Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Shintoism, Death Spirits, & Totoro

my-neighbor-totoro-respect-camphor-tree1Lady Geek Girl: My Neighbor Totoro is nothing more than a fun family movie produced by Studio Ghibli, right? Well, not according to some people. One popular fan theory says that My Neighbor Totoro is not the happy movie that we thought it was. Rather, it’s a story about death, and Totoro is actually a god of death or death spirit. As such, the theory goes that the two girls, Mei and Satsuki, can only see Totoro because they are about to die, and at the end of the film Mei runs off and accidentally drowns. When their neighbors find a sandal in the pond, Satsuki claims it’s not Mei’s, but the theory continues that Satsuki was so distraught and in denial about her sister’s death that she lied about the sandal. Satsuki runs to Totoro and he opens up the realm of the dead by calling Catbus, who transports spirits, so she can find Mei. Then, Catbus takes the two girls to visit their mother at the hospital. Their mother sees them because she too is close to death. At the end of the movie Mei and Satsuki also don’t have any shadows, further indicating that they are dead. Studio Ghibli has denied this theory, but nevertheless, it persists among fans. But are there any connections between the Shinto themes of the movie and this theory?

Trigger warning for mention of suicide after the jump.

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DiC vs. Toei: Raye vs. Rei

Sailor Moon- DiC OpeningSo, I talk about Sailor Moon a lot. I’ve been a fan of the show for years and, like most English-speaking Moonies, I was introduced to it by the English dub produced by DiC Entertainment. As such, I have a lot of affection for the dub and will defend many aspects of it. I don’t believe that one country’s adaptation of another country’s entertainment needs to be a carbon copy of the original. I’ll take into account cultural differences and marketability concerns because they are huge factors to consider when making a product for mass consumption, and, in the past, I have mostly sided with DiC in their decisions. There are times, however, when I have to state that DiC made the wrong choice, and I believe that is the case with how they handled the character of Rei.

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Ace plays Final Fantasy VII: The Religion

FFVII_Sephiroth_Temple_of_AncientsI’ve already discussed religion before in Final Fantasy VII. To be sure, there are a lot of religious themes in VII, especially when it comes to Aerith’s character, who I think is a female Christ figure. Even the background of her people—who are referred to as the Planet’s chosen people—plays off a lot of Judeo-Christian themes, such as the search for the Promised Land. Not everything involving her people, the Cetra, are Judeo-Christian in nature, though. The Temple of the Ancients, for instance, is shaped much like a ziggurat, and the one room inside it has what looks like hieroglyphics.

I’m not about to launch into another post about Aerith, however, even if I left out a lot of things in my other post. What I plan to talk about is how religion in VII affects the culture of the world, by which I mean, not very much, if at all.

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Ghibli Month: Spirited Away

Spirited-Away-spirited-away-452416_1024_768Tsunderin: Outside of Princess Mononoke it’s clear that Spirited Away leads the pack of most well-loved Ghibli films in America. Certainly with an Academy Award and several other honors to its name, the impact of this film upon animation as a serious genre in filmmaking on an international level cannot be ignored. But on a slightly less foundation-shaking level, the film is just plain enjoyable to watch. So much so that I don’t think I know one person who hasn’t seen the film or at least knows the story on some level, even among my non-anime watching compatriots.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Tactical Advantage: Gods + Kings

Civilization-V-Gods-Kings-backgroundOh, Civilization, how you amuse me.

This is a game based entirely on tactics. If you play without a good strategy, you’re bound to lose unless you’ve set the computer difficulty low. While I have played the earlier versions, my experience with Civilization is pretty limited to the latest installment and its expansion pack, Civilization V: Gods + Kings. I think what I like the most about this game, other than building giant death robots and conquering the world, is that we can see how culture and religion can impact growth and power, while completely neglecting how they impact society.

To be fair, that’s not completely true. The game does have a happiness meter, and if your population completely hates you, they will revolt via barbarians.

I suppose that Civ5 is about as accurate as a game can get in terms of application of religion by a society, though it does leave some things to be desired. Being “about as accurate” doesn’t mean entirely accurate, or that there’s no room for improvement in how religion is implemented.

