Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Modern Myths: From Japan with Love

Today, we've got a question sent in that I think is probably food for practically endless discussion about mythology in the modern day: What is your opinions of the different ways many mythologies are used in anime today?

Jeez louise, this one's going to take a while, you guys!

This is a really interesting question because it has a lot of things going on in it, and a lot of directions that looking at it could go. You've got the issues of how ancient mythologies have been preserved (or not) until the modern day; the concerns of a foreign culture attempting to assimilate and retell those myths in their own style and whether or not that's successful in various cases; the questions of what animators are trying to say with these stories and whether or not they have any obligation to try to be accurate or informative with them; the perennial problems of translation and cultural nuance, both from myth to screen and then from a Japanese art form to those of us who aren't Japanese; and of course the overarching subject of modern adaptations of myths, what they mean to our cultures today and how we tend to treat them. That is SO MUCH stuff. This is an entire dissertation in the making.

But let's not crawl too far down that rabbit hole, and instead try to focus on just a few of those points (after all, we've got forums for endless wandering from subject to subject, right?). Looking at mythology as handled in anime - or any other modern art form, really, but today we're sticking with just the one - is especially relevant to Hero's Journey, which is set in a modern world wherein people are still actively worshiping many of these religions that in the real world have very few or even no adherents at all.

Anime, as a general rule, loves mythology. We're going to talk about a slew of mythology-inspired anime in this post, and we'll barely be scratching the surface. For some, it's only as far as borrowing the names of mythological gods, events or places for their own characters and story items, with no apparent connection between them whatsoever, which is often in the time-honored tradition of borrowing cool-sounding foreign words to make your story have a more exotic or fantastic feel. There are way too many anime that do this to even try to list them all, but trust us - if you have even a passing familiarity with a large number of anime, your odds of tripping over something bewilderingly named "Ragnarok" or "Jupiter" or "Quetzalcoatl", often with entertainingly creative new pronunciations or forms of the familiar names, are very high.

But then you have the shows that appear to be trying to draw from various mythologies, but are just a little confused about what's actually going on. For example, take the intensely popular anime Ah! My Goddess (or Aa! Megami-sama!). Its premise is that Keiichi, a normal boy with delusions of mechanichood, accidentally calls down a goddess to help him in everyday life, and later her sibling goddesses move in with him as well and wreak general havoc. The goddess' names are Belldandy, Urd and Skuld - slightly warped versions of the names of the three Norns of Norse mythology (Verdandi, Urd and Skald), the triad of seers who see the future, dispense prophecies and choose from their favorites among the Norse gods who will triumph and who will suffer defeat.


The show seems to kind of know what it's drawing from - the goddesses come from heaven, where the almighty "operating system" that runs the universe and makes sure fate doesn't get screwed up is called Yggdrasil, the name of the Norse world tree, the underworld is referred to as Niflheim, and Fenrir makes an appearance in a climactic moment near the end of the series as a destructive computer virus bent on bringing Yggdrasil down - but things get hopelessly muddled for those trying to follow Norse lines beyond that. The cosmology jumps from world tree to obviously Christian-inspired heaven, full of goddesses who are all subservient to one supreme God (referred to as their father), and hell, ruled over by a devil queen (named Hild, so possibly she's supposed to resemble Hel?), full of demons bent on fighting against the goddesses and taking over the world. The Norns also take center stage in the stories, and the famous Norse gods - Odin, Loki, Thor and so on - never appear, leaving the ladies of fate to save the world over and over again.

Further off the deep end when it comes to Norse adaptations is Matantei Roki Ragnarok, better known to English speakers as Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok, which directly uses characters from Norse mythology but plunks them down in bizarre and unrelated scenarios as a matter of course. Loki is the main character, but the story relates that he has been banished from the heavens by Odin for reasons unknown, has been forced to take on the form of a human child, and can't get back unless he collects "evil essences" from humans who are doing bad things. He decides to do this by opening a detective agency and solving crimes, because obviously.


So, you know, that's weird. Fenrir and Hel, as Loki's children, are also recurring characters, the first as a black puppy and the second as a pre-teen girl, and a bewildering subplot involves Freyja being in love with Loki but him refusing to return her affections. Also Odin is a giant eyeball, which I think we can all agree is pretty epically ironic.

Greco-Roman mythology, in contrast to its pride of place in western media, actually gets less attention in anime than many other major sets of myths, more often appearing in one-shot movies or side mentions than major series or characters. It would be ridiculous not to open with the big one, which is of course Sailor Moon (Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon), which hits a bunch of Greek mythology notes in bewildering profusion but doesn't actually succeed at making much coherent sense out of them.


