Monday, 31 January 2011

Essential anime for theologians

A guest-post by Steve Wright, a PhD student in Sydney – he recently introduced me (and my kids) to the incredibly rich and magical world of anime films, so I asked him for a post on the topic...

Anime is simply Japanese for "animation". These are a far cry from the Warner Bros. cartoons of your childhood. Grab some takoyaki and ramune (maybe some sake), set the language options to Japanese with English subtitles (avoid English dubs at all costs), and prepare to whisper in quiet amazement: "sugoi da na..."

25 Comments:

Benjamin Myers said...

Thanks Steve!

One of my kids' favourites is Ponyo — it's one of my favourites too (even after seeing it a few times!), and it's beautifully dubbed in English, with Cate Blanchett and others.

But my own two favourites are Howl's Moving Castle (a beautiful, magical celebration of old age) and Grave of the Fireflies (probably the best portrayal of early childhood that I've ever seen on screen).

Sentinel said...

...and the outstanding "Spirited Away", one of my favourite movies.

JoTigger said...

My Neighbour Totoro.

darren said...

I'd add Princess Mononoke to the list also...

Aric Clark said...

Here is where everyone chimes in with their favorites. So allow me to add "Cowboy Bebop" as an essential - and I will probably get attacked because it is not Japanese animation (It is Korean Animation with an American script) but Nickelodeon's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is really astounding. The climax of the 3rd series is probably the single most interesting ethical discussion of violence ever animated.

Steve Wright said...

These are all fine films, I am a great fan of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Alongside these I would recommend Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and 5cm per Second to anyone interested in anime. However, this is not a list of good anime, but anime worthy of theological reflection. I couldn't simply list the entire Ghibli catalogue. If I could, I would have listed every film by Satoshi Kon.

Steve Wright said...

Aric: Cowboy Bebop nearly made the list. It was the first anime I really loved.

EegahInc said...

"this is not a list of good anime, but anime worthy of theological reflection."

I still think Spirited Away could slip in under that criteria.

Steve Wright said...

Spirited Away is a great film, it was my introduction to the work of Miyazaki. However, Miyazaki already gets two films on this list, and I think that these two (Nausicaa and Howl's) are the most substantive theologically. But, I'm happy to disagree. What others would you include on a list like this?

EegahInc said...

I can't really argue against your choice, I just favor Spirited Away because it brought me back to anime after a long absence. (After seeing Akira in 1990, I asked a video store clerk for recommendations and he handed me Legend Of The Overfiend. It was a decade before I was willing to give anime another chance.)I haven't seen a few on your list, but I'm definitely going to pick them up.

The only other anime which comes to mind right now that might make it on a list like this is Metropolis. It's got some great themes that it probably skims over more than it should, but it's still pretty good.

markbe said...

i echo the Nausicaa recommendation strongly. Samurai 7 is a favorite that didn't make the list, but it's a short series rather than a movie so it takes a time commitment. thx for putting the list out there, still a few i need to see.

Mike said...

Haibane Renmei is a deeply theological parable that I highly recommend—though it's also worth checking out another, earlier show by the same artist called Serial Experiments: Lain too. I've written about both and some of their theological implications in my anime blog, Anime Diet:

http://animediet.net/reviews/anime-reviews/haibane-renmei-review-to-err-and-to-forgive-91

http://animediet.net/reviews/anime-reviews/the-vault-01-serial-experiments-lain-the-digital-flesh-made-word

May I also add that there is a current, ongoing new show called Fractale, in which the God talk is very explicit—but the god in question is a self-sustaining computer system that people "pray" to daily and rely on for all their needs. Fractale can be viewed on Hulu for US viewers.

pchurcher87 said...

@ Steve Wright. Thanks for the list. Do we get any thoughts of why you think they are essential for Theologians particularly? It's great to watch more Anime, whatever reason. Being in the UK there isn't enough and when it's on its dubbed *shudders*. Neon Genesis Evangelion is also worth adding to the list. It has strong themes of sacrifice and love, and even have a few moments explicitly influenced by Christianity.

@Mike. Thanks for the link to your blog.Looks really interesting. Also, Fractale looks fantastic. Can't wait till it's release in the UK.

Steve Wright said...

Mike: Thanks for the links to your blog. I think I've run across your writing before. Please give Hulu a firm kick in the hinder parts for not offering content outside of America.

pchurcher87: I could give you reasons for each one, but that would rob you of the joy of discovery ;)

re: Neon Genesis Evangelion - It seems like an obvious choice for a list like this, but I did leave it out on purpose.

byron smith said...

