God in Japan, or Why Everyone Likes Sexy People With Wings

by Kris Wolfe

This is a reply and comment on Evan Jenkins' editorial. I don't think he was wrong or right, nor am I going to particularly speak about most of his points in depth. I'm just using his editorial as a sort of base for mine. Anyway.. BEWARE the long editorial that follows! It can also give you cancer. O_o;; (If you're reading it next to a nuclear reactor...)

Game companies in general, when making fantasy games (as opposed to shooters, racing games, or other "realistic games" set in the semi-real world) like to use established mythology. In addition, many of the ideas in mythology are very widespread and archetypal; to have a completely original world created without any hint of mythology is nearly impossible. Lastly, the vast amounts of mythology from around the globe are just plain interesting and they not only sound cool and evoke a response in someone familiar with the mythology (it's neat to see the Greek and Norse gods popping up in the FF games, for example), but they also provide a setting or maybe just an inspiration to creators of any kind, including game creators.

In the states (and probably Europe as well, but I haven't been there so I don't know), commonly used themes are the Arthurian legend and Greek mythology. You see absolute GOBS of drivel about dragons, high kings, magic swords, virtuous ladies, scheming witches, crusades, quests for mysterious hard-to-find magical objects, "noble love" (ask my English-major roommate about this one, it's a headache), and sleeping warriors; it's not ALL bad, but it's common. As for Greek gods, they (and their associated legends) are obviously the inspiration for the giant pantheons of gods found in many a fantasy tale, sometimes very obviously, sometimes less-so. There's nothing wrong with this; as noted by all the fanfic-writing editorials lately, archetypes are cool if handled properly.

The West has always been intrigued by the less-well-known mythologies, though. I've seen fantasy based on Egyptian, Norse, American Indian and Chinese mythologies, especially when something has recently happened in the world to make these cultures stand out for a while. I notice that the accounts sometimes differ greatly in how they depict the world of this mythology; much more than the more well-known Arthurian or Greek mythology-based creations differ. Since people from the west know less about these things (unless they do their homework, which they don't always, especially if it was just a base for their creativity) they fill in the blank spots with their imaginations, so the tales vary a lot more.

In the east, Chinese and Japanese mythology are akin to our Arthurian and Greek legend. They're popular, everyone knows SOMETHING about them, and they're familiar and safe. The legends of the west are much more interesting and mysterious, therefore. Christianity is without question the biggest western mythology, with the most power and the wackiest history. (No offense to Christians, but the Japanese don't see it as the "Truth" but rather just another set of interesting myths and legends.) Other popular western settings and cultures have been used too, but with less frequency (Wild ARMs used the American west; if you've seen my current fav anime Trigun, it also uses the American Wild West... the anime Nazca is using Incas, and the game Illusion of Gaia also used Incas... etc). Christianity is both detailed and widespread, and has appeal to many people because of the stories and also because missionaries make it a much bigger deal to get it out there than members of more-or-less dead incan cultures do with their religion. So, we've been seeing the west a lot more in games (the straight sword, western armor, and the idea of the knight, for example) but many of these derive from christianity, which was, after all, an enormous influence on many of the mythologies and cultures of the West, especially Europe (poor America doesn't have much, except the wild west and maybe New York and Chicago. You know, big nifty unfriendly cities where people get shot at a lot). The straight sword with the cross-shaped hilt; the holy knight; the multilevel church; they're not only christian, but big parts of western myth and civilization.

So, if Japan borrows Western culture for settings or ideas, they're most likely going to accidentally get a big dose of Christianity as well, unless they specifically focus on a subculture or setting that is not very widespread.

Also, the idea of angels is not unique to Christianity. I can't say what they might be called in other cultures, but the idea of a winged person is as old as eternity. From Icarus to Escaflowne, the idea of a winged human is neither western nor original. You see it every once in a while in many cultures; the dream of flying is hardly new. There are also dozens of legends of shapeshifters or other sorts of people who have willingly or unwillingly changed into birds. So, the profusion of winged people roaming around anime, manga and video games probably isn't entirely gleaned from Christianity. However, I do think that Christianity's tidy description of an "angel" and the idea that this person is blessed, beautiful and eternal, certainly makes their version extremely likeable and attractive. You often see the angel around in anime with no God or Satan nearby; the Japanese simply like the idea of a beautiful winged person, and you can hardly blame them--it's a wonderful thought. You can see angels in many titles; Card Captor Sakura has a character who turns into an angel, but there's no christian God. Feathers and wings litter Escaflowne, but it's a story about the nature of man who makes himself beautiful, not God who makes man beautiful. In X, Kamui has an angel wing and a devil wing. (A bat wing.) This represents his choice between saving the world or destroying it, but other than that you don't see a lot of specifically christian influence in that title, though there's religious and ideological nonsense from almost everything there. You see feathers and wings in a great many stories which have jack squat to do with either religion or god. Many artists just use them because they're pretty.

It's also true that the concept and idea of the religion itself, angels included, is very interesting, especially to people who come from a culture which is mostly Buddhist and Shinto. The idea of a single powerful being, an eternally evil foe, the beautiful people attending them who are both good and evil but always lovely, the wars waged using human life, etc etc, it's really a neat idea. For the Japanese angels and other random winged people often represent something extremely magical, mysterious, and unearthly, as well as powerful. Of all the winged characters I can think of at the moment (excepting characters in things where almost EVERYONE is winged) they're mostly powerful, mysterious, beautiful, magical. Great end boss for a game, isn't it? Both obviously powerful and terribly beautiful.

But when using this great idea, the Japanese don't follow the rules and tenets of the religion at all, half the time. They simply like the concept. This is much like when American writers borrow a culture or mythology they only know a little about and create a whole story. It's not wrong; it's creative. But it is different and you've got something that sometimes is VERY obviously similar to the original mythology (like FFTactics with Christianity), and it has the potential to confuse or even offend people who have the actual belief system or culture which is "borrowed" in this fashion.

In Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, a badass manga and semi-okay anime, Jeanne is the reincarnation of Jeanne D'Arc and she works for God. God is getting weak because satan is being all evil and taking people's souls by possessing beautiful works of art. Jeanne fights with Satan's champion, Sinbad, over the artwork. Real Christians would probably throw a fit by the things implied in this title: God is getting weak... Satan's workers aren't completely evil... angels in heaven can be evil... etc. Another example is the long and popular manga Angel Sanctuary. God is... someplace, but more importantly, Heaven and Hell are facing off. They both need this one angel who has been banished from heaven to help them. This spirit was reincarnated over and over and is currently a teenage boy in love with his sister. (ooh, incest!) Other characters are gay boys, heavenly angels who rape and even kill each other, angels in hell who are kind and sympathetic characters, angels in love with one another, etc. Characters get reincarnated, switch bodies, have multiple personalities, kill and rape wantonly. Now, I don't recall the last time I heard the church letting anything like this stuff go on. It's blasphemous to the core. Lots of pretty winged people, though.

Which is not to say some things don't follow the religion. Xenogears and FFTactics were two games which borrowed Christian mythology and used it to say something powerful. So, I think with this editorial (well, more like "viewpoint essay") I think I've helped you (the reader) understand why angels and Christianity appear so frequently (and often incorrectly) in Japanese pop culture stuff. Or at least I hope I gave you something to think about.

Slams, flames, criticism, corrections, and whatnot are welcome, but e-mail telling me how cool you think I am and how badass my websites are and how you also like Kodomo no Omocha and Wind-up Tina is MORE welcome. WAHAHA! I also didn't do anything but give this a twice-over after writing it.

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