Set in an alternative world, Izetta pits magic against World War II technology. The story follows Izetta and the Archduchess of a small country Eylstadt as they struggle against the empire of Germania. The anime focuses on Izetta and her relationship with the Archduchess, Finé. It’s basically a light yuri with action and political intrigue. They have a close relationship with mutual dedication, which causes them pain as the conflict wears on.
Izetta the Last Witch focuses on the problem of escalating violence. Finé uses Izetta to defend the small duchy, and her power as a witch overmatches most technology Germania has. Izetta can throw tanks and use medieval weapons to stop bullets and shells. But she is limited to areas with ley lines, veins of magic that she taps to power her spells. Finé’s decision to use Izetta as the ultimate shield starts an arms development race which ends with Germania building a nuclear bomb that uses crystallized magic as its fuel. The nations resisting Germania have their own concerns about Izetta’s powers, driving them to research their own counters to her magic and escalating the bloodiness of the war.
The story captures the way technology snowballs during the course of World War I and World War II. Even after war finishes, the level of escalation remains. Just look at our world. At the end of World War II, nuclear weapons were the apex of escalation. During the Cold War, this continued with hydrogen bombs of ever increasing destructive abilities. In the past, defensive measures developed to combat better weapons. Leather armor became chain mail which became plate armor up until guns rendered plate armor obsolete. After a certain point, offense became the only defense. The only deterrent to nuclear weapons was more nuclear weapons.
Izetta the Last Witch captures this trend. Finé’s duchy had fortresses and defensive lines throughout its lands, but Germania’s superior weapons overwhelmed those defenses. The duchy was unable to build any defense that could counter the weapons. Izetta entered the fray as an offensive-defense strategy. Fortresses and old methods of defense became worthless much as bomb shelters were rendered useless with nuclear weapons. Izetta becomes a symbol of modern war and its almost magical ability to destroy. However, Izetta has a conscience.
The story also features the idea of loyalty to one’s country. Finé is surrounded by people who are willing to give their lives to defend her and the country. Their loyalty even appears blind at times. Even Izetta is willing to die to protect Finé, which cuts Finé to the core. She feels as if she is using Izetta, despite the fact Izetta is serving Finé by choice. Arnold Berkmann, a Germanian officer, provides a counter view to this loyalty. He seeks merely to live and has no true loyalty to his country. The story paints him as despicable for his selfishness, but I found him an interesting and even sympathetic character. He simply doesn’t want to die and doesn’t value his country more than his life. His is a viewpoint that criticizes the virtue of dying for one’s country.
However, Berkmann’s self preservation hints at an interesting fact about war: if no one was willing to die for the idea of country, war wouldn’t happen. War only happens because people are willing to fight and die on behest of a ruling body or person (such as Finé’s countrymen) or an idea of country (such as Germania’s idea of empire). However, if people would value their individual lives more than these two aspects, war would be harder to pursue. Berkmann doesn’t begin with this idea, but events in his part of the story breaks his dedication to Germania’s empire and king. He realizes his country wasn’t worth his life and decides to do whatever is necessary to survive, fortunately for Izetta and Finé.
The anime touches on the idea that self-sacrifice becomes fruitless if the country loses the war. Many characters give their lives in the battles and espionage, but their deaths do little to change the ultimate course of the conflict. Only those in power, such as Finé and Izetta, have the power to shift the conflict. The soldier that dies defending his home, only to have his home obliterated anyway, died fruitlessly. Of course, all of these themes, questions, and commentary are held in the subtext of the story. Characters don’t fall into philosophical musings. Instead, the anime ponders these ideas through its visuals–dead defenders failing to defend their homes–and indirect commentary by characters like Berkmann.
Izetta and Finé’s relationship brings sweet moments to a rather serious story, and the relationship keeps the social commentary from being too overbearing. The commentary happens around the pair, often without their knowledge. As for the anime itself, the animation is solid and the armaments are mostly accurate. It’s an interesting alternative story about World War II. Unfortunately, the anime falls into the usual, tired fanservice comedy. Normally, I just overlook it. After all, nearly all anime anymore has these tired scenes (can’t writers think of anything different then accidental nudity as “humor”?), but these scenes felt out of place and jarring with the greater events. They only serve to sexualize Izetta and downplay her strength as a witch-warrior. This happens often in anime whenever you have a female character. These women are sexualized to make them more palatable for segments of the male audience. It is tired and has no place at all in a story like this. Anime has a problem with rampant fanservice and camera pans over a female’s chest or bottom. It undermines the storytelling and the characters. But that’s an issue for the medium in general and less with Izetta: The Last Witch. The story does what anime does–it doesn’t break new ground–but it has enough interesting subtext and observations about war that it is worth a watch.
