Noragami: A Prayer for Forgotten Gods

Management:  While my opinion of the show is generally 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.

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The intimacy present through farming professions and small communities, the close proximity of it all, characterized many a Japanese village. At the geographical heart of these villages lay the shrine. Manned by a regionally itinerant or locally designated cleric, these sacred spaces lay at the communal, spiritual, and cultural heart of village life. Priests were more directly accessible to the locals for consultation and guidance. Festivals of catharsis, reflection, jubilation, and gratitude were practiced on religious grounds. As people had ample and easy opportunities to engage regularly with their faith on a variety of facets and devotions.

Devotion to Shinto since then, and even general interest, has seen better days. Many Japanese drained from the countryside and flooded into the cities. Having lived all their lives within concrete jungles, generations became removed from the pastured plains their ancestors once tended and tilled. Unsurprisingly, men and women within these more recent generations have become more distant from the religious  traditions their ancestors fervently practiced.

Because of its distinctly Japanese origin and focus, inextricably tied to Shinto is the accumulated knowledge, or culture, of Japan of centuries-to-millennia past. The majority of Japanese now live busy lives in crowded metropolises, with less time, less space, and less priority to approach the priests or celebrate the festivals. When the shrines are occasionally visited (on holidays, exam days, and extraordinary circumstances) the rituals performed are far from demanding. A coin is thrown, a charm is purchased, and a short prayer is muttered in the hope that requests will be somehow fulfilled, as though wishes are like cheap transactions at a convenience store. Many Japanese today partake in Shinto activity with only the vaguest notions of this religious tradition’s richness. When the older generations of the countryside step aside and the newer ones of the cities take the reins, Shinto will seem vaguer still.

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And so, invoking the sort of forces I covered in this post that turned KanColle fans into history buffs, the setting and characters of Noragami are rich in the stuff of tangential learning. In its own way, the show is an updated, contemporary, “hipper” anime attempt for the youth that will inherit the country to preserve their cultural heritage. Continue reading

Cults in Anime Post-Aum: Post-Aum Anime TV Series as Reflective Screens into the Japanese Psyche

Management: The final version of an anthropological research paper I’m working on connecting Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese psyche, the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks, and cult tropes in anime post-Aum. For anyone who cares to be patronized, thank you for patient with me when my blogging activity became slow to writing this damn thing. I managed a pretty decent grade on this paper, but my anthropology professor is ultimately just one (albeit highly knowledgeable) person who’s critiqued my work. I’d welcome more if you guys are willing to provide feedback.

With the emergence of Aum and its heinous crimes, a great many Japanese were shocked, lost their sense of logic, and screamed out hysterically in condemnation of it. But the “darkness” of Aum is connected with the “darkness” concealed in the subconscious of us all. We Japanese abhor confronting “darkness” and taking the media uproar as a form of catharsis, have refused to gaze at this “darkness.”

– Mori Tatsuya (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 148)

Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the images are uncannily similar; some details seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see.

– Haruki Murakami (Murakami 2000, p. 229)

Introduction

The mainstream Japanese reaction to the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks is the capstone to what Sakai Shinji, a writer for the Katorikku Shinbun’s opinion column, has called “the end-of-the-century unease (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 122).” The Japanese bubble economy had burst in the early 1990s. The Japanese Great Hanshin Earthquake had taken its toll in 1995. Popular political distrust and turbulence gripped the public due to the Japanese government’s widely perceived incompetence in handling these two crises. Just a few months after this natural disaster, an artificial one in the form of a religiously-motivated terrorist attack by Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) struck the Tokyo underground subway lines, killing twelve and injuring over a thousand (p. 123). Further revelations of heinous crimes and inflated coverage from the so-called Aum Affair in the ensuing weeks and months would further stoke the hostility and fear of mainstream Japanese toward Aum and whatever was widely perceived to be a cult like Aum. While the Aum Affair certainly terrified mainstream Japanese, the combined economic, environmental, and political trauma of the era were also responsible for the shaking the ease, security, and certainty they found in what Yukio describes as their modern myths:

…the myths of economic development and permanent employment based on a work ethic of loyalty toward one’s company, the myth of a secure environment guaranteed by modern technology and government administration, and the myth of a harmonious society based on national ethnic homogeneity (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 163).

The pressure that these repeated traumas inflicted on Japanese and the extent to which the Japanese obsessed over these myths played a part in contributing to the severity of mainstream Japanese reaction to Aum and cults.

