Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spritual Bridges in Anime - Death Note

So, have you heard about the new Death Note movie? If the answer is “No,” then you probably haven’t been to a movie theatre, bookstore, CD shop, video rental store, manga café, karaoke room, or combini lately. Either that or you don’t live in Japan. The new movie, L – Change the world, has been the #1 movie in Japan since its release just over two weeks ago, and it has seen the release of a novelization, a soundtrack, and a one-shot manga (a story that begins and ends in one chapter) as well as gracing the covers of multiple manga magazines—even ones that never serialized it. So, there’s a bit of hype.

So what is Death Note? It exists in three forms: a 12-volume manga (plus extras), a set of two live-action movies (with a 3rd spinoff movie currently in theatres), and a 37-episode anime series (with two 2-hour remake specials). It’s also the name for one of the most controversial mainstream mangas ever released. In this entry to Spiritual Bridges, I will be covering the anime version for a variety of reasons. First, the movie is not considered “canon,” as it changes some crucial plot details. Second, the anime trims down some of the excess exposition that makes the manga badly paced. Third, it’s beautiful. Whether you are talking about art, music, dramatic timing, voice acting*, or any number of other categories, my personal opinion is that the Death Note anime series approaches artistic perfection more than any other series I have ever seen. I don’t say that lightly.

[*I am referring to the Japanese voices. I have only seen one episode with the English voices, so I feel unqualified to comment on that. However, the English dub is currently airing on Cartoon Network, so many of you may be more familiar with that.]

Now, for the standard disclaimers. I was originally planning on saving Death Note as one of the final entries in this series. This series is about as non-Christian as a series can get, and the themes that are brought up are at once brilliant, powerful, and profoundly unsettling. As such, this may be the hardest series that I will ever work with on this site, but I deal with it because of its great potential. I am dealing with it now because the new movie has brought it back to everyone’s mind.


Death Note (デスノート)
Original Author/Artist: Ooba Tsugumi (大場 つぐみ) and Obata Takeshi (小畑健)
Animation Company: Madhouse
English Licensor: VIZ media

The story begins with Yagami Light, a senior in high school who is quite possibly the smartest person his age in all of Japan. One day after school, he finds a notebook dropped by the Shinigami (death god) Ryuk. But this notebook is special. In it, the following rules are written. I reproduce them in their entirety because they are necessary for understanding the series:

1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die.

2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.

3. If the cause of death is written within 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.

4. If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.

5. After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

And thus, Light gains the power of life and death—and anonymity. But Light is an ambitious boy, and decides to not use this power for petty purposes. He decides that he will use the Death Note to judge the world, cleansing it of its criminals, effectively bringing about worldwide peace. He will use the rules of the Death Note to his advantage, making all of the criminals die of heart attacks, so that the world will realize that there is intention and purpose behind the deaths and change their ways. He earns the name “Kira” which is the katakana of the English “killer.” In the end, he purposes to become the God of his new world. But one man arises out of nowhere to stand in his way: a faceless and nameless (read: unkillable) detective known only as “L”. Light must figure out a way to kill L, and L must figure out a way to convict Light. Though each of them knows who the other is, Light is never able to get L’s name, and L is never able to find any evidence against Light. This is the groundwork for our story. You might wonder how we will ever draw spiritual bridges from such a story, but bear with me. First, we need to talk about characters.

Yagami Light, the main character, and the protagonist, is also the bad guy. In many ways, Light is the human embodiment of the principles of Niccolo Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche. He is brilliant, and his brilliance brings him to the edge of criminal insanity. He knows how the world works, and he knows how to manipulate people. He even manages to work his way onto the taskforce that has been formed for the sole purpose, ironically, of catching him. Throughout the series, through Light, we get to see how criminal insanity is formed, and it is very, scarily believable. We see him becoming the very type of person that he originally set out to cleanse the world of. In short, Light becomes evil, in the purest sense of the word. He kills those close to him with little regard or second thought, though those people, unaware, would follow him willingly to their death. By the end of the series, though people love him and follow him, he literally loses his ability to love. There is only one person in the series that he ever comes close to loving, but he ends up killing that man in the worst possible way.

