Forty years ago, the Beatles landed in New York City and launched what history books call the British Invasion. Perhaps drowned out by all those screaming girls, another outsider touched down and slipped quietly through customs. Its few cultural ripples gradually swelled to tsunamic proportions. Today, that stylish Japanese pop culture invasion has reached teens via every conceivable medium, trading heavily in false religions, faulty worldviews, violence and pornography.
Japan exports billions of dollars worth of merchandise into the United States in the form of manga (comics, graphic novels) and anime (animation), video games, card games and more. Video stores have entire sections dedicated to anime. Cartoon Network, WB and Fox have expanded such programming, and the first 24/7 cable channel devoted to the art form, Anime Network, expects to be in 1 million homes by year’s end. Several major publishers have manga lines, and thousands of fans come out to play in costume at anime conventions. Such loyal interest also fuels a burgeoning Internet presence.
Anime’s Spiritually Dark Waters
Japan is a land steeped in religions, traditions and superstitions that promote wildly diverse ideologies. On a given weekend, a typical citizen might celebrate a Christian wedding, mourn at a Buddhist funeral and worship at a Shinto shrine. A common crisis prayer is “Gods and Buddha, please help me somehow.” That syncretism—a hallmark of anime—is being embraced by American teens. “Our continuing research among teenagers and adolescents,” states the Barna Group, “shows that the trend away from adopting biblical theology in favor of syncretic, culture-based theology is advancing at full gallop.”
The religious characters in anime have included demons, exorcists, vampires, priestesses and sorcerers. A multitude of Shinto-inspired spirits indwell everything from rocks to the sun (e.g., 2002’s Oscar-winner Spirited Away). Woven through all of this are counterfeit presentations of Christianity. While the archetype of good vs. evil dates back to Genesis, anime often perverts God’s truth by partnering good with evil for noble purposes.
For example, in Chrono Crusade a nun and a demon team up to perform exorcisms. Another series, Hellsing (no relation to the vampire-slaying Van Helsing) chronicles the amoral adventures of a blood-sucker secretly in league with Protestant knights out to protect Queen and country from all manner of monsters. The Saturday morning cartoon Shaman King involves a teenager who invites a ghost to indwell and empower him. Spiritual confusion? You bet. 1 Corinthians 10:20 warns, “I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
A Christian anime site cautioned, “Japanese anime productions will always give us a pathway into Christianity. However, because of the other spiritual concepts in the culture, the path may be full of mud holes, snake pits, or simply twist into another spiritual pathway. To a newborn Christian or an uneducated one, the representations may seem OK or faithful to the Christian beliefs. This is the danger in anime. Discernment and loyalty to the Word of God is of utmost importance.”
Redefining “Cartoon Violence”
Violence imported from Japan has concerned parents since the early days of Power Rangers. But outside the Saturday morning TV grid, anime ups the ante considerably. It’s not unusual to find graphic depictions of severed heads spurting blood (Hellsing) or refrigerated body parts that have been left behind as a killer’s calling card (Ghost in the Shell 2:Innocence). Verbal and physical conflict is common, even between boys and girls. The fairer sex gets no slack. In fact, nowhere is girl power (the concept of strong, self-sufficient females able to hold their own against men) more prevalent than in anime.
From Titillation to Perversion
Sexualized anime is a mud hole that has claimed even the most unsuspecting. In teen material it can include oversized breasts or a peek under a short skirt, nonsensual nude forms of robots or spirits, or full-frontal and rear nudity. Themes may or may not be as erotic as the art.
Kids surfing the Web for info on their favorite shows often encounter a publisher’s more mature products, or fan sites containing pornographic art and stories. A simple Google search of “anime” can lead teens to hentai (pornography) in seconds flat.
“Nudity is traditionally not as taboo in Japan as in Puritan-influenced America,” notes one anime convention Web site. “A naked kid running through isn’t uncommon, or even an occasional flash of breast with no ill meaning behind it.” All the more reason for parents to stay informed.
Manga: The Soul of Anime
The only similarity between American and Japanese comics is that both use illustrated panels. In Japan, comics are read by both sexes and all ages, for entertainment and instruction. Much of the manga exported to the United States was never intended for children. This confuses American consumers ingrained in their understanding of comic books and animation as child’s play. The confusion is understandable. The earliest manga, Astro Boy, even borrowed his big eyes from Disney characters—a trait conveying innocence that’s still prominent in the genre today.
There is no universal rating system for manga. TOKYOPOP, the world’s largest non-Japanese publisher of manga, came up with its own system, sorting graphic novels into five age categories from “All” to “Mature.” Most distributors use some kind of rating. However, older titles, Web content and products released by smaller publishers are likely to carry inaccurate ratings or none at all.
This inconsistent system breaks down further as products cross the ocean and transcend media. For instance, the original Yu-Gi-Oh! graphic novel and trading cards didn’t become popular in Japan until artists spiced them up with mild erotica. Those images were cleaned up before traveling to America. Much of the weaponry used in the Japanese TV series was also confiscated at the border. Now 4KidsEntertainment is releasing the uncut Asian version on DVD, with the graphic novel and trading cards sure to emigrate as well. Sadly, most U.S. families won’t even know there’s a difference when purchasing this familiar title.
The MPAA seems duped by the misleading, childlike qualities of animation as well. The movie ratings board granted an inexplicable PG-13 rating to the bloodstained and sexually themed Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. The problem multiplies as new fans check out other products in the long-running franchise. The unrated 1996 original contains profanity and full-frontal nudity. The 26-episode TV series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, soon to be available on DVD, features the main female character prancing around in lingerie. Worse yet, the highly erotic manga by Shirow Masmune that spawned the franchise has been re-released. Though the graphic novel is adult-rated and shrink-wrapped, Web sites offer titillating peep shows and easy purchase.
At a recent anime convention, or kan, Plugged In found innocent animated graphics alongside gay art. Thousands of dollars changed hands in the dealer’s room, a sordid cross between a toy store and an adult book store. Meanwhile, an anime-character dating game quickly turned raunchy. Sadly, children who showed up with visions of Pokémon left with images meant for fans far beyond their years.
Christian youth are as attracted to the dark world of anime as their peers are. One reason may be that artistic teens are captivated by its imagery and eagerly imitate the style in their own sketchbooks. Sales of the How to Draw Manga books have topped a million units in the U.S. Budding artists create unique characters to identify themselves among the brotherhood of avid fans called otaku. It’s not unusual to find teens in church hallways chattering more excitedly over each other’s artwork than about what happened in youth group. In response to that interest, Christian alternatives have begun appearing. Christian Anime Alliance (christiananime.net) and animeangels.net offer online analysis and commentary from a biblical perspective.
Evangelizing the Subculture
Can God use anime to win young souls for Christ? The folks at Dynamic Animation say yes. The first project from this boutique Christian anime studio (visit dynamic-animation.com) is a manga-style comic book called The Great Commission: Return of the Enemy—KANE!, featuring Christian rapper KJ-52 as a gospel warrior. The musician will in turn offer a digitized version of the story on his upcoming CD. Future projects will include more titles in the Great Commission series and a high-end PC game.
Once again the church is learning to speak a foreign language just to reach a mission field on U.S. soil. This time it’s a Japanese dialect. Dynamic Animation co-founder and lead artist Brian Bennetham says, “We’re putting ourselves on the front line because there is nothing on the market now that combines our two worlds—anime and Christianity—to fight evil. We are a tiny piece of rock going up against a strong enemy.”