Orange is one of those stories with many layers. The only way to discuss them is to spoil the story so, well, you’ve been warned. The story follows a group of friends who receive letters from themselves 10 years in the future. The letters explains the various regrets they have surrounding a boy named Kakeru. Kakeru, it turns out, commits suicide. The letters outline the various events that each writer thinks caused, or at least pushed, him to kill himself. They outline various actions that could, perhaps, stop him. At the center of the strategy is Naho, the main protagonist. She has a crush on Kakeru, as he does with her. However, this being a high-school anime, she’s pretty dense, and Kakeru keeps to himself in order to keep from hurting those he likes. The letters urge Naho and her friends to break his walls, and to push Naho and Kakeru together.
Regret acts as the centerpiece for the story. Small regrets sometimes blossom to large–Kakeru’s suicide. But the story shows how every decision–and in the case of Naho, indecision–adds up in ways that can’t be predicted. Regret comes from hurtful outcomes and missed opportunities. However, as the anime shows, missed opportunities can often be beneficial. Orange makes a fuss over Naho’s inaction. She’s hesitant and fades into the background whenever she can. Yet, her letters demand she take the lead when it comes to Kakeru, forcing her to push beyond her usual behavior. Her regrets come from her inaction. I’ve had mild regrets over missed opportunities before I considered what I gained. For example, I didn’t go to prom or date in high school. I was a nose-to-the-grindstone workaholic. Now, many would think I’d have regrets surrounding such decisions. I’ve pondered how things may have turned out otherwise, but I gained most of my computer skills, interest in art, interest in writing, self-awareness, and self-acceptance during this period. I may have gained such by being more social, but I doubt it. My point: regret comes from misplaced expectations and misplaced understanding.
Every decision has cost and benefits Orange touches on this too. Kakeru’s suicide ends with Naho and her friend Suwa marrying and having a family. While they have regrets, they also have happiness and share a closeness forged by Kakeru’ death. All of the friends are also bonded by their shared memory of Kakeru. Suwa is the most interesting character of the bunch. Some criticism leveled at the story deals with how Naho, Kakeru, and Suwa have more personality than the other friends. who fall into the usual anime stereotypes. But when you have only 13 episodes, some cuts have to be made.
Suwa has the most regret and conflict in the story. He has feelings for Naho and knows from the letters that he marries her. He even has a photo of his future family. However, this happens only if Kakeru dies. He decides to push aside his feelings for Naho in order to save Kakeru’s life. In a few scenes, Suwa wrestles with this and wonders if there is a way to save Kakeru without encouraging Naho’s relationship with him. However, his letter suggests it isn’t possible (as does the letters of his other friends Chino, Hagita, and Murasaka). He hides his pain and feelings behind a smile and takes on an elder brother-like role. As anyone who has tried this knows, it’s difficult to set aside such feelings and encourage your interest to have a relationship with another. Some reviewers have criticized Suwa’s character as unrealistic, but they miss the subtle signs of his pain in various scenes. It’s not easy for him, but he doesn’t want to risk Kakeru’s life.
Suwa is an interesting portrayal of masculinity. He’s the standard athlete and desired by the high-school ladies. But he’s sensitive and thoughtful. Of course, Orange is a shojo story. Kakeru, for that matter, is thoughtful. Neither are impulsive as shonen would have them to be. Shojo focuses on feelings and relationships, whereas shonen focuses on action with relationships and feelings mostly sidelined. Suwa is who I wish more shonen protagonists would be–there’s no impulsive behavior or yelling from him. He also doesn’t believe action is the best solution. In several scenes, he steps back and lets Naho fumble her way through. He appears only when she needs support instead of leading the charge. Now, some of this is because she’s the main character, and shojo likes nice, supporting male side characters. But after I’ve watched a series of shonen, his character strikes me as refreshing and seriously needed in male-oriented stories. Suwa is masculine as masculine should be–sensitive, thoughtful, and not impulsive. He’s not selfish, and he’s strong enough to restrain himself. Restraint takes strength most shonen characters, as powerful as they are, lack.
But back to Orange. Kakeru walls himself away from others in order to protect them from himself. It’s a common idea in female-oriented stories. She is the only one who can break through his fortress and enter into his heart. However, he isn’t necessarily distant. He acts as a normal moody teen up until he wants to die. His suicide attempt is prompted by finding his mother’s phone. She too killed herself after he sent her a message telling her to stop bothering him. He finds a draft response where she apologizes to him and explains why she didn’t want him to join sports clubs and other aspects of Japanese school life. How often do we hear how people didn’t see a suicide coming? Calls for help are only clear in retrospect–which Orange points out with the letters. No one saw the signs until after Kakeru dies, filling the friends with regret about how they failed to pay attention to him.
