fight–although most ninja were samurai. The primary weapon of a shinobi wasn’t a sword or fist; it was information.

This isn’t to say ninja weren’t assassins. However, their primary role involved espionage and peacekeeping.

Like their inhabitants, ninja villages appeared normal but were designed for easy defense. Fake walls and trap doors allowed for ambushes, escape, or hidden weapon caches. Most ninja homes had floorboards designed to squeak when stepped on, making it more difficult for intruders to get around undetected (Bertrand, 2006).

Deception marked the central focus of shinobi. Their villages looked like regular peasant villages, and the shinobi used various disguises (Man, 2013):

  • Zen Monk The traditional Zen monk allowed a shinobi a valid reason to travel in an age of travel restrictions. The large straw hat of the monk allowed the ninja to observe without being observed, and people allowed monks to get close to them, making spying and assassination easier.
  • Mountain Priest, Merchant – Similar to the Zen monk disguise, the Mountain Priest and Merchant disguises allowed a ninja to travel without drawing attention. Like the Zen monk, the mountain priest allowed the ninja to get close to people, whereas the merchant was able to mix freely with people.
  • Street Performer, Actor – Allowed a ninja to hide by drawing attention to himself.
  • The Fashion of the Area – Finally, a ninja would have to dress as the town, village, or castle dressed. This regular clothes allowed them to move, but a shinobi would also have to back up the disguise by speaking in a local dialect or know information natives would only know.

The disguises allowed a shinobi to move freely without drawing attention. During the period ninja worked, few people traveled more than a few miles away from their home villages.

The Art of the Shinobi, Shinobi no jutsu

Ninjutsu is escape rather than kill—take shame, take embarrassment, take anything rather than kill if you can. Hone your ability to escape rather than kill…

–Jack Hoban, martial arts instructor (Morganelli, 2011)

Naruto makes a fuss about the martial arts of a ninja, but the art of the shinobi centered on information gathering and deception instead of fighting. Ninja swords, for example, were shorter than samurai katana, and ninja would try to avoid fighting a samurai directly (Bertrand, 2006). Even the famous shuriken wasn’t design to kill, nor could a ninja throw them hard or accurately enough to kill. Rather, they were used to distract or disable opponents so he could be killed with a sword. Caltrops were used to hinder pursuit. The shinobi-gama, or sickle and chain, depended upon deception and distraction to be effective. One strategy, called fukurogaeshi no jutsu, or reversing the bag, involved a shinobi sneaking into a castle and then announcing he was a ninja looking for work. However, the ninja was actually using the ploy to gain the freedom to move about the castle and gather information for his original employer (Fujibayashi, 2016). Sneaky way to earn two paychecks, eh?

This isn’t ninjitsu

Ninjutsu’s focus on deception served both military and civilian roles. Military ninja roles included: establishing spy networks, gathering information, making maps, and planting long-term agents. Ninja also spread misinformation and propaganda, acted as guides through enemy territory. Finally, ninja would command night attack squads, commit arson, destroy supplies, assassinate targets, and defend against other ninja (Cummins. 2015).

As civilians, ninja shared a lot in common with private investigators. People could hire them to spy on relatives and neighbors, mete out revenge, or as personal bodyguards.

While ninja had chants, charms, and hand gestures, these were used as support instead of relied upon.

What Naruto Gets Wrong and Right

Naruto’s world of the shinobi draws from reality, but it makes too much of a fuss over jutsu; it becomes something of a magic system. While real-life ninja had their own charms and hand-gestures, they relied on pragmatic observation. The Hidden Leaf Village fails to be a true ninja village by the fact it stands out too much with its version of Mount Rushmore. The anime, being an action shonen after all, focuses on fighting, whereas ninja would only fight as a last resort. When a ninja traveled, they attempted to blend in with the locals, dressing as a peasant or as a wandering monk. The shinobi of the Leaf Village do not.

Naruto does get some things right. First, deception is a part of their fighting styles, just as a real ninja. Several times throughout the series, Naruto and friends were hired as bodyguards, and the school atmosphere is kind of what villages would do to train their children, barring the modernization shown in Naruto of course. Finally, the politics the series hints at taps the real-life politics that swirled around ninja.

As mercenaries, ninja had a unique and important place in Japanese history. Much of what we know of ninja came from the stories they spread throughout the Tokugawa period as they declined. Naruto and other ninja fiction pull from more from these stories than from history. However, the history of the shinobi contains just as many stories of daring do, despite the reality of ninja being mapmakers rather than mischief makers.

One fact about shinobi Naruto hits and hits well: it’s all about the mind. What made a ninja a ninja was their ability to think, observe, and plan. They didn’t act on impulse; they studied and understood people. The true shinobi would watch and learn instead of jump in and fight. Ninja changed Japanese history, and through Japanese culture, the unseen ninja continues to shape the world.

References

Bertrand, J. (2006). Techniques that made ninjas feared in 15th-century Japan still set the standard for covert ops. Military History, 23(1), 12.

Cummins, Anthony. (2015) Samurai and Ninja : The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Kanagawa, US: Tuttle Publishing.

Dawson, Chester. (2000). Exit the Ninja. Far Eastern Economic Review 163 (20) 58-61.

Fujibayashi, Y. (2016). 1676: Japan. Lapham’s Quarterly, 9(1), 80-82.

Man, J. (2013). Ninja: 1,000 years of the Shadow Warrior. HarperCollins.

Morganelli, J. (2011). Ethical warrior: how the fighting philosophy of Ninjutsu expert Jack Hoban influenced the United States Marine Corps. Black Belt, (6). 54.


Tsuki ga Kirei – As the Moon, so Beautiful

As the moon, so beautiful follows the romantic relationship between Kotaro Azumi and Akane Mizuno, two junior high classmates. You won’t see world shattering events, or much in the way of melodrama. The plot centers squarely on everyday life, teenage conflicts with parents, stress of school and extracurriculars, and two young souls trying to find their way around romance. The story struck me as realistic and grounded. For once, the male protogonist isn’t a hothead or total dunce. He makes mistakes and often simply doesn’t know what to do. Likewise Akane isn’t overly sweet or combative. She, too, misreads Kotaro and makes mistakes.

