A Christmas Dialogue

[Post by Lelangir]

This was a round-robin by lelangir, Lbrevis, ghostlightning and usagijen. In it, we start by discussing Christmas (we started a while ago heh…) and how it’s turned into such a commercial enterprise. We use Kannagi and Lucky Star as vehicles for our discussion.

This round robin took place in the form of a chain letter. I wrote a short remark, and emailed to the next participant. I hoped that this would develop a linear dialogue, although that’s only part true.

Round 1.

lelangir: So, in relation to Christmas and religion, one interesting case is in Kannagi, specifically Zange (which wiki tells me means “penitence” or “confession” in Japanese). In essence, Zange chooses her host, a Christian nun, because it is a more popular religion, and so all the faith she receives is what nourishes her existence. Nagi, on the other hand, comes from an ancient religion, which is not so monolithic in itself, “Shintoism” being an agglomerative representation of many tribal religions. This is also shown in Natsume Yuujin-chou 02, where a god continuously shrinks until he vanishes because his only worshipper and source of faith, an elderly lady, dies. People have mentioned how Kannagi is social commentary on religion and cultural idolatry. And this is supported by, literally, the idolization of Nagi, manifested quite clearly in the OP.

Lbrevis: I think it all comes down to the fact that generally speaking the Japanese are not religious, at least not in the way the West is. Just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Keep Christ in Christmas.” The driver would undoubtedly be horrified to know that in Japan Christmas is a commercial event where the Christmas cake is far more important than a baby in a manger.

So getting back to shrine maidens, it’s not surprising that Kannagi mixes pop culture with religion in a way that would be sacrilegious to everyone else… in America! (thank you, Bandit Keith). It may be, for better or for worse, that Nagi has really hit on something here and this is the only way to make an ancient religion like Shintoism relevant.

ghostlightning: The Philippines is the largest Christian (Catholic) country in Asia, and over here, the Christmas season begins in… September! So imagine the eerie juxtapositions of Santa Clause and Jack o’ Lanterns during Halloween. Here however, despite the overt colonization into Christianity, we appropriated Catholicism right back – in very animistic ways. Patron saints bless locales the same way Nagi the patron goddess of her area.

You’ll really see oddities, such as the Black Jesus in the heart of Manila (Quiapo district).

The people, the worshippers, by appropriating religion to fit within their own understanding and comfort levels, perpetuate religion. I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t black, and neither are Filipinos, but the Catholic church didn’t/couldn’t declare this sacrilegious. Nagi may be on to something.

usagijen: I recently thought about how Japanese can’t say the pun-ny line ‘Christ puts “Christ” in Christmas’ because of how they represented Christmas in their language — クリスマス — simply KURISUMASU, with no Christ in sight, and I guess that would make more sense when you take into account what Lbrevis said. They could’ve opted for the Chinese equivalent, 聖誕節, if they really wanted to show its religious roots, but they didn’t, as though they just adapted Christmas for the sake of its “modern-day rituals”. In the words of ghostlightning, it’s like they simply appropriated Christmas to fit their own understanding, in the same way religion works, or pop culture for that matter.

There’s a reason why idols, both in religion and pop culture, are called as such. And when you see the incredible feats my fellow countrymen — the Filipino devotees — go through just to touch their beloved Nazarene idol each year (illustrated in the pic provided by ghostlightning), no less than the die-hard fans of, say, Michael Jackson or Miley Cyrus (or other phenomenal craze), who cry, faint, and fall head over heels for their beloved pop star idol, the intersection between the two becomes even more vague. Do we call the religious devotees’ act sacrilegious, or simply an admirable display of faith and devotion? How about the overzealous act of fans? The thin line that separates them is the sanctity aspect of religion, which is quite ambiguous in and of itself. Religion is a mainstream pop culture, after all. Now if my confusion serves to affirm the social commentary present in Kannagi, then all I can say is, Nagi may be on to something indeed.

Round 2.

lelangir: We’ve said that religion is commodified and transformed into pop culture that is devoid of most religious value, and one way this happens is through anachronism, or really, the usurpation of anachronism.

