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I’ve described how Japanese religions have 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, storytelling devices for describing situations the creator can assume the audience will recognize. In Part I we examined Shinto and natural themes which appear in popular anime and manga works. Here, we’ll look at how the storytellers use kami as a source of supernatural power, and as protagonists in other modern stories.
Kami as a Source of Supernatural Power
In other fantasy anime and manga works, kami are the source of a character’s spiritual power or the driving force behind otherworldly events. Gods of death, called shinigami, are often referenced in anime and in two famous series, Bleach and Death Note, the main characters acquire the powers of shinigami. In Bleach, this turns the protagonist Ichigo into a hero who fights against evil spirits, communicates with souls of the deceased, and adventures into the realms of spirits and ghosts. In contrast, Death Note protagonist Light uses his shinigami powers to impose his unforgiving worldview on society and kill those he deems unworthy.
Likewise, in Makoto Shinkai’s film Weathering With You, a girl named Hina is a vessel for special powers bestowed by the gods: her prayers can drive away rain and bring sunshine. In this film as in Shinkai’s previous blockbuster hit Your Name, the power of kami is entwined with nature. Weathering With You also prominently features Shinto and folkloric imagery. In many scenes Hina prays for sunny weather at a rooftop shrine with an iconic red torii gate; the trailer for the movie shows raindrops reversing course as she passes through the torii, which is considered the boundary between the human and spiritual realms. “Good weather dolls” called teru teru bozu also show up frequently in the film. These dolls resemble little ghosts and are said to be modeled after a bald-headed Buddhist monk whose hairless pate shines in the sun; teru teru bozu literally means “shiny, shiny monk.” Japanese children often make these dolls out of tissue paper as talismans against bad weather.
Lastly, many series feature young women in the role of miko, or “shrine maidens” who work at Shinto shrines in service to the gods. Miko are instantly recognizable in their striking regalia of white kimono and red hakama trousers. Famous miko in Japanese popular media include Hino Rei (also known as Sailor Mars) in Sailor Moon; Kikyo and Kagome in Inuyasha; and Mitsuha and Yotsuha in Your Name. Although in real life miko’s duties include keeping the shrine clean and selling charms to visitors, in works of fiction and fantasy miko’s role as a spiritual servant often grants them supernatural abilities, including the power to exorcise evil spirits and purify corrupted humans or environments. The most apparent example of this is Sailor Mars’ ofuda, Shinto paper talismans, which she uses to dispel evil spirits and enemies. These ofuda are printed with the words “akuryo taisan” (“evil spirit, disperse”), and in the English translations of the anime and manga she often yells “Evil spirit, begone!” or “Evil spirit, be exorcised!” while throwing the ofuda towards her target.
Gods, Demons, and Spirits as Main Characters
Finally, there are a number of manga and anime that focus on gods and demons as the main characters in their story, rather than just their influence on the human world. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away feature kami among their casts of characters, although the main protagonists are human.
In contrast, the series Noragami and Inuyasha are stories about gods and demons themselves. Noragami (“Stray god”) is the story of a down-and-out god called Yato who doesn’t even have a shrine to his name. In order to establish his reputation and gain more devotees, Yato performs a number of odd jobs for a symbolically significant fee of five yen (In Japanese, the words “five yen” are a homonym for “connection” or “relationship,” and therefore offerings of five yen are often made at Shinto shrines to establish a good connection with the kami). He meets a human girl called Hiyori, who due to an accident is able to separate her soul from her body and enter the spiritual realm where gods and human souls dwell. More than any other series I’ve seen recently, Noragami is based on Shinto mythology (admittedly with heavy embellishment). Famous Shinto and Buddhist deities are recurring characters in the series, and the two main arcs of the anime revolve heavily around the themes of purification of corruption and sin.
The manga and anime Inuyasha also has a firm foundation in Shinto ideas and Japanese folklore. The titular character is half human and half inugami or youkai (translated into English as “dog demon”) who seeks a powerful jewel called the Shikon Jewel (or “Jewel of Four Souls”) that will transform him into a full demon. The series’ second main character, Kagome, is a Tokyo highschooler from the modern day who gets transported back to ancient Japan when she falls through a well on the property of her family’s shrine. After meeting Inuyasha in the alternate universe of ancient Japan, Kagome comes to realize that she is the reincarnation of a powerful priestess from this time period and that the Shikon Jewel is hidden inside her body.
The story’s premise alone is full of Shinto symbolism; as mentioned before, Kagome is the reincarnation of a Shinto priestess and is shown to have extraordinary purification powers as associated with miko in fiction. When Kagome falls through the well at her family’s shrine, she crosses the same boundary that Hina crosses in Weathering with You and falls into the past and into the realm of spirits and kami.
In Weathering With You this boundary is represented with a torii; in Inuyasha the wellhouse is marked with a sacred rope (shimenawa) indicating a sacred place or spot known to attract kami. The Shikon Jewel, which drives the plot of the story, is also a reference to the Shinto concept of ichirei shikon, meaning “one spirit, four souls.” According to this idea, both kami and humans have four souls that make up their single spirit. As the story progresses, Kagome and Inuyasha battle and befriend various demons, monsters, and humans, some of which are established in Japanese folklore (like foxes and tanuki) and some of which are the product of the illustrator’s imagination.
This article only encompasses a small portion of the manga and anime that include references to Japanese religion and folklore. What are your favorite kinds of Japanese media, and have you noticed any Buddhist or Shinto tropes?