I only found myself mentally calling Kotaro an idiot once throughout the 12 episodes, which is quite a feat for an anime such as this. Most of the time, male protogonists frustrate me with their foolish and superficially dense behavior. You don’t see such here. The fumbles Kotaro and Akane make are realistic and, even better, they realize they screw up and work to fix it. The story is filled with awkward, endearing moments of silence between them as they just don’t know what to say. But at the same time, the silence is never cold. It reverberates with the developing feelings they have for each other. They simply lack the vocabulary. Their feelings lack an overt sexuality too. They simply like each other for who they are. While some may view the innocence as unrealistic, I found it refreshing. Sexuality is overemphasized. Love can exist without sex. While sex may reinforce such feelings, we often confuse its hormonal drive as love.

I mentioned how As the moon, so beautiful feels realistic. In one scene, both use the Internet to research dating ideas. This realism extends toward a key element that Kotaro and Akane use to develop their relationship: a messenging app called LINE. Throughout the story, they use the app to keep in touch. They even comment in a scene how its easier to talk over the app than in person. This details captures modern dating culture well. Many people are more comfortable texting and sending online messages than talking in person, particularly at the start of a relationship. It can help people who are naturally quiet and, perhaps, a little shy–as with Akane and Kotaro. It also allows people to stay in touch when schedules refuse to cooperate, which is another detail the anime shows. In fact, LINE becomes essential to the Akane’s and Kotaro’s relationship as their schedules force them apart. Through LINE, they support each other’s efforts and cheer each other on. Akane with track and field. Kotaro with writing.

As the moon, so beautiful builds on the idea that people don’t need words to show their feelings. Akane and Kotaro act in little ways that cements their bond–little gifts, gestures, and even glances across the classroom. There is a great scene where Akane is running in an important event, but says she doesn’t want Kotaro to watch–even though she actually does. Kotaro picks up on this and goes to the event without her knowing (he messages his support over LINE) and then leaves before she could see him. Later Akane finds out he had done this, and it makes her happy. He had both supported her wishes of him not watching (which she says would fluster her) and her quiet desire for him to be there. Small actions like this shows an attentiveness to unspoken desires, which shows love. Granted, it’s easy to miss such things and expecting a partner to always realize what is unsaid can cause problems.

As the moon, so beautiful struck me as unabashedly Japanese.  Kotaro pursues traditional dance at a temple and takes part in traditional festivals. The festivals and temples play key roles in the course of the story–providing important moments such as Kotaro’s confession to Akane on temple grounds. In many school-related anime, Japanese culture is downplayed for the safer, and more accessible, secular school scene. Sure, there are Japanese elements even within this, but they are the typical mainstay of anime: culture festivals, kimono, and the like. As the moon jumps into the elements usually ignored or glossed over, but it doesn’t seek to make them exotic or anything. Like LINE, the cultural elements and festivals are just a part of everyday life.

The normalcy of the story and the delicate handling of romance–the awkward silences, the online messages, the clashing schedules–sets As the moon apart from most other romantic anime I’ve seen. Too often, such stories use comedy and superficial cluelessness to create a blunt, stereotype-laced stories. As the moon uses many of the same tropes, such as love triangles, but it handles them with subtlety and care. The English version of the title has a poetic feel, and the story throughout holds the same feeling as the title. It has a crisp beauty to it and avoids feeling saccharine. The soft animation matches its realistic, understated focus.

Some viewers may grow frustrated with its quiet, realistic pace. For many episodes, apparently little happens. That is, unless you pay attention to the subtext. Behind the slow pace, much is going on: commentary about the role of the Internet in relationships, the effects of others’ opinions on relationships, and how love affects friendships. But all of the messages are subdued and remain a part of the environment the romance develops within. There isn’t any fighting or action scenes. There isn’t any fan-service or sexual comedy. The awkwardness and the silent scenes may prompt some viewers to yell at the screen. But for those who like character-focused stories, stories of two people awkwardly learning about each other, stories based on realism, check this one out.


2 Steps for Better Anime Blogging

Nagaski c.1868

You, the anime community, are great. I’ve seen a lot of positive things in my time with you, and its time we extend some of these positive aspects to other parts of the Internet. Lately, the Internet suffers from vitriol and low-leveling writing: crudeness, profanity, and bad writing. Yet, most of the anime blogging community I’ve seen is helpful and avoids excessive crudeness. The writing quality is decent too. Let’s be clear. I’m not saying other sections of the Internet blog world are worse than the anime community. Nor am I saying the anime community doesn’t have problems. However, much of what we see online–misinformation, political bias, excessive crudeness, personal attacks, slander, and other problems–can be reduced if all of us work at it.

I’ve written against excessive profanity and other writing issues in various articles. I won’t beat that drum again. Other than to tell you to stop it! It really does make you look foolish. Ehem. Anyway, there are two specific issues affecting blogging communities. I’ll address both of them and offer simple solutions to fix them.

Monetizing Blogs with Advertisements Hurts Blogging

Who doesn’t want to make a living with their blog? I tried using advertisements here on JP to make a buck or two. However, a few years ago I realized I was a hypocrite. I hate advertising. I don’t merely find it annoying or dislike it. I passionately hate the level of advertising found across the Internet. Yet I was also contributing to the problem. So I took down all the advertisements.

After I dropped the ads, I saw my traffic increase. I’m not sure if removing ads helped that, but I like to think so. I will promote my books time to time, but I try to keep my book promotions to a minimum. I dislike seeing authors over-peddle. However, not all advertising is bad. Some is needed, but it should be kept to a minimum.  Ironically, if advertisers would reduce the number of ads by, say, 98% they would likely see more people paying attention to them. Rarity creates interest. When a room of people are talking, no one can hear what is being said.