L, in contrast, is the antagonist, but not necessarily the good guy. He is equally as brilliant, but differs from Light in the fact that he doesn’t believe it is right for a human to judge other humans. In many ways, L represents one of the main themes of the series: balance. His brilliance comes from the fact that he can balance logic and intuition, inductive and deductive reasoning, and most importantly, justice and mercy. He suffers from the same pride that plagues Light, but never loses his ability to love. During one episode of the series, he becomes convinced that Light is “Kira”, but becomes completely unable to prove it. We see him standing in the rain on top of a building pondering things. Light, who is on the investigation squad at this point, comes to fetch him, and the two have a very meaningful conversation. L reveals that Light—whom he knows is Kira, but who is also the only equal he has ever faced—is his first friend. As they are drying off from the rain, L, in a completely surprising moment, stoops down to wash and dry Light’s feet. This profoundly affects Light, and when Light draws his last breath, it is to address L. Nonetheless, minutes after this touching moment, Light’s plan, which has been set in motion for months by this point, results in L’s death at the hands of a Shinigami.

This brings us to the third and final main character: Ryuk, the Shinigami. I have mentioned that one of the main themes of this series is balance. Ryuk’s entire purpose in this series is to upset that balance. If Light and L represent order, Ryuk represents chaos, and both of the main characters meet their deaths because they cannot balance order and chaos. L cannot catch Kira (Light) because he is unable to account for Ryuk’s actions. Light ends up killing his only friend and bringing about his own demise because he cannot balance the chaos either. [This, in essence, is a very Japanese way of looking at supernatural intervention. We humans try to live our lives in order and balance, but the kami intervene and cause disorder and disharmony when we fail to honor them. As such, the Japanese worldview is one of passive acceptance of outside forces, all while trying to keep the gods placated and at bay.] Ryuk’s only motivation for his actions in the series is boredom. He has been alive for thousands of years, and his only real purpose has been to supernaturally shorten the lifespans of humans. He has no affiliation with either Light or L, but capriciously helps Light at times simply because he finds Light interesting, and Light provides him with his favorite food (apples). Aside from that, his actions are completely self-serving, and he feels no remorse at the end in abandoning Light, to his death. Ryuk represents the unpredictable, from the first episode to the last.

So, with a series like this, and characters like this, how are we to ever explain the gospel of Christ? As I said before, this is hard, but the result can be very powerful. But in order to build the bridge, we are building more on what is unsaid than on what is said. One thing unique about this series is that it never seeks to answer the questions it asks. For example, it asks, “What is true justice?” but never answers the question, since neither Light nor L represents true justice. It also asks what it would take to change humanity and bring about peace, but never provides an answer. And this is not lazy storytelling; it’s intentional. So now, I am going to try to show how one can go from watching this show to entering into dialogue with people to answer these questions.

One of the most surprising things about Death Note is that the bad guy wins. Halfway through the series, Light succeeds in killing L, and the rest of the investigation squad, still unaware that Light is Kira, elects him as L’s replacement. The story then goes on break, to be picked up 5 years later. Light, Kira, has succeeded in making his new world, and there are those who openly worship him as God. He has enacted justice on criminals, worldwide crime has dropped by over 70%, and people seem to be living in peace with one another. It’s a utopia, right?


Light succeeds in cleansing the world, but not in cleansing peoples’ hearts. Crime has dropped off, but only because of fear. People no longer commit crimes because they know they will be killed; not because they truly want to become better people. In one very telling moment, a man knowingly commits a crime and strategically kidnaps a media spokesperson that Kira has put in place. He fully plans on being arrested and thrown in jail, but the police surround him and shoot him dead without warning him, noting that Kira would have killed him anyway, and they were just saving Kira the trouble.