Lucky Star even satirizes the rhetorical nature of new years prayer. What they also poke fun at is the fetishization of the shrine maiden, or the hardcore fans that actually do have a shrine maiden fetish. An article at Sankaku Complex [SFW] would dismiss any attempt at saying the shrine maiden isn’t sexualized, perhaps not in a dissimilar way nuns in the West are sexualized. One commenter posted: “I love [that] japanese culture [has] something different than the whole anime/manga stuff. It’s like Japan [has] two (or more) complete distinct worlds… the old and cultural one impresses me more than the modern one, though I like both.” I don’t necessarily agree with traditional vs. modern culture as “complete distinct worlds,” but it is a very perceptive insight into how, as I said, anachronism is utilized as cultural (often nationalistic) capital.

Danny Choo has an excellent photoset of this on his blog.

So the thing here to think about is how the past is rearticulated in the present as “cool” – it’s how old is turned back into new.

Lbrevis:

The first thing that comes to mind in relation to this is Washinomiya Shrine, the shrine featured in Lucky Star. As most of you may know, it’s an actual shrine in the Kanto region which thousands of Luck Star fans have made a pilgrimage to.

Now the shrine maidens in lelangir’s example aren’t really encouraging otaku to ogle them, it just happens to be a side effect they have no control over and are probably not aware of. But in the town of Washimiya the locals have actually capitalized on the anime’s influence by selling Lucky Star goods and even allowing otaku to carry a Lucky Star themed portable shrine (known as a mikoshi) during festivals.

Never mind for a moment how silly this looks, consider that it’s a prime example of religion incorporating pop culture and, like lelangir was saying, old meeting with new. This all seems like harmless fun to me but who knows, a couple hundred years from now and maybe Konata and the others will be incorporated in the legends surrounding the shrine. Kind of a strange thought, isn’t it.

ghostlightning: Something to consider: what is the purpose of religiosity? To me it smacks of ritualized wish-fulfillment. Isn’t prayer a wish? The formula of prayer (Christian, New Testament) can be broken down this way:

Acknowledgment of God as God, his power.
Worship and adoration of God as God.
Wishes, please grant them.
Further/final acknowledgment of God as God.

The Lord’s Prayer [ecumenical English Language Liturgical Consultation (eELLC) 1988]

Our Father in heaven, (a)
hallowed be your name, (b)
your kingdom come, (a)
your will be done, (a)
on earth as in heaven. (a)
Give us today our daily bread. (c)
Forgive us our sins (c)
as we forgive those who sin against us. (c)
Save us from the time of trial (c)
and deliver us from evil. (c)
[For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen.] (b)

Is anime a form of wish fulfillment? Consider the fetishization of shrine maidens. The fetishization itself is a wish, and anime is the prayer answered: Lucky Star’s Hiiragi sisters, Kannagi: “Crazy Shrine Maidens” is another. The mikoshi Lbrevis shows us is the prayer continued. The religiosity here is not asking for daily bread (unless sexual gratification is substituted as the signified), or for leading the religious away from temptation/saving from the time of trial. Nonetheless, it can be read as religiosity.

usagijen: Forgive me if I’m gonna break the cycle here or contradict what I said before (or strike another tangent), but after all that’s been mentioned so far regarding the commodification of religion, the question is, if the object of worship in the religion becomes the 2D “gods/goddesses” who simply parodied it for fetishization purposes, as opposed to the deities meant to be worshipped in the religion (and the values it promulgates), can we even consider that to be religious? Taking what ghostlightning said, for example, it might seem silly that God (or any gods for that matter) would accept a prayer meant to fulfill his/her self-serving fetish wish which actually diverts his/her attention from the deity he/she is addressing the prayer to in the first place.

I don’t see anything wrong with the intertwining of religion and pop culture, especially if this is meant to inculcate the values being taught by the religion, allow people to have a newfound appreciation for it or something, but the moment the focus of the worshipper shifts to nothing else but the fetishized aspect, the fetish will have then become a religion of itself. Take Haruhiism for example.

Going back to the mikoshi scene as Lbrevis shown, I’d agree that it looks harmless, especially when you regard it as nothing else but a creative way of performing the rituals of the Shinto religion. If, on the other hand, these guys are doing this to worship nothing else but the Almighty Lucky Star goddesses, it’ll be a completely different story, as I’ve also said in the aforementioned paragraph.

Round 3

Round 3.

lelangir: To piece together what was said in round two in relation to Kannagi, Nagi’s idolatry, as we’ve said, is the combination of new (pop culture) and old (Shintoism). This is a new, synthesized religion per se, at the core utilizing Shinto traditions in a modern style: just check out Nagi’s exorcist wand.

