Spirituality in Anime

Japanese culture has a rich religious and mythological history, drawing from Eastern religious systems such as Hinduism and Buddhism and a folklore partly shared with China and other historical neighbors. More recently, ideas generally thought of as 'Western' - Christianity, mermaids, and curious space aliens - have joined the party.

Collectively, these elements of religion and mythology are crucial to anime and manga, whether they are an important aspect of the story, or simply are part of the implicit cultural background material.

Why it Matters in Understanding Anime

Belief in kami (roughly, gods) was common until relatively recently in Japan, and can still be seen in nostalgic, atavistic anime such as My Neightbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke. However, this notion of godliness is drastically different from the general monotheism of Western traditions; what the Japanese call a god would probably be labeled a 'sprite' or 'elemental' in the West. The O Totoro and the Forest God are, after all, more or less the same thing characterized two different ways. The supernatural is associated with - or rather, integrated into - the physical world.

This is just one example of the ways in which Japanese assumptions about the order of the world, past and present, might confuse an uninitiated viewer.

The Importance of Context

Every culture has a state religion or two that, even if it is not really observed or believed, powerfully informs both the structure of society and the thoughts of the people who constitute it. In America, this is the Judeo-Christian tradition; for Japan, it is Buddhism and Shinto. This understanding is crucial for two reasons.

First, there is a host of customs, allusions, and metaphors implicit in anime derived from the Buddhist or Shinto tradition. To the extent that anime is a production and reflection of Japanese culture, it carries Eastern religion as its default mode of supernaturality.

Of course, Judeo-Christian elements are popular, even pervasive in anime. Indeed, some productions, such as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion, are in terms of plot nothing but re-envisionings of Judeo-Christian myth. And to somebody brought up in the Judeo-Christian worldview, they seem really strange.

They are strange; but to the target audience, almost none of whom are Christians, the tradition is a foreign one. It's an appropriation of somebody else's religious system, much like Star Wars or a host of Disney animated films.

This also means that if you understand Japanese religions a little better, you'll understand a lot more about Japanese storytelling and productions.

An Example and an Exhortation

In Card Captor Sakura, Sakura and Li use mantras and mudras - ritualistic hand poses - to invoke the powers of the Clow Cards. In Shinto, mantras and mudras are used to invoke the powers of the good gods; because Clow Cards are summoned in this way, they are fundamentally good. This is crucial to understanding what's really going on in Sakura, and is presented symbolically.

If you want to know more about the spiritual and religious aspects of anime, a little work in the library will go a long way or, if you'd like, you can even begin on the web.

-Brian Kerr Click to learn more about Brian


Martinez, D. "Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures." The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture. Ed. D. Martinez. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Ortabasi, Melek. "Fictional Fantasy or Historical Fact? The Search for Japanese Identity in Miyazaki Hayao's Mononokehime." A Century of Popular Culture in Japan. Ed. Douglas Slaymaker. Lewiston: Mellen Press, 2000.

Potter, David. "Who in the World is Hasekura Tsunenaga? Presentation and Appropriation of Local Symbols in Provincial Japan." A Century of Popular Culture in Japan. Ed. Douglas Slaymaker. Lewiston: Mellen Press, 2000.

Card Captor Sakura
My Neightbor Totoro
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Princess Mononoke
Revolutionary Girl Utena





A few kodama from Princess Mononoke.


Elements of the Sephiroth and the Christian Revelation are incorporated in End of Evangelion.



Watch Li-kun's hands!


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The University of Michigan Japanese Animation Group
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