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There's something special about anime and manga. Once they were a form of animation and comic books found almost exclusively in Japan, and now they can be found in households all across the globe. Interest has been growing, especially in the United States, with record numbers of anime and manga dubbed and translated, respectively, into English. These aren't a bunch of cartoons for little kids, nor are they simple comic books with plentyof pictures and lacking plots. You could say there's something, well, magickal about them.
While there are many titles with very down-to-earth stories, anime (which refers to Japanese animation) and manga (specifically, Japanese comic books or graphic novels) often will delve into Japan's spiritual side. As a land steeped in the old ways of Buddhism and Shintoism, these stories are often showcases for the gods and rituals of Asian descent.
It only makes sense. In American movies there are constant references to the American lifestyle, and we tend not to notice these things because we're so used to them. However, upon watching an anime or opening a manga, we become aware of Japan's otherworldly side. Oftentimes characters will go to Shinto shrines to pray to their gods, the Kami, for help. Even if it's not this vivid, torii, the easily-recognizable gates outside the shrines, are, too often to count, seen in backgrounds. Many Buddha statues can be seen, and a worried character may absentmindedly finger some prayer beads. It may be subtle, but it's everywhere.
In Japan, spirituality is not always similar to Western-brand creeds. For instance, most people in the West will often say they specifically practice one religion, are agnostic, or practice no religion at all. In Japan, there isn't necessarily such a need to label oneself. Instead, a Japanese person can feel completely confident putting power in science and secular matters, while perhaps going to a Shinto wedding or a Buddhist funeral. A person doesn't automatically have to say they're specifically Buddhist or Shintoist; they can mix and match.
There's a deep respect for these age-old beliefs, while at the same time not a need to be bogged down by them. A person can find power in the Shinto sun goddess while knowing perfectly well that the sun is in fact a star made out of hydrogen, helium, and other elements. There can be found benefit within beliefs without the pointless idea of making war against science. Instead, Japan, with all its scientific advances, continues to honor its old ways. And, through this natural honoring, it becomes part of their artwork.
So don't be surprised to find anime or manga that espouses both the everyday and the outrageous. In the adorable Mamotte! Lollipop, a normal girl spends her days going to a normal Japanese school . . . while meeting up with wizards on the side. Meantime, Bleach, a spellbinding action adventure, tells about a boy with a psychic ability to see ghosts and has all the usual teenage problems . . . along with the issue of traveling into the realm of the dead. Origin, a full-length movie , involves characters with normal love issues . . . and a man who transforms into a tree to save his people, an enthralling and symbolic gesture.
Much like the magick seen in mainstream American media, don't expect the Shinto and Buddhist practices shown to be how they really are. Plenty of rituals are shown accurately, but it's also fun to exaggerate. Ofuda are prayer strips, sometimes called spell strips, and while in reality they're pretty innocuous, the imagination can make them more powerful. In the captivating and dazzling Descendants of Darkness, the main character Tsuzuki uses ofuda to literally summon up gods to do his bidding. In real-life Japan, they might be pasted on ceilings for wishes of good luck. But how is that exciting in the realm of anime and manga? Not especially; therefore, let the ofuda become something beyond this world. Similarly, the third eye chakra is allegorical in many Eastern practices, but people are shown with an actual eye in their forehead in The Third: Girl With the Blue Eye. The Third is an amazing tale about the power behind those special beings with a sacred eye and the destinies they hold. Narutotakes the real Japanese martial arts practices and has its ninjas able to bring glowing forms of chakra energy into their hands.
Japanese gods themselves take center stage in some of these storylines, while in others they're more faintly referenced. In Descendants of Darkness, particular gods are seen coming to Tsuzuki's aid. Meanwhile, in Bleach, a character is named Aizen, after the Japanese god of love. Though it doesn't always happen, there are also times when characters are seen in prayer to the gods. In Loveless, a haunting and melancholic tale of a boy who lost his brother, the main character prays and finds comfort. This is especially interesting to an American audience, as most of our mainstream media makes a point to sidestep religion or other spiritual matters. They have a good reason for doing so: people can be picky about spiritual matters, and it's easy to offend. Likewise, it could be seen as pushing beliefs at people who are perfectly happy not being religious. This is a challenging subject, and it makes it all the more intriguing that anime and manga can get away with these things.
Perhaps one thing that's so refreshing about the magickal Buddhist and Shinto beliefs popping up in anime and manga would be that it's not preached. It's shown as something personal and benefitting to the specific character. Buddhist and Shinto rituals are revealed as being earth-based, ancient, open-minded, and useful. The characters don't struggle with them; they're shown as natural, just as they're natural to many Japanese people.
The presence of Japanese spirituality in their media is everywhere, whether it is all-encompassing or barely seen. Nonetheless, it's still there, and it's part of what makes anime and manga so fascinating. Along with their trademark loveable characters and tight plots, these forms of art are windows into Japan's soulful, magickal side.