It would seem Nagi’s wand might be a modern transformation of a traditional gohei a device used for purification rituals:

Both devices have two shide, the white streamers. However, Nagi’s wand has the body of a pink plastic toy; mahou shoujo incarnate, quite a manifestation of this modernized tradition.

The most heightened aspect of this synthesis is probably identity. Pontifus of Superfanicom and Mike of Anime Diet implicitly mention this in two posts.

Pontifus

      : It’s not the drama that bothered me about the end. Really, I think I just wanted a “

Nagi goes back to Goddess-land

      , and everyone learns something” end. But this post also makes me wonder, in the context of Shintoism

, if Nagi has anywhere to go back to

      . If “destroying the tree was akin to destroying the goddess,”

is her human (or human-like) body her new “tree?

    ” Is she susceptible to death, and if so, what then? In any case, I’m inclined to think now that she may just be stuck as she is. [my emphasis]

Mike

      : …[w]ho exactly is Nagi? What kind of powers does she really have? Why doesn’t she remember everything? Nagi and Zenge are both goddesses whose power depends on that of others’ devotion and belief, and it is when in says that he “believes” in her that she is able to be restored.

That makes Nagi pretty human actually

    , and it makes even more sense when we consider the other way we understand what it means to “believe” in someone-to trust and to love someone. [my emphasis]

What they seemed to be getting at is the dividing line between humans and gods, living and dead, tangible and intangible. Cuchlann also speaks of this:

So far as I know the Shinto gods aren’t intermediaries in the [way of Greek titans], but I think we could look at them as go-betweens for the earth itself and the humans who live on it. This is important because I wonder if some people are misinterpreting Nagi’s status.  She is a god, this hypothetical reasoning could go, so why all these strange problems – the inability to properly destroy impurities, the memory loss, the weakness in power. But unlike a Greek god, who just has power, the Shinto gods are just sort-of around, almost like a higher grouping of priests. [my emphasis]

Nagi has been subject to the shifting of positions – in the earth or as the earth, in a state of abstract existence, or in a human container, quite a concrete state of existence. And these shifting positions, locations and states are what articulate her identity, as they are employed with great effect to stimulate character development. So if the complexity of her identity is never answered nor resolved, what are we left with?

Faith.

Yes – Kannagi does in fact break the fourth wall, explicitly (ONCE!) and implicitly via its otaku inside jokes (butthurt director, etc.).

(note: winking at the audience constitutes fourth wall fracture)

As ghostlightning said, this fracturing of the fourth wall is the fulfillment of the wish. Why is Kannagi reliant on viewer faith? I think that, just as Jin said that fun was most important,

As Jin said, while he believes Nagi is a god, what matters is that they had fun. As it turns out, Jin probably is Nagi’s biggest worshipper. IT’S 4th WALL FAITH, ETC.

Concluding questions for the reader

1) Compare the assertions quoted above (Nagi and Zange is intermediaries between gods and humans) with the Catholic idea of saints (who are also patrons of locales and intermediaries between God and humans). Do you feel that a lot of beliefs are more alike than they are different?

2) Does seeing Kannagi in the light of religion change your appreciation of the show in any way? (How about Lucky Star? Haruhi?)

Leave a comment

14 Comments

  1. Cuchlann

     /  5 January 2009

    Well, as someone up there said — I think it was usagijen — religion is a form of pop. culture. It always has been. Some of the best entertainment medieval Christians could get were the mystery and miracle plays, detailing the feats of Jesus. There are some pretty good jokes in surviving examples, too, so they were funny as well as religious (of course, the taboo against humor is relatively recent in Christianity, though once it because what was recognizably Catholicism it did get, uh, less amusing).

    There was also a lot of re-interpretation. The Dream of the Rood is a medieval poem that recasts Jesus suffering on the cross into a kind of heroic fight, in true Anglo-Saxon style. There were obvious moves to make Jesus sound more appealing to northerners by simply changing his image to suit them. The Norse converted to Christianity pretty fucking easily, considering how isolated they were; a lot of people think it’s because the bleeding figure on the “tree” suited them pretty well (never mind the image’s similarity to Odin on the tree).

    Ultimately there’s not actually that much difference. There are even some Catholic saints tied to particular places: St. George is the patron saint of Britain. It’s not quite the same, of course, but then the saints were relatively new additions, and the people didn’t come up with them as they figured out the landscape around them.