In any case, the level of advertisements used on the Internet chokes access. Ad blockers are required to be able to load many websites. Not to mention it is very difficult to blog for a living. The best way to do that is to write quality books (not that I claim my books are quality) and freelance for magazines. A blog is a way to reach out to people who may find your content interesting or useful. And it all comes down to being helpful to your readers. Blogs that splash advertisements everywhere do not have the reader in mind. They don’t try to give to the reader; they want to take from the reader.  These blogs and websites are self-serving rather than other-serving.

So the first step of our blog movement: reduce advertising. Remove most ads from your blog and kill all those terrible pop-ups, including those that ask the visitor to follow your blog. If they want to follow you, they will. Place the RSS feed or email someplace visible but out of the way of your articles. I refuse to follow blogs that beg me to follow them. But if I like a blog, I will hunt the sidebar for a subscription box.

Also be sure to install adblockers on your browsers. Maybe if people stop seeing pennies come from ads, more will take them down. I don’t know about you, but I long for the day when advertisements are rare but useful.

Return the Social to Blogging

One of the biggest problems blogs face is the immigration to social platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media have stolen the conversations blogs used to enjoy. I feel like I am railing against the inevitable, but most blogs starve for comments and discussion. I’ll admit social platforms are more convenient for discussion. After all, blogs are fragmented. You can talk to many bloggers on Twitter, but you can only speak to a few (or one) on their blog. However, this is akin to having a private conversation. Social platforms are noisy places, full of asides and interruptions.  Blogs provide spaces for more specific, quieter conversations. Blogs have more in common with friends getting together at a bar than Twitter or other social platforms do. They are closer to meeting at a busy city square.

Perhaps the most important part of commenting on blogs deals with the author. Many bloggers labor in isolation. They feel as if their little blog, which sees little traffic, is lost in the void. They grow discouraged and think about quitting. Just when they are about to order the blog to commit seppuku, a comment pings. Someone has read an article and liked it! They really liked it enough to comment! Comments light a fire under bloggers. Comments encourage, even the argumentative ones.

Bloggers can also encourage each other by writing responses to posts on their own blogs. For example, you can write a response about this article and rip at me for being way off base. Article responses between bloggers help readers discover new authors. It also helps create a better community by feeling like a community. Instead of a blog floating in isolation, it responds and adapts to the conversations of its community. It joins those conversations. The anime community does a great job of this. Not to mention these response posts help you keep writing. It can be tough to come up with ideas week after week.

So the second part of our blog movement is to comment on posts and write response articles. If you like a blogger, let them know you support them. They may well return the favor! But if they don’t return the favor, don’t worry. You contributed to the health of the Internet as a whole.

Small actions add up. While these two solutions are relatively easy (outside of losing advertising income), they improve your small bit of the Internet. Taking your conversation to a blog encourages the author to keep writing. It also helps blogging feel less isolated. Remember, blogging is the original social media. And bloggers need to help the conversation by replying to comments and writing good, useful articles in the first place. Blogging can’t be self-serving. It has provide value to the reader in order to succeed.

This is where most bloggers, and websites for that matter, go wrong. They try to take from readers (usually money) instead of give. Writing is a relationship. There has to be more giving than taking for relationships to succeed. If you give quality writing and information to readers, many will give you their friendship, interest, and (sometimes) money.


Influenced By… Judaism and Christianity

Saviours, Angels, Robots, Nuns and Vampires!

After my look at the ties of Dao, Onmyōji and Twin Star Exorcists, in this installment of my ‘influenced by’-series I’ll engage with an exotic topic – for Japan, that is. Let’s have a look at Christianity in Japan and its appearances in Anime!

Saint Young Men

Saint Young Men Seinto oniisan Jesus buddha manga anime

Mind the T-Shirts: Buddha’s says “Nirvana”, but I doubt he means the band.

A special favourite of mine, often overlooked, is the manga (by Nakamura Hikaru, 2006-now) and anime film Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan, 2013), which humourusly portrays the day-to-day experiences of best buddies Buddha and Jesus on their vacation in Japan. This usually entails accidental miracles and the trouble the two of them have to (a) maintain their incognito and (b) cope with modern life.

Jesus divides pool Saint Young Men

This is not diving, this is Moses-ing.

In one instance, Buddha takes Jesus to a swimming pool and Jesus has to admit he is somewhat afraid of water, hence his preference to walk across. Buddha persuades him to try and dive. When he eventually does, well… Let’s just say the Egyptians have seen it before.

However, anime with religious allusions or symbolism don’t usually feature a religious figure as a character. Instead, there tends to be a mashup of names, symbols, and stories, or just playing on “cool” exotic themes. The stories, it seems are not as popular as the images.

So, how did Christian lore arrive in Japan in the first place?

The introduction of Christianity to Japan

Francis Xavier Kobe Museum Japan Jesuit missionary

Francis Xavier, as depicted in a painting exhibited at Kobe Museum.

The Portuguese “discovered” the Japanese archipelago in 1542. (From a European point of view. The Chinese, Koreans, and of cause the Japanese themselves had known for centuries that it existed.) Seven years later, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and his subordinates landed in what is now Nagasaki prefecture, on the island of Kyūshū, and introduced the Japanese to Christianity.[i] Initially, the new religion received a warm welcome.

Early Success

At first, Japanese audiences took Christianity for just another sect of Buddhism. Early translations of Christian scripture into Japanese rendered “God” as “Dainichi Nyōrai”, thereby equating him with the Great Sun-Buddha, a central deity of esoteric Buddhism. (In Japan, Dainichi Nyōrai is also associated with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens in Shintō.) This translation intensified general similarities in Christian and Buddhist ethics. It also catered to the Japanese syncretistic worldview, which easily blends different religions according to individual spiritual needs. Therefore, the new religion was not met with resistance. It was seen as an addition, not a replacement, of the old ones. Statistics also play a role here: If a regional ruler converted, his subjects would follow, thus one conversion could bring a significant rise in the number of “believers”.