Regret hangs over all of us when a friend or loved one dies. Our minds are keyed to notice the negative, including memories. We think of all the times we wronged or neglected our parents, friends, spouses, and other dear ones. Orange has this running through it too. We take life for granted and assume people will always be there. We assume we have time. Yet, as the Bible states (and all the major religions of the world) life is but a vapor, here and gone without warning. Unlike Orange, we don’t have letters from our future selves to help us. And so we will have regrets. We will make mistakes. We will take people for granted. We will fail to see signs of pain, and some of us will miss signs of suicide. However, regret isn’t negative. It is a natural part of feeling love and compassion.
One last theme we have to touch: uncertainty. As the friends of Orange follow the letters and change the outcomes of various events, they start seeing futures the letters didn’t foresee. This uncertainty troubles them. They worry they could still make mistakes that would end in Kakeru’s suicide. However, together they push on regardless. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life. No one can predict the outcomes of our actions and our inaction. But what if we could know those outcomes? Naho worries about choosing wrong and recreating the outcomes in her letters, causing her to hesitate. She worries about creating new, negative outcomes too. It’s better to not always foresee the outcomes of our decisions. Otherwise, we’d likely not make them in the first place.
As for the anime, it isn’t without problems. It goes out of its way to explain how the letters travel through time to an alternative universe. Some reviews I’ve skimmed spoke about how the story’s backpedaling of feelings annoyed them–I found it realistic. Backpedaling is what people do when feelings are difficult. However, Orange is worth a watch if you are interested in the themes I’ve discussed. It is a character driven story that offers lessons shonen stories need to take to heart.
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.
Yona of the Dawn takes place in a fictional kingdom of either the Heian period or in China. The dress and names have a distinctly Chinese style, which is rather unusual for anime. The Heian period of Japan featured a strong interest in Chinese culture. The elite classes–this period was before the samurai–adopted Chinese mannerisms and styles. That’s why I’m not entirely certain to the setting.
In any case, Yona of the Dawn is a coming of age story. Yona is cast out of her comfortable, sheltered palace life and becomes a penniless vagabond protected by her long-time time guardian Son Hak. They traveled to the Village of the Wind, Hak’s hometown. Soon after, Yona encounters a seer who tells her of her destiny–to gather the incarnations of the legendary dragons and save the kingdom.
Yona of the Red Dawn is something of a reverse harem. Yona surrounds herself with various types of anime male tropes: the perverted ladies man, the beautiful boy, the childhood friend, the shy boy, and the wild boy. Although, the story is clear about which she prefers.
The anime is a bit on the weepy side. Yona spends a lot of time tearing up, but gradually she grows as a character. The biggest problem with this series is the pacing. It feels uneven. At times Yona will regress and then shift forward into her more confident self. However, you can’t expect a princess to go from sheltered to warlord in a single quick montage. The anime does a good job of realistically charting her progress despite being a little uneven. People will regress at times.
The anime suffers from time constraints and a too large cast for the allotted episodes. Many of the characters are trope sketches. Character tropes are useful for conserving time, but they can sometimes be a crutch that prevents character development. In this case, the tropes act as crutches. In Yona most of the time is spent on Yona and Hak, the other characters see little screen time comparatively. They often remind us of what trope they represent: “I am a beautiful boy” is one such line.
Yona of the Red Dawn is a refreshing change from the usual high school schluck. They story draws the historical-fantasy world well. The Chinese aesthetic is a little odd with Japanese language, but it would only bothers those who focus on history. At times modern slang leeches into the subtitles. These phrases feel out of place and break the suspension of disbelief.
As for the anime quality, it is fair. Action sequences remain consistent. Unlike some anime, they rarely reduce to panned still frames. Music is forgettable.
Scenes like this, though meant to be a break from the darker themes, hurt the story’s pacing. It jarred me from the spell the anime attempted to weave. While it helps with characterization, the jarring factor of these scenes made them annoying for me.
Yona spends much of its time exploring class roles. Yona comes from the highest elite class that shelters its members from the lower classes. When she runs into suffering for the first time, the event shakes her world view. The story is similar to what Siddhartha encountered. Siddhartha–later known as Buddha–was a prince shut away from the suffering of the world. He lived in a harem with beautiful women and far away from material needs. One day, he traveled outside the walls of the palace and encountered his first view of sickness and death. This encounter forever changed his outlook and eventually led to him becoming the Buddha and inspiring millions to live with a compassionate outlook on life. The story portrays Yona as having similar potential.