    Not that any of you were harping on this, specifically, but it cropped up on one of your examples and I want to bitch about it: western, and even American, culture has a lot of tradition and history behind it; Japan isn’t special in that way. Not *knowing* the tradition — usually because it’s inculcated in you — doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    Okay, there you go. Very nice post, guys (figuratively speaking of course — you’re all cool enough to be Guy Fawkes).

    Reply
    • Lourdes is a great example of a Christian (Catholic) numinous place, and a recently-established one too. I don’t know much about Shintoism, or for that matter how Catholicism treats saints (the brand of Protestantism that I’m familiar with is . . . not big, shall we say? – on saints), but I’d imagine Catholicism fits them into a much more ordered hierarchy. Spiritual hierarchy, that is – from what little I know, saints often gain momentum without the involvement of the church’s structure. The only saint I’ve ever looked up, St Zita (or Sita, or Sitha) lived in Italy and had a very localised cult (if you’ll accept that term) which was spread to a few places (one of them London) by merchants from that part of Italy. She was officially [canonised? beatified? I don't know the word] centuries afterwards.

      Reply
      • I know “beautified” is the step below saint. “Sanctified,” maybe?

        You’re definitely right about the hierarchy, and the process, and everything. I did actually know something about the process beforehand, but the book A Canticle for Leibowitz has a lot of stuff about the process, given that it’s (in part) about a monastery dedicated to a religious figure who has only been beautified at the book’s start. Of course, he was a scientist, but they don’t really know that…

      • Politically Pope John Paul II (NOT PONTIFUS), both beatified and canonized more saints than any other pope in history. There’s even a Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, who was martyred while evangelizing in Japan (interestingly enough).

        It made JP2 a very popular pope, as it endeared him to whole nations to say the least about specific locales (though all momentum he made reaching out was undermined by the pedophilic scandals of late).

  2. Damn, now the religion major in me is demanding that I go watch Kannagi.

    But, seriously, interesting discussion here; at some point I believe I saw a mention of pop culture and religion, and the thin line between the two, to which I would suggest that it is impossible to fully separate out a culture from religion, as being able to do so demands that we can actually draw a line between the two, a task that is, honestly, just not possible to complete or even attempt. The two bleed over into one another.

    Anyway, I don’t think I’m really going anywhere productive with that thought. However, in light of the portions of Kannagi, my interest in that anime is certainly piqued, so hopefully I can get past some of the harem genre tropes in it.

    Reply
  3. OGT

     /  6 January 2009

    One of the very first (and most probably unintentional on the part of Takenashi Eri) observations I made about Kannagi was the relationship and character between Nagi and Zange. Nagi is portrayed (in goddess form) as calm, soothing, and pure (if not necessarily virginal, as I’m not for certain a lack of virginity can imply lack of purity–take that, 2chan!); as the Nagi of most of the series, she’s a little scatterbrained, highly quirky, prone to strange flights of fancy, and often does something counter to what someone might expect of her.

    Zange, on the other hand, is portrayed as cute and also pure–but we find out rather rapidly that that seems to be a front, when she has the whole pseudo-BDSM scene with Nagi in the gym shed.

    If we take Nagi and Zange as stand-ins for Shintoism and Christianity, respectively, then we get an interesting representation of the dialogue between Japan and the Western world: Nagi seems outwardly a little strange but kind at heart, but Zange is the obverse, almost literally whoring herself out for 100 yen in order to attract fans/believers. Zange’s oft-brutal (in the ero-comedic way) treatment of Nagi could perhaps be read as an attempt by the West (through Christianity) to cause Japan (through Shintoism) to submit themselves to the West. Even more amusing, in order to fight against the growing popularity of idol-Zange, Nagi, too, has to try to be an “idol”–almost literally, considering how she acquired her physical form in episode 1. It’s a fairly common outsider’s view of Christianity (or any evangelical religion, really) encroaching on the local religion–those falling for the “invader” religion are literally buying into whoredom.

    Amusingly, Jews and Greco-Roman Gentiles thought this of Christians in the early days of the religion–Gentiles because the concept of monotheism was kind of strange to them (also their problem with Judaism), although Gentiles of the time never really minded people doing other religions as long as they left well enough alone, and also because of the propensity of Christians to be cannibals (the Eucharist–what do you mean you’re eating his body and drinking his blood?); and Jews because non-believing Jews refused to admit that Jesus was the messiah promised in the bubbling font of apocalyptic literature pouring out after the Roman conquest. Christianity started out as a sect of Judaism reviled and/or scorned by Jews and Gentiles equally, sticking it in the same position that it would later cause as it spread across the world. Not to even mention all the crazy sects of Christianity that cropped up and refused to die out.

