April 10, 2024

Christianity is cool

In Japan, that is. All the more surprising considering that Christians constitute at best one percent of the population. Or perhaps that simply makes it more exotic.

Catholicism has the deepest roots, having arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century. So the aesthetics associated with Catholic culture and architecture are the first things Japanese think about when Christianity is mentioned. After that comes the ecclesiastical structure, extrapolated from the Roman Curia.

Anime like Witch Hunter Robin and Hellsing (Catholics versus Anglicans) play off the supposed existence of an all-powerful Catholic Church that shows up in movies like Constantine, Stigmata, and The Da Vinci Code. The Catholic Church is just too cool an institution not to imagine it running a global conspiracy.

Although in A Certain Magical Index, that role is also shared by the English Puritan Church (also translated as the Church of England).

And as with the spy agencies of any country, in the paranormal action world, the Catholic Church is also a good source of skilled agents, operators, and intelligence networks. Ghost Hunt is an ecumenical paranormal actioner, so it naturally features a Catholic priest as one of the ghost hunters.

At the same time, in terms of theology, the suggestively Catholic Haibane Renmei can stand beside any of C.S. Lewis's work as an accessible Christian parable. The same is true of anime such as Madoka Magica and Scrapped Princess, though you may have to look harder to see the metaphors.

Along with Camille Paglia, Japanese writers have discovered that "medieval theology is far more complex and challenging than anything offered by the pretentious post-structuralist hucksters."

They eagerly pilfer Christian eschatology for interesting characters and conflicts (another good reason to study religion!). Kaori Yuki's Miltonesque Angel Sanctuary turns Paradise Lost into a Gothic romance, with a war in heaven and a descent to the underworld to reclaim a lost love.

At the other extreme, the quite clever The Devil is a Part-Timer (stranded in Japan, the devil gets a job at McDonald's to make ends meet) features both Satan and Lucifer as separate characters.

The only overtly religious aspect of The Devil is a Part-Timer is an institutional church roughly analogous to the medieval Catholic Church (under the Medici popes). The state religion in Scrapped Princess is largely the same.

Then there's the offbeat syncretism of Saint Young Men, about Jesus and Buddha hanging out in modern-day Tokyo. Manga artist Hikaru Nakamura approaches the subject with a goofy but respectful touch. Unless you find the concept itself heretical, there's nothing at all blasphemous about it.

Saint Young Men is hugely popular in Japan (a staggering 10 million copies sold). It won the 2009 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize and is still in print. An anime series and movie were released in 2012 and 2013.

Most Christians react to this type of thing the same way most Mormons do to The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: "Hey, at least they spelled the names right!" What is far more insulting is ignorance hiding behind a smug mask of condescending self-righteousness.

There's none of that here. Whether the Shinto gods in Natsume's Book of Friends or the traditional folklore of Northern Europe in The Ancient Magus' Bride, these writers have done their homework. They honestly respect the source material.

What gives manga publishers pause when it comes to the Norther American audience is the fear that somebody will whine and stamp their feet and the bad publicity will kill sales. Nobody's going to get killed. But the suits understandably get skittish about the fringe elements that breath such threats.

During the localization of Saint Tail (which features a Catholic basilica as the "Bat Cave") for the North American market, references to God were

removed from the first two volumes in a possible anticipation of a TV broadcast. Considering that Seira Mimori [the protagonist's sidekick] spends half of the time in a nun's habit, one wonders why they thought they could do Saint Tail without references to God.

Common sense finally prevailed and the censoring stopped with the third volume.

This is rarely a problem in Japan, where the whining and foot stamping mostly comes from the political right. They're strident secularists, except when the emperor enters the picture. Then they turn into strident Shintoists. Until they die, that is, at which point Buddhism kicks in with a vengeance.

"Buddhism for the dead, Shinto for the living," so the saying goes. In everyday life, Japanese move back and forth between Shinto rites and Buddhist beliefs and Christian-style wedding ceremonies. It's not that the adherents are blurring the lines. The lines were never firmly drawn in the first place.

You might expect this sort of fuzzy wuzziness to lead to the kind of apathy and neglect that emptied out the churches in secularized Europe. But in Japan, people not getting worked up about stuff can motivate the curious to mix and match belief systems in ways nobody else would have dreamed of.

And in the process, scrub the dust off of old, worn-out tropes to reveal the shining gems buried beneath.

Related posts

Pop culture Catholicism
Pop culture Buddhism
Pop culture Shinto

The Ancient Magus' Bride
Haibane Renmei
Madoka Magica
Scrapped Princess

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,