Tempest’s Downpour: Anime In-Jokes 6 — Religious Symbolism

Posted on Sep 05 2010

Warning: the following article contains the answers to all the questions in the universe, as well as all the spoilers to everything ever. You have been warned.

Religious symbols squirm into every cranny of most of the shows we hold dear. It’s not that the programs are particularly pious. Instead, the Coolness Factor states that crosses look epic and pentagrams are the new black. Plus what would our favorite shows be without the random Buddhist references and Shinto themes? They’d be Naruto

Let’s tackle Christianity’s influence first. If the Sailor Scouts aren’t being crucified, then some other anime characters are carrying their crosses on their shoulders. Plus, how many gun-toting nuns have I seen now? And the less said about Evangelion’s symbolism, the better.

Sailor Moon and Chibi-Usa find the Scouts on crosses

As far as religious themes go, since when did Abel have to go around killing Cain? I was pretty sure the Old Testament explicitly explained that “killing people is wrong” in the Ten Commandments.

And yet in Trinity Blood Abel Nightroad has sworn to repent for his evil brother, Cain’s, deeds by killing. The same goes for Vash and Knives in Trigun, even if the names don’t explicitly state it. And in these shows, the kinder character is so ridiculously powerful that he could wipe out the whole planet on his own.

Vash and Knives in an epic duel to the death.

Shounen anime doesn’t hold the monopoly on Christian themes, either. In Maria-sama ga Miteru, the running theme in this yuri-fest school is that statues of the Virgin Mary are watching the girls. But… what… does it mean? Does she approve of their girls’ love? Disapprove? Is the Virgin Mary a Peeping Tom now? To make matters even freakier, this isn’t the only anime at a catholic school were Mary statues spy on lesbians.

Christianity may have recognizable symbols, but Shinto has a stronger footprint in anime. Shintoism was the indigenous religion of Japan, and became synonymous with “government.”

That all came to a screeching halt when Japan lost the war in 1945 and Westernization forced government and religion to separate. As religiosity sharply declined, people who claimed to have no religion still had Buddhist or Shinto altars in their houses or carried religious pendants. The little rituals of Shintoism became largely ingrained in Japanese society.

Kikyo from Inuyasha in traditional miko garb.

Anime gives us little tastes of the old religion by having characters pray at shrines for good fortune, throwing in a random miko (shrine priestess) here and there and by celebrating festivals. The Shin Megami Tensei games take it a step further by naming characters after the mother and father of Shinto creation, Izanami and Izanagi. Also, the show Kamichu! is about a girl who wakes up one day as a Shinto kami (deity).

There’s a conglomerate of other recognizable symbols from the smaller religions: statues of anything from Buddha to the Hindu gods, Jewish stars, pentagrams. CLAMP is actually quite fond of using a variety of religious symbols because they “look cool.” In Tokyo Babylon, Seishiro carves inversed pentagrams into Subaru’s hands, and in Magic Knight Rayearth, Jewish Stars are a sign of magic in Cephiro.

Ascot summoning a monster via a Jewish Star.

Even the “dead” religions have their own shows. Yu-Gi-Oh! names cards and characters after important people in the ancient Egyptian religion, and I’m pretty sure the art style is meant to resemble tomb paintings. And Saint Seiya is like Voltron for the Greek Mythology geek.

There are certainly some religions I missed, but the object of this article was to open your mind to all the symbolism out there that you’re probably missing. Even if religion isn’t the theme of the show, it’s ever-present in entertainment just because it looks cool.

Think your outfit has enough crosses, Hokuto-chan?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto

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  • Kate September 5, 2010 at 8:41 PM

    NO! GIVE THEM MORE CROSSES! Let’s put it on their gloves!

    • ShinAmakiir September 6, 2010 at 9:30 AM




      Guys listen.

      I have the best ide

      guys listen.

      I have the best idea ever.


      I’ll put CROSSES



      I’ll put CROSSES
      guys listen here

      I’ll put CROSSES… on my TWO gloves.

  • bemused_Bohemian September 6, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    Change the color coordination, add a crest or 2, we’ll think they’re wearing the flag from the state of Maryland. Age those kids to 42: the true life meaning according to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • toyNN September 6, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    Great article! To me it seems that religious symbolism is a bit overused in anime. Its like they’re trying to add depth to their stories where there really isn’t any. Sure its “cool” but there are other ways to be cool and not just muddle-up the story by sprinkling in religious stuff.

    But if it is the story, like Trigun, then fine..go with it and rap it in something comprehendible not just vague. I mostly get Evangelion, and its more of an abstract painting, but for me its religious-story-vague’ness does not necessarily mean its really deep…just that its vague.

  • moonhawk81 September 6, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    And let’s not forget the opposite trend, as represented so well by Witch Hunter Robin, which is completely removing actual religious meaning from symbols, replacing it with pseudo-magical/metaphysical meaning instead. Even the Christian symbolism was devalued. (Of course, I still love the series. . .)

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