In part one, I gave some basic definitions. In part two, some definitions and terms about content. Part three broke off to deal with two specific terms at length, and now part four is specifically about how we react to anime and manga as Christians.
There are some difficulties for us as believers when we watch anime and manga. I’m afraid I’ll have to be negative for a bit discussing this, but please keep in mind I’m not doing this to condemn them, but as someone who enjoys anime and manga very much but realizes as a Christian, I also have my faith affecting my life. Let me list a few of the problems I face.
1. Japan is not a Christian society.
In the west, even if we don’t believe, the heritage of Christianity shapes how we think to a large degree. The ideas and concepts of the faith often shape our secular culture in ways like a robust appreciation of religious diversity (as a result of needing tolerance to allow rival christian sects to not kill each other over doctrine,) the worth of the individual in the eyes of God, and in other ways. While at times people transgress Christianity, it’s done by people who understand the culture.
Japan though is a majority Buddhist/Shinto culture, and Christianity is a very small part of the population. In the past, it was often violently suppressed, to the point of being driven underground for hundreds of years. When you do see Christians in anime or manga, often they are exoticized to an extent that makes them unrecognizable to actual believers.
Two examples would be the anime Hellsing, in which Protestants and Catholics duke it out using regenerative powers and the odd vampire or two, and for a more notorious example, Ninja Resurection. Seriously, that one is messed up. But Christians in anime and manga are often wildly different than what we know, and it can cause you to wince at the stereotyping or just plain missing the idea of the faith when you have ten year old nuns, nuns that use heavy ordinance or magical powers, or Christians who act more like Shinto priests than pastors.
2. Because of this, anime and manga are often steeped in non-Christian philosophies.
Japan has two major faiths coexisting peacefully. Shinto is a set of myths and rituals centering around the history of Japan and concepts of purification. It’s hard to explain, but it’s not a faith in the sense of holding a core of theological beliefs or having a personal experience with God, but something you hold because you are Japanese, or you like aesthetically. You don’t even need to believe it is true.
An analogy would be the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and admitting it because he cannot tell a lie. We know of it, and it isn’t true. But it doesn’t matter because it’s sort of a popular myth that’s part of being American. Same with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. We also celebrate the fourth of July and have rules for handling or displaying the American flag. Shinto as practiced is in many ways the same: rituals and fables as a part of a natural culture. While it also has an esoteric or religious side to it too, it has no real set theology, with millions of gods that can differ in attribute from place to place.
A good anime that explains a lot about Shinto is Kamichu!
It’s one hundred percent inoffensive. It’s a sweet little tale about a middle-schooler who wakes up and finds out that she is now a Shinto goddess, and has to deal with the responsibilities of that.
The next religion is Buddhism. I can’t cite the source, but I’ve heard that Buddhism is the religion for life and death, where Shinto is the one for day to day living. When you are born, married, or die, you turn to Buddhism for meaning. Buddhism provides more of a set theology and metaphysics, and you can find evidence of its normal and esoteric form in many anime and manga. Naruto’s jutsu, as well as many ninja hand signals, are actually known as Mudra and derive from esoteric Buddhist practices.
There are two pitfalls for the believer in this:
If you are a strict believer, there’s a tremendous amount of magic, demon summoning, and occult practices displayed in many anime. If you feel uneasy with viewing these things in fictional entertainment, you are not going to like a lot of anime. The cosmologies of Shinto and Buddhism have spirits interact with people frequently, and you’ll see plenty of things like mediumship, divination, demon-summoning, and general esoteric magic.
If you are a relaxed believer comfortable with fictional depictions of magic, there is another danger. Shinto especially can appeal to us with powerful aesthetic effect.
Most Christians tend to be from Protestant strains where the spiritual experience is not particularly rich in liturgy or beauty. Even among the more mystical sects, a lot of it is inwards, and more about a Semitic form of mysticism that’s not entirely big on nature except as a way to shield ourselves from the world. Japanese religion though is very aesthetically powerful, and not just due to how exotic it is. Shinto temples are often legitimately beautiful, and it is integrated in the Japanese psyche to a level that we as Christians envy. There isn’t a hostility to faith or a separation of it; it’s natural to pass roadside shrines to the kami, or visit a shrine on new year’s day to get your fortune told.
For many of us, this form of faith can be compelling and make us disparage our own. It’s exotic, alluring, and beautiful, and a Christian does have to remember that it’s still a religion that’s not from God, and is not a path to salvation. In fact, many aspects of Buddhism specifically can work against Christian faith and contribute to nihilism due to the cyclical nature of karma. The danger I think is very subtle, but assimilation is bad too. Not a few western anime fans would like to wake up one day and find themselves a Japanese teen in the middle of Golden Week.
3. Sex and a bit of the old ultraviolence.
There’s a lot. No, seriously, a lot. Again, not all anime or manga are sexual or violent, but believers simply cannot handwave away how sexually explicit or violent they are.
At some point, an individual believer is going to have to seek the will of God on what they can or can not consume. There’s two poles of thought here, in two verses:
All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.
1 Corinthians 6:12. This to me says that it is possible to consume things so long as you avoid being enslaved by them, or they become an occasion of sin. It’s really important to note that the following verses are blunt about the fact that we shouldn’t join our bodies to anything else but God, and that we should flee sexual sins and glorify God in our bodies. I do think that depending on the individual believer and his conscience, it is possible to enjoy works of anime that contain violence or sexuality TO AN EXTENT.
This is something though that no one can ever be comfortable with, and even an artistic person or critic who analyzes works has to be conscious of the sin-inducing power art can have. Art can shape our minds and bring us under the power of sin if we let it.
The second verse would be Phillipians 4:8:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
I’m not sure I can call this a pure opposite, but the focus in this verse is that we should think on only things which are good and portray positive traits. It’s not a matter of balancing what is permitted with what can harm you; instead the obligation is to actively seek out only the good and pure in art.
There are plenty of anime and manga which do embody this. It’s possible to enjoy them and be responsible in your viewing habits too. If you are an advocate of this approach, and even a strong one, you don’t have to toss every single anime or manga your teen has out into the trash. However, you must focus on evaluating and consuming responsibly, and there’s a strong argument that in the act of needing to evaluate works of art, you can get influenced by negative aspects of it too.
I can’t really give a strong answer though, just point out these sources of tension. A lot of us Christian Otaku are at times far too comfortable with violence and sex in media, partly because we tend to be cultural creatures and our tastes tend to be shaped by the world. In a way, this can be a gift because we also can evaluate and criticize those same things from a position of knowledge. The reason why I write these posts is partly because I don’t see too many believers that do engage anime and manga on this kind of level, and I am gladdened to find other believers who do browsing and responding to these posts. But this is also a danger to us too.
It can be uncomfortable at times. We see so much in anime and manga that we love and has value, but the dross that comes with it clashes with our faith. There’s not any easy answers I can give; I too wrestle with the balance of enjoying culture and following God. Each believer has to “examine himself, that he is in the faith,” (2 Cor 13:5) and determine what types of media we need to avoid due to them being occasions of sin. There’s a phrase Catholics use which is very appropriate: “having custody of the eyes.” Sometimes we need to remember that we choose to look or not.
In part five, I’m going to expand on this, breaking down Christians by comfort level, and finally recommending some anime and manga which you can watch.