While it seems silly to say an anime like Yona of the Dawn carries valuable lessons, stories are how we learn. One of the most common questions people have as they age deals with suffering. Why does God allow suffering? The answer is quite simple as this anime and the story of the Buddha reveal. Suffering teaches compassion. Without suffering people cannot grow in empathy. Yona and Buddha both were self-centered while shut away from the suffering of others. Only when they see suffering and experience it themselves do they realize compassion. Suffering unites people through its common experience. It breaks down the superficial barriers we put up between ourselves and others. Yona of the Dawn handles this theme well. Yona’s heart expands as she encounters people from different walks of life and perspectives. She suffers, but her soul grows.
I loathe fan-service. The only exception to this was Kill la Kill, but with that series the fan-service was satirical. So when I started watching Keijo!!!!!!!! –I think I counted the right number of exclamation marks in the title–I often asked myself “What am I watching?” I’ve seen the popularity of the show in my anime blog feed so I decided to check it out. Well, I found the fan-service in this series rather painful. At times it was satirical, but most of the time it tried to titillate. The anime also features all the elements of anime that can get annoying when overused. And overuse it did.
For those who haven’t seen the show, it follows a cadre of girls as they attend a school dedicated to teaching keijo, a sport similar to sumo that requires the women to use their busts and butts as weapons. They race, as they call it, on platforms floating in a pool. Of course, that requires them to wear skimpy bathing suits. The audience, mostly men, gamble as the teams of women smash and rub against each other. At times, this becomes more sexual than athletic. The story involves the characters becoming friends as they train and face an opposing keijo school.
Okay, let’s start with what I liked about the show. I liked how the show focused on women without male influence in the story. It shows how women can be strong athletes. The sport of keijo pokes fun at sports. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m not a sports fan. The show pokes at how ridiculous sporting events can be and how much training it takes to be an athlete, even for a sport as ridiculous as keijo. I mean, baseball is a game that involves a ball being hit with a stick. When you think about it, its pretty ridiculous. I also enjoyed some of the comradery between the women. Finally, for a show full of fan-service, it features a variety of female body types, and all of them have what it takes to compete at the game.
Keijo is meant to be a comedy, but it joked without a smile. The show took all of anime’s tropes and stuffed them together. For example, the girls would yell their attacks, which all had silly names, amid seizure- inducing flashes of light. While the anime tries to pass itself off as a sports-anime at first, these attacks come straight from shonen action stories. You’ll see butts with spiritual demon dogs emitting from them, summoned butts filling the air, and other over-the-top attacks. All with names that try to be funny but end up making me cringe such as the obvious “Bust to Bust Attack” and “Vacuum Butt Cannon.” I don’t know. I guess I’m an old prude, but the early-teen humor grated. Some of the late attacks are downright painful. I mean, who would twist their nipple and breast and then let it drill into other? One attack that did leave me chuckling at the absurdity of it all used a hardened nipple to grab an opponent’s swimsuit and pull off a move from judo.
The animation style is well done aside from impossible poses. I have to give the series that. The animators took care to animate the softness of breasts and butts–too much care, but it’s understandable considering that is the focus of the show’s visuals. Again, the variety of female body types surprised me. Of course, the self-conscious small-breasted girl trope had to appear. For once I’d like to see a small chested girl have confidence and not care about her bust. Not all women “lacking” assets lack confidence or fret over their chests.
This pose is impossible. For a girl to pose like this, her spine would have to have to corkscrew. Scenes like this reveal how Keijo! focuses more on fan-service than on sports competition. It’s interesting to note how large bottoms have become popular in anime compared to anime from the 1980-2000. Consider Faye from Cowboy Bebop and Misato from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Oddly, this interest has allowed anime females to develop body types that come closer to nature.
Anime likes to take strong, female characters and make them less threatening to male audiences through fan-service. Perhaps it’s because my hormonal teen years are long behind me, but efforts to make female characters attractive by showing their skin does the opposite. Intelligence, inner strength, compassion, and virtue makes characters appealing. The most memorable anime characters I know of don’t flash skin or, at the least, don’t plaster their skin all over each episode. Balsa from Moribito, for example.