Even decades later, the trauma still lingers in the Japanese psyche. This trauma reverberates throughout Japanese popular culture in the form of subject and trope matter about cults. The Japanese subculture of manga and anime are no exception. The narratives of many manga and anime feature humor, references, and commentary about cults and cultist behavior. Scholarly works such as Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ article, “Horrific ‘Cults’ and Comic Religion (2014)” and his book, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (2014), have led the academic charge in drawing connections between popular manga and anime films and the Japanese pre-Aum and post-Aum zeitgeist. In particular, Thomas’s book demonstrates, through his manga analysis of 20th Century Boys, that mainstream Japanese are “attracted to stories that present superhuman, righteous individuals and their unwavering efforts to save the world” despite “how much [they] may criticize specific religious groups” like Aum “for their deception, their fraud, or their violence (p. 152).” However, his analyses have tended to avoid manga and anime film examples that are not narratively tailored to what he defines, according to his book, as epics (p. 129). Furthermore, Thomas has also confined his analyses to popular anime films, neglecting the plethora of anime TV series that contain subject and trope matter about cults and cultish behavior in their narratives. Accordingly, this paper will analyze how post-Aum anime TV series are reflective screens into the Japanese psyche.

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Sasami-san@Ganbaranai: Religion, Tradition, and the New Age

Management: While my opinion of the show is positive overall (broken records all around), 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 Episode 6 “I’m Troubling Only My Parents” and Episode 7 “I Forgot How to Speak.” I will also mention the related thematic resolution to Episode 9, “It’s Not That I Can’t Do It.”

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On the surface, Sasami-san@Ganbaranai is a strange concoction of battle spectacles, religion, and eccentric and risqué behavior brewed out of a Haruhi-inspired cauldron. The premise is a riff off of a Haruhi-inspired archetype, a girl who subconsciously  alters the world using god powers stored within her person. Inspiration is not imitation, however. While I’m not going to deny the influence The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has had on Sasami-san’s narrative, I’m confident in expressing this: Sasami-san’s is more ambitious than Haruhi’s, if not quite as well-written. It’s willing to talk about controversial issues in contemporary Japanese society that the Haruhi series is not really equipped to discussing. The show combines its fight scenes with its universe’s mythos, not unlike Monogatari, to craft a social commentary on Japanese religion and spirituality, as well as culture and lifestyles, in the New Age.

While this piece will reference other parts of the show, I will primarily focus on the events of Episode 6 “I’m Troubling Only My Parents” and Episode 7 “I Forgot How to Speak” and how these events culminate into a physical and ideological clash between Juju and Tama. I will also mention the related thematic resolution to Episode 9, “It’s Not That I Can’t Do It.”

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Cults and Anime Post-Aum

Management: Some of the early fruits (part of an annotated bibliography) of an anthropological research paper I’m working on connecting Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese psyche, the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks, and cult tropes in anime post-Aum. I’ve honestly been busy to the point that I’ve only managed to come up with one of my more usual complete and lengthy pieces for next week, and I feel bad for not updated the blog for so long. Hopefully this slapdash analysis will soothe those disgruntled until then.

The full essay is here. Check it out.

What may be regarded by society as religious “cults” have permeated history from ancient and modern times, with their latest widely accepted mass incarnation in modern times emerging in its latest wave in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of globalization and Western values of individualism, materialism, and secularism. In response to a world increasingly tied together through markets of economics and ideas, culturally closed and colonially bitten portions of society, rather than accommodating and resigning themselves to what they see as the imposition of moral and spiritual depravity, have produced new age religious movements attempting to cater to the socially disaffected. Born out of a highly materialistic, highly competitive, and highly oppressive (so they say) Japanese culture within the context of other existing and soon-to-exist new religions throughout the world was Aum Shinrikyo.

With the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks and other acts of violence and deviancy, Aum Shinrikyo would leave an indelible scar in the Japanese psyche that, to this day, permeates in popular Japanese culture and even anime subculture as negatively connotative “evil cult” tropes. Some anime embrace them, others make light of them, others still challenge them, and others utilize them in all three ways. Some recurring themes to keep in mind as you scan down the following seven, alphabetically ordered shows that feature some use of this trope:

a charismatic, eccentric, ominous, and/or megalomaniac leader;

world-rejecting and anti-social behavior;

eschatological, millenarian, and apocalyptic worldviews;

claims to supernatural powers;

eccentric, nonsensical, and/or suspicious deviancy;

financial exploitation;

sexual exploitation;

conspiratorial thinking;

brainwashing;

fanaticism;

violence;

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