All of this illustrates in a very clear way the profound human paradox that what people need in the deepest part of their hearts is not justice, but mercy. Justice was given for five years, and the world became clean on the surface and rotten underneath. It is impossible to watch this series and miss that idea. From here, we can guide people on the last step to ask what it would really take to change the world. Would absolute justice truly create a better place? Would people become better if every crime was followed-up on and punished appropriately? Would we, you and I, change our hearts if God always enacted his righteous justice and never showed us mercy? No. No. No. For what truly changes people, whether they be American, Kenyan, Iraqi, or Japanese, is to receive pardon when they know in their heart-of-hearts that they don’t deserve it.

This is a message that Japanese people need to hear. For heaven’s sake, they need to hear it! There is no recovery, no forgiveness, if a large enough mistake is made in Japan. There is no way to regain face or honor, save by a cycle of death and rebirth, where the karma of your mistakes follows you anyway. Something needs to break the cycle. Something needs to intervene if peace will ever be obtained. This series doesn’t directly say that, but it illustrates it in a profound way.

In the end of the series, as Light is dying, Ryuk informs him that when humans die, they don’t go to either heaven or hell. The place that they go is “Mu” (nothingness). And that is the end of the series. That’s the end of the story. It begins in chaos and ends in nothingness. There is no hope; there is no joy. The despair and pointlessness is so poignant that you can almost touch it. And yet, from that point, we as ambassadors for Christ can speak words of hope, words of balance, words of mercy, and words of love.

I could write more, as there are dozens of characters that I didn’t even mention, but I suggest that you invest in this series. Rent it from your local video store if you’re in Japan, watch it on Cartoon Network if you’re in the US, or buy it if you’re in either country. It is not a story of hope, and it’s not a story that is easy to build bridges from, but it is a story which portrays some of the fears and the questions that are in the minds of Japanese youth right now. It is a story that portrays the desperate need for hope and mercy. Most importantly, it is a series that asks good questions—questions to which we have the Answer.

Spiritual Bridges part 2

Saturday, February 16, 2008

God A and God B - Brian D. McLaren

From Brian D. McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy. I tried to shorten it, but it lost its power, so here is the section in its entirety, followed by my comments. Italics are his emphasis, bolds are mine.

"The experience of God in Jesus was so powerful that it forever transformed what followers of Jesus meant when they said the word God. What was God like? What was God about? When they thought about what they had learned, seen, and experienced in a few centuries of reflecting on God as revealed and experienced through Jesus (in the context of some major controversies with varied forms of Greek philosophy), the church began to describe God as Father-Son-Spirit in Tri-unity or the Trinity. For them, God could no longer be conceived of merely as "God A," a single, solitary, dominant Power, Mind, or Will, but as "God B," a unified, eternal mysterious, relational community/family/society/entity of saving Love.

"Think of the kind of universe you would expect if God A created it: a universe of dominance, control, limitation, submission, uniformity, coercion. [footnote: Most forms of Islam and certain forms of Christianity reflect belief in this kind of God--"God A"--and this kind of universe.] Think of the kind of universe you would expect if God B created it: a universe of interdependence, relationship, possibility, responsibility, becoming, novelty, mutuality, freedom. I'm not sure which comes first--the kind of universe you see or the kind of God you believe in, but as a Christian who believes in Jesus as the Son of God, I find myself in universe B, getting to know God B.

This is why, for starters, I am a Christian: the image of God conveyed by Jesus as the Son of God, and the image of the universe that resonates with this image of God best fit my deepest experience, best resonate with my deepest intuition, best inspire my deepest hope, and best challenge me to live with what my friend, the late Mike Yaconelli, called "dangerous wonder," which is the starting point for a generous orthodoxy."

~Brian McLaren,
A Generous Orthodoxy, Chapter 2: Jesus and God B, pages 76-77.

The God that Jesus revealed, God B, doesn't inspire subservience and control, but rather faith, hope, and love. And the Japanese people could do with a little bit of all three. As we seek to reveal God in the country of Japan, what can we do to reveal God B, when we naturally tend to think of God A? How can we capture the hope and imagination of this people and center them on the One who can make them flourish?