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Ace plays Final Fantasy X: The Oppressive Religious Plot Hole

So I’ve already gone over Seymour and Yuna, and now I’m talking about Yevon. Yevon is the main faith in Final Fantasy X. Just about everyone follows it, and it makes sense that they would. Yevon’s teachings are the only thing providing the people of Spira hope, and it’s been the only thing providing that for the past thousand years. Sin keeps killing people and Yevon is their only way out. Summoners pray at temples run by Yevonites, which probably only enforces the belief that it is through following Yevon’s teachings that Sin will ever truly be destroyed. And when you have a world living in such terror, with their only escape being the church, it also makes sense that Yevon is the leading political power in Spira.

Yevon is actually a very interesting faith, and it is unfortunately not explored to the extent that I wish it would have been. It has a lot in common with Buddhism, Shintoism, and Catholicism. It requires a lot of disciplines for its followers—not using machina, which is what the people call machines—and some of its iconography is indicative of Buddhism. The temples and all the ritualistic practices are very similar to Shintoism, and as for the Catholic Church, it has a very similar hierarchy. Yevon is led by a Grand Maester (basically the Pope), and beneath him are three other Maesters (Cardinals). And then there are the people under them, so on and so forth.

People who don’t follow Yevon, like the Al Bhed, are frowned upon and considered heretics. Though the game does show people being killed for not following Yevon, it honestly surprises me that it doesn’t happen more, and it can even be argued that the Al Bhed who are killed are murdered for other reasons. The amount of scorn non-Yevonites face makes me surprised that executions based on faith, or lack thereof, are not common, especially considering that there are orders to kill Yuna after she is excommunicated.

But when a faith is established as the leading political power, while it’s not a big surprise that the leaders may be corrupt and while we can also argue that Yevon may have brainwashed the people of Spira, that doesn’t mean it can get away with some of the things it does. It doesn’t matter how corrupt an organization is, if it purposefully flaunts its hypocrisy people are going to notice every time. And that’s what happens in Final Fantasy X.

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Manga Mondays: Spirited Away

You know who I love? Miyazaki Hayao! Or Hayao Miyazaki, depending on whichever one you prefer. His works have been a part of me since as long as I can remember. Seriously, at this point in my life, I could probably recite the whole script of Totoro in both English and Japanese, as well as sing the songs. The opening song Tsunderin and I like to sing to each other when hiking down the street, if only because the lyrics fit in with our current actions.

Hey, let’s go! Hey, let’s go!

I’m happy as can be!

Let’s go walking, you and me.

Ready, set, come on, let’s go!

Yes, we’re nerds, and the oddest things entertain us. I realize this. Welcome to my life.

Anyway, not all of Miyazaki’s works have that big an impact on me, but some of them do get very close, and all of them have some underlying theme or message that may be hard for westerners to pick up on easily. This leads me into Spirited Away, a fantasy adventure film that came out in 2001 and was originally titled 千と千尋の神隠し, which translates to The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro. The original title is interesting to me, because it implies that Sen and Tihiro are two different people, and in some ways they are.

Before we go on any further, I take this time to apologize for my weird Romanization of Japanese words. I was not trained on the Hepburn system—which I know means nothing to most of you—but I honestly cannot read it, and it kills my soul. You have no idea how much it pains me to write Tsunderin’s name as Tsunderin, so I will do my best to not confuse the hell out of you guys.

So our main protagonist for the film is Tihiro (Hepburn: Chihiro), a young girl who is moving to a new home with her parents. They get lost and find themselves in the Spirit World. Tihiro’s parents are turned into pigs by Yubaba, the owner of a large bathhouse within the Spirit World. Thus, Tihiro eventually finds herself under Yubaba’s employ while she works for a way to save her parents before they’re slaughtered.

Due to the setting, Spirited Away expresses many Sintou (Hepburn: Shinto—I’m not sorry I’m doing this to you, damn it!) beliefs. And it does this through the loss of its characters’ identities, or even just the loss of something they used to have but need to gain back. Here are just a few examples of characters that lose themselves.