Millennium Actress.

Ben said...

Steve, did you ever see Kaiji? I'm thinking it may be interesting to you, at least for a few episodes. Gambling, risk, zero-sum...

I second Serial Experiments: Lain and Princess Mononoke. Divinity is quite different in the two shows.

I'm also in the middle of watching Kaiba. It plays on concepts like the self and memory. The animation is playful and unique.

BTW, Ben, I have to say that I like the way this blog is going. First you mention World of Warcraft, and now an entire post on anime. :-)

Benjamin Myers said...

Well, I can't say I've ever played Warcraft — but if anyone wants to write a guest-post on a theology of WoW, I'd be happy to post it! (I've actually tried, without luck, to solicit a post on that topic from a couple of friends who play.)

Steve Wright said...

Ben: No I haven't seen Kaiji, but I have liked quite a bit of Madhouse's work in the past.

Byron: Absolutely. The only reason Millenium Actress is not on this list is because I have already included two works by Satoshi Kon (the same goes for Perfect Blue and Paprika).

byron smith said...

Fair enough - I haven't seen the other two, though I've seen about half on your list.

Thanks for giving me more titles to add to my ever-growing list films to watch.

RVN said...

Thanks for the list! Nausicaa has always enchanted me!

Just curious, can you explain your choice to leave out Neon Genesis Evangelion? I’m still trying to wrap my head about the imagery and references. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.

Steve Wright said...

RVN: Because of its overt use of religious imagery, there certainly are theological themes to be considered in Evangelion. Perhaps it's because I read so much Jenson, but I happen to think that the ending of a story is what makes sense of its events. The ending of Evangelion is a cause of constant debate, the themes are conceptually opaque. The endless revising and remaking of the show suggests that the production has obfuscated the intended message. In my mind, the one clear theological moment in the series is Shinji's final divine choice of embodied differentiation with all of its ugliness and pain over against disembodied and undifferentiated totality. When I watched the original show I thought that this was perfectly obvious, but I have been greeted with scepticism every time I have shared this interpretation with others. Clearly the content of the show is debatable. This creates room for interpretation, but it also means that we should not place too much value on our judgements.

Here's a general rule for anime: the use of Christian symbols in itself is necessarily meaningful. In Japan, Christian symbols may be used because they are foreign and exotic, not because of their central meaning to the faith. I would liken it to the way Westerners think that Buddhism is simply about feeling good about yourself and being nice to others. You shouldn't spend too much time trying to make sense of the meaning behind the Buddha on Phoebe's mantle on Friends. Trying to make sense of Evangelion from the perspective of Christian theology will always be frustrating because the symbols and language are used according to different rules, and even these seem to be ill-defined.

I left Evangelion off the list, not because it has no theological value, but because there are better shows and better movies out there that deserve your attention. Watch Evangelion if you want, but you would be better off watching Eden of the East, Last Exile, or Cowboy Bebop (even RahXephon!).

Steve Wright said...

That first line of the second paragraph should have read "is not necessarily meaningful." Oops.

The Charismanglican said...

Okay, so Ireland is kinda far away from Japan, but I'm thinking you would like The Secret of Kells. I was so happy that I watched this with my kids, especially because we're studying medieval history.

Benjamin said...

Trigun.

And I read what you noted about the use of Christian imagery in Japanese culture. I don't think Wolfwood's cross or profession actually has much to do with the theology of the series. Rather, Stanley Hauerwas' views on the Christian's duty to live peacefully amidst violence arise from the interaction between Wolfwood and Vash.
I guess it should be noted that I haven't seen the final episode (waiting for my roommates to catch up).

All in all, very good list! Looking forward to trying them out.

Gary Simmons said...

Benjamin: Trigun is excellent, not just as anime in general, but also for theological discussion. As a Christian pacifist, I especially enjoy it.

Another series to add to the list might be Gundam 00. I think Trigun is more reflective, but Gundam 00 also works with the question of ethics, peace, and war. http://www.goodanime.net/category/mobile-suit-gundam-00

Gundam 00 also uses religious imagery through the use of names, but it lacks any accurate understanding of Christian meaning, much like Phoebe's Buddha statue. What a great parallel there, by the way.

Also, what about Rurouni Kenshin?

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