EDIT: I posted this on Facebook also, and my friend brought up a really good question that is worth reposting here. She said, "But... isn't God both (all) at once?" The answer? Of course! And it is just as dangerous to hold exclusively to "B" as it leads to a view of a God of chaos (defined here as the absence of order, rather than the disruption of it), which is a tenant of Shinto, Daoism, and some forms of Animism. So let me requote one sentence with a different emphasis: "God could no longer be conceived of MERELY as 'God A'..." Since we are writing to Westerners though, I think the side of God most often ignored is the "B" side.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Spritual Bridges in Anime - Fullmetal Alchemist

In my (Scot's) original post on this blog, I gave a list of three topics I planned on posting about. So far, I haven't posted about a single one of those topics. What's more, in the two most recent postings I have given, there has been a relatively negative tone. I stand by what I said, but I don't want to be negative all of the time.

So, I am going to start a new series of posts--a series which will run indefinately, called "Spiritual Bridges", where I will take a critical (but hopeful) look at anime and manga, Japan's biggest cultural export, and attempt to build some bridges between the ideas presented in the anime/manga and the Christian worldview. It is my hope that these postings will allow Japanese Christians and Missionaries alike start to speak the language of this country's youth, telling them about the incredible gospel of Christ in a way that they can understand.

Before we begin, let me get a few things taken care of. First, let me explain the different mediums we will be working with.

Anime is a an abbreviation of "animation," and in Japanese refers to cartoons in genearl. In English, it specifically connotates Japanese cartoons, drawn in a specific style. Anime exists in two basic forms: movies and television shows. Movies are standalone works, and television shows are continuous stories spanning a certain number of episodes (usually 12-13, 24-26, or 50-52, corresponding to the average number of weeks in a season) that must be watched in order.

Manga is the Japanese word for "comic book" which in Japan covers all forms of graphic novels. In English, this word specifically refers to Japanese graphic novels. Like anime, manga tell a continuous story, and each chapter must be read in order. A good number of anime were originally manga (like Dragonball Z and Naruto). Manga is released by chapter either weekly or monthly, and after a set period of time, multiple chapters are collected into a bound volume. There is no standard length for manga. Some stories cover six volumes, whereas others (like One Piece) are in the 40's.

Also, a disclaimer. There is very little manga and virtually no anime from a Christian perspective. None of the pieces I mention here were made by Christian authors. As a result, I urge readers to think critically. There will be parts of every story that we cannot affirm, but that doesn't mean that these stories are morally or spiritually void. Now, without further ado, the first post of this series.


Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師)
Original Author: Arakawa Hiromu (荒川弘)
Animation Company: BONES
English Licensor: FUNimation

This story exists in two forms. The original is a monthly manga by Arakawa Hiromu, which currently has 79 chapters and is still running. The second is a 51-episode anime + movie (The Conqueror of Shamballa) by Studio BONES. These two forms have the same characters, but are essentially different stories. When the manga finishes, I will post about that. For now, I am posting about the anime version.

The story begins with two young alchemist brothers named Edward and Alphonse who are on a quest to retrieve the legendary Philosopher's Stone. This stone allows the user to bypass the laws of Equivalent Exchange--the first rule of alchemy. Basically, alchemy is a skill which allows the user to break an object down into its base elements and rearrange it however they see fit. Thus, Equivalent Exchange means that the atoms on one side of the equation must equal the atoms on the other side of the equation. A few years before the story begins, the brothers tried to use alchemy to recreate their dead mother. However, they didn't factor in the price of a soul in their experiment, and were punished severely for trying to "step on God's territory." Edward, the older brother, lost his left leg; Alphonse, the younger brother, lost his entire body. In order to save Alphonse, Edward sacrifices his right arm in order to bond his brother's soul to a suit of armor standing in the corner. Maimed, scared, and remorseful, the two set out on a quest to procure the Philosopher's Stone and restore each others' bodies. Edward uses his life savings to buy a prosthetic arm and leg, which their childhood friend (Winry) manufactures.

