Anime, Religion, and Spirituality

Profane and Sacred Worlds in Contemporary Japan

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Katharine Buljan, Carole M. Cusack
  • Sheffield, UK: 
    Equinox Publishing
    , October
     258 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anime, Religion and Spirituality is a valuable contribution to understanding the religious and spiritual components of Japanese animation. This complex phenomenon is assessed from a historical perspective that takes into account a multi-layered web of influences, ranging from Japan’s artistic and philosophical traditions, to international elements. While this publication lacks Japanese language references, it is well-informed by updated literature in English.

Buljan and Cusack’s book is divided into four chapters. Chapter one traces the origins of graphic narratives in Japan. The authors spell out how the antecedents of manga and anime are both religious and profane. On the one hand, antecedents are found in Buddhist works: stray scribblings and illustrated wooden slips called mokkan, which go back as far as the eighth century; Chōjū Giga, painted animal scrolls of the twelfth century; and Zen painting, zenga, of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, historical origins are pinpointed in secular graphic works: ōtsu-e, a form of graphic cartooning from the seventeenth century; kibyōshi illustrated texts, the world’s earliest forms of comic book, and the ukiyo-e, woodblock prints from the eighteenth century. The influence of Katsushika Hokusai, Hiroshige Utagawa is also raised, as well as the role of satirical magazines such as Japan Punch, Kiyochika Punch, and Tokyo Puck, which proliferated between the late-nineteenth and the early-twentieth century. In addition, the authors claim that the strong sexual themes in anime come from shunga, a kind of ukiyo-e containing explicitly sexual images. The history of graphic narratives in Japan is also framed within the context of Japanese modernity following the Meiji Restoration (1868), which marked the end of centuries of isolation. Buljan and Cusack outline the arrival of foreign sources of inspiration, including the distribution and translation of Western literature, the impact of American comics, and the free appropriation of European religious and aesthetic motifs. This transnational and transmedia flux of influences is considered key to assessing the uniqueness of the cultural synthesis in animations by Ippei Okamoto, Osamu Tezuka, or the later Mamoru Oshii.

In chapter two, Buljan and Cusack—following a recent scholarly trend—incorporate concepts from non-Western philosophical traditions in order to overcome eurocentrism in film studies. Thus, the authors argue that the emphasis on supernatural content, which makes anime distinctive, draws heavily on traditional Japanese folk tales. Visual representations of the supernatural respond to conventions already existing in mythical figures such as the baku (“eater of dreams”), oni (“Japanese demons”), gohō-dōji (“divine boy” stemming from Mahayana Buddhism) or the kamikakushi (“being hidden by a deity”). The text includes significant observations on the spiritual elements that resonate with Shintō worldviews as well as Buddhist ones, such as the notion of metamorphosis in Oshii’s Ghost in Shell (1995). But at the same time, Buljan and Cusack attempt to avoid falling into an essentialist orientalist approach. They show that spiritual and religious concepts, rather than being isolated, travel internationally and are renewed, adapted, and reinterpreted. This phenomenon is illustrated with the issue of anthropomorphism in Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma ½, whose cultural reference can be found in classical Greek and Roman mythology, and with the portrayal of Christianity as an evil and alien religion.

This intelligent approach to the transcultural aspect of anime is further developed in the following two chapters. Chapter three discusses the role of the heroines of anime who, in some cases, recall female Japanese shamans, or mikos, but in other cases resemble Western pagan myths, such as the nature goddess Gaia, and the belief in the sacredness of the Earth. This chapter also explores the superpowers possessed by children and young adult characters who act as mediators between the supernatural and natural worlds in works by Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Tatusya Ishihara, and Katsuhiro Ōtomo. Finally, Buljan and Cusack provide brief comments on how Miyazaki and Oshii borrow elements from Shintō, Indian religions, Confucianism, and references to messianic lords, resurrection, enlightenment, the supernaturalfrom Judaism,  Christianity and Sufi Islam. These motifs are also used to discuss the richness of genres that differentiate anime from Western cartoons, which allowed storytellers to attract a diverse audience. The predominance of the supernatural and its “generic hybridity” is claimed to be one of the reasons for the international popularity of anime. This hypothesis is further developed in chapter four, which focuses on the phenomenon of anime fandom. Aficionados are defined as “spiritual seekers,” and it is argued that anime’s appeal to Western audiences is due to its spiritual and religious content. This chapter assesses the historical reception of anime in Europe, the postmodern notion of spirituality in contemporary cultural activities such as cosplay, and tourism around sites shown in anime that they argue constitutes a new kind of “sacred pilgrimage” (seichi junrei) in which aficionados have become a sort of existential tourist.

As a weak point, the reader may find interesting topics that are only touched upon, such as the employment of metamorphosis in the pornographic hentai genre, the free use of Christian apocalyptic imagery, and the references to motifs from European mythology (in chapter two). Also, at some points, the flow of argumentation is interrupted by a contextualization of the history of religions in Japan, changes in the film industry, and long introductions to directors' biographies. These remarks may be dispensable for specialist readers in the discipline, but arguably they may be helpful in addressing a wider audience. Overall though, Anime, Religion and Spirituality provides significant epistemological keys to an understanding of how Japan´s rich spiritual and religious traditions contributed to the development of anime. However, one of its strengths is precisely showing how these influences are not restricted to the Japanese religious context: they mutually imbricate the religious and secular, the national and transnational, each of which communicate at both the visual and narrative levels. Thus, Buljan and Cusack’s book is an insightful piece of research that addresses the complexity of the proposed topic from a useful historical and transcultural perspective. And as a consequence, this is recommended reading for those interested in both Japanese animation and a heterodox approach to religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcos Centeno is Lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Japan and Korea at SOAS, University of London.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katharine Buljan was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney in 2007 and is a scholar and visual artist/animator.

Carole M. Cusack is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include religious conversion, northern European mythology and religion, medieval Christianity, secularization and contemporary religious trends. She is the author of Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998), The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011). She has co-edited several volumes, including Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Professor Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010) with Christopher Hartney and New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Alex Norman. She has published widely in academic journals and edited collections. With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is Editor of the Journal of Religious History (published by Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University, Sweden) she is Editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (published by Equinox).



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