But most important was the current political landscape. Christianity arrived in Japan at a time of internal struggle. It was end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai) and military leader Oda Nobunaga was trying to unify Japan. Among other things, he fought the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and eventually burnt down most of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, from where the monks had brought their demands to the imperial capital of Kyōto. In this context, Oda encouraged the spread of Christianity as a rival to Buddhism.[ii]

Persecution

fumi-e fumie test christian Japan kakure kirishitan hidden stepping picture

“To test a suspected Christian, order him to step on this fumi-e. Believers will refuse.”

The official view of Christianity turned, however, due to several developments. Firstly, the Christian idea of superiority over all other beliefs conflicted with the aforementioned syncretistic approach of Japanese Buddhism and Shintō. Secondly, the newly established military government was concerned about Catholics’ loyalty to the pope. Thirdly, news of the confessional wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe sparked concern of similar things happening between converts of the two sects in Japan.

As a result, missionary action and the performance of Christian belief in Japan was increasingly persecuted, culminating in the violent suppression of the Christian peasant uprisings of Amakusa and Shimabara in 1637. [iii]  Three years later, Japan entered its over 200-year isolation (sakoku), until the ships of American commodore Perry forced the opening of trading ports in the mid-19th century. Christian belief only survived in secret among the so-called “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan). Buddhist images served as disguises for the forbidden worship; for example, the bodhisattva Kannon is often depicted as female, in some cases even with a child, and can therefore double as Virgin Mary.[iv]

Return

Chapel of Dôshisha University, Kyôtô.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan denounced its isolation and rapidly imported European philosophy and science. The new imperial government encouraged everything which seemed to further the modernization of the country. In this context, they eventually lifted the ban on Christianity, but soon grew hostile again. Like Buddhism, the religion of Christianity stood against the proposed doctrine of State Shintō and seemed in conflict with the new, modern, scientific worldview.[v]  However, the establishment of Christian universities such as Kyōto’s Protestant Dōshisha University (1875) and Tōkyō’s Catholic Sophia University (1911) demonstrates the influence of Christianity on Japanese higher education. In this way, Christianity was an important factor in the political developments leading to modern Japan.[vi]

Since the American occupation after WWII, the Japanese have also adopted many aspects of Western Christian culture, such as Christmas and Christian wedding ceremonies. However, only 1-3% of the Japanese population count themselves as Christian.[vii] Thus these rituals are decontextualized and secularized, perhaps a part of global consumer culture. (Which, arguably, is also what they have become in “Christian” countries.) As a part of this global consumer culture, popular culture emerges as a space of cultural interaction and engagement with myth.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon gegensis evangelion poster

The poster doesn’t really tell you what you’re in for.

Ten years ago, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion) would not have needed an introduction among anime fans. The anime series (produced by studio Gainax and directed by Anno Hideaki) ran in 1995-6 on TV Tokyo and reached international audiences from 2000 onward.[viii] Anime scholar Susan Napier lauds it as a landmark series, both as a representative of its genres – science fiction and, more specifically mecha anime – and because of its enormous popularity and impact on popular culture.[ix] For more information on NGE’s outstanding contributions to anime storytelling from this site’s main author, see this post. The effect lingers; you could still see some Evangelion cosplay at German Anime-Conventions in 2012 (which is when I stopped going) and we found figurines of its characters in UFO-Catchers in Kyōto only last year. So I’ll keep the summary brief.

What happens?

In a dystopian mechanized future, the world (i.e. mostly Japan, i.e. mainly Tokyo) is threatened by aliens, the ‘angels’. The only ones who can defeat them are certain 14-year-olds, when they become pilots of giant robots called Evangelions (EVA for short). The main protagonist is one of these pilots, Ikari Shinji, a sulky boy in conflict with his estranged father, who happens to run the operations against the aliens. One would expect a generic “boy hero overcomes obstacles and saves world with his friends” story, as the opening theme[x] suggests, but this is what NGE refuses to do.

Instead, it depicts the psychological issues of its main character(s) and embellishes the “humans fight aliens” plot with so many references to Judeo-Christian lore that researchers have interpreted the work as a) a postmodern deconstruction of reality and identity b) criticism of consumer culture and America-centered political history and c) a contemplation of the meaning of life – and that’s just the three articles I found in my university library.[xi]

What’s Christian?

Much of the stories NGE draws on are not Christian as much as based on Hebrew Kabbala and the Gnostics.[xii] The title ‘Evangelion’ itself refers to the gospel, of course. Because the antagonistic aliens are called angels, on can already assume that humanity has, in some way, angered God and brought these events upon itself? Well, what exactly the root cause of everything is, the series never reveals, but it becomes clear that at least the cataclysmic events around the first angel, Adam, were caused by human arrogance and ‘it attempting to play God’.

Old and New Testament, and far beyond that

Rebuild Evangelion Neon Genesis angel cross explosion

Explosion of the 7th angel, as shown in the Evangelion movie versions (Rebuild of Evangelion)

In addition, with the first angel named Adam, it surely comes as no surprise that the robots called EVAs have a certain connection to it (i.e. they are partially constructed after his model), or that another angel by the name of Lilith appears.[xiii] Speaking of angels: the Japanese dub uses shito, which would be more closely translated as ‘apostle’, although both refer to a divine/religious messenger.[xiv] For more of the Old-testament-based references, I refer you to Ortega’s elaborate analysis (see Notes section below).
Concerning the New Testament, we have firstly the three computer brains of the NERV Corporation, which take their names from the three wise men of the nativity story: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.[xv] Secondly, the ultimate weapon against angels is the Lance of Longinus (traditionally, the weapon thrust into the body of Christ on the cross to check if he was dead).  The series queers this artifact’s story, however, because the crucified form we first see the lance stuck in is the angel Lilith. Thirdly, since Shinji is expected to save the world, we might see him as a Christ figure suffering for humanity’s sake. Fittingly, hints of his mother associate the Madonna.[xvi] Fourthly, the cross features repeatedly, not just as a pendant Misato wears – the explosion of a dying angel is cross-shaped. Finally, the secret organization which controls all events is called SEELE, German for ‘soul’.