One of the main spiritual bridges in this anime is the concept of selflessness stemming from love. Neither Ed nor Al are out to restore their own bodies. Each of them feels equally responsible for their mistake, and is working for the benefit of the other. This selfless unity, which places no blame, allows them to work together to overcome overwhelming difficulties along the way.

Another bridge is the value of human life. Never have I seen an anime cover this so thoroughly. Many questions are asked. Since Al is only a soul, without a body, is he still human? Some characters say no, but ultimately, the show illustrates that human worth is not dependent upon human status. It's easy to go from this to talk about how humans have worth not because of our beauty or ability, but because we are made in the image of God. This is explored further too. Many times in the series, the end is in sight. Ed and Al have countless opportunities to accomplish their goal, but not without compromising their moral ground. They hold fast to what is right, even though it is much more dangerous and difficult. In contrast, one character, Scar, compromises constantly, living for himself and being unafraid to kill those who stand in his way. After observing Ed and Al, however, we see a scene that shows Scar's utter emptiness. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the sake of others. The spiritual connections in this should be obvious.

The end of the series is where the most poignant bridge comes in. The story is a coming of age story for the two brothers, and we see them developing through the whole series. In the beginning, Ed is arrogant, boasting that there is no God, and that the science of alchemy makes him the closest thing to a God that most people will ever see. In the end, both brothers are forced to take a grim look at the world and realize its many imperfections. In the process they are forced to look at their own imperfections. The ending itself is imperfect, as the brothers never truly accomplish their objective. They do, however, learn to see beauty in the imperfection, and love the world despite its many flaws. The arrogance is replaced with selflessness, and in the ending monologue, God is acknowledged as being much more powerful and sovereign than the alchemists. More than any Christian production, this show illustrated to me what it means to love despite imperfections. It is a powerful message, and though it may be used as a spiritual bridge, you may want to absorb it for your own benefit first.

If you are looking to use Japanese pop culture to communicate the message of the gospel, this is a perfect place to start. As this is a very popular series, it should be possible to rent one disc at a time, even in America. FUNimation is also releasing box sets of 13 episodes apiece for $30-40, which is a VERY good deal for anime. It's dark at times, and the characters make some very bad mistakes, but we see them grow, and we identify with them. Selflessness, forgiveness, human worth, and love... all illustrated clearly, and all available as a bridge to start talking about what Jesus said on these issues.

Spiritual Bridges part 1

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Missions & Filmmaking Converge in Tokyo

Produce quality, captivating films, in Japanese, that will “connect” with mainstream Japanese youth and draw them towards putting their faith in Jesus Christ. We will use the strategy of building bridges to people by telling great stories and by posing the great questions of life. “Channel of Hope” is a “New Media” approach that will allow interactivity and worldwide distribution via the Internet. We will pursue leveraging the “Power For Living” campaign by seeking permission to feature several of the celebrities that took part in that project. We will also network, encourage, and empower a select group of individuals in the art of filmmaking.

There is considerable interest in Christianity in Japan, especially among youth. A comprehensive study of Japanese people and religion - conducted by Gallup documented that six to seven percent of Youth identify themselves as ‘Christian’. Another research project – named ‘Elijah Symposium’ - identified 7% of the youth of Japan as ‘hot prospects’ for the Gospel.

For information on the strategic opportunity for Internet based outreach in Japan, see the Internet Evangelism Day Site.

What We See:
  • A highly skilled, dedicated team with common values & vision.
  • A partnership with several key churches and ministries.
  • A large network of churches, groups, and individuals praying for and supporting the project.
  • A link to a web site that connects viewers of films to a believer.
  • A growing library of award-winning, redemptive films in a wide variety of genres (five films the first year, ten more the second).
  • A well-funded project with a good business plan that results in long-term financial stability.
  • A small cadre of Christians trained and equipped to become influential leaders in Japan’s film industry.
  • A project that benefits Japanese society by addressing social issues such as suicide, depression, and the hikikomori syndrome.