You know that old saying about how English likes to beat up other languages in back alleys and rifle through their pockets for loose vocabulary? Sometimes it feels like the same is true for Japanese anime/manga/video games and religions. Whether it’s significant names, mythical tales or just plain religious symbolism, it’s not uncommon to see the most random images or references pop up in Japanese media. Of course, this isn’t uncommon in Western media either, but often there’s some sort of underlying assumption that someone, either the writer or the audience, knows the religious source material reasonably well. In Japan, you often get anime or game titles with religious references that are so totally out of context that you wonder if they just opened a book at random and thought the pictures and words were pretty. The results are often both amusing and head-scratching. Here are my top five “lost in translation” myths and religions in anime and gaming, either in general or in specific titles. Just remember, it’s all in good fun, and only the names have been unchanged to protect the innocent.
(Note that, after deliberation, I’ve decided not to include Shinto on the list; while there are plenty examples of WTF depictions of Shinto religion and symbology – no, really, I don’t think there’s anything in Shinto about flaming paper charms and shrine maidens piloting giant mechs – most Japanese writers would at least know the source material. I was going to exclude Buddhism from the list for the same reasons, but… well… when they mess with that, they REALLY mess with that…)
5. Egyptian mythology
The mythology of Ancient Egypt hasn’t gotten a lot of love from manga artists and writers; although there are a few titles (like Crest of the Royal Family) that deal with Egyptian history, the gods themselves don’t get much screen time. Mind you, when you’re dealing with a religion with myths centering around incest, dismemberment and necrophilia, that’s somewhat understandable. What’s not understandable is what part of the myths refer to all-powerful dragons and trading cards.
Oh Yu-Gi-Oh. I don’t know what sort of cosmology you’re playing around with, but it’s certainly not Egyptian. Last I checked, Egyptian cosmology did not involve all-powerful pharaohs of light and dark, gold relics with awesome power, and an evil Anubis. And I’m pretty sure that Osiris and Ra are not actually dragons. I may need to check my encyclopedia on that, though. At any rate, it seems like the creators of Yu Gi Oh were less concerned about the myths of Egypt and more concerned with making a children’s card game seem EPIC and COOL. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
4. Norse mythology
I swear, Norse mythology is the number one go-to for random mythical names, even for stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with Norse mythology. You can’t watch an anime or play a video game without tripping over Midgards, Yggdrasils, Valkyries, Slepnirs, Odins, Fenrirs and Ragnaroks. A lot of the time, these references are literally in name only, such as codenames for spaceships or computers. But sometimes you have the odd title that tries to incorporate more of Norse mythology without, well, having anything to do with Norse mythology.
Exhibit A: Oh My Goddess. Besides the heavenly computer Yggdrasil (and its demonic counterpart Nidhogg), you have Belldandy, Urd and Skuld, three goddesses that actually take their names from the Norse equivalent of the Fates: Verthandi, Uror and Skuld. These three mythological figures were actually giantesses that tended the tree Yggdrasil and guided the destiny of humans. If you squint hard, you could make some connections between these and the three wish-granting goddesses we know and love, but really, Kosuke Fujishima, you could have just called them Cindy, Mindy and Sandy and nothing would be any different! Not to mention that I don’t think Urd or Skuld would take kindly to being called “giantesses.”
3. Greek mythology
Like Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology doesn’t actually get a lot of screen time in anime and manga. But when it does… oh boy. Saint Seiya makes Hercules look academic and accurate in its depiction of Greek gods and myths. Ignoring the minor things like, oh, the concept of saints in Greek myth, the constellations as sources of power vs. poor schmucks who got stuck up there by the gods, and the whole idea of gods having dozens of specifically fated soldiers as their personal army, the real kicker is Athena, one of the main characters in the series. Great googly-moogly, there hasn’t been a bigger case of Completely Missing the Point since Disney’s villainous take on Hades… and we don’t even have James Woods’ awesomeness to balance it out.