 

Instant Confusion, Just Add Myth

Lilith lance longinus NGE angel

Angel Lilith, impaled with Lance of Longinus

I’d like to emphasize an aspect Ortega overlooks: the intense blending of stories and images. Traditionally, angels are beings of a different order than humans: stronger, more beautiful, servants of God, but without free will. While NGE retains the power aspect, it also strongly implies that humans and angels are very closely related (i.e. humans, angels, and EVAs are all in some way decedents of Adam and/or Lilith).

 

In a similar vein, the ‘original’ Lance of Longinus has nothing to do with angels, Adam, or Lilith. NGE plays on the association that it is a God-killer weapon, but then again, angels are not God, are they? This anime is so confusing… Anyways, this “take what you need and apply it to your problem/story”-approach resembles the syncretistic view of religion I discussed earlier.

Another aspect I find interesting is the interlacing of religious myth and science fiction, or the myth of technology. You know, giant robots, clones and bioengineering, supercomputers, and the like. A similar connection between religion and science marks the second work I’d like to discuss here.

Trinity Blood

Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques. trinity blood poster

Left to right: Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques.

One story migrating and evolving from one medium to the next is typical for Japanese popular culture, as I mentioned before. Trinity Blood began in 1999 as a light novel series by Yoshida Sunao, spawned a shōjo manga (2004) and an anime adaptation (2005). This leads to a noticeable shift in art styles; it also produces conflicting information, differing plot lines and character developments, and so on. The anime is probably best known, but the novels provide most background information… and I’ve mainly read the manga 😉 But the interesting parts are common to all versions.

What happens?

1000 years after devastating war, two intelligent species live an Earth: humans (Terrans), and vampires (Methuselah). Human military and political power is concentrated at the Vatican, whereas Byzantium has become the vampire capital.  Both powers are in a Cold War-type of setting, and “lost technologies” from before Armageddon greatly impact the balance of power.

For secret missions, usually concerning vampires, the Vatican sends out special agents. One of those is the main protagonist, Abel Nightroad. In Istvan (Bulgaria), Abel and his partner Tres cross paths with Sister Esther Blanchett, and political complications ensue. Despite his ditzy appearance, Abel is an immensely powerful fighter thanks to the “Crusnik” nanomachines in his body: As vampires prey on humans, Crusnik prey on vampires.  Later the story reveals the origin of both vampires and Crusnik: Vampires are humans infected with the Kudlak Bacillus, which in turn served as food for the Crusnik nanomachines, both of which were discovered in a crashed alien spaceship when humanity tried to colonize Mars.[xvii]

What’s Christian?

Cardinal Jacopino del Conte

Compare: 16th century Cardinal, by Jacopino del Conte.

Cardinal Caterina Sforza, Trinity Blood

Cardinal Caterina Sforza

Whereas NGE intensely appropriates stories and symbols, Trinity Blood makes pronounced use of Christian institutions, that is, the hierarchy and insignia of the Catholic Church. Abel is introduced as a priest, Esther as a (novice) nun, and higher positions are occupied by bishops such as Esther’s mother figure Laura and cardinals such as Abel’s supervisor Catharina Sforza. The character’s clothing is visibly inspired by actual nun’s habits, priests’ and cardinal’s clothing, though the artist(s) also take considerable liberties. Esther’s blue-trimmed white habit evokes that of Mother Teresa, though I couldn’t find any habit design with a short, folded back part of the veil like the one Esther’s wearing. Dressing priests in black and cardinals in red also fits the Church hierarchy. Take this image of Caterina as an example. There’s a lot of detail added, such as cuffs, armour, embroidery etc., but the basic shape is still there – notice the short cloak-like part around the shoulders. I don’t know where the hat came from, through… perhaps the artist just likes big hats 😉. And of course, crosses and rosaries and the like abound as decorative elements.

Political involvement

Christian belief plays a role as well, though mostly as a tool of political power, not a feature of the main character’s personality. Thus, Esther is declared a Saint in a context of political intrigue, in order to affect the pious population. Christian charity features briefly in the beginning as part of the description of the convent in Istvan. However, there is no special promotion of Christian values by main characters, although most of them are members of the Church. Similarly, while the series features numerous terrorists or vigilantes of human or vampire origin, their motivation is usually personal, nationalist or racist, not religious. The series carefully subverts black-and-white morality judgements and shows its characters’ motivations to be diverse, personal, and (Terran or Methuselah) very human.

Names

Lilith Hologram Catharge Trinity Blood

Hologram of Lilith as a Saint

The characters refer to the Earth-encompassing war which led to the present state of affairs as Armageddon, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the Book of Revelation or just popular culture, where both “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are used to describe large-scale catastrophes capable of exterminating humanity.

Like NGE, Trinity Blood references Genesis and the first humans, but goes one generation further. The first Crusnik is Cain, followed by Abel (the main Character) and their sister Seth. In the Bible, Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain had slain Abel. The fourth Crusnik bears the name Lilith. She is the eldest of these four – all genetically engineered for a Mars colonization project. Interestingly, Lilith becomes a Crusnik last, and only to protect humanity from the other three. This is a weird echo of the NGE moment when humanity is collectively, as “Lilim” or Lilith’s offspring, indicated to be the final, the 18th angel. In both cases, Lilith is associated with humanity, whereas in the source material, Lilith is punished by God for insubordination and becomes a mother of demons. Trinity Blood, by contrast, shows her as a saint-like figure.

Concluding remarks

When it comes to the use of Christian content in anime, the primary appeal probably lies in its exoticism. Whereas with Twin Star Exorcists the animators could assume at least a vague familiarity with the religious associations among their audience, Christianity is both relatively new and relatively rare in Japan. Its visual cues (churches and clothing, like the bride’s white dress) are probably more familiar to the audience then any narratives. Except of course prior adaptations of the same source material. Thus interaction with Christianity might be more external, as in Trinity Blood, adapting the institutions and clothes to contribute to the work’s exotic European flavor. Or it may delve into complex, multilayered and contradictory myth-building, as NGE does. One reviewer of the latter points out that the mere inclusion of religious imagery can both add a cool factor and give a work a feeling of depth and gravitas.[xviii]

Trinity Blood vatican airship

Screenshot from episode 1 of the Trinity Blood anime: A Vatican Airship.