Sailor Moon's real name (in her past life - it's complicated) is Serena, which is a slight corruption of Selene, primordial Greek goddess of the moon, and indeed she rules over a crystal civilization on the moon and interacts with the earth through her love for the handsome earth prince Endymion, which is of course the name of the shepherd that the mythical Selene fell in love with and placed in eternal slumber so she could keep him with her. Greek celestial-mythology imagery is abundant, from the magical cat companions Luna and Artemis (although, deeply confusingly, Artemis is male) and their kitten Diana to Helios, the guardian of the sacred land of Elysion (obviously borrowed from the Greek Elysian Fields) who most often appears as a winged horse or unicorn. Sailor Mars also has a pair of crow familiars named Phobos and Deimos (naturally - she's Mars!), though they do not strike nearly enough appropriate fear into the hearts of her enemies, and each of the sailors has powers related to the Roman god whose planet-name they take (Sailor Jupiter has thunder powers, Sailor Neptune water powers, and so on).

Of course, all of this is neat to notice, but the plot has literally nothing whatsoever to do with Greek mythology. (Although this should not prevent people from enjoying it anyway.)

Probably one of the best examples of a studio really giving Greek myths a shot is the 1980s movie Arion, starring a young son of Demeter who was being pissed off about his family's shenanigans and prepared to go to war with them decades before the God of War game series handled the same idea.


Arion is a son of Poseidon, and there actually is a mythological son of Poseidon named Arion, but there the similarities end. The plot is 100% Disgruntled Demigod Takes On Olympus, but its motivations and particulars are more than a little weird in context of actual Greek myths; just for some of its greatest hits, Arion is also the son of Demeter, he's trying to get personal vengeance on Zeus because Zeus blinded Demeter at some point in the past (???), Zeus and Poseidon end up facing off in battle a bunch while Hades puppetmasters from behind the scenes, and there's a giant ape friend with very little explanation of its presence. The gods are here, however, and despite the not-quite-rightness of the plot elements, the base story feels in keeping with its source material.

And then there's Saint Seiya, which, to put it bluntly, is completely mythologically insane.


The story starts with a young orphan stumbling upon Athena's sacred armor in a Greek temple and discovering his destiny as a magical hero, and the series frequently makes use of imagery and names from Greek mythology, especially the Greek constellations, but then it brings in the Christian convention of saints, does a lot of crazy stuff in space, and at one point everyone fights the pope. Greek gods are present, notably as antagonists - the main characters have to stop Poseidon from flooding the world and later prevent Hades from assassinating Athena, but not much of the reasoning behind it bears any resemblance to Greek legend. Their armor is way shiny, though.

But one of the interesting things about anime is that, if you're into mythology, you can actually find a lot more material on Asian mythologies in it than you can in western media, which only stands to reason since anime is created and marketed in Asia where those stories are more well-known and culturally relevant. Where Japanese interpretations of European religions can be baffling and bizarre, their representations of their own are often gorgeous and nuanced, giving viewers glimpses into the traditional beliefs and modern views of them that are seldom visible to outsiders.

The most obvious (and rightfully famous) example of this is probably Hayao Miyazaki's every-award-ever-winning Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), which involves a young girl becoming separated from her family and accidentally wandering into a world where all the spirits and kami of Japanese myth are alive and well, and fighting their own strange, unfathomable struggles among one another.


While the greater heavenly kami like Amaterasu and Susanoo don't make appearances, the main character's experiences working in a bathhouse for the divine gives viewers a bewildering panoply of traditional Japanese gods, spirits and demons, so many of them that even multiple viewings don't always catch them.

Rumiko Takahashi, one of the big names in manga and anime in the 1980s and 1990s, had several long-running series that were heavy on Japanese mythology, the most obvious being Inu-Yasha (literally, "dog demon"), the story of a young girl who travels to a feudal Japan overrun with spirits, demons and gods and must somehow prevent the forces of evil from overwhelming the countryside.


Not only are all the major antagonists various forms of youkai or traditional Japanese demons, but the show is heavy on themes of both Shinto religion (with a main character who is a priestess charged with purifying evil creatures via her rituals) and Buddhist (with another main character who is a Buddhist monk and uses his own brand of spiritual power against their enemies). It's steeped in not only mythological characters but also traditional religious ideas, and many of the major plot points live and die based on Shinto concepts of purity versus corruption.

On the much more ridiculous side of the scale, Takahashi is also responsible for Urusei Yatsura (sometimes translated as Those Obnoxious Aliens), a comedy show that reimagines major Japanese gods and mythological characters as space aliens who occasionally visit and harass the people of earth.


