February 07, 2019

Seeing the supernatural

The ghost has been a stock character in spooky stories from around the world since forever. For the sake of this argument, I'm more interested in people who can see ghosts, and not because the ghost—Marley, for example—makes himself visible to a particular person with a particular purpose in mind.

I mean people who can see specters and spirits whether they want to or not. And given the choice, would often rather not.


The Sixth Sense set the contemporary Hollywood standard for seeing dead people. Its popularity spawned series like Ghost Whisperer and Saving Hope, which established the trope of dead people with "issues," who can't "move on" or "into the light" until they resolve whatever mortal problem is plaguing them.

This is "second sight" that requires a degree in psychiatry. (I'd love to see Niles and Frasier Crane tackle the job.) Now, in Kate's paranormal detective series, Donna can see the dead, but the dead have little interest in the living unless the living express an interest in them.

Yet despite being a trope so ubiquitous that it can be dropped into a story with little more than a hand-wave of an explanation, the Hollywood implementation is remarkably constrained in its scope and reach, both in terms of what sort of beings the unseen are and what they can do.

Even series like Buffy and Lucifer stick closely to Judeo-Christian folk theology and established mythological prototypes. This in marked contrast to Japan, where the genre is one of the most popular and expansive in Japanese fantasy, producing many identifiable genres and genres within genres.

My straightforward explanation is that, in Japan, there is so much more for those with "second sight" to see. That is thanks to a two-millennia long collision between Shinto and Buddhism, resulting in the theological school of shinbutsu shugo (神仏習合), the syncretism of Buddhist and Shinto belief.

This syncretism spawned several competing schools of thought. To grossly simplify, honji suijaku (本地垂迹) argues that the Shinto kami are manifestations of Buddhist deities. The contrary "inverted" honji suijaku (反本地垂迹) holds that the primal natural forces of Shinto gave rise to Buddhism and Confucianism.

And then there is a kind of compromise that recognizes the autonomy of the Shinto kami and logically asserts that they are thus in need of Buddhist salvation too.

The latter doctrine is favored in the Spirit World Warrior genre, according to which corrupt souls and delinquent kami require a swift kick in the keister to move them on down the road to reincarnation. Forget about talk therapy. Take off the gloves and blast them into another dimension. For their own good, of course.

To be sure, there are those like Inari in Inari Kon Kon and Yurie in Kamichu who take a kinder, gentler approach. But these exegeses aside, the wide-ranging taxonomy of the kami is what gives the trope so much creative depth. As manifestations of the "interconnecting energy of the universe," the kami

can be elements of the landscape, forces of nature, as well as beings and the qualities that these beings express; they can also be the spirits of venerated dead persons. Kami are not separate from nature, but are of nature, possessing positive and negative, and good and evil characteristics.

In platonistic terms, those with second sight can see what is casting the images on the cave wall. Every metaphysical thing has a physical manifestation, as in Princess Mononoke, in which corruption and pollution reveal themselves as slimy creatures and mad boars and infectious diseases.


One rule I would stipulate is that the magical world and the "normal" world must overlap. Narnia and Harry Potter mostly belong to the isekai ("different world") genre, as do anime like Kakuriyo. Even though Aoi has second sight in this world, the story takes place almost entirely in the "Hidden Realm."

By contrast, Lewis's That Hideous Strength takes place in this world. The Ancient Magus Bride is also set in the contemporary English countryside, where the old magic still thrives and Chise can see the sprites and spirits all around her.

Related posts

Pop culture Shinto
Pop culture Buddhism
Ghostbusting in Japan
The Passion of the Magical Girl

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