The creative blending of diverse types of stories may, as I mentioned above, be linked to the syncretistic tradition in Japanese religion. In this vein, the connection of Christian elements and Science Fiction makes me wonder if there is some historic precedent as well. Was European science and ‘modernity’, as imported after the Meiji Restoration, seen as somehow connected to European history of thought?

At least in the beginning, this seems to have been true: “It should be remembered that Christianity was introduced to Japan after it had already been well refined in Western society and was arrayed in the garb of modern religion. At the beginning the Japanese people even thought that modernization, Westernization, and Christianization were one and the same thing.”[xix] Perhaps, some residue of this conflation still remains?

Star Wars Force Luke Skywalker Obi Wan Kenobi

Not that religion and science fiction where unrelated in Western media…

Notes and References:

[i] See http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c02303/ for a biographic account of these early missionaries and (on page 2) pictures of Japanese churches.

[ii] Bunce, William. Religions in Japan. Rutland & Tōkyō: Charles E. Tuttle, 1948. 20-21. See also: Covell, Stephen. “Religious Culture”. In: Sugimoto, Yoshino (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 147-8.

[iii] Bunce 1948:21-22, 150; Covell 2009:148-9.

[iv] http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/maria-kannon.html

[v] Bunce 1948: 151-3, Covell 2009:149.

[vi] Ellington, Lucien. Asia in Focus: Japan. Santa Barbara & Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009. 165.

[vii] Covell 2009:150.

[viii] Both the American and German versions were apparently first broadcast in 2000; but I have to trust Wikipedia on this since TV-schedules prove quite difficult to research.

[ix] Napier, Susan. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain”. In: Bolton, Christopher; Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr; & Takayuki Tatsumi (eds). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 108.

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYZfeY8Vg0E, notably the lyrics say „shōnen wa, shinwa ni nare”, “Boy, become a legend”.

[xi] 1) Napier 2007; 2) Redmond, Dennis. „Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion“. In: Allen, Matthew, & Sakamoto, Ruby (eds). Japanese Popular Culture: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. Volume II: Japanese Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century. London & New York: Routledge, 2014; 3) Ortega, Mariana. „My Father, He Killed Me; My Mother, She Ate Me: Self, Desire, Engendering, and the Mother in Neon Genesis Evangelion.“In: Mechademia, Vol.2 (Networks of Desire), 2007.

[xii] Ortega 2007.

[xiii] Ortega 2007:218-9.

[xiv] https://wiki.evageeks.org/Angels

[xv] Ortega 2007:223.

[xvi] Ortega 2007:224.

[xvii] http://trinityblood.wikia.com/wiki/Methuselah

[xviii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiUs6YuSloM

[xix] Kishimoto Hideo, „The problem of religion and modernization in Japan“, p.12. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/3240


Anime’s One-Piece Swimsuit Fetish and the History of Japanese Swimsuits

anime high school swimsuit

Form-fitting, sleek one-piece swimsuits dominate high-school anime’s depictions of girls. Fans demand, in fact, require their anime to feature their favorite female characters in these iconic one-pieces. More than a few fetishes in the fandom focus on this blue spandex swimsuit. The swimsuit features in high-school anime because it is a part of Japanese school life. But where exactly did this one-piece swimsuit come from?

To answer that, we need to look at the history of swimwear in the West. Japan imported Western-style swimwear, along with many other Western ideas and costumes, during the early part of the 1900s.

Casale_BikiniLet’s backpeddle to the first swimsuit: the bikini. Official history states the bikini was designed by French engineer Louis Réard in 1946. The swimwear is thought to be named after the Bikini Atoll, the site of several US atomic tests happening at the time. However, the bikini appears much earlier. A Roman mosaic dating the to the 4th century in Sicily shows Roman women exercising in quite modern-liking bikinis (Spivack, 2012).

When the Roman Empire collapsed, bathing suits and bathing in general numbered among the collapse’s victims. Up until the 1500s, Europeans believed bathing spread disease rather than prevented it (Tousignant, 2014). Bathing didn’t return until the Renaissance and the Baroque period, and by then people expected female skin to remain covered. For example, in 1687, the English traveler Celia Fiennes described the typical lady’s bathing suit (Spivack, 2012):

The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.

These bathing gowns sometimes had lead weights sewn into their hems so nothing would float up and reveal an ankle (Tousignant, 2014). Swim gowns persisted until form fitting bathing suits became popular in the early 1900s. Made of wool, these swimsuits covered from neck to ankle. In case you are wondering, men covered almost as much as women. They wore vests and swim shirts up until 1937, when they finally went bare-chested.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Anyway, these form fitting swimsuits caused a scandal. In 1907, Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-fitting one-piece that showed skin on her arms and legs. Her arrest backfired. Instead of halting the trend of creeping skin, her arrest encouraged women to show more leg and and arm (Spivack, 2014).  As the years passed, more skin appeared, but the invention of spandex marked the beginning of the modern, form-hugging swimsuits we are familiar with today.

The Japanese Modern Girl and Western Fashion

So what does the history of Western swimwear have to do with the Japanese school-girl one-piece? The answer traces back to the Meiji Restoration and the rise of the modan garu in the 1920s.

The Meiji Restoration marked the end of Japan’s closed-off feudal period and the start of rapid modernization. Japan looked to the West, particularly the United States, for examples. The rapid import of Western ideas sent shocks throughout Japanese society. One group in particular noticed a profound different in traditional views and Western views: women. Women became consumers of new Western forms of media: mass market magazines, movies, radio, jazz, and other imports. A small group of women began to emulate the Western fashions they witnessed in American movies. The modan garu, or modern girl, became the symbol of modernization.

