Sunday Without God: Empathy for the Undead

Management: While my opinion of the show is positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. While this piece will reference other parts of the show, this essay will primarily break down the events of Episodes 1-3, which cover the Valley of Death Arc, Episode 3-6, which cover the Ortus Arc, and Episode 9, “Where Gravekeepers Are Born.”

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I wrote a piece some time ago about Kino’s Journey and the importance of approaching the different countries in the show visited by Kino and, by proxy, the audience through the anthropological lens of cultural relativism. What may be seen within a culture, different from our own, as an illogical lifestyle and a barbaric morality to the foreign observer looking from without may be a completely reasonable lifestyle and acceptable morality to the native participant engaging from within. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t ultimately disagree and reject lifestyles and moralities different from our own. However, trying to make sense of a culture or a person without temporarily suspending our own ethnocentric impulses and prejudices kills attempts at creating empathy and shuts down productive discussion. You’re not going to understand the worldview of someone if the only conversation you can have with that someone is “Whose worldview is better than the other’s?”

In the spirit of cultural relativism, Sunday Without God presents two remarkable back-to-back arcs that approach the universe’s cultural understanding of death and the undead in opposite ways. The latter arc is a thematic reaction to the first arc. Encompassing Episodes 1-3 is the first arc of the show, Valley of Death. Encompassing Episodes 4-6 is the second arc, Ortus. Within these arcs is the main character and observer constant, Ai Astin, whose views about death and the undead evolve over the course of the places she visits and the people she meets.

The universe of Sunday Without God is premised on the plot device of a God has closed his doors to heaven and appears to have abandoned humanity. Said to have been announced by a voice from the skies on a Sunday, the Kingdom of God apparently reached maximum capacity for the human souls its premises can house. Human beings have to endure the fact their souls are bound to Earth. Now, this isn’t how the concept of the Kingdom of God exactly works in Christianity. However, bear in mind that the show’s appropriating and tweaking the concept for its own narrative purposes without claiming any authority over what constitutes Christian belief. Anyway, people’s biological functions can fail. People can die, but, having supposedly no place for their consciousnesses to go, people reanimate afterwards. The only way that the undead can finally be laid to rest is via the gravekeepers, special persons with special shovels who dig up special graves.

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Beginning from the Valley of Death Arc, we discover that the main character, Ai, is a gravekeeper. Since her gravekeeper mother passed away (her non-gravekeeper father was absent long before then for reasons his own), she’s been digging graves for the people of the village she grew up in for the day they die and become undead. While she’s been doing that, she’s been watched over and doted on by the villagers. Those days of Ai living with the villagers come to an abrupt end when The Man-Eating Toy arrives at the village with a gun and shoots all of them. Actually, those days technically ended a long time before, since it’s revealed in the aftermath of the shooting that all the villagers all died some time ago. The villagers happened to keep the fact of their death (and undeath) hidden from Ai. The villagers being reduced to mutilated twitching corpses, Ai lays them to rest to put them out of her misery.

The Man-Eating Toy, whose identity name is disclosed towards the end to be the rather toy-like sounding Hampnie Hambart, acquired regenerative capabilities and living immortality (to contrast undead immortality and lack of regenerative capabilities) at the turn of God’s apparent exodus from earthly concern. Hampnie interpreted his condition as a sign that he should become The Man-Eating Toy and help the gravekeepers bury the undead by putting down their ability to resist the gravekeepers (via  shooting them). The undead were entities that had to properly pass on, lest they cause further personal tragedy and social disruption with their “unnaturalness.” God’s apparent exodus resulted in scenes of morally loose and depraved people, unwound by the absence of the specter of death, and maimed and torn bodies trudging and moaning. In attempting to fulfill his self-determined duty, he manages to alienate himself from everyone until he meets. He is also later revealed to be Ai’s father, his knowledge and acceptance of this fact causes him to experience death. Becoming undead himself, he spends a brief amount of time bonding with his daughter before shortly requesting to be put to rest next to her mother’s and his lover’s grave.

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As angry and distraught as she was for having to bury all the villagers who cared for and doted on her, she learns from his logic and ends up accepting that the undead need to be laid to rest for their peace of mind, before their physical, mental, and moral faculties deteriorate and decay, rendering them restless and threatening. Hitching a ride on a Volkswagen minibus with a couple of companions, a female gravekeeper colleague named Scar and a living man/childhood friend of her father’s/new guardian named Julie Sakuma Dmitriyevich, she resolves to go out in a similar fashion as her father and lay the undead to rest. She is a gravekeeper, and because of her condition, she self-determines that it is a duty she must fulfill. A gravekeeper keeping graves seems like the most natural thing to do, after all.

Her self-determined conclusion at the end of the Valley of Death Arc is premature, however, to the self-determined conclusion she makes at the end of the Ortus Arc. The latter conclusion revises much of the fundamentals of the former conclusion. It puts Ai in something of an identity crisis, because unlike her father, Ai refuses to alienate herself from the undead she meets. She actually asks the undead questions before shooting (or in what’s more likely the case, whacking them with her shovel) and talks to them, and the answers and conversation the gets challenges assumptions that, before, she took for granted as truths.