Although all played for laughs, the show also addresses ideas of Shinto and Buddhism needing to coexist in the Japanese religious landscape, also features slews of traditional Japanese folklore creatures (often as aliens), and presents several gods, most notably the fortune-goddess Benten (the Japanese form of Sarasvati) as major characters.

And in the way less fun category, the focus on terrifying monsters in Japanese mythology lends itself to various horror anime about the things that go bump in the night, one of the most chilling and folklore-heavy being Onikirimaru, normally translated as Ogre Slayer.


The story leans heavily on the horror stories of oni terrorizing, devouring and possessing human beings, and its basic premise is that the main character is an oni himself, cursed by the gods to expiate his sins by hunting down his fellow monsters. Of particular interest is an episode in which he must fight Ox-Head and Horse-Face, the animal-headed ogres who guard the gates to the Buddhist hell of Jigoku.

Chinese mythology is also an enduringly popular subject for anime, which is not surprising considering that it's right next door, so to speak, and that many Chinese mythological stories were imported to Japan when Buddhism crossed the sea and set up shop. Everyone's favorite Chinese pain in the ass is of course the Handsome Monkey King, and I know half of you know where I'm going here because I'm about to post a picture of his most famous anime incarnation of all time:


Oh, little monkey prince! Thanks to exploding onto the scene as one of the first widely popular anime in the west, Dragonball probably introduced a whole generation to Sun Wukong's shenanigans without them even knowing it. And of course the spinoff series later devolve into a hopeless stew of yelling, sweating men and angry celery-colored aliens, but the first series, with its monkey-tailed protagonist and his flying cloud and badass staff, was as Chinese-flavored as it could be.

And speaking of Sun Wukong, let us not forget Saiyuki, known to English-speakers simply as Monkey, an imaginitive and intentional retelling of Journey to the West, running with the idea of the main characters, including our monkey friend, having been the gods in their previous life but currently reincarnated as mortals on earth in order to have adventures.


The series doesn't pretend to be following Journey's plotline anything more than loosely, but it does its best to remind you of its source material, usually via Monkey roughhousing, in spite of dissonant elements like guns and romantic angst.

And, last but not least, let's not forget RG Veda, a foray into Hindu mythology that makes a concerted effort to pay some homage to the ancient Vedic stories that came before it.


The story is an odd fusion of Hindu and Chinese myth, with a backstory in which Indra, supported by his wife Indrani, attacks and kills the Emperor of Heaven in order to usurp his position, and is now being opposed by Ashura (one assumes the word comes from asura), who as the main character sets out to find other destined heroes, including some with familiar names such as Soma (here female), Yama and Ryu (one of China's dragon kings), to help overthrow the corrupt god and fulfill the prophecy of his downfall. Various Hindu mythological enemies make appearances as well, including the rakshasa (personified as a single being under the Japanese name Rasetsu). Considering that the Veda certainly do not paint the asura as the crusading heroes trying to stop evil deva rule, you have to wonder what happened culturally to cause this story to do a complete swap.

There are plenty more - Fushigi Yuugi, Shurato, Gilgamesh, the utter trainwreck of random elements that is Yu-Gi-Oh - but we would be here a long, long time if we tried to talk about every mythology-based or mythology-borrowing anime. Myths, ancient or modern, are one of the most popular subjects for anime, no matter where they came from or how the animators change them to suit their vision.

As for our opinion... well, that's really too broad a question, to be honest. Anime is a particular art form, a style of film all its own, so any opinion we had on mythology in anime in general would be broad and pretty inaccurate - like any other kind of storytelling, there's some good and some bad. What's most interesting to us about it is how surprising western viewers often find the hackjob anime does on European mythology, and how it can encourage us to think about our perceptions of myths from other parts of the world and how we may often be doing the same thing when confronted with stories and values unfamiliar to us.

A question to end with is this: at what point do religious myths become merely storytelling events, and therefore suitable for entertainment just as the fun stories they are, without the context of sacredness around them? Does the fact that a myth is meaningless to some people justify them treating it as mere entertainment when it carries manifold and important spiritual weight for others? Since myths are the archetypal stories that all others were based on, is it because of their very antiquity - their quality of being the essence of storytelling - that moves people all over the world to tell and retell them over and over again, even people who have no cultural connection to them? Can a story be entertainment and still be meaningful, and can we ever say that a religious story couldn't have started as something invented to amuse that later grew into something of importance?

These are big questions, and we can't give all of you the answers to them. But they're certainly good food for thought.