The Peril and Potential of Anime

Photo from IMDb – “Kimetsu no Yaiba: Mugen Ressha-Hen (2020)”

The Peril and Potential of Anime

By Allen Rushing, Movieguide® Contributor

In his poem, “Mythopoeia”, which he wrote as a refutation “To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless”, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote: “The heart of man is not compound of lies / But draws some wisdom from the only Wise” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, pp. 85 and 87). By this he meant that no one can can live without myth because, contrary to how the word “myth” is most often used today, it is not a synonym for “lie”; in fact mythopoeia – myth-making – or “Fantasy” is a perfectly “natural human activity” (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 55) because it is simply the telling of stories in an attempt to explain and understand the story in which humans find themselves. No one can “live without a myth – some shared story in which our own life stories have meaning” (Michael Horton, “Secular Spirituality: A Brief History”, Modern Reformation, Vol. 29, No. 2, March-April 2020) because everyone desires to know the nature of the story they’re in, the nature of the storyteller, and what part they themselves may play in this story.   

Christian thinkers like Tolkien hold that the True Myth of Scripture is the original source that all human storytellers inevitably draw upon and they do so because they are made in the Image of God, the Original Storyteller. Thus, one can find biblical themes in any artistic work, though artistic works widely vary in the degree to which they are distorted by sin. 

Because of this, one can find biblical themes even in Japanese Anime. The deeply biblical cautionary tale that is the heart of DEATH NOTE is but one example. But this should not blind one to the dominant worldview which underlies the medium of Anime, or any other cinematic art form. 

Stella Yuan, now pursuing her doctorate in Neuroscience at University of California, San Diego, researched and provided a fascinating study of Anime while an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University. She writes: 

Anime (アニメ) is a Japanese term for hand-drawn or computer animation. The word is the abbreviated pronunciation of “animation” in Japanese, where this term references all animation. 

Anime consists of an ideal story-telling mechanism, combining graphic art, characterization, cinematography, and other forms of imaginative and individualistic techniques. 

Being hand-drawn, anime is separated from reality by a crucial gap of fiction that provides an ideal path for escapism that audiences can immerse themselves into with relative ease. 

This last point, about the immersive nature of Anime is key. Anime is a uniquely stylized art form, one which assumes an “ideal story-telling” approach which accentuates certain aspects of humanity, whether this is certain facial features, such as the Japanese cultural focus on the eyes which often manifests in the larger than usual eyes of Anime characters, or the deplorable hyper-sexualization of Anime characters which is so prevalent it is often referred to simply as “fan service”. As Movieguide® has written: “Popular anime movies also tend to push excessive…sexual content. While pornographic anime has its own category called hentai, innuendos and overt sexualization of characters remain pervasive in mainstream anime.”  

Such an art form wields immense power to captivate consumers, its immersive artistic presentation only furthering its influence. And despite its strong artistic value and important common grace insights, Anime in general is plagued by an overall pagan worldview, drawing almost exclusively on an unbiblical perspective on divinity such as Shintoism’s pantheistic kami. 

In light of all this, it is imperative that Christian parents be aware that Anime is not just another kind of animation. Japanese Anime is a particular case in which “The Medium is” often “the Message” (Marshall MacLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 7). In so far as every purposeful mode of communication and representation is chosen with a specific purpose in mind, and this purpose is ultimately based on deep seated worldview assumptions about God, man, and the cosmos, it would seem that Anime, more than other types of graphic storytelling, tends toward a highly distorted depiction of reality based on its largely pagan view of life. 

This does not necessarily mean that Christian families ought not watch Anime; for media wise families, equipped with a strong biblical Christian worldview, such troubling cinematic waters may be effectively navigated. It is simply an attempt to raise awareness of the peril and potential of Anime. As a growing cinematic force, it is set to have an ever expanding impact on Western culture; whether this impact will be positive or negative depends largely on a wise Christian critique of Anime as a whole, pointing out where it shines the light of truth and where it remains in the dark. 

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