Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Christianity in Anime

As with any situation where some people try to represent a tradition they don’t really know that much about, the Japanese are pretty ace at reimagining Christianity in the weirdest of ways. (Disclaimer: Yes, I know America does the same thing when they make every Buddhist monk a master of kung fu or something, I know as far as Christianity is concerned Christians have some of the least space historically to complain about appropriation, but that’s not what I’m gonna focus on today.)

Christianity first came to southern Japan with the first merchants during the European age of exploration, circa the 17th century. The Japanese government had finally restabilized itself following the Warring States era, and the ruling Tokugawa family decided that the foreigners’ religion (among other foreigner things) was a threat to the nation, and implemented a closed-borders policy, where no foreigners went in and no Japanese went out. Part of this policy made being a Christian a capital offense. This went on for over two and a half centuries, until the Tokugawa regime was toppled, America bullied Japan into reopening, and a new government was established. To this day, the population of Christians in Japan is about 1% of the total number of Japanese.

tl;dr: Historically and currently, Japan doesn’t have a lot of Christians and the Japanese in general (yay sweeping generalizations) don’t really get or care about getting a grasp on the meat of the doctrine, since they mostly all follow a vaguely atheist mix of Buddhism and Shintoism.

In part, because of the fact that Christianity isn’t really understood, there are a lot of really crazy anime that involve Christianity since it can make a theoretically great backdrop for anything with a supernatural plot. You may remember my Manga Mondays review of Hellsing? Well, it’s my honor to start there.

Hellsing’s main characters are English Protestants fighting vampires, and good god are they bloodthirsty, but not as bloodthirsty as the amoral and nigh-sociopathic forces of the

Catholic Church’s Division XIII, the Iscariot unit. They are basically a holdover from the most vicious and brutal of Crusaders—willing to kill anything—human or supernatural—that doesn’t profess the Catholic faith. At one point in the story, the Pope (who may or may not be JPII) gives permission for actual Catholic crusader armies to level London, as the first step in a Reconquista of the heathen Protestant islands. Yikes. The Church is by no means perfect, but I’m pretty sure that the Vatican does not have legions of crack soldiers for this sort of purpose.

Also, there’s, y’know, the gun.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about religious life. For example, Sister Esther of Trinity Blood and Sister Rosette of Chrono Crusade both have romantic interests in their male companions, Father Abel, a priest, and Chrono, a demon, respectively. Rosette’s also drawn in a super fetishistic way—thigh highs and garter belts under that habit? Of course there are. Trinity Blood also goes against current Catholic doctrine with a female Cardinal, but Caterina’s so badass that I don’t give any bothers about that.

In Rurouni Kenshin filler as well as in Samurai Champloo, the main characters encounter secret Christian groups in southern Japan, and they often wield plans to take over Japan like real Christian groups wielded rosaries.

A particularly strange case is that of Saiyuki—the story is based on a founding myth of Mahayana Buddhism, for cripe’s sake, and the main character is a Buddhist priest, but in the anime at least, we see statues of the Virgin Mary protecting a town from demons in a way that nothing Buddhist can.

And there are dozens of anime, mostly romantic (they’re a particularly common setting for shoujo-ai like Maria-sama ga Miteru) that are set in Catholic schools, but where the chapels are more of a place for a dramatic scene change than a place for worship.

I could go on for a long time, here. But I won’t. There are certainly anime that represent Christianity more reasonably. In the new anime Kids on the Slope/Sakamichi no Apollon, the main character moves to Kyushu and the friends he makes are Christians. In general, he has a typical Japanese reaction—he doesn’t get it, but he doesn’t resent them or try to convert them or anything either. They just happen to be Christian, with no guns, demons, or corny, chaste, and over-dramatic girls-love involved. To be fair, this is a slice of life anime and most of the rest I mentioned are fantasy in some way, but nevertheless, it was a breath of fresh air to see it.

What other anime do you know of with weird religious overtones or themes, readers? Let me know in the comments. For now, though, that’s a wrap on this week’s Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus.

Tune in next time and get some religion!

24 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Christianity in Anime

  1. I’ll point out two that immediately come to mind. Madoka Magica, while containing themes that are perhaps more analogous to Buddhism, can also be compared to Christianity. Madoka makes a strong Christlike figure, and early symbolism in the story (particularly involving Kyoko and her background) are purposely tied into the faith. Also quite fitting: the finale aired on Good Friday in Japan.

    Haibane Renmei is another and is perhaps the most overtly Christian/Catholic series I’ve seen, even if not purposely so. The themes of grace, sin, and redemption run very strong and the setting feels very much like a depiction of purgatory.

    • Thanks for your input! Madoka Magika is on my to-watch list, now I feel like I should check it out sooner rather than later. I’ve never even heard of Haibane Renmei, though. what’s it about?