In Saint Seiya, the goddess Athena appears as a young woman of “total compassion and love” who hates weapons and fighting, prefers pure white dresses to armor, fights against the other “evil” Greek deities and generally gets herself captured a lot. A very, VERY far cry from the real Athena, who certainly has no aversion to armor and weapons, kicks massive amounts of ass wherever she goes, and frankly is as nasty as any other Greek god – see the myth of Arachne for a good example of Athena being a jerk. While the series indicates that she and Hades have an unending conflict, in actual myth there was very little interaction between them (this is probably due to the good old “Hades = evil” trope that every media inspired by Greek myth seems to fall into). What’s weird is that there are enough details that indicate the writer, Masami Kurumada, knew a great deal about the real Athena – the references to Nike, the use of the Aegis, the statue of her as Athena Parthenos – but how, with all his knowledge, did he manage to so spectacularly miss the central conceit of her character? What, did he think that an armored badass woman who happened to be a strategic genius as well as a catty backstabber would be a less interesting character than OMG SAVE ME SEIYA?
Still, not like manga and anime have a monopoly on messed up Greek myth. I’m looking at you, God of War…
2. Buddhist cosmology
Let’s do a simple compare and contrast, shall we?
Taishakuten: also known as Indra, ruler of the gods of the Veda. God of storms, thunder, and wealth. Defender of both deities and humans, said to let no suffering or sorrow pass within his home. Usually depicted as a slightly tubby guy riding on an elephant, a reference to his Hindu origins. All in all, one of the nicest gods you’ll ever meet.
Taishakuten: a cruel and sadistic silver haired bishonen bent on killing off pretty much anyone who looks at him funny, conquering heaven and basically making everyone’s lives a living hell just because some other bishonen told him to be a jerk in return for sleeping with him. Also disgustingly and ridiculously hot.
Here’s another one:
Son Goku: aka the Monkey King. A childlike and cheerful hero who rides a cloud and wields an extendable staff. Adventures include deification, annoying other gods, and helping a pilgrim recover the Buddhist sutras from India.
Son Goku : A childlike and cheerful hero who rides a cloud and wields an extendable staff. Adventures include screaming, blonde spiky hair, sweaty men grunting, and OVER 9000.
And that’s not even counting the Son Goku who runs around with a gun-toting priest and goes insane if you take his hat off.
Yes, Christianity. Pick ten of your favorite anime, and I almost guarantee that at least one of them will have at least some sort of Christian element to it. Neon Genesis Evangelion, X/1999, Death Note, Chrono Cross… heck, even Sailor Moon manages to shoehorn in a bit of Christian imagery. On the other hand, the imagery is usually as far as it goes.
See, while anime and manga writers love to grab random myths and stories and then rewrite them until they’re utterly unrecognizable, they seem utterly unconcerned with the actual “story” of Christianity. In other words, you don’t tend to see Saint Jesus commanding his twelve magical Disciples to save tsundere Mary from the evil demon Satan (though there is now a manga where Buddha and Jesus are roomies…). Instead of borrowing from Christian “myth” and storytelling, anime and manga instead prefers to borrow heavily from the symbology and imagery, throwing it into anything and everything with little concern over what the context exactly means. Hey, crosses look cool! So do angels! So do big shiny beams of light creating halos behind someone’s head! We should have a nun in here… that habit will look so awesome when she takes it off to make love to the main male character. Quick, someone get some Latin choirs in the background! Seriously, if you were to go by anime and manga, you’d think the creators thought Christianity boiled down to five things:
5. Angelic nuns being crucified on crosses
Some artists also love to borrow on religious art from the Renaissance for manga and anime imagery; if you want to see some examples, take a look at the covers of the Death Note manga, or the foot-washing scene between Light and L in the anime, or… heck, pick a random page/scene and you’ll probably see something ripped right out of the triptych of a European cathedral.
Occasionally you’ll get the odd anime that seems to register a bit more of the actual ideology behind Christianity, but it’s usually restricted to this vague notion of “God” without any real denomination or coherence behind it. And then, speaking of coherence, there’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, which… um… with the… I guess they… um. I don’t know what it’s doing with Christian religion, but I’m pretty sure that it would make some of the priests I know spontaneously combust in religious horror.
Or, you know, turn into LCL fluid. Whichever.
What are some of the weird and wonderful twisted myths you’ve seen in Japanese anime and manga? How about in Western media?