Mention Buddhism to a Westerner, and you might be greeted with a nod, perhaps a few “facts” about the religion (likely exaggerations or errors), and maybe a notion that its something “Chinese people practice.” It’s a little mysterious, a little alien, but a tradition with awareness and (hopefully) some respect in Western society. Exaggerations aside, people know of the Buddha and can recognize the religion when they encounter it.
Mention Shinto to the same Westerner, and you might receive a shrug or a “I’ve never heard of that, is it a food?” As mysterious as Buddhism might appear, Shinto is something completely off the grid. Browsing Amazon or the internet yields equally scarce results, usually relegating the system of belief to the realms of mythology or folklore, a disservice to a tradition that still has many adherents, and a legacy stretching back over 2000 years. Little is devoted to the practice, nor the traditions associated with it- just a series of stories about gods, and possibly a brief history.
This is a shame, given how much of the anime we watch has elements related to shinto in them. Often simple things, like prayers, clapping, bowing, or a mentioning of elements and directions- innocuous on their own, but collectively a reflection of the subtle intricacies of Japanese life that often go overlooked. Much like a Westerner saying “God Bless You,” or throwing salt over their shoulders, these “little customs” run the risk of being called eccentricities or superstitions by viewers unaware of their significance or history.
Likewise, many of the legends and figures found within Shinto are frequently themselves relegated to storytelling devices, or symbolic entities that serve solely to advance plot or storytelling, without a care given to their histories. We hear of the sun goddess, but do we really know much about her? What about the activities of tanuki- aside from their infamous testicles and shape-changing, do Western audiences really “understand” them, or is that simply the purview of scholars and those enthusiastic about yokai lore?
That’s why 2013 has been such a wonderful year for the people who take the time to familiarize themselves with Japanese beliefs, customs, and legends. The anime fans who watch series with emphasis on the more specific instances of Japanese culture. It’s been a long time since so many shows, all airing in adjoining seasons, have cast light on folklore and Shinto practice, and how it relates to Japanese culture. Granted, not all these reflections have been “accurate,” nor have all been “faithful,” but they have exposed audiences to traditions and tales generally not covered in anime, and given a helpful starting point for future explorations.
Winter Season: Sasami-san@ganbaranai
In the beginning, there was the sun, and she was adorable.
Moe Alert!: This is a show about a VERY cute girl doing VERY cute things. Hikikomori schoolgirl Sasami Tsukuyomi spends her days sleeping and playing on her computer, while her faceless brother works at the school she SHOULD be attending. By night, she is catered to completely by that same brother, who is so devoted to her, he practically throws himself bodily at her. (Well, he actually DOES...creepy much?) On those few times she attempts to leave her “otaku cave,” she is overcome by the sun and fresh air, and forced to retreat yet again, lest she collapse in the street. Hers is a singular, often very, lonely existence- a self-imposed exile complete with distractions and retreats into a virtual world that pays her little mind aside from avatars on a digital page, and a whole lot of indulgent behavior.
On the surface, this is one of many recent series that highlight the practice of “extended adolescence,” as proposed by psychologist Tamaki Saitou. Sasami is a textbook case, in fact- completely unmotivated to perform ANY activity beyond her computer and bed, her pathological agoraphobia manifesting as a powerful nausea that cripples her ability to even function. The most extreme cases of hikikomori exhibit similar symptoms, and can be debilitating to both the victim and their family (and certainly not resulting in a lecherous sibling bending over backwards, though the level of care might come close). Only Sasami’s case is a little bit different.
Sasami is the vessel for Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Who also spent a good chunk of time hiding in a cave.
Sasami-san@ganbaranai (translated wonderfully as Ms. Sasami @ Unmotivated) simultaneously tackles two “Japanese conditions:” the legend of OH (original hikikomori) Amaterasu, and the persistence of the contemporary anxiety disorder. And the fun part is, it works. Aside from mentioning Amaterasu’s legend in the early episodes, Sasami’s tale follows a similar path: she has to be lured out of her “cave” via the “magatama, mirror, and sword,” the regalia which pulled out her divine form millennia ago. Only this time, those artifacts have themselves been humanized as well- a common trait when looking at the various manifestations of the kami, which occasionally are anthropomorphized in legends to lend an element of humanity to a very powerful abstract concept, which it itself nearly impossible to fully explain. Her brother, the faceless educator, is the embodiment of Tsuki-yomi the Moon god, who has never been depicted with a face (when he has been depicted at all), nor traits beyond assisting his sister in her duties. The comical nature of his character is part creative license, but his motivations and faceless appearance are true to form.