      • Ah, well, Haibane Renmei has kind of hit that “classic” status without a lot of people watching it. It follows a young lady being born into a world populated by people, but also “haibane,” which are (mostly) young women with wings and halos. The show begins as slice-of-life almost, but it slowly upwraps mysteries and goes from becoming very sleepy in tone to pretty intense. It’s from the man behind “Serial Experiments Lain,” so no surprise that the show is powerful and deep.

        Oh, and yes, you MUST watch Madoka Magica! I’ll be reviewing the second volume release of the DVD on my blog soon.

  2. I would recommend “Angel Sanctuary”, although to my knowledge they only made an OVA as a companion to the manga, and not a full anime series.

    • I tried Angel Sanctuary a long time ago when I was first getting into manga and it didn’t really do it for me. Maybe I’ll check it out again now that I’m more familiar with the medium. 🙂

      • I recently re-read that manga for the first time since high school and it wasn’t… quite as good as I remembered. But the art is pretty and it has an interesting premise, so still one of my favs!

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  4. I recall the undercurrent of a Christian theme in Trigun. Not only does the main character wear a tiny cross, but he meets a priest who carries a giant cross (a la Christ carrying his to his execution) filled with tiny guns.

    • Wolfwood’s an interesting character to unpack. He seems to me like the slightly-less-bloodthirsty version of Anderson from Hellsing – priest in charge of an orphanage who kicks ridiculous ass when necessary – but there’s a lot of symbolism there…

  5. Just a note in response to your post. Christianity DID try to take over japan and also picked sides during both Sengoku Jidai and the Boshin war.
    Japan has been maybe something like 1% to 3% christian for the last 500 years. That is a much longer history with Christianity than the west has with Buddhism.
    It should also be noted that Japanese Christianity is a catholic rite that was out of communion with Rome since the end of Sengoku Jidai, again some 500 years ago. It has had time to evolve on its own lines around how acceptable it is for nuns and priests to have relationships, but it IS still catholic.
    It’s not alien to japan, like buddhism is to the west, it’s just esoteric and played for the mystery.

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m obviously not the world’s most knowledgeable about Japanese history, so I appreciate your input. 🙂

    • The “Japanese Christianity” you are referring to here is Hanare Kirishitan who are the Kakure Kirishitan who refused to rejoin with Rome. They are most certainly not Catholic. Being out of communion with Rome is the definition of not being Catholic. Also, their beliefs can barely be considered Christina anymore due to centuries of syncretism. It is the Eastern Catholic rites such as the Maronites and Byzantines who have married priest (their nuns certainly do not marry).

  6. I’d like to point out that the manga writer for “Hellsing Ultimate” makes EVERYONE a homocidal maniac.

    • Haha touche. That is part of the fun of Hellsing, honestly. Mostly my point was, though, that you don’t see a lot of realistic portrayals of religious figures in anime because they more tend toward crazies like the Iscariot division, and for a country that doesn’t have a lot of day-to-day Christianity to compare to, it makes me wonder what sort of image Japanese who are only exposed to pop-culture portrayals have of the religion.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  9. There’s also To Aru Majutso No Index which revolves around the Index Liborum Prohibitum, however this times its a young girl instead of a list. Weird anime with a crap ton of badass priests in it.

  10. On the subject of Catholic School, in both Japan and the West lots of Catholic schools have no Catholic student bodies, but in Japan particularly these re often the Majority. So the actual worship being something the students in Strawberry Panic are indifferent to is perfectly realistic.

    IN the case of Helsing, I was unaware of any anime acknowledging Protestants before reading this. At any rate fiction exaggerating the Protestant-Catholic conflict into a war between England and the rest of Europe has a long present in Western literature too. While I can’t think of anything that over the top right now, the last thing Rocambole Novels are finally available in English,as Romcanbole Crusade, (though heavily abridged) which fictionalizes the Irish struggle for Independence in very religious terms. But Ponson was a Catholic who viewed the Anglicans as Evil.

  11. I sincerely hope that by ‘appropriation’ you weren’t referring to the Pagan Copycat theory, because it’s been debunked by serious historians believer and nonbeliever alike for decades.

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  13. You mention that nuns in anime sometimes have fetishistic underwear. This is part of “fan service,” literally “giving the fans what they want.”
    A different example: High School DxD is (or at least starts out as) a sexy take on adolescent male desire. The main character is attracted to, then dominated by well-endowed young women who turn out to be devils. But, we soon learn, angels are much more dangerous.
    Then our hero meets, and saves from danger, a young nun–and here we get upskirt fan service. The nun’s confessor is quite nasty, domineering, and dangerous: being a priest is no guarantee of goodness.

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