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Shinto and Liminality in Anime

Anime, or Japanese animation, is a popular form of entertainment in Japan, and it continues to attract a growing fan base in the United States. But how might American viewers best understand these expressions of Asian culture? Two articles by scholars writing on various anime films for http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/The Journal of Religion and Film (JR&F) provide discussion of two aspects for consideration.

The first article from the October 2004 issue is by James W. Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura and it is titled “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film ‘Spirited Away’.” As the title indicates, this article looks at the film Spirited Away (2001) by noted director Hayao Miyazaki. As the authors describe various “Shinto perspectives embedded in the cultural vocabulary of the film,” it becomes clear that the only way that the film can be properly understood by Western viewers is if they gain some awareness of the way that folk and shrine Shintoism provide the meaning supporting the symbolism, characters, ethical virtues, and ultimate meaning of the story. Without this perspective Westerners who appreciate anime will still enjoy the film, but it will come across as little more than fantasy involving humans and strange creatures, and the proper interpretive meaning that comes through an understanding of facets of Japanese culture will be lost.

Another interesting facet of the author’s interpretation of this film is their use of the theories of liminality from Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. As the authors draw upon liminality they descripe the journey of the main character, Chihiro, who “experientially moves from the mundane and everyday world, into a liminal realm.” As a result of her experiences in the liminal phase she eventually returns to the mundane “‘re-formed’ into a new persona.”

The notion of liminality is picked up as one of the major facets of interpretation for the film Princess Mononake (1999) in an article titled “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrifice in Princess Mononoke” by Christine Hoff Kraemer in the April 2004 issue of JR&F. In Kraemer’s view, the experience of liminality “empowers Ashitaka to play the Christ-like roles of mediator, martyr, and finally, savior.” To Kraemer’s credit, although she draws parallels between the salvific role of Ashitaka and Christ, she recognizes that the “character resonates with Buddhism’s commitment to asceticism, peace, and compassion, as well as Shinto’s call to harmony with the natural world and respect for tradition.” She draws the parallels between Ashitaka and Christ as a means of making the character understandable to Westerners who may have greater familiarity with the foundational religious mythos of Christianity, and as a means of discussing the cross-cultural aspects of the sacred.

As I read each of these articles I was struck by the importance of intercultural and religious studies to understanding aspects of popular culture. In addition, I noted the significance that the authors attributed to Turner’s liminality. Turner has been very influential in a number of academic areas, from his own discipline of anthropology to folk performance to alternative cultures and alternative cultural events, and also in popular culture studies.

These considerations remind us that anime provides a multi-layered phenomenon of popular culture for both our enjoyment as well as scholarly study.

Comment Pages

There are 5 Comments to "Shinto and Liminality in Anime"

  • Paul Nethercott says:

    John your article is “right on” in terms of pointing out the very important role of Japanese religious beliefs in the anime produced by Miyazaki.

    The two articles you reference are outstanding. They have both helped me articulate what I noticed in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away the first time I saw them.

    Thanks for your good work John!

  • Paul Nethercott says:

    John your article is “right on” in terms of pointing out the very important role of Japanese religious beliefs in the anime produced by Miyazaki.

    The two articles you reference are outstanding. They have both helped me articulate what I noticed in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away the first time I saw them.

    Thanks for your good work John!

  • Steve Hayes says:

    Would it be possible for you to enable the “Link to this post” and “E-mail this post” in your Blogger template?

    I’d like to refer this post to others.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    Would it be possible for you to enable the “Link to this post” and “E-mail this post” in your Blogger template?

    I’d like to refer this post to others.

  • devonianfarm says:

    Nice to see somebody’s thinking about this stuff.

    I think the articles you mention obscure the issue. “Spirited Away” can be understood an instance of the “metamyth” that Campbell talks about and doesn’t need particular participation in the Shinto code.

    Personally I’m interested in anime as a transmission mechanism for teaching young people Shinto and Confucicanism. Japan, unlike Korea, has an almost nonexistent market penetration of Christianity, so obviously it has an indigenous religion that satisfies Japanese spirtual needs well.

    The best example of this I can think of is the ongoing “Pretty Cure” series, in particular “Futari Wa Pretty Cure” (FWPC), “Futari Wa Pretty Cure Max Heart” (MH) and “Pretty Cure Splash Star” (SS).

    Westerners have “code” problems in understanding this. It took me about 30 episodes of FWPC to see that it was systematically teaching Shinto. I felt quite disoriented when switching to MH — it took me about 10 episodes to understand that the orientation had switched towards Confucianism with Japanese characteristics. Halfway through MH, the characters adopt a henshi (transformation) phrase which is clearly a prayer, rather than a magical incantation, calling upon “the power to create all things” and for all living things on earth to grant them “ooninaru kibou no chikara”…. the great power of hope.

    I’ve just watched first episode of SS, where the heroine, a ten year old munchkin, announces that “everything has a life” in a discussion about the family car. That’s the basic statement of faith of an animist, much like a Christian announcing that “Jesus is the Son of God”. The heroines transform with “Dual Spirital Power”; it looks like an intensive religious education for smaller kids to me.

    Two later series have come out: “Pretty Cure Five” (PC5) and “Pretty Cure Five Go Go” (GG.) In attempt to win a wider international audience, these shows are much less “Japanese” in orientation, but there’s a lot of interesting philosophy and depth psychology, crossing over into the postmodern spectrum.

    What’s particularly interesting is the seeming contradiction between animism, urban life, and consumerism. PC is not just an animated TV show, but a mechanism for selling toys and other licensed goods. It’s pretty obvious that the henshi items were made to be toys you can buy, and the ending credits for MH show all the major characters as prizes inside a “crazy crane.” I think the answer is that there isn’t any contradiction, it’s just that westerners expect one.

    It’s also interesting to me that Children’s television in Japan is aimed at building cultural capital. American Children’s TV, on the other hand, in forms like Spongebob Squarepants, seems as determined at destroying culture as Chairman Mao itself. Sometimes it makes me want to cry.

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