Much of the anthropomorphization in the series functions as narrative assistance- its easier to associate and modernize classical legends when the protagonists are as human as we are. By giving popularized forms with mythical powers the stage, we can easily be drawn into the stories, not unlike practitioners in other time periods utilized art, music, dance, costumes, and any other bit of technology to tell a compelling story. Sasami’s tale is perfectly synthesized into the modern art form- its a 2013 anime that watches and paces like a 2013 anime, with all the attached character designs and silly situations firmly in place. But it incorporates entire stories from the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and the folk tales told about its legendary cast of characters. Not quite an update, but a modern twist on the tales.
While the mythology itself splits off towards the end of the series, Sasami-san@gabaranai also devotes time to attitudes towards death (impurity- so just avoid it, and certainly don’t trust it- even if it’s wearing your mother’s face), powerful beings beyond human control (oni, anyone?), duty and civil obligation (you can’t just shirk being the sun goddess), and family ties- all aspects critical to Shinto theology and dogma. The storytelling is creative, and loosely based on the original legends, but interesting enough to warrant further research (especially the first story arc, complete with nine-headed dragons and nary a “dick brother” to save the day).
The ideas of Shinto as a life-based, community and family religion, alongside conflicts between rival clans and their patron deities, are worked into the short-form series, opening a door that’s worth heading through. Viewers with knowledge of the folklore behind the series will have fun laughing at the adaptation and picking out all the subtleties (which often go unaddressed, unlike other folklore-based series), and novices will find a wealthy of storytelling and inspiration to point them in the right directions for later research. From the standpoint of an introduction, Sasami-san@ganbaranai covers all the bases necessary for a series of its length and scope.
Summer Season: The Eccentric Family
Lauren Orsini over at OtakuJournalist made a point in her review of this series to label it as part of a “Japan that never was.” The beauty and wonder presented here might be appealing, “but watching as a foreigner, it’s also a fantasy portrayal of a Japan that doesn’t really exist. No more than a show set in the American West with elements of tall tale mythology would have anything to do with America today.”
Lauren’s observation is spot on, as are her impressions of the series. But what makes Eccentric Family so worth the time to watch are the “little things,” the allegories and metaphors that are found peppered throughout Japanese storytelling that make it so appealing to foreign audiences. Rather than create a series that highlights a major character of Japanese mythology, like Sasami, Eccentric Family shows that even the most “mundane” of supernatural creatures can have adventures and make plenty of mischief, because that’s exactly what tanuki do. Remove even the mythological trappings from this series, and what would remain would still be a quirky, fun look into Japanese storytelling in the 21st century.
So very often, modern forms of entertainment focus heavily on the exotic nature of foreign characters and stories. They play up the outsider angles, and fix the series within a context that emphasizes the mysterious aspects of the characters in focus, while stripping away the particulars that allow the concept to exist in its own stories. What Eccentric Family takes advantage of, is incorporation of all those aspects into a single story, that blends both the mysterious and the mundane- it’s exotic only in the sense of the protagonists’ physical nature, not the world they live in, or the relationships they pursue.
Tanuki, known the world over for being Mario’s favorite cosplay, and for their incredibly magical testicles, are more than just a weird creature. Tanuki have been used to explain the relations between man and nature, been ascribed with traits leading to wealth and prosperity, have highlighted the playful tendencies of the natural world to trick the humans who share it, and have been utilized as “welcomers” for all manner of businesses and restaurants (think Maineki Neko, with balls). But too often, the stories are lost in the flow of cultural exchange which emphasizes the fantastical nature of the raccoon dogs, while forgetting that they share a stake in our world, and are just trying to survive as we do, albeit with their land shrinking yearly.
One of the successes of Eccentric Family is that the playful, hopelessly mundane lives of these urbane tanuki are put on display. They are made human, quite literally at times, and shown to be no different than us...other than that they can fly, transform, mess with everything and everyone around them, and joyride through the streets when drunk. There is magic, yes, but at the same time there is a focus on just living their lives, as we all do, in a hectic world full of distractions and hazards. It humanizes the characters in a way that succeeds because it is linked to the same desires and activities that we humans find ourselves a part of, and does not attempt to make alien any of the characters- even the one who spends all his time as a frog. You feel what they do, and can relate accordingly.
Eccentric Family manages to ground the legends students of folklore read in real world terms. It doesn’t highlight the mystical nature, it shows how those legends “live” in a context of modernity. Tengu above, lusting after our youth and snatching pretty girls. Tanuki below, getting into serious trouble because of their "idiot blood" and poor impulse control. Humans oblivious, even when the magic is right in front of our faces. Ambitious fellows becoming lucky gods, plotting their good fortune and having a good time. On the one hand these are stories of real creatures politicking and backstabbing each other until someone ends up in the stew pot. On the other hand, these are metaphors for our own dealing with each other, that have bled over into the hidden world. Or maybe, it shows that in the 21st century, the lines between the physical and hidden worlds have blurred so much, that we are all in this together. On a metaphorical level, Eccentric Family is one of the best representations of the world we live in, shown through the eyes of ageless creatures from times long ago. And isn’t that what Shinto tradition is, in our modern world- nature and man, side by side, in things together as everything changes?
