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Just as Christian symbolism and references have made their way into popular media worldwide, Japanese religions have also made an impression on the country’s main media export: manga and anime. References to Japanese religion and folklore often appear in media as tropes, which the website TV Tropes defines as, “storytelling device[s] or convention[s]…shortcut[s] for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize.” Some of these storytelling devices are recognizable to a majority of viewers, but other tropes intended to connect with a Japanese audience may fly over the heads of viewers who grew up in other cultures. You may have caught subtle religious references in your favorite anime; maybe the main characters pay a visit to a shrine on New Year’s Day, receive a charm or amulet for protection, or light incense for someone who has passed away. In a number of well-known anime feature films, series, and manga, elements drawn from Shinto and Buddhism play a significant role in the main story.
Before we take a look at these specific media, I’ll very briefly review Japanese religion and its role in Japanese daily life. Most Japanese people practice a blend of Shinto and Buddhist traditions. Shinto, literally “The Way of Kami,” is an indigenous Japanese spiritual practice. According to Shinto, supernatural entities called kami (often translated as “gods” or “spirits”) inhabit all things. There are kami in natural phenomena like trees, mountains, and rivers, fire, and natural disasters, as well as in modern technology, in people, and in concepts such as fertility and wealth. With the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, some of these kami were anthropomorphized and given human forms, and some Japanese Buddhists consider kami to be manifestations of the Buddha. Some scholars also consider bakemono, or monsters from Japanese folklore like kappa, tengu, and oni, to be part of the kami pantheon. Shinto has no holy book or founder, and the practice focuses heavily on rituals. Many of these rituals have to do with purification or washing away pollution or taint. For instance, Shinto shrines have a fountain or trough near the entrance where visitors can ritually purify themselves by using a bamboo ladle to pour water over their hands before entering.
Japan’s other main religion, Buddhism, originated in ancient India and slowly made its way across the Asian continent, eventually arriving in Japan in the 6th century via Korea. Buddhism encompasses many diverse practices and sects, and is largely based on the teachings of the spiritual teacher Gautama Siddhartha, known as the Buddha. Throughout the decades of Buddhist development in Japan, a number of different sects emerged, the largest of which is Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Buddhism mainly governs death and the afterlife in Japan, and the Buddhist elements present in everyday Japanese life mainly have to do with death and remembrance of ancestors. Most funeral services and cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist, and most Japanese families have a Buddhist altar (butsudan) in their homes where they can give offerings and pray for deceased loved ones. Obon, one of the most significant holidays in the Japanese calendar, is a Buddhist event commemorating ancestors during which people return to their hometowns or the areas where relatives are buried to reunite with family, make offerings, and tidy their ancestors’ graves.
Few Japanese consider themselves to be religious in the way that an American or Brit might describe themselves as religious. However, many Japanese people participate in both Buddhist and Shinto traditions throughout the year, particularly during major holidays. Therefore, though few Japanese people describe themselves as practicing Buddhists or Shintoists, the symbols and tropes associated with these religions are familiar and recognizable to a general audience in Japan. In many popular media, spiritual elements have shaped the story by acting as protagonists, antagonists, or the source of special powers and abilities.
Shinto and Natural Themes
As an animistic and pantheistic practice, Shinto is intimately interconnected with nature. As mentioned above, Shinto describes the presence of kami in all elements of life, including natural phenomena. Natural motifs and humanity’s conflicts with and on behalf of nature are also common themes in anime and are perhaps most evident in the films directed by the world-renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki. Environmentalism is a notable theme throughout Miyazaki’s body of work, and in two of his films, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the environmentalist sentiment is closely related to Shinto philosophy and the idea of kami.
In Princess Mononoke, a banished prince named Ashitaka becomes involved in the struggle between a rapidly modernizing and militaristic town and an ancient forest where spirits and gods still reside. In Spirited Away, a young girl named Chihiro becomes separated from her mother and father after wandering into a realm populated by spirits. In order to rescue her parents, she begins work at a bathhouse catering to the yaoyorozu no kami, the so-called “eight million kami” of Shinto.
In both films, the main characters meet and interact with various spirits, gods, and monsters who have been damaged or displaced by human activity. In the bathhouse, Chihiro befriends a river spirit who has lost his identity and memory since his river was filled in and the area developed into apartments. Ashitaka encounters various animal and tree spirits battling against the humans destroying their forest and even meets the otherworldly Forest Spirit itself.
Apart from the roles the actual spirits play in these stories as characters, the movies also carry underlying themes of healing and purification, which are also related to Shinto philosophy. Early on in Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka encounters a boar god who has been wounded and transformed into a demon from pain and rage. The boar demon injures Ashitaka, who is in turn defiled and leaves his home to seek a cure for his injury. Similarly, within the industrialized village of Irontown, the ambitious Lady Eboshi hires and cares for lepers, who were long considered impure or victims of karmic retribution in Japan. Lady Eboshi’s embrace of the sick and disabled reflects her modern attitudes and conflict with the forest and a local feudal lord, both entities representing older ways of thinking. In Spirited Away, Chihiro encounters a river spirit in the bathhouse whose river has been so polluted with the trash that he is at first an unrecognizable mass of ooze. After Chihiro helps the spirit bathe in medicinal onsen water and removes the garbage, the river spirit returns to his normal form and rewards Chihiro with powerful medicine. These narratives of redemption through spiritual or physical cleansing intertwine with Miyazaki’s environmentalist message; in Miyazaki’s world, human activity is the pollutant in an otherwise pure natural realm.
Want to read more? For more examples of how Japanese Shinto and Buddhist traditions inspire today’s manga and anime stories, click through to Part II of this blog post.