Aniblogger Testimonies: Confessions of a Middle-Aged Otaku: Discovering Christian Messages In Anime

This is the second in a series of Aniblogger Testimony posts, where select writers will discuss their personal faith.  Today’s post is by R86, frequent contributor on Beneath the...
Pegasus Seiya
If an unacknowledged God in a make-believe world can help a make-believe character surpass his own natural abilities, then why can’t the real God in the real world do the same with you or me?

This is the second in a series of Aniblogger Testimony posts, where select writers will discuss their personal faith.  Today’s post is by R86, frequent contributor on Beneath the Tangles.  The previous post in this series was written by Lauren Orisini.

In this column, I intend to focus on my experience of anime as a Christian adult who discovered anime relatively late in life. It is probably enough to say of myself that I am an American male of vaguely European descent, in my early 40s, with a Ph.D. from a major Midwestern university in a physical science, and an educator by way of career.

I stumbled upon anime only within the last 5-6 years, and that mainly because I knew so many young people my students’ age were watching it. What I found at first was sometimes appalling (I was unprepared for the violence in Akira, for example, thinking I would be getting “just cartoons”), often silly, and usually entertaining. Mostly I wondered how I could so easily accept these strange depictions they call “anime characters” as replacements for live flesh-and-blood actors. Clearly I was in contact with something as different from American cartoons as one could imagine. And given my lifelong fascination with foreign languages, with one as different from English as Japanese being a slam dunk for capturing my interest, you will see why I was hooked before I knew it.

Soon, however, another phenomenon started to take me by surprise. Not with every anime I watched, in fact not with most of them, but with occasional ones, certain themes and concepts came forth with particular strength and clarity. Such themes include fighting alongside one’s comrades (whether in a sport or a battle), striving for excellence at one’s work, forgiveness, second chances, the breaking of curses, and many others. These themes are not specifically Christian, and in anime at any rate, probably do not come from the minds of creators who would describe themselves as Christians. However, viewing these ideas as I do through what we would call a “Christian lens,” the effects on me have been profound and lasting. Hard as it is for me to admit, these strange drawings called anime characters have excited my imagination more than any real-life actor in any live-action movie I have ever seen.

Pegasus Seiya

If an unacknowledged God in a make-believe world can help a make-believe character surpass his own natural abilities, then why can’t the real God in the real world do the same with you or me?

Of course we all know that there are real-life people called voice actors or seiyuu behind the anime characters. Certainly their skills (or lack thereof) have a great deal to do with the extent to which the character they voice “comes to life” in any given anime. And yet, what is it about these odd cartoons that can so easily bring messages before our minds, messages that seem too large for the character itself to contain, or even the most gifted real-life actor? What is it about anime such that even the memory of certain scenes can move an adult to tears? And where is God in all this?

I have no background in literature or psychology, but I do have my guesses. It may be that watching animated characters relieves us of the constant self-reminder, “But I know who that is. That’s Angelina Jolie / Anthony Hopkins / Samuel Jackson Lee / (whoever).” In contrast, we know perfectly well that an anime character doesn’t really exist. That is its charm, and its power. A power that goes right past the logical side of the viewer’s mind, and straight to the imagination. This is a moment that can be used of God to get messages across that, perhaps, never got across by other means. In addition, for those of us who are learning the Japanese language, it may be that watching subtitled anime further “occupies” that logical side of our mind, preventing it from interfering with the concepts and emotions that arise from the characters we watch and the situations they encounter. But again, in all this I am only guessing.

My experience of God through all this, though, is the same as in any other area of my life. Simply put, what God has been teaching me over the years is that neither my life in general, nor any particular detail of it, is truly mine. All of my abilities, all of my so-called possessions, all of my life’s circumstances, are there by his pleasure, and to be used to spread the fame of his glory, not mine. This is, at least in part, what Paul meant when he said of God in Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being.” More bluntly still, even fiercely, God describes his love for us as something that chases after us, that is 100% determined to have every bit of our lives in his service: “‘As I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out, I shall be king over you.’” (Ezekiel 20:33) Of the wrath that God the Father poured out on Jesus for our sake, I will leave it for worthier and more talented people to write; but suffice it for now to say that this is a love that pursues us and meets each of us right where we are. Apparently, that even includes while we are watching anime.

As far back as its history records, Christianity has valued very highly what we now call the “spiritual disciplines.” This would include such things as regular Bible reading, regular times of prayer, and even fasting. I would be horrified if anyone reading my words thought I suggested that watching anime can or should replace any of these disciplines. All I am suggesting is that God might in some cases use the medium of anime to communicate ideas and concepts, by dealing more directly than usual with the emotions and imagination of the viewer. Certainly this has been my experience. A small handful of shows that I have watched have, in this fashion, quite literally changed my life. And this middle-aged otaku is not ashamed to say so.