  • Tihiro’s parents turn into pigs because they eat the food in the Spirit World
  • No Face transforms into a monster
  • Yubaba’s baby, Bou, becomes a mouse
  • Kohaku-gawa, the god of Kohaku River, loses his home when it dries up and apartment complexes are built where it used to be, so he takes on the name Haku under Yubaba’s employ

In a sense, Spirited Away is a magical tale based on Sintou beliefs about the struggles of regaining oneself. One Sintou belief is a concern with cleanliness, something Bou represents in his fear of germs, but what the Stink Spirit emphasizes even more through its pollution. Water itself plays a major role in the movie—hence the bathhouse—and commonly recurs throughout all this loss.

Probably the most obvious display of loss comes from Tihiro herself. Spirited Away begins with Tihiro in the backseat of her parents’ car, sitting alone and clutching a bouquet her old classmates have given her as a farewell gift. She is sad because she’s moving out to the country and leaving behind her old life. Once she and her parents accidentally end up in the Spirit World, she has to watch in horror as both her mother and father are turned into pigs. Until she manages to save them and when she applies for work under Yubaba at the bathhouse, she must also take on the name of Sen.

Unfortunately, throughout the course of the movie, her memories of her real name and old self slowly dissipate overtime, and all she has to hold onto who she used to be is the farewell card from her old classmates on her bouquet.

So not only does Tihiro have to remember who she is in order to gain her freedom, she has to remember who her parents are, or she’ll lose everything forever. In a way, Tihiro is what we would call a Mizuko, translated to ‘water child.’ Let me explain.

In Shintoism—damn it, it hurts!—when children are born, their names are added to a list at a shrine. These children are called Uziko (shrine parishioner), and when they die they become Uzigami (Sintou god or patron god). I’m sorry that I’m just bombarding you with Japanese words here, but you don’t really need to remember these. Just know that they have special names for children who are on the list at Sintou shrines—and you should all probably be informed that if you know any practitioners, your name is probably in a shrine somewhere too. They don’t actually need to ask your permission or tell you about it.

So we all might be Uziko! How does it feel? Yeah, I know that you don’t care….

Anyway, if a child dies before his or her name is added to the list, that child is called a Mizuko, which is what Tihiro is now. Often times, Mizuko are seen as troublemakers filled with great anger or grief and worshiped in hopes of stilling these strong emotions. It’s pretty safe to say that Tihiro isn’t worshipped in Spirited Away, but even though Tihiro’s still alive, albeit sad given her circumstances, she is now called Sen, and she almost forgets her true name, while simultaneously causing trouble for Yubaba—either just by smelling like a human, which upsets the other workers, or by letting No Face into the bathhouse, where he starts eating people. So you can interpret this however you want, but despite Tihiro being technically not dead, I thought the movie was making comparisons to her and the idea of Mizuko.

And keeping in mind that Mizuko means ‘water child’ and that Sintou has a lot to do with cleanliness, this only furthers my belief in this regard. Tihiro has a strong connection to water, and one method of purification is standing underneath a waterfall. At the bathhouse, when Tihiro helps the Stink Spirit, the water pours into the bathtub much like a waterfall would, and as she pulls the trash from the spirit, she stands within the torrent. Even afterward, when the spirit thanks her, water still comes down upon them. Furthermore, near the end of the movie, she takes a train to talk to Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba. The train actually runs through what looks like a very shallow ocean. On top of all this, when Tihiro is younger, she almost drowns in the Kohaku River, but is saved by Kohaku-gawa.

Though water is associated with cleanliness, it does play a part in Tihiro’s loss. When she first tries to escape from the Spirit World, a large river has cut off her way, separating her from the real world. During the train scene, she is surrounded by what look to be real people who might be in the real world, but appear as spirits to her because she’s not. Just about all the train stops are surrounded by water and nothing else, but the other passengers still come and go from them, further emphasizing that that just might be the real world, which she can’t get to.

So I don’t want to make this post just a lesson on religion, but there is a lot of it in this movie; however, because of how easy it is to interpret this film from a more religious perspective, it’s also a little easy to read too much into it. Hell, I’ve probably done that to an extent in this post already, but I know there are some people out there who have even said that Spirited Away deals a lot with Japanese mythology.