    Is this all coincindental? I’m pretty sure it is–Nagi never really shows up in the aforementioned fetishized miko garb, but Zange was, most likely, portrayed as a nun(-like entity) because of the similar fetish for nuns in Christian societies (and/or Catholic schoolgirls) that overlapped into Japan. Perhaps this kind of subtext was in the back of Eri’s mind as she drew the series (or running through her head while she couldn’t move) or perhaps it wasn’t; most likely it’s just a collective cultural thought surfacing itself in popular culture, which makes it both unconsciously intentional and consciously unintentional.

    Reply
    • re Stand-ins for Shinto and Christianity, this is indeed a possible reading. And it’s quite funny how everything can be reduced to a sex conversation.

      I wonder, is this the case precisely because of the nature of the medium? This could be especially true if fetishization = fanservice = wish fulfillment.

      The Philippines is a good example of a religious colony rewriting the colonial master narrative. The black Jesus above is an example, and there are other subtle linguistic ones as well.

      Reply
  4. Errorabbit

     /  9 January 2009

    Isn’t the main difference between popculture idolatry and religion that religion nearly always attempts at giving an explanation, or at least indicating an important truth? And not only that, religion is also a vehicle of value.

    Both of which barely any anime or popculture idol can offer. Or rather, both things that none of their “worshippers” search for actively in their worship.
    Religious devotion is different in that, most of it DEMANDS devotion, while all of today’s idols and popculture, although expecting and hoping for devotion (so it can sell, or simply for self-gratification of the author) does not demand it. And while it transports values often – for example Shonen series – it doesnt actually teach them as the media is different. There is no complex of values given to the viewer with the implication of divine retribution or at least karmic consequences here (which even buddhism has, albeit in a different, mostly positive enforcing way).

    As such, elements are similar, but only superficially so. Haruhiism is no religion.
    It’s just a fancy name for expressing fan devotion, capitalising on Haruhi (in her show’s) position as something akin to a god.
    Neither of the followers will adopt values from it, except perhaps if they overlay existing value system on the show, and so exchange the SYMBOL of their belief.
    (For example, with discordianism, equaling Haruhi with Discordia/Eris)

    An interesting parallel to this is the Lousiana Voodoo:
    Practised solely by creole, spanish and french speaking afro-american slaves, it essentially equates the original, more nature-spirit like Loa gods of the Voodoo pantheon with Christian Saints, most notably Papa Legba, keeper of the keys and lord of pathways, with Petrus the keeper of Heaven’s gate.
    It is said that this is because they tried to stay hidden, but I is matter of actual identification too, as the actual properties of the saints and loas mixed.

    Anyway, the point is, even if there is shinto gods and mystical animals (the giant animals in mononoke are also kami, remember? And Shinigami…) in anime, no, even though it is prevalent throughout it, this is of no more religious significance than the religious symbolism in NGE. No, probably even lesser:
    At least to western audiences (japanese probably too) these spiritual, divine things are just as believable as giant mecha, magical girls and Kung Fu masters that fire balls of energy from their hands: Not at all.
    To every somewhate sane and healthy person, it is patently obvious that they are fiction. At most, it can sprout interest into the actual idea, the actual religion behind it, or in the case of japan, appeal to nostalgia or one’s already held believes.

    Plus, I’d like to point out that, although apparently it’s prevalent through most languages, “I believe in you” and “I believe in god” is a different sort of believing altogether. The latter means “I believe a god exists” The second, actually means “I believe in your abilities / quality of character / that you can do it” .. something altogether different.
    It’s interesting that this is often correlated in the case were gods /beings are characterised by the belief of their followers.
    You don’t need to believe in persons. Knowledge defeats the need for believe. As such, telling a god you believe in it in this kind is paradox, as, obviously, it’s there if you cant talk to it, touch it etc. Similarily, what Nagi and Zange accumulate is not belief – you very well belief they exist here – it’s devotion.

    You can very well believe there is a god and hate him though that’s rare.
    The only belief in anime however, is the one that it’s a person.
    And of course, the suspension of disbelief.

    Reply
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