Fall Season: Ginsitsune
Kitsune legends often speak of fox spirits serving the kami Inari. Inari itself is often depicted as a fox, and holds much sway over harvest and prosperity. Inari is one of the most-revered kami in Japanese history, despite the fact that most scholars disagree on what Inari actually is, or its functions outside of the shrines dedicated to it. Reading up on Inari is akin to reading up on Lilith in the West- associated with gods, dakinis, powerful spirits, fertility, and enough ambiguity to choke yourself upon.
Gingitsune is the story of one such shrine, and its solitary herald Gintarou. A gigantic fox, Gin serves the “true heir” to the shrine, Saeki Makoto, who is a bubbly, innocent schoolgirl waiting to inherit the shrine her mother once took care of. Her relationship to Gintarou ranges from loving to bristly, as she takes advantage of his “generosity,” frequently to help classmates with their problems and bring some comfort to those around her. It’s almost a buddy cop series at times, with the precinct being the shrine, and Gin being the straight man.
Gingitsune’s best trait, though, is bringing to light another version of the kitsune tale. Folklore entries on the fox yokai emphasize many of their shapeshifting, tail-growing, and fire-breathing aspects (winter 2012’s InuxBoku SS was one of these series), but tend to neglect the function of the fox as a servant of the kami, and an intercessionary being between the spirit and human worlds. Gingitsune pulls back that veil, showcasing a fox doing what foxes often do- relaying messages, performing sacred duties, and interacting with their miko.
Centering the action around a shrine opens up another road with which to take stories- the community center where people go to ask for good fortune and pay homage to traditional spirits. Shrines are often equated with churches in the West, which is only partially true. They are ritual centers for the community, but are less places of active worship and more places of “hallowed ground,” where individuals can come to commune with the kami, ask for favor, and seek advice. They serve ceremonial functions several times a year, but are not the same sort of temples as one finds in Abrahamic faiths. Shrines are the dwelling places of the local deity, or guardian deity, or even national deity, and serve to bridge the gap between sacred and profane, as Eliade might define it. They hold strong significance to the geographic community, and to the kami to which they are dedicated. And the shrine herald- in this case, Gin- serves as the intermediary between the people and the kami.
This is a very basic, stripped down explanation on shrine dynamics, but a necessary one for audiences unfamiliar with the concept. As with Sasami and Eccentric Family, it is an often overlooked part of Shinto tradition, but one which is crucial to the practice, and important to understand. Gingitsune makes it that much more accessible, and intriguing, to both domestic and foreign audiences.
Additionally, Gingitsune spends several episodes worth of time “waxing philosophical,” introducing other heralds and taking a look into the place of the shrine and its celestial servants within the 21st century. Much like Pom Poko in the 90s focused on the plight of the local tanuki in the face of losing their land and life, Gingitsune shows the heralds struggling with the same looming fate: transformation and modernity threatening ritual life in ways that even the the most forward-seeking scholars of lore likely didn’t anticipate. Listening to certain heralds stick to their guns about their jobs, even while their world slowly vanishes, creates a sense of empathy between viewer and kami. Potentially a strong tie, given that these same kami are part of the ritual landscape outside of the series. It’s a lot of philosophy and metaphor, but those such cases are also meant to spur real thought about the place of the past within the present, and finding a way to ensure a productive future. Gingitsune might not wholly embody that kind of thinking, but it certainly asks the question to whomever might be watching.
One of the main points to remember when looking at these shows hearkens back to Lauren’s point: they focus on a fantastical Japan that has synthesized into a modernized world- a sort of "Tono monogatari" for the 21st century. Humans and "kwaidan" creatures, existing side by side and influencing one another, often without either side realizing it. They could be seen as an elaborate “what if” scenario- what if the kami and yokai lived in our world? How would their stories be told? How would they interact with the technology and changes in spiritual concerns? What would their concerns as spiritual beings be? Cultural evolution being a major part of the world we live in, how would ageless beings from millennia ago manage to reconcile their once-dominant place in the face of so many distractions and “shiny things” competing for human attention. All three of these series ask those questions: they update the old stories for today, they look into how those weird creatures interact with the world, and tell us stories about the intersection of the hidden and modern worlds...just like art in Edo, or storytelling in Meiji did much the same to bring the old stories into new times.