Keijo! is meant to be a fluffy, ecchi romp aimed at boys and young men. And it has many good messages–self-discipline, friendship, persistence, female-strength–but it leverages anime’s negative tropes to the hilt. Anime’s focus on female skin, silly attacks, and stereotypes hurts its ability to extend beyond its core Western audience. Okay, I get it. It’s meant to be fantasy and fun. I also like a fluffy comedy time-to-time. But the preponderance of silly and immature anime stories damages anime’s ability to be taken seriously in the West. Fans know it can achieve near literary levels of sophistication, but the market reacts to what people watch and buy. Western fans need more diversity in anime–yes, anime already has some diversity available, but it could use more.
Yes, I’m ranting a bit here. I enjoyed some moments of Keijo!, but it too often turned around and ruined those moments. That appears to be a trope of anime too. It can’t allow itself to convey a message or reach an apex of tension without interjecting something to deflate the blimp. Keijo! is pretty creative in its portrayal of sports and how outlandish sporting events can be. I mean, look at sumo. Two giant men crash into each other in an effort to push each other out of a sand ring. Keijo! satirizes the arbitrary rules of sports well. We forget that the games can be anything we make them to be. Well, all of that aside, I often repeat myself here on JP. Much of what makes anime anime also keeps it from becoming a widely accepted form of storytelling. I criticize anime because I want more people to experience the ability to animation to tell stories in ways live action can’t do. I want mature-storied animated movies to break records here in the States as they do in Japan. Until anime gives up some of its tropes, and the western community pushes for more mature stories, anime will continue to remain a niche genre, one subject to ridicule and misunderstanding. Stories like Keijo! have a place, but anime has far more potential to inspire and tell stories beyond fan-service and fluff.
With this post, I’d like to start a new series in which I want to consider the use of religious tropes and images in either well-known or current Anime. Since I am a self-confessed lover of monsters and magic, this first blog contemplates the fascinating hybrid known as onmyōdō 陰陽道, and its portrayal in Sōsei no Onmyōji (2016, currently airing).
The Way of Yin and Yang
…is what a literal translation of the word onmyōdō amounts to. The hybrid nature of this (for lack of a better term) religion is already apparent from its name, which mixes Chinese and Japanese concepts.
Yin Yang Symbol
In‘yō, as the kanji陰陽 can also be read, is the combination of yin and yang energy. These two opposites, each containing the seed of the other, and each in the process of transforming into the other, are the components and the manifestation of dao 道 (jp. dō… but more on that later). The dao is something which resists definition but amounts to a kind of world energy. Or so the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism teaches us. Its circular symbol is probably familiar to everyone, though the explanation might not be. More on the Daoist influence on onmyōdō later.
The second part of the name, 道, literally means way or path. It alludes to religion only in so far as that two other religions in Japan, which were also influenced by Daoism, use the same character: the indigenous Shintō (神道, Way of the Gods) and the syncretistic Buddhist sect of Shugendō (修験道, something like Way of Practice). However, 道 also designates various arts, from tea ceremony to sword fighting to incense-smelling to karate. It indicates a discipline which demands faithful practise over a long time in order to achieve various grades of mastery. Therefore, we can understand onmyōdō as ‘the (religious) discipline of mastering yin and yang’, and that already gives us some idea of what it (originally) entailed.
Some Background on Daoism
One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.
Ancient statue of Lao-tzû. Curtesy of wikipedia.
Concepts of an all-encompassing force (not one involving lightsabres) probably predate the oftentimes quoted sage Lao-tzû and the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching). The more magico-religious strand of Daoism even claims the mystical Yellow Emperor as its founder. However, definitions usually fall back to the works of Lao-tzû, since he is the closest thing to a reliable source 😉
“Lao-tzû tells us that Tao (Way) is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories.”[i]
The Five Phases or Elements and their relations.
Another important aspect is the idea of constant change occurring in repeating patterns, such as the seasons in nature. Here another concept bears introduction: namely, the five phases or elements. Wood feeds Fire, Fire’s ash fertilizes Earth, Earth contains Metal, Metal attracts Water (as in condensation), and Water nourishes plants, that is, Wood. In this fashion, the elements form a circle. If you now consider which element conquers or destroys another, you get diagonal lines crossing the circle: A Wood plough conquers Earth, Earthen dikes beat Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal chops Wood.[ii] A pentacle appears inside the circle, and this pentacle still appears in places associated with onmyōdō in Japan, such as the Shrine of the most famous Japanese yin-yang magician, whom we’ll discuss later.
Daoists’ goals and means
So, what did Daoists want? Superficially, magical powers seem valid objectives, and feats such as invulnerability, prolonged life and youth or the ability to expel demons or foretell the future all have been attributed to Daoist adapt of the ancient and recent past. These powers, however, are only secondary to the true believer, who aims to become one with the Dao and, for example, simply needs to live a very long life in order to achieve this.[iii]
Meditation and Outer Alchemy
Several methods to prolong life existed. Once could make use of breathing techniques and meditation to manipulate the energies within one’s own body, so that drops of a mystical essence ascended to one’s crown. Alternatively, one could experiment in a more commonly alchemical way with specific (often toxic) ingredients to create the ‘Golden Pill’ or ‘pure essence of spirit’, which would not only confer immortality but also transform base metals into gold… so yes, Daoism has its own philosopher’s stone.
One can read some alchemist texts, such as the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i mentioned by Blofeld, as tantric manuals, where the union of yin and yang means sexual union.[iv] This type of ritual involves careful control of movement, breathing and rhythm. It also hinges on the male adept avoiding ejaculation since that amounts to a loss of precious yang energy, the “ultimate goal [being] the production of an embryo of a perfect being” through the union of yin and yang inside one’s body.[v] This perfect embryo seems to me to be just another image, like of the golden pill of outer alchemy or the holy drops of mysterious essence produced by meditation and energy control. It seems merely a symbol of perfection attained by religious practice. However, the series Sōsei no Onmyōji may be taking this a bit more literally, as I will discuss below.
Onmyōdō isn’t Japanese Daoism
One additional, astonishing aspect of Daoism I would like to mention: as recounted by Blofeld, an intense pacifism permeates of the whole exorcism business. “One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence”, he let one of his characters say.[vi] In many portrayals of Japanese onmyōji, by contrast, they do not treat demons this kindly. However, even in Daoism, curse-created sprites are an exception. They have “no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician’s mind.”[vii] Such a creature born of evil intent is a curse taking physical form; and this concept is a staple of onmyōji lore – mostly presented as shikigami, which we’ll come back to later.
Indian and Chinese religion and philosophy entered Japan via the Korean kingdoms from the fifth century AD. But whereas Buddhism became prominent in the country’s power struggles, and experts, texts and statues were imported from China to furnish Japanese Buddhist monasteries, there is no clear evidence for any attempt to install organized Daoist religion in Japan. Instead, its texts and concepts, methods and deities were appropriated in Buddhist and Shintō contexts.[viii] Thus evolved the Japanese magical religion called onmyōdō, with onmyōji as its practitioners and “priests”.[ix] In the medieval Japanese state, these specialists had a well-defined set of tasks to perform; they were courtiers and officials in addition to their quasi-priest role.[x]
The “Golden Age”: Court Onmyōji and the Divination Office
Shikiban divination board
The Japanese government of the Heian era – the “high middle ages” of Japan, origin of much of its classical literature – was built to resemble Chinese models and employed complex ranking systems. It is thanks to these rankings and the lists needed to keep track of them that we know about the organization of the official court onmyōji.[xi] The Yin-Yang-Office (onmyōryō) “was set up to handle affairs in the four areas of yin-yang-cosmology, astronomy, calendar calculation and time keeping”.[xii] The four fields, despite being assigned specialist “doctors”, are intertwined. Yin-Yang and Five-Phase thought pervades the calendar and time settings with twelve animals, which also double as star signs.
It comes as no surprise than that astrological divination was used to determine fortunate and dangerous days for each year’s calendar, and the directions (each linked to an element) one needed to avoid every day. In addition, Heian court intrigue might cause supernatural retribution, from which one needed protection. This was also a task of the onmyōji, who could divine the origin of an ailment and exorcise the demon or repel the curse which caused it. In addition, they performed Daoism-inspired rituals for the longevity of aristocrats.[xiii]
Possibly the first magical tool we now imagine in the hands of an onmyōji is the shikigami (式神/識神). It is most commonly depicted as a paper effigy which, once infused with spiritual power, transforms into a monster-like entity and does the caster’s bidding. However, onmyōdō texts do not even mention them.[xiv]
The name itself is ambiguous; shiki can be written as either “ritual” or “consciousness”, whereas kami, here written as “god“” is a homophone of 紙, “paper”. So, this is paper is infused with the caster’s conciousness or will in a ritual, which acts as a supernatural being. Japanese language is so much fun! Anyways. Divination using the shikiban, a two-piece divination board with inscriptions referring to yin-yang, calendrical animals, and the I Ching hexagrams, makes use of 12 Guardian Deities of the months, in the “heaven” half. Seimei allegedly made these his shikigami. Alternatively, he commanded two very powerful ones, each representing one realm of the board (earth and heaven).[xv]
Initially, though, Shikigami may have been a mere divination technique.[xvi] The foretelling of future ills through the shikiban may have involved a god of the shiki-board, a shiki-gami. This entity then became the means of inflicting, rather than the announcer, of misfortune. Thus, the shikigami as manifestation of a curse was born. In turn, an onmyōji could recognize the occurrence as an action of an enemy magician and repel the curse. The caster then dies of his own rebounding spell. This technique was another specialty of Seimei’s.
The ambiguity of the shikigami may be best summarized in Pang’s words: “the shikigami is actually a means through which the onmyōji controls the innate energy in natural elements with magical incantations.”[xvii] This fits all aforementioned manifestations.
Abe no Seimei as Ideal and Prototype
Seimei Shrine in Kyôto. I took this photograph spring 2012.
Abe no Seimei is the most famed and, legend has it, most powerful onmyōji of all time. Some tales claim his mother was a kitsune, a magical fox spirit, [xviii] because this power seems inconceivable for a mere human being. However, he did not do his deeds in a vacuum, but rather represents the craft as its most prominent practitioner. Onmyōdō was an institution of the Heian-era Court, as I mentioned above.
The historical Seimei, or Haruaki, as his name would have been read prior to his popularity, was initially a court official of mediocre rank.[xix] It was his aptitude at performing the tasks expected of an onmyōji, combined with a long life, that enabled his rise to high rank and office, as Shigeta delineates. Seimei’s repertoire included purifying buildings before use, summoning rain, explaining occurrences, divining fortunate days, performing healing rituals, and repelling curses. For the effectiveness of his rituals he received promotions.[xx] Shikigami, however, are not even mentioned in regard to him in any of the official sources.[xxi]
From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period and Beyond
Since that time, the Abe clan and (being pushed to second rank after Seimei’s success) the Nara-based Kamo family were the traditional onmyōji linages, until the extinction of the latter. In the Edo period, whoever wanted to perform divination, no matter his or her religion or self-description needed a certificate in order to do so. These certificates were granted by the Tsuchimikado family of onmyōji: the descendants of the Abe line.[xxii]
From this we can see how far onmyōdō departed from its Daoist influences and transformed to satisfy the demands of Heian-era court nobility, and yet, how it survived to the early modern period. Meiji’s emphasis on western scientific thought brought the practise to an end. But in the 1990s, onmyōdō celebrated a sort of revival in the Abe so Seimei-Boom caused by Yumemakura Bakus Onmyōji novels. Its numerous appearances in popular culture until now then can probably be traced back to this event. Anime series such as Kekkaishi and Mononoke draw on onmyōdō lore without naming it, whereas a monster-focused tale such as Nurarihyon no Mago casts onmyōji (initially) as antagonists. The most extensive focus on onmyōdō I know of, however, is this year’s Sōsei no Onmyōji, “Twin Star Exorcists”.
Sōsei no Onmyōji – Twin Star exorcists
The main characters.
Sōsei no onmyōji takes up a number of the abovementioned symbols and concepts. The title hints at the importance of astrolog, and the chief onmyōji, Arima, performs divination. He bears the historically correct title, onmyō no kami.[xxiii] In addition, his family name, Tsuchimikado, reveals his descent from the Abe family. The two main characters also have names which allude to historical onmyōji or sites of magical ritual. Enmado Rokuro may be named for Roku Emaro, a seventh-to-eighth-century “doctor of onmyōdō” from the continent who was commanded to renounce religious orders and found a dynasty.[xxiv] Adashino Benio’s surname maybe alludes to the Adashino temple near Kyōto, which celebrates a ritual for uncared-for souls (a raw material for monsters) every year.[xxv]
The series’ exorcists main task is to exterminate monsters called kegare. Usually, the noun kegare refers to abstract spiritual pollution rather than a monster-type entity, though. Therefore, the whole business of exorcists can be interpreted as a sort of metaphorical exorcism. However, despite the intelligence and emotion evidenced in higher forms of kegare, onmyōji do not grant them mercy and a right to exist, as Daoist exorcists might have done. Instead, two high-ranking onmyōji exterminate a very touchingly human kegare in what amounts to one of the most tragic moments of the series. Among the exorcists’ skills, shikigami feature regularly, most prominently in Benio‘s pet fox (who however does not seem to have any fighting properties). Head onmyōji Arima uses one as a replacement for himself, and commands two immensely powerful fighting shikigami, in a call-back to his ancestor.
The purification talisman.
When calling forth enchantments on body and weapons, these exorcists use a genuine Daoist spell, 急急如律令[xxvi] (kyūkyū nyo ritsuryō, if read in Japanese), though the type of application shown in the anime is, to my knowledge, original. Additionally, Benio’s swordplay calls to mind “a Chinese discipline that utilized swords and magic spells to exorcise evil spirits”[xxvii] mentioned in the context of Daoist imports, though I could not confirm the use of the aforementioned spell in this art.
Exorcism in the classical sense also features strongly in the second arc of the series. Whenever portals to the Magano (the demon realm) open, the vapours sicken the human population of the surrounding area, who then need the assistance of onmyōji. Healing requires purification spells, perhaps an allusion to the longevity rituals of Heian court onmyōji but surely a part of the exorcists’ basic task, erasing impurity. The most impressive cleansing, however, is an early use of the main characters‘ special power or “resonance”: With their joint energy, they manage to return a friend to normal after she transformed into a kegare, using the supreme purification spell – a feat previously considered impossible.
The 12 Heavenly Guardians of the shikiban, the legendary shikigami of Seimei, also appear in the series in the form of the 12 most powerful exorcists, who directly serve Tsuchimikado Arima, Seimei’s heir. Each of them bears the title of one of the twelve and has corresponding abilities. This fits with Pang’s view of shikigami as, ultimately, a kind of energy to be manipulated by those capable of the feat.[xxviii] Those who have enough spiritual energy, that is, in this series.
What makes protagonists Rokuro and Benio stand out is not so much their individual power. Although they are considered strong, especially for their age, they are repeatedly shown to be massively inferior to other characters. Their potential lies, in the first part, in their capability of “resonance” or joining their (male and female?) energy. In the second arc, however, even with resonance they are clearly outmatched by evolved Kegare (Basara) and Guardians alike. This seems to suggest that, after all, it will be not their resonance but their child, the Miko of the prophecy, who saves the world.
Miko – Child of Prophecy
In the second episode, Arima reveals the backstory of the series’ title. He claims to have received an oracle telling him about the immanent appearance of the Miko, the divine child foretold to end Magano and free the world of kegare monsters. The Miko is the child born of the Twin Star exorcists, as whom he has divined Benio and Rokuro, to the annoyance of both. This idea reminds me of the concept of the perfect child conceived by Daoist adepts in a ritual of sexual alchemy. This being „controls and registers the multitude of spirits. Summoning them by name according to the Registers, he lets none of them escape.”[xxix]
Benio’s kegare-granted legs.
Summoning by name seems to be an important phrase: exorcist techniques have to be called by name – they are essentially spells – and individuals are painstakingly introduced with their name, displayed in a freeze-frame next to their face. It might just be an anime staple, but I would like to see it practically applied in a story-relevant manner. For example, the Miko, if she[xxx] is eventually born, might call all the Basara by name and purify them in that way.
Alternatively, perhaps the two energies the Miko is going to unite are not Benio and Rokuro’s female and male spiritual energy. With their kegare-infected arm and legs respectively, both heroes harbour in themselves some kegare-aspect, the same way the white and black halves of the yin-yang-symbol contain a drop of its opposite. Similarly, Basara have clearly human features, despite their exaggerated cruelty. It stands to reason that the elimination of Magano, which is the final goal of the exorcists, is as unreachable as the Basaras’ aim to take over reality. “Away with dualistic categories!”, as Blofeld put it.
I have the theory that the child of Rokuro and Benio might be a natural human-kegare hybrid and that she will end Magano by fusing it with reality, releasing both kegare and exorcists from their fate – by annihiliating the magic energy they work with. I don’t think she will make anyone immortal or produce gold, though ;).
[ii] see Watts, Alan. Tao, the Watercourse Way (1975), which I read in the German edition, so I omit page numbers.
[iii] Again elaboreated by Blofeld, esp. in Taoist Mysteries and Magic (1983), where he condenses his experiences with different stands of Taoism into interesting if ficticious accounts. It seems our univerity librarian had a liking for his books 😉
[v] Mollier, Christine. „Conceiving the Embryo of Immortality: ‚Seed-People‘ and Sexual Rites in Early Taoism“. In: Andreeva, Anna & Dominic Steavu. Transforming the Void. Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 87-110. 90.
[xxix] Translation of a Daoist manual in Mollier 2016:91.
[xxx] The sex of the child is unknown, but since Shintō shrine maidens are called miko even today, I have a feeling it might be a girl. In any case, there is no reason to assume it has to be a boy (except the tendency of action anime to sideline women, but here we have at least a male and a female protagonist, so hopes may be entertained, I dare to hope ;))