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Some critical questions came into my mind while watching the Valley of Death Arc:

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— If the Kingdom of God is at actual maximum capacity, why would it still be accepting souls released by the gravekeepers? Is it simply a matter of that there’s a minimum amount of room left for people who want to pass on and are lucky enough to encounter a gravekeeper? Gravekeepers actively (and, you can can argue for some, mindlessly) seek to bury all the undead eventually however, whether or not these undead want to be buried. Forcible burial even occurs against the consent of those undead who are still lucid.

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— If the physical, mental, and moral faculties of the undead do deteriorate and decay, making them restless and threatening, why didn’t that happen to the people in the village Ai grew up in? Those people have been undead for a significant period of time, and they all seemed pretty lucid in spite of that. In addition to being basically Ai’s caring, doting, and loving surrogate family, the villagers seemed to be fairly content with their lot, “living” normal and even fulfilling “lives” with loved ones even after dying and reanimating. Laying all the undead to rest would be tantamount tearing so many from those “lives,” so many from their loved ones.

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— If gravekeepers are supposed to single-mindedly pursue the goal of laying all the undead to rest, how does that explain Ai’s mother, Hana Astin, giving birth to Ai? The show in Episode 9 “Where Gravekeepers Are Born,” reveal that most gravekeepers are “born” in adult bodies with that purpose built-in. However, Hana deviated enough from that purpose to be a lover to Hampnie and a mother to Ai. Unlike the rest of the gravekeepers, Ai was born in a human fashion, so she was not pre-designed to approach her life with that purpose. However, even the other gravekeepers, like Scar, have the potential to deviate from the mission they were originally conceived for. In Scar’s case, after the Ortus arc, she develops the conflicting emotional desire to be a mother to an adopted child. Sure, gravekeepers (outside of Ai) are born with a built-in purpose, but why are they also built-in with the potential capacity to deviate from that purpose?

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Continuing onto the Ortus Arc, upon hearing of a place characterized as a literal city of the undead, Ai manages to convince her companions to drive her through the wasteland to Ortus. On the roadside, Ai sees tens to hundreds of gravekeeper shovels, graves markers for tens to hundreds of gravekeepers who, attracted by the density of over one million undead in the area, were slain by the city’s undead authorities to prevent them from approaching and potentially breaching the tall fortified gates and walls. Ai doesn’t succumb to the instinctual impulse herself, but even Scar shakes with desire as they approach the entrance to the city. Keeping the fact that she and Scar are gravekeepers secret, Ai and her companions are able to safely enter. Their living quarters, however, are confined to a “living” quarter of the city.

In this city are the urban undead, “living” normal and fulfilling “lives,” enjoying themselves in the merriment of a renaissance-style festival, not unlike the rural undead in Ai’s village when they celebrated Ai. There are no signs of anything drastic in the way of physical, mental, and moral deterioration and decay present. In fact, living people, desperate to escape the ravages of the outside wasteland, migrate to Ortus to settle there. Within Ortus’ walls is a living Princess Ulla Eulesse Hecmatika, a person possessing eyes that literally kill on sight. A ceremony that encourages the living to voluntee en masse to become the undead en masse from the migrants that wish to integrate into Ortus involves Princess Ulla quickly depriving all of them of life with her vision (though originally unknownst herself), which she would otherwise normally conceal behind wrappings and patches.

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These formerly living migrants have practical reasoning for becoming undead. Outside of obtaining undead immortality, the migrants don’t have to bother with the potential discrimination they might face from the undead masses for being alive. It’s an interesting contrast to the undead who face permanent extermination, much less discrimination, from the living outside of Ortus from people like, perhaps, Hampnie and the gravekeepers. And when the migrants are exterminated of their life, they are not exterminated of their consciousnesses. If one could brave the prospect and sensation of dying (a look that kills seems more painless than other death alternatives), “living” as one of the undead doesn’t seem to be effectively different or adverse from “living” as one of the living. Social cohesion, as opposed to disruption, is advanced in this instance (as well as overall, as the persecution of people undead by people like Hampnie and the gravekeepers naturally facilitates the emergence of a closer-knit community and shared identity via the concept of linked fate), undermining another functional reason behind the “unnaturalness” of the undead.

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As what she believed a gravekeeper’s “natural” duty should be, Ai shouldn’t question whether or not the undead should be allowed to “live” their “lives.” But she does. As the individual responsible for creating hordes of undead from the ever dwindling amount of human beings living life alive, Princess Ulla should be her “natural” enemy. Instead, Ai befriends her because she sees her as a kind person and stays her friend even after discovering her kill on sight ability. This is in contrast to her Hampnie, who was responsible for the forced burial of Julie’s, his childhood friend’s, wife once he caught wind of the fact she was undead and that he was trying to hide her.

In her attempts to reconcile what are clear cultural contradictions surrounding death and the undead toward the other, she comes to the conclusion that perhaps the sentiment of the undead as “unnatural” is one that is way too reductive. Her mission to follow in her father’s and the gravekeepers’ footsteps and lay them all the undead to rest may be misguided. Hailing back to the brick analogy I made in one of my Monogatari pieces, where the brick can be used in construction or just lay in a field and still be simultaneously a brick… sure, Ai is a gravekeeper, a person with the ability lay to rest any undead she encounters, but she can also choose or not choose to lay to rest undead as she sees fit. With her conclusion to this formative experience with the undead tempering her previous conclusion to her last formative experience with the undead, she’s starting to mature. She’s becoming wiser about the world.

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