Panties and Cults Are the Punch Line

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Punch Line anime.

You think that a show that front loads the first-time viewer with shots upon shots girls flipping up their skirts wouldn’t have anything sophisticated to say. You would be mistaken though, because Kodaka Uchikoshi of the Zero Escape game series is behind the show’s writing. In my opinion, you would also be off assuming that Punch Line’s narrative strength ends at being a compelling mystery. The popular mystery game writer has inserted strong sleuthing elements to the show, to be sure, but the show’s ultimate puzzle pales in complexity to the games of his that I’ve played. More than its mystery and certainly more than its panties, the depth of Punch Line lies in how well it sets up its commentary on how people are attracted to and fall into cults.

Portrayals of manipulative and millenarian religious cults have featured fairly frequently in anime ever since the 1995 Sarin Gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway line by the notorious Aum Shinrikyo. In the aftermath of those attacks, novelist Haruki Murakami put together a book containing an essay on his musings about the event and interviews he conducted with those involved in some capacity with Aum Shinrikyo: Underground. It’s the same book that I referenced a while back in a write-up on Psycho-Pass and the muted Japanese reaction to developing disaster. Compared to Psycho-Pass ‘ treatment of the average citizen, I’m more interested in the embattled cultists of Punchline, and most specifically Guriko. How is it that of the experimental orphans three, Pine, Chiyoko, and Guriko, Guriko became the antagonistic cult leader? In contrast, Chiyoko and Pine became heroes and protagonists. Didn’t they grow up together? Weren’t they once all good friends? How did they become so different?

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Your Name: Disastrous Places and Liminal Spaces

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Your Name anime.

We’re acquainted with these tales of from folklore and myth, the premises of horror stories, those testimonials people caught on special TV channels: a place of some awful significance is haunted by undead spirits. Moldering graveyards, abandoned asylums, scarred battlefields, places of disaster… In the fields of Gettysburg, for example, some locals claim that they can hear the dead, soldiers from long ago who haunt the former battlefield. Gettysburg was the location of the American Civil War’s bloodiest battle, and its legacy as the site of mass slaughter has made the more superstitious perceive it as a site of restless energy. In the popular imagination, these places serve as liminal spaces, locations and sites where all-too-natural dichotomies are not normally observed: death intermingling with life, life intermingling with death. The dead have not passed into the afterlife, the ether, or permanent rest as they ought to have. Instead, their undead spirits wander the grounds, bound to some place of awful significance.

While Your Name is not a horror film in the way the genre is conventionally understood, the narrative of Your Name plays an awful lot with liminal spaces. The concept of liminality in religious and anthropological studies has a definition that’s a little broader than just the spaces the mortal and the infinite. Liminality is the concept referring to transformation and intersection, where clearly delineated dichotomies of “one” blur and bleed into the “other,” branching into or becoming new and distinct entities. Life and death is the domain of liminality, but so is the profane and the sacred; the child and the adult, the individual and the communal, this direction and that, this person and that, and even time and space itself. Directed by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name is a story layered with examples of its characters passing through various thresholds, states, and spaces of liminality to resolve a conflict. The film starts with the blurring of one traditional dichotomy: the inexplicable bleeding of its two protagonists into each others’ lives, a body-swap. Midway, the film grounds its supernatural gimmick with its extant reason: a place of disaster.

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Land of the Lustrous: Gods, Parents, Saints, and Growing Up

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Land of the Lustrous anime.

At the intersection of philosophy and theology is a word that both these disciplines have used to describe ultimate truth: God. God, in both senses of the word, is a concept that’s too abstract for newborn babes to fully appreciate as they mewl from their mothers’ wombs into a cold world. We open our eyes, our vision yet fully formed, and the very first beings to actively engage our sight (and the rest of our senses) are our parents. They take us into their care and teach us things: practical things, like how to walk, and ideological things, like how to see the world. We are taught by, ask, observe, and learn from our parents. We are made in their image and likeness, our first and most intimate mentors. For us humans learning how to be, the closest and most tangible thing to a God that we can appreciate in our early years are our parents. As we grow older and learn to respect other authorities, to realize that our parents are not always infallible and omniscient, but sometimes wrong in their judgments and even debase in their worldviews is tantamount to some betrayal. My mother and father were my Gods, my go-to sources for knowledge and wisdom. Now they are not, and I’ve had to struggle with the fallout of our strident disagreements.

In Land of the Lustrous, the effective parent of Phosphophyllite, Cinnabar, and all Lustrous beings was Kongo-sensei. He carved them from his hands, gave them names to identify with and cherish, taught them of the world, and gave them purpose through specific roles in their society.

In turn, all the Lustrous, and Phos initially, looked to Kongo for affection and guidance as their effective parent. As his effectively beloved children, they placed their complete faith in him and trusted him unconditionally. But eventually, Phos began to feel their relationship with him needed a more critical evaluation. They discover Kongo concealing something important from the rest of the Lustrous, something related to the Lunarians. The rest of the Lustrous confirm to Phos that they suspected Kongo was hiding things from them all along. They were content to leave it be. Phos wanted to prod at it further. Slowly, gradually, Phos sought answers to inquiries about the Lunarians that Kongo wouldn’t answer but Phos believed he knew the answers to. Kongo appeared to be letting the Lustrous suffer by withholding important information about the Lunarians. However Phos, in the end, couldn’t bring themselves to hate the parent who raised and nurtured them. Phos began rebelling against Kongo, though Phos’ feelings toward him remained conflicted. In being recast from the God-parent role he was always seen as by his charges into a flawed parent that he always was, Kongo is revealed to share more qualities with Christian saints than with of Buddhist boddhisattva. This Christian-informed observation is little odd, considering the show’s heavily Buddhist presentation.

