Saturday, February 12, 2011

Christianity and anime. More specifically, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

The attitude of conservative Christians towards media is a pretty mixed one.  In large part it seems like my people (and like it or not, they are my people, insofar as whitey is allowed to have a coherent subculture and corresponding loyalties in the first place) haven't bothered to develop a coherent philosophy to various media depictions and styles of art.  Growing up in the Bible Belt I got a bit of that good old 80s 'Isn't D&D Satanic?' ribbing, but it was mostly in jest.  There was never enough consistency in rejection of any given kind of subject matter to allow me to take such remarks very seriously.  Nonetheless I've always felt a gap between myself and the media habits of the common man and especially the common Christian.  Some believers may feel that watching anything that isn't as overtly Christian as VeggieTales can be spiritually degrading, while others will be more lax and draw a line at more graphic content such as R-rated movies.  Of course, drowning out all diverse points of view are the people who like to witch hunt and blame any random violent or overtly sexual media for the sins of their children, when improper childrearing techniques are more likely to be at fault!  It's been my experience that once someone is far gone enough to blame Grand Theft Auto for the ills of the world, there's really no point in attempting debate.  So this is a post directed more to the people on the fence between total acceptance of 'heathen' media and awkward rejection of it.  For those of you still wondering how much virtue there can be in the materialistic world and where you should draw the line.

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, literally translated as When the Cicadas Cry, and translated officially in America as just When They Cry, is the last anime I've truly fallen in love with.  And by that I really mean the phrase 'fallen in love.'  I adore this little two-season cartoon show like I would a beautiful and intelligent woman.  In part this is due to its initial premise, which is an almost exactly even blend of sentimental schoolchildren romantic-drama-comedy, and no-holds-barred terrifying and brutal psychological horror.  The coupling of two so diverse genres is exactly my cup of anime tea.  Higurashi is more than happy to dip into the most saccharine cutesy scenes at one moment, and then immediately pull a 180 into graphic horror the likes of which would make Eli Roth wince.

Going by superficial descriptions, the average Christian, however, would find Higurashi pretty inappropriate fare.  The mild but obvious and definitely suggestive sexual content, so typical of anime, is centered on kids, in some cases quite young ones, which can check the 'ephebophilia/pedophilia' box.  The slasher side of the show checks the 'glorification of violence' box.  The inclusion of a minor deity in the second season checks the 'polytheism' box.  The reference to demons in the backstory checks off 'Satanism/paganism.'  If you only look skin deep, there's a lot to object to.  And now you're probably wondering how I justify watching something like that to begin with!  Let's scratch a little deeper and see what we get, shall we?

A little willingness to give the show a chance to justify its existence can go a long way.  Sexual content is constantly subverted, as the object of lust is almost always presented as damaged in some way by this attention, or pre-damaged and incapable of forming emotionally healthy relationships.  This continues to such a degree that you almost wish the characters would stop caring about each other, because you know they're just going to hurt each other more for it later on!  The initial 'fanservice' is typically used to lure not just the characters into an initial state of relaxation, but the audience as well, so we feel the same shock as the cast when things go south.

Gore, demonic influence, torture scenes and the like are not used in the sense of an action game like Dead Space.  You don't enjoy seeing these things happen.  While there are killing sprees and graphic mutilation aplenty, these events are addressed with a strong air of tragedy.  The resultant suffering is so unnecessary, and the victims so sympathetic, that you beg for it to stop even when you know it's going to go on until they learn their lesson.  Many Christians may also appreciate the more subtle point made through one of the antagonists - that an excess of interest in such things can be harmful, since it can damage one's ability to truly understand the emotional impact on the victims as well as hindering one's ability to relate to humanity in general.  At the same time, acknowledging the existence of this unpleasant underside of humanity with all due respect is crucial, and in fact a primary aspect of the priestess Rika's duties.  If you've read the Old Testament, you ought to be able to empathize.

Then there's our final possible objection, the little goddess Hanyū.  As with most anime, there's not a great deal of thought given to the inclusion of the divine as an actual cast member.  That doesn't mean there's no spiritual content to enjoy, but it does mean that you shouldn't look at Hanyū and expect some deep statement about the nature of interaction between humanity and God.  Hanyū, as a very cute, very timid, very ordinary little girl, just happens to be immortal and have certain duties towards the villagers of the setting.  She neither demands nor requires worship, and refrains from offering a consistent belief system for followers to adhere to.  Notably, the nature of faith, miracles, the afterlife or its lack, and the metaphysical gears that churn the universe are all left unaddressed.  They're simply not the point of the show.  Since Hanyū ultimately is no more a God in the Christian sense than the witches in Bewitched are witches, there's little for an open-minded Christian to find conflict with once getting used to the terminology.

But all this is on the defensive.  On the aggressive, Higurashi presents a number of strong themes that should strike a strong note with any person of faith.  The universal nature of sin is explored through the psychological horror aspect as it applies to each character in turn.  In fact, the line between protagonist and antagonist blurs significantly, while still retaining the audience's sympathy.  In short, everyone has their mental baggage, and given suitably trying circumstances, anyone can become a horrible person.  This is the bulk of the subject matter in the first season, as we find seemingly minor sins snowballing into outright psychosis, and small shards driven between two people turn into major conflicts.

But the second season flips this around to make the opposite point as well.  One's ability to relate to humanity and find a place in the world, one's ability to love and trust and sacrifice of the self, all these things are incredibly fragile.  At the same time, they are also accessible to all people.  Friendships can be mended, arguments resolved, and hurt feelings soothed if you're just willing to take the risk and allow yourself to be hurt for the sake of the other.  No matter how far the descent into horror is, there's always a way to climb back out.  It's very telling that the primary antagonist of the series, despite all murderous deeds done, is driven, not by selfishness, but by love.  By way of contrast, 'torture porn' style media like Hostel present suffering as a thing without meaning, arbitrary and shallow.  We have no reason to care about the villains in such a movie.  Higurashi differs in that it has the courage to offer not just universal sin, but also universal salvation.

And to me, that is what Christianity is all about.

No comments:

Post a Comment