As a symbol of modernism, you’d think the modern girl would be a common sight in the 1920s, just as the flapper was a common sight in America during the same decade. However, a 1925 survey of the Ginza area of Tokyo found 99% of women still wore traditional Japanese clothing. Only 1% of women dressed as modern girls. However, that 1% stood out. The modern girl wore bright-colored one-piece dressed that reached to her knees. She wore high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings that drew attention to her legs. Her bobbed hair was modeled after Hollywood actresses like Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson. The hair style in particular marked a significant change. Traditional Japanese women wore their hair in a bun, and an ordinance from 1872 forbade women from cutting their hair (Sato, 1993). Interestingly, during this period it wasn’t unusual for women to dive nude. Known as ama, this fisherwomen would become popular examples of the “Exotic East” for Westerners. They caused less of  a stir than the modern girls.

So the modern girl was a woman who bucked tradition and embraced the Western fashion she witnessed on the silver screen. Among these fashions was the swimsuit. Postcards from the era sometimes showed Japanese women wearing Western style swimsuits. Swimsuits like the ones Kellerman wore. These women were at the height of fashion and controversy. Just as Kellerman ran into problems in Boston, Japanese modern girls faced backlash for showing too much and being too Western. The modern girl faced real challenges. Novelist Mochizuki Yuriko wrote an account of her experience as a modern girl when she cut her hair (Sato, 1993):

The long kimono was beautiful, but it was no longer in keeping with the age. Long Japanese hair was also beautiful, but that,  too, had become anachronistic. Those were the feelings I had when I decided to cut my hair. . . . You  can’t imagine the shock it gave to the people around me. My mother took one look at me and cried out in indignation, ‘You must be crazy! If you go out,  everyone will call you one of those atarashii onna [new women]’-the  term modan garu was not in use yet.. . . I remember another instance after I returned to my family home in the country. I ran into two girls,  fifteen and  sixteen, living in the neighborhood who had had a short cut. Ours was an extremely provincial, tradition-bound village, and it caused a great sensation. The girls were punished severely and their mothers sobbed and wailed, carrying on as if they were lunatics. My own mother confronted me and said,  ’It’s your fault that this dreadful thing has happened. You’ve lost face with everyone in the neighborhood, so I wish  that you’d just go right back to Tokyo.’ In no time I packed my bag and returned to Tokyo feeling as if I were  escaping.. . . It’s  been almost ten years since I got a short cut. During that time there have been a string of  tragicomedies.

When I think back [to 1918], the painful experiences far outnumbered the comic situations. Even today, it’s appalling how many idiots jeer and hiss at me and are ignorant enough to  label me a modan garu.

Japanese modern girls faced real problems for their decisions to embrace Western fashion. They not only faced problems with their families for breaking tradition, but they also faced the label of sexual deviant. Their embrace of Western fashion marked them as a sex object and women of poor sexual morality. Despite police investigations in 1923–which found nothing sexual or immoral going on in modern-girl cafes and other hang outs–the idea persisted. Some of this persistence is because of the exoticism of Western dress at the time. These women represented something new, different, and modern. In a word: exotic, and exotic women stimulate male libido–just as the ama and geisha did for Western men. The sexual attraction of the 1920s modern girl continues with the attraction for Japanese high-school one-piece swimsuits. Much like panty fetishes were caused by Westernization, the fetish for the one-piece started with the sexual objectification of early modern girls and their Western swimwear. And the association stuck.

Modan garu kept up with American fashion changes up until World War II. By the time the war ended, the American Occupation cemented America’s influence on Japan. However, there is another piece of the puzzle. The high-school one-piece isn’t merely a result of Japan copying America. The one-piece is distinctly Japanese. It resulted from the influence of the modern girl merging with the distinctly Japanese school uniform.

The Uniform Swimsuit

This is just one of the examples of how the high school swimsuit for ladies is fetishized. The abnormal pose shows off her lolita figure. The high-school swimsuit and lolita fetish often converge.

Besides the one-piece swimsuit, anime focuses on the Japanese school uniform. The Japanese school uniform, like the modern girl, came out of Japan’s rapid Westernization. Japanese school uniforms are as iconic as the samurai, and Japan engineered that iconography. When Japan entered the world stage, it was obsessed with how other nations perceived it. Japan wanted to present its military as modern, and military uniforms are the way to do just that. Military uniforms are designed to impress foreign nations, after all.

Japan took its modernization so seriously that it extended military dress to its school system. Female school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Navy uniform, and male school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Army. These uniforms were a way of advertising how Japan became modern across all levels of its population.

Beginning in the 1950s, school uniforms became associated with morally wholesome children. That is, until the Lolita movement and the push toward fashion started in the 1980s. During the 1980s, private girl schools began to use uniform styles to attract students. This pushed school uniforms into the public eye, including school swimsuits. In 1985, the book Girl Uniform Fieldbook by Mori Nobuyuki outlined various school uniform fashions and which schools featured each uniform (Kinsella, 2002). This, in combination with the shift in using school girl as advertising, brought the school uniform and school swimsuit back into the realm of sexuality. The long running strand of sexuality introduced by the modern girl back in the early 1900s had returned.

Kosaki Onodera from Nisekoi

Anime picked up on this return of the swimsuit as a subject of sexual attraction. The one-piece became an iconic fetish because for many Japanese men it was the first exposure to the female body. First exposures leave lasting influence and tap into nostalgia. The one-piece dredges memories of high school and junior-high, times when you had more freedom. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, especially when it is combined with sexual attraction.