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Flag: Photo Fixes are a Fool’s Dream

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Flag anime. As a disclaimer, the article also contains some graphic depictions of real-life violence.

Many people have this habit of trying to understand complex conflicts and issues in neat and simplified terms. Their conclusions and solutions have a habit of being even more misguided, as though major conflagrations and crises were ever or could ever be wrapped up because of a singular event or factor. In 2015, a man by the name of Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. As one of his first exhortations from the bully pulpit, President Duterte called for the death of all those who contributed to the drug trade in his country, believing that their deaths would be beginning of the end for the Philippines’ problems. It was a promise he made on the campaign trail, and he was intent on honoring it. His administration would enact its own official motions to wage his ant-drug crusade. However, the foot soldiers of his war on drugs were vigilantes who felt they had their president’s blessing to shoot dealers and execute backers on their initiative. Dealers were shot dead. Some of their backers were executed too, including local politicians. Their more common victims, however, were suspected drug addicts, and on more than one occasion, innocent bystanders were caught in the crossfire.

Photographers for the news media snapped this photo of a grieving woman cradling her husband’s lifeless body. Her husband was rumored to be a drug pusher. Now he’s a casualty in Duterte’s drug war.

The news media quickly associated the above image with a sculpture by Renaissance master Michelangelo, La Pieta. At the point of his career when he started creating La Pieta, Michelangelo was able to sculpt the illusion of movement to give his subjects greater expressiveness. His talents, plus the Catholic commission, resulted in an exquisitely evocative work depicting the Mother of God cradling the corpse of her dead boy. Anyone with knowledge of Renaissance art or Roman Catholicism can appreciate the significance of the association. The postures and grief of both womanly figures are similar. The images are supposed to evoke compassion, or at least pity. The Filipino people are devout Roman Catholics, and the Catholic Church in the Philippines has disapproved of the violence as ungodly. With exposure from the news media, the Western community has called out the drug war as a violation of human rights. It’s a romantic notion to predict that this evocative image would be the beginning of the end of this reckless violence and hate. It’s 2018, however, and Duterte and his foot soldiers have only doubled down. Duterte retains popularity among Filipinos. Filipinos too believe that  Duterte’s brutal crackdown will solve their country’s problems.

The Philippines is a pretty poor country overall. Even as one of the faster growing economies in recent years, the wealth generated from the country’s growth hasn’t been anywhere close to approach equal distributed among Filipinos. Many were, and are still, quite indigent. The mindset among Filipinos is that if they continued to support his drastic campaign to kill all the drug people, then perhaps the aftermath of his bloody violence will be enough to lift them out of desperate circumstances. They believe, hope, and pray that his actions can end the corruption plaguing governments at all levels and establish order in the cities and the villages, once and for all. In light of these sentiments, to hold to the simple notion that a photo, however symbolic and moving, would be enough on its own to end a war is a fool’s dream. It’s the people working behind the scenes of these photos that determine whether or not there will be peace. In Flag’s quest to end a civil war in the fictional Uddiyana, photo-journalist Saeko Shirasu learns that lesson first-hand.

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Buddhist Iconography in Land of the Lustrous

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Land of the Lustrous anime.

Introduction

Iconography is a powerful tool in storytelling. The power of icons belies and transcends the descriptor of them as being mere assortments of organized lines, shapes, and maybe colors. Even if audiences don’t fully understand their cultural context, icons hold a power over a people who are even just passingly familiar with them. The more ancient and fundamental seeming these icons are in a given culture, the more power they have over shaping the expectations of audiences when consuming a work of fiction utilizing them. Like money, icons are a currency that those in the know conduct exchanges with, with the medium of exchange being knowledge instead of paper or metal. For instance, the knowledge of whether or not your friend likes certain anime without asking him can be ascertained from the Homura figurine he positions on his writing desk or the Rem plushie he keeps at his bedside. The knowledge of your friend’s interest in certain religions can be deduced without direct inquiry based on the crucifix on her wall or the buddha on her nightstand.

Many storytellers set up expectations based on how audiences understand these icons in the real world. Religious iconography, even without much knowledge of doctrine, possesses the cultural currency of something deep and profound. Land of the Lustrous and the Evangelion franchise contain copious amounts of this kind of iconography. While Evangelion doesn’t demonstrate any deep or profound understanding of the Christian symbolism it mucks around in, audiences are nevertheless drawn to it by the iconography’s intangible appeal. Land of the Lustrous goes further with its iconography, exhibiting a more-than-passing understanding of the Buddhist symbolism it sculpts its characters out with. Most people watching Land of the Lustrous will at least recognize that some of its iconography is Buddhist in origin. Those with passing familiarity with Buddhism may find themselves attracted to these icons because of their pop culture associations with deep and profound powers or knowledge. Those with more educated backgrounds in the Buddhist religion may may also expect the themes of the story to unfold in ways that reflect a Buddhist worldview.

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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.

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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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