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)
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.