Enough, then, about me and my experience in watching anime. What about you? What about your experience?

Note: R86 has written a number of guest-posts on this blog relating to these “transformational anime.”  Below are links to these posts:

R86 is a chemistry professor, which is the sort of job that probably made you stop reading already. He teaches organic chemistry at Texas A&M University. In his spare time, he enjoys music (flute/saxophone/clarinet and MIDI/Vocaloid synthesis), watching anime, and travelling to Japan as cheaply as possible.
Comments

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  • Marina
    31 March 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Well, I was pleasantly surprised after reading your entry here. I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe some anti-Christian comparisons, or perhaps overt advertisement for the Christian belief? Instead what I received was an intelligent conversation discussing possible parallels between the anime medium and Christian values/messages. While I am by no means a Christian, I certainly understand where you’re coming from. There are plenty of shows that have struck me to the core of my being and taught me lessons I never really considered or cared about. I guess we can chalk that up to me still being in my mid-20s, with plenty of life still ahead of me full of all its tears and joys.

    The one thing I felt was missing from your testimony were specific examples. i would have liked you to name some of the anime that influenced you or that you found particularly connected to the message of God.

    Leave a Reply
  • R86
    31 March 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, Marina — and the criticism is fair enough too. The reason I didn’t mention specific shows is that I’ve written columns for TWWK on three specific shows that have come across to me with particular strength, that are posted earlier on this blog. Looking back on it, maybe I should have mentioned them in the column and instructed TWWK to put links. Or would that have been too self-serving? 🙂

    I intend to keep writing such essays for this blog too, at least for a while. TWWK and I have discussed my starting my own blog, and this might well happen, but not soon. I have only discovered this particular online community within the last two months or so.

    Maybe our gracious host will be able to leave a comment with links to the four columns in question? I just tried but I keep getting redirected to a sign-in page….

    Leave a Reply
  • Ed Sizemore
    31 March 2011 at 7:01 pm

    R86,

    Kierkegaard believed the same thing about art. That art has a way of sneaking past our defense mechanicisms and rationalities to speak to deepest part of us. And I’ve that true in my life too. Be it songs, paintings, or anime. God has no problem using what’s right in front of us to confront and/or instruct us.

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing.

    Leave a Reply
    • R86
      2 April 2011 at 8:59 am

      Now that you mention it, it must have been that I got the idea from Kierkegaard. I knew I couldn’t possibly be the first to come up with it. 🙂

      Anyway, thanks for reading! I checked out your website too and will be sure to be back. I’m new to the blogosphere as I said, but I’m figuring out that’s how it works: click on (almost) everything. 😉

      Leave a Reply
  • Bobbee
    1 April 2011 at 1:41 pm
    • R86
      2 April 2011 at 9:01 am

      Thanks Bobbee. Don’t forget that it was your husband who said to me when all this was starting, that it was as if God were saying to me, “You want to watch anime? Fine. I can use that.” 🙂

      Leave a Reply
  • Kokoro Hane
    4 April 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Well-thought out post. And I do agree that anime (even if it was Christian) is NOT a replacement for spiritual diciplines. But it could be used as an outreach medium, I believe God can use it through artists willing to produce them.

    My experience with viewing anime with “Christian lens” is, well, the values that I see in some anime/manga that I enjoy. There are many times when I am watching things such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Angelic Layer, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles, heck even xxxHOLiC and Ghost Hunt sometimes I see something. Like in FMA, for example. Now we all know Ed has bluntly stated he is an Agnostic. Yet while watching with these “Christian lens” you speak of, I still see something spiritual in this series. With Ed’s character, I see someone who is probably Agnostic and doesn’t believe due to his past. His father left, his mother died, and trying to bring her back only caused more pain. He learned that trying to play God has serious consequences and we humans are limited. Then there’s Scar, who tries to justify his killings as God’s Will, but deep down it’s all about revenge. We see how revenge can turn a believer into a bloodthirsty killer, how anger can consume us in our hurt.

    I could explain more with the other anime I watch, but for now, I’ll just leave it to the FMA example.

    Leave a Reply
    • R86
      5 April 2011 at 10:35 am

      FMA is a really good example. I never saw the original series, but saw the “Brotherhood” version just recently, and was blown away. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure why — I could not tell you which character was my favorite, for instance — but probably your comment gets at some of the reason why. In the end, it may be the story itself that I found so intriguing.

      Anyway, thanks for reading! 🙂

      Leave a Reply
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