February 26, 2015
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 exotic.
Catholicism has the deepest roots, having arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century. So the aesthetics of Catholic culture and architecture are the first things Japanese think of when "Christianity" is mentioned. After that comes the ecclesiastical structure, extrapolated from the Roman Curia.
Anime like Witch Hunter Robin and Hellsing (Catholics vs. Anglicans) play off the supposed existence of an imperial 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 running a global conspiracy.
Although in A Certain Magical Index, that role falls to the "English Puritan Church" (if you were wondering what the Puritans have been up to for the past three centuries).
And as with the U.S. spy agencies, the Catholic church is also a good source in the paranormal action world of skilled agents, operators, and intelligence networks. Ghost Hunt is an ensemble 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 a powerful Christian parable. The same is true of anime such as Madoka Magica and Scrapped Princess, though you may have to look harder to see through 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 a "Satan" and a "Lucifer."
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 blasphemous about it.
Saint Young Men is hugely popular in Japan (a staggering 10 million copies sold) and won the 2009 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize. An anime is currently in production and a movie adaptation was released in 2013. One can only pray that one or more of these versions makes its way here soon.
Saint Young Men has been licensed in China and Europe but not North America. The Japanese publisher is understandably skittish about the possible fallout.
In fact, the vast majority of Christians react to this type of thing the way the vast majority of Mormons do to The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: "Hey, they spelled the names right!" What's annoying is blasphemy arising out of self-righteous contempt.
There's none of that here.
What gives manga publishers pause when it comes to the U.S. is the fear that somebody is going to whine and stamp their feet and the bad publicity will kill sales. Nobody's going to get killed. Though the suits understandably get skittish about the fringe elements that breath such threats.
During the localization of Saint Tail (which features a Catholic church as the "Bat Cave") for the U.S. 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 ultimately prevailed and the censoring was 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 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 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 a shining gem buried beneath.