The Japanese Male Swimsuit

So far, I’ve focused on the female one-piece. Although it is not as iconic, the male swimsuit shares similar DNA. However, it doesn’t the same potent sexual symbolism as the female swimsuit in popular culture. Some of this is because female sexual interests tend not to be as public as male. Marketing hasn’t capitalized on female sexual attraction as long as it has on male sexual attraction. This is changing as more marketing and anime aims at titillating women through male objectification. I’ve written about female objectification many times so I won’t get into it again here. If you want to read more check out these links: breast obsession, magical girls and sexism, otaku culture is sexist. The male swimsuit follows the same trail as the female. As women adopted Western fashion, awareness of Western male fashion also increased. Male swimwear has undergone fewer changes than female swimwear. Depending on your perspective, Westernized societies place a higher value on female skin than male skin. This is why males tend to have fewer controversy with swimwear. Female skin is more valuable as a commodity and therefore shouldn’t be shared as readily as male skin. For the record, I firmly disagree with this view, but patriarchal views hang on. This view is changing, however, as female sexual attraction and homosexual male sexual attraction becomes more accepted.

The Revenge of the One-Piece

Anime’s focus on the female one-piece swimsuit traces back more than a century, back to the opening of Japan to the rest of the world. For decades, Western fashion has influenced Japanese, but in recent years that has begun to reverse. The one-piece has returned in many American magazines. While the one-piece hasn’t completely disappeared, it played second-fiddle to the bikini. That is changing. In a 2015 article of InStyle, many women are returning to the one-piece as a backlash against the ever-shrinking bikini (Cheng, 2015).

I suspect Japan’s high school one-piece has had a small hand in this shift as well. Manga and anime enjoyed a period of booming popularity between roughly 2004-2008 here in the States. Many of these fans are now at an age where they can influence fashion. While anime and manga fans are a small cohort, their views cause ripples among nonfans. The constant exposure to one-piece swimsuits in anime and manga–not to mention how anime portrays the one-piece as sexier than bikinis–will shift ideals of fashion. I have to be clear: I don’t have data on this. It is merely a suspicion.

In any case, the one-piece swimsuit sits on a line of influence stretching all the way back through the Japanese modern girl movement, back through the swim gowns of yesteryear, back into the Roman Empire, and back even further into history. The one-piece shows how even a simple piece of material is connected to a web of ideas and people stretching back into time.

References

Cheng, A. (2015) Proof That One-Piece Swimsuits Are Now More Popular Than Bikinis. InStyle. http://www.instyle.com/news/celebrities-in-one-piece-swimsuits

Kinsella, S. (2002). What’s Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms? Fashion Theory 6 (2). 215-238.

Sato, B. H. (1993) The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles during the 1920s. Gender & History. 3(3) 361-381.

Spivack, E. (2012). How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back. Smithsonian.

Tousignant, M. (2014). The History of Swimsuits, from Togas to Bikinis. The Washington Post. June 2, 2014.


The Shinigami Behind You: Considering the Messages We Consume

A shinigami waits behind you, counting your limited heartbeats.

It’s not a comfortable thought, but one we must all face. We will die. This realization should govern our every action. Many times while watching a terrible anime, the thought strikes me, and I turn off the drivel. Each of us have a set number of hours to spend. We often spend them foolishly.

Many could argue watching anime is a waste of heartbeats. Escapism wastes time. Quite the contrary, good stories enhance life. Good stories allow us to explore different perspectives. They help us develop compassion and empathy for others. However, finding stories worth our time is difficult. Even though drivel consumed someone’s heartbeats to produce, but it may not warrant our heartbeats to consume.

Watching anime, or watching movies or reading books are all forms of consumption. They are food for the mind. The messages we consume form building blocks for our identities and world view, much like how food forms building blocks for the body. Eating poor food creates an unhealthy body. After all, it is hard to build healthy cells with poor quality amino acids, proteins, and sugars. Likewise, it is hard to build a healthy mental life with drivel, short-sighted messages, misogynistic messages, and other poor materials,. The limited nature of our lives doesn’t help matters. It takes time to find good mental building materials and sometimes we don’t know if those materials are good until after they are consumed.

All of this seems rather floaty and philosophical, but anime does change us. The messages and stories we consume either reinforces or challenges our current understanding of reality. In turn, that understanding impacts everything we do. People who consume anime with values centered on friendship, loyalty, love, understanding, and persistence will have those mental nutrients. Those who consume anime with messages of ownership, control, and sexual debasement of women will have those mental building blocks. This idea extends to all messages we consume.

The Internet makes it easy to cocoon yourself in messages you enjoy and agree with. This can distort your perspective. It makes you believe reality is thus when it can be quite the opposite. The limited time you have to live makes these cocoons all the more dangerous. The time spent to consume these cocooning messages cannot be retrieved, and it weds you to those messages. Few of us want to face the realization that everything we’ve believed in or thought was wrong after spending most of our lives with that perspective.

Otaku culture allows its own cocoons. As a guy, I am troubled by the proliferation of massive-breasted women and the messages of sexual availability. These fantasies target a sliver of fans who struggle with forming connections with women. The messages of sexual availability and the focus on serving male sexual needs whenever they arise form a perspective that is unhealthy and self-defeating. These guys only increase their issues with women by consuming these messages. The fantasy creates self-centered expectations and breeds resentment when reality can’t match the cocoon. Many prefer the cocoon to reality, but what will these fans think when a shinigami finally comes for them? What legacy do they leave behind with their final heartbeats?

As a Christian who also practices Zen, these questions needle me. I beat up on otaku culture, but the same idea extends toward American conservatives and American liberals. It extends toward Christians who insulate themselves from other religious perspectives. I used to be one of these. Cocooning creates small minds and reduces empathy. It is easy to ostracize those you don’t know. It is much harder to think poorly about people you speak with everyday.  I understand why many wrap themselves in fantasy and comforting viewpoints. I’ve done it. However, in the end, this stunts us as people.

Don’t feel singled out if you are an otaku. Anime teaches many worthwhile values. In many ways, otaku caterpillars have advantages over conservatives, liberals, and Christian caterpillars. Otakus tend to be more inter-culturally minded. Otakus also tend to be creative. Otakus tend to be open minded. These traits make the culture more receptive to rants like this post.

So the tl;dr:

The messages we consume, and how we choose to spend our limited time, have an impact on the world around us. How we think dictates how we act. Anime and other messages infiltrate our souls, so be careful of what messages you consume.