For example: at the beginning of the movie, Tihiro and her parents have to walk through a tunnel with a large stone placed in front of it to even get to the Spirit World. At one point in mythology, the sun goddess, Amaterasu, hides herself in a cave and pulls a large rock over the entrance. Yeah, this last point was brought to my attention by a professor Tsunderin and I both had when we studied abroad. As I said, it’s probably not wrong to read too much into this film from a religious perspective, but that doesn’t mean it won’t sound ridiculous. Tsunderin and I aptly named this man The God of All Knowledge.

You see, it is really easy to look for something that isn’t there, because Miyazaki also likes to put his own spin on things. A lot of superstitions appear that have nothing to do with religion. At a scene early on, Haku turns Tihiro invisible, and at one point they have to walk over a bridge. But for whatever reason, the spell won’t work on a bridge unless she holds her breath. This is something Miyazaki made up. Also, I know people out there have wondered what the significance of mythological creatures in his films using lily pads for umbrellas is for. Again, it’s just something he came up with. As a director, he can pull his theme or background from anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he’s creatively bankrupt—unless we’re talking about the Secret World of Arrietty.

Hell, one of the more prominent settings in Spirit Away was based off this room right here:

You can find this room in the Open Air Architectural Museum near Tiba (Hepburn: Chiba). Many of the buildings in Spirited Away are based off the buildings in this museum, and if I remember correctly, none of them are shrines. For instance, the bathhouse was more than likely based off this:

And even the bar where Tihiro’s parents are turned to pigs has a lookalike in this museum; however, I can’t find my photo of it right now.

So it does stand to reason that there would be many things in this movie that have nothing to do with Sintou beliefs. At one point in time, Tihiro needs to get something called the golden seal, and it’s protected by a little black slug thing. She squashes it with her bare foot, and though it leads back to Sintou beliefs when the other characters think she’s defiled and needs cleansed, the cure to this is the equivalent of a Japanese Cootie shot.

But even though I spent most of this post talking about Uziko and Mizuko and whatnot, if only because it’s relevant to the film, you don’t need to know much about Japanese mythology or Sintou beliefs to understand this movie. I know a lot of people growing up in school that simply didn’t understand it, but all in all, this is a great movie. It’s just so colorful and it has such a passion behind it; this is definitely one of Miyazaki’s better films. I would check it out if I were you.

Also, I’m not an expert on Sintou beliefs, so if any of you noticed something I said and think it might be wrong, feel free to correct me.


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!

Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus!

This may surprise you, dear reader, but Jesus, he’s in your house! Wait, don’t freak out. I meant, he’s on your TV and not just on EWTN or the 700 Club—I don’t think Jesus would participate in the 700 Club anyway.

Religion is everywhere. Oh, we might like to fool ourselves into thinking we have our entertainment in a separate sphere from our religion, but any author, director, or actor will tell you that they bring something of themselves and their own beliefs to the story.

Even TV shows, movies, and books that seem like they have no religion in them usually have some sort of philosophy they are trying to impart, and those philosophies often have their roots in some kind of religious tradition. Even books like the Golden Compass which supports atheistic values still says something about religion.

I think it’s time that we sat down and really take a look at what our pop culture is trying to say about religion, because they say a lot more than you probably realize.

First, let me say something about my own social location. I have a Bachelor’s in theology, particularly Catholic theology, though I also have some background in Protestantism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. I know some things about Islam, Shintoism, and Taoism but have never been formally educated in them. I tend to be a more progressive Catholic and even have certain views that I would not say are very Catholic at all, so I guess I’m still finding my path, but on the way I have learned quite a bit.

Why am I telling you this? Well, to make completely clear as to what I’m most knowledgeable about and where my own notions of spirituality and religion derive.

That being said, a large portion of this series will be focused on the Christian religion, not just because that’s the religion I know the most about, but because it’s the religion that the large majority of Americans follow, so that is the one that shows up the most in pop-culture. However, special consideration is going to be taken to write about other religions as well. No fair leaving anyone out, is there?

So tune in next week and find some religion!