One thing all anime fans know is that if it exists as even a vague idea, somewhere, someone has made an anime about it. Probably more than one someone. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many stories in anime are built on some of the trappings from the Christian and Catholic church. While some of these stories might attempt something resembling a realistic representation, more often than not, in true anime fashion, an idea is borrowed and then it gets the full anime treatment. And while some people might dislike the way various religious icons and ideologies end up being represented, the end result has been a range of interesting stories that might not otherwise have existed.
Now using religious ideology as the basis of a story, or borrowing heavily from religious texts for characters, themes and ideas, is nothing new, there’s something quite interesting in the way anime tends to do it. With only around 1% of Japan actually identifying as Christian, writers can take quite a few more liberties with the subject matter they are borrowing from without as much fear of audience backlash as writers in more western countries. And while movies like Dogma and the like show that even western writers can get away with subverting the original message, there’s a much greater risk involved.
And while at some point I’d probably like to get more into the various influences of religion within anime narratives, today I’m really just wanting to look at how angels and demons have been represented in a small section of the medium. There are far too many stories that have borrowed these iconic characters to really generalise across the board, but there’s a definite trend that has surfaced in how angels and demons are being depicted.
The trend I really have noticed is that angels are getting a really bad reputation in a lot of these shows (a trend that also seems to be taking place in the west with fallen angels being a trend that bubbled up after the success of Twilight and the market over-saturated with vampire romance and so people jumped on the fallen angel bandwagon instead). While it might be a little earlier than that bubble, Angela/Ash from Black Butler is a prime example of the type of character and depiction that angels regularly get given.
Cruel, sadistic, and slightly crazy, Angela is very driven by her goals which may or may not have anything to do with a higher will power. Her actions are justified as righteous in her own mind even as they leave the audience wondering who the real demon in the show is. And that isn’t to say that Sebastian comes off looking saintly given his violent and predatory nature is well known. It’s just that when you compare him side by side with the angel there’s definitely a question of which one is supposed to be in the right. Even the neutral Grim Reapers end up siding against the angel toward the end of the season as their plan threatens to upset the balance of the world.
If we look at something more recent and comical, Gabriel Drop Out gives us essentially a lazy, drop-out of an angel who’s inherent good nature is so easily corrupted by the pleasures of earth (gaming) and very quickly abandons her original mission. While I didn’t get far into the series, I found this to be an interesting depiction of an angel. It didn’t paint Gabriel into shades of gray, but simply had her become a slacker, which really doesn’t fit with the image of an angel but at the same time didn’t necessarily make her bad either. Throw in the fact that the ‘demonic’ characters in the show seemