Why the West will never understand Anime and Manga


Hold thy rage keyboard warriors. For I bring you not an otakus view on the culture of the rising sun, but a curious thought that occurred to me. Something that made me step back and really look at the imported comics and TV we watch today…

Do we really get it? Of course we can understand the stories we’re experiencing and relate to its characters, but is that all that goes in to a tale? Remember that stories are not merely distractions, but landmarks in time that forever immortalise the culture in which it was made. Religion, experience, history, prejudice… all of these go into crafting the backbone of a story, and today I want to draw attention to the first part; Religion. Why? Because when you stop to read between the lines a lot of what we take for granted in anime and manga is heavily influenced by a faith we in the west know remarkably little about. In fact some stories are so deeply rooted in this pre-existing knowledge their meanings are entirely lost on a European or American audience.

The first thing we must accept is that religion may not mean the same thing in Japan as it does to us. Our primary source? The centre of most worship and spiritual cosmology in Japan known as Shinto.

The traditional ‘faith’ in the Nippon realm is Shinto which focuses on ancestral kami and spirit worship. Shinto originates from the 8th century and means ‘Way of the Gods’.
The central belief in Shinto is easy to grasp, but its impact on society is not. Shinto tells that every element of our cosmology owns a spirit- which is in its own way divine- and these sprits are not entirely separate from the souls of ancestors. To take our first easy step into anime connections most people will recognise this theme from the Studio Ghibli films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. In Spirited Away the characters enter a spirit world in which all these ancestral powers gain a physical form, living and interacting like social entities. We see multiple examples of spirits embodying not only animals but also locations and even emotions- such as the foreboding ‘No Face’ which is a spirit of greed and consumption. There is also an implication that is more of a natural leap for domestic audiences, which is ‘ancient’ spirits such as those pertaining to mountains or lakes being considerably more powerful than others. This is seen when the polluted lake spirit arrives at the bath house, demonstrating both power and immense wealth.
Both sides of the globe view spirits and their place in the world very differently. The Western view of ‘spirits’ is largely derived from Celtic ideas of the ‘fairy’ folk, which now describe a specific type of supernatural creature but during the Late Middle English period included all mythical or magical beasts including elves and spirits. Such creatures may be celebrated in the Shakespearian tale Midsummer Night’s Dream but have always been affiliated with mischief, paganism and- in Irish folklore- tales of driving the spirit folk beneath the earth to be exiled from humans!
As such, our idea of where spirits belong in the world has developed very differently.

Princess Mononoke also exhibits traits we, culturally, view differently when it comes to spirits/deities. They are portrayed as neutral beings In Mononoke, with spirit animals being indifferent to humans unless trespassed upon or ‘corrupted’ through the industrialisation and violence against sacred land. This can be seen with the boars being infected with an almost demon-like corruption brought on by the iron from manmade weapons. The Forest Spirit as a key example is entirely passive in his role until harmed.
In most places of the world it is typical to assume a good or evil duality for supernatural creatures- largely influenced by the beliefs of traditional African religions like Santeria and Haitian Vodou. In these faiths spirits and the veneration of the dead are huge elements, with proto African religion commonly focusing on a single Creator God with these spirits, in either good or evil capacities, acting as intermediaries with the living. They are not, unlike in Shinto, seen as divine in their own right.

While not so black and white there are some examples of evil spirits in Shinto, though these are largely not evil by design- rather by circumstances of a previous life or even just neglect.
One of the more interesting case studies is the anime property ‘Ghost in the Shell’ which raises the question of human souls in artificial bodies. On the surface the implication here appears obvious and one most cultures would debate over- what constitutes the soul, and in what forms can it exist? But there is also another theme running through these movies, the second in particular, which ties in with our discussion: Dolls. Throughout GITS in all its forms dolls are a prominent element and are often used as a parallel to describe the artificial bodies the characters use. This isn’t simply visual metaphor either, as dolls are a huge icon of spirituality in Japan. Dolls are seen as perfect vessels for souls, both human or inhuman. As such dolls are a constant of ceremonies for all religions in Japan, extending even into Japanese Christian culture, and there are hundreds of stories of supposedly ‘cursed’ or possessed dolls. There is even a ceremony performed in majorly Buddhist communities where old toys are collected and burned to prevent lost spirits inhabiting them, which continues every year.

For the sake of brevity anime like ‘Bleach’- who’s premise is based entirely around the spirit world and passage to the afterlife- will be filed as “Goes without saying” since their cultural bias is clear even to an outside audience.

While Shinto might play a subtle part in almost every corner of anime it is far less confusing on a philosophical level than some of its counterparts- my favourite example being the strangeness that is Japanese Buddhism. Contrary to popular belief the two faiths are not all that similar with Buddhism arriving in the late 6th century from Korea- specifically the kingdom of Baekje. It might be expected that Buddhism’s influence runs deeper than Shinto given its earlier formalisation in Japan, however Shinto faith is not strictly a religion in the same way; With several Shinto-based churches across the nation but a considerably lower number of participators compared to Buddhism, which makes up almost 40% of the population, it’s easy to think Shinto lifestyle is overwhelmed.
Stick with me and I think you’ll be surprised.

A good distinction to make with Buddhist influence into anime is the divide between Philosophy and Cosmology. Or, as I’m going to document it here, the divide between AKIRA and Dragonball.

The animated movie AKIRA was a smash hit internationally; however the true extent of its message is conveyed in the paperback manga. While the movie merely hinted at a spiritual ascension by its major antagonist Tetsuo the books explore a much more complete cycle- taking him through turmoil, meditation, purification and finally ascendancy. This is a strong parallel to the ideas of ‘Enlightenment’ that are reinforced during the story by frequent discussions of his power and its place in the universe. In fact, AKIRA is drenched in this philosophy and left most readers confused as central Buddhist theory is not a common reference point to international readers. The character Lady Miyako, only present in the manga, is a focus of such teachings and represents the human pursuit of such divine power and understanding- going so far as to berate Tetsuo for his artificial attainment of such power without the knowledge to control it.
All this and more only became clear after the third time reading through these books as, without a significant amount of research to back it up, their exploration of the self and its meanings on the universal scale can be called confusing at best.

On the other foot we have Dragonball, which is a show many have watched, but not everyone will know that Dragonball itself is inspired greatly by the Chinese epic ‘Journey To The West’, a story of Son Wukong (the Monkey King) and his journey to deliver Buddhist scrolls from India through a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist spirituality. While this sounds like a perfect chance to inject all kinds of religious subtext, with the original epic exploring many elements from Buddist ideals of purity right through to the Eleven barefoot Immortals, Dragonball takes a different approach. Its story is a much simpler shonen  adventure that happens to involve numerous characters and symbols from the original tale. Common elements such as a shapeshifting demon and three eyed adversary are present, however these direct parallels mostly fall into the background after the first saga.
This might be an obscure reference to us, however in a culture that is so enamoured with the source material it still has frequent stage plays of Son Wukong’s journey called ‘Monkey’ making circulation, and the successful martial arts movie ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ starring Jackie Chan and Jet Lee still popular through Asia, these are familiar references to their target audience.

So is it all going over people’s heads because of foreign culture? Not necessarily. To raise a counter-point there are plenty of western influences in anime and manga that aren’t readily apparent. For example, there are plenty of Shinto concepts present in Death Note- from the existence of the Death Gods ‘Shinigami’ to the reveal that they may in fact be closer to ‘Urami’, kami spirits of humans who were wronged or dishonoured and exist through violence against the living. However some of its largest subtext is actually Christian in nature. Outside of the artwork which often includes crosses, statues and religious imagery (mostly Catholic) relating to its characters a central example can be seen where the antagonist ‘L’ cleans the protagonist’s feet after stepping out in the rain. This draws parallel with Jesus washing the feet of Peter in John 13:1 of the Bible, which occurred much like this at the highest room prior to their final meeting. In the Bible this was used to express Jesus’s mortality and acceptance of his human side, something we see reflected in L’s humble attitude as he ultimately moves towards what he suspects will be his death. A rather substantial symbolic event, but one often overlooked.

So what do I want us to take away from this?
Really that it’s all a matter of our cultural lens. That we may view things in ways they weren’t intended, or miss subtext that is outside our scope. This is upsetting yes, however it does mean other cultures will often apply their own perceptions on a piece- be that anime or anything else- which puts the art in a different light. To see why this can be a good thing let’s turn out attention to video games for a moment and the horror title Fatal Frame. It’s considered one of the scariest games of all time in the west… but not as popular in Japan where it originated. Why? Because much of its style and mythos are based on old school Shinto mythology and are steeped in its iconography. To an outside audience this is both super interesting and adds a new level of alienation: It’s something we aren’t familiar with, aren’t comfortable with. To its native users these symbols are linked to the history they learned in school and the religion of their forefathers, not a mysterious culture filled with possibilities (and often, terror). This is an example of our outside lens changing how we see the game and, in this case, actually making it considerably stronger than its original form.

And if you think this only applies to horror just look at Yokai Watch! To us this may seem like another Pokémon imitator but in Japan the term ‘Yokai’ literally means Ghost/Demon/Apparition and refers to a variety of demonic spirits that come in a huge variety of forms- including neglected toys and house appliances! In its home country Yokai Watch is a game about turning ancestral dark spirits into digital pets. How’s that for culture shock?

After reading this you might be wondering how far the religious influence spreads in anime- after all not every manga artist is religious, right? That raises a fascinating point I alluded to earlier. Studies in 2008 by the Dentsu Communications Institute in Japan showed that over 40% of its populace identify as ‘non-religious’ BUT still adhere to the traditional ceremony, worship and prayer to spirits and gods- increasing to 80% with crossovers into shinbutsu-shugo (Shinto-Buddhism). With only 4% identifying as part of an organised sect of Shinto religion!  Meaning even people who do NOT consider themselves religious in Japan still abide by the Shinto culture! It’s a part of daily life that we in the outside world have difficulty grasping.
Stranger still? Scholars Isomae Jun’ichi and Jason Ānanda Josephson found that the Japanese term and concept of ‘Religion’ itself is called ‘Shukyo’ and appeared as late as the 19th century! Meaning Japanese culture does not view religion the same way as the west and, prior to this point, worship of kami was never considered a religious act to begin with.

With this in mind most of what we perceive as religious/cultural messages in anime and manga is simply reflecting the very unique world it was created in. It’s clear to say that a considerable amount of subtext in the stories we love really is lost in translation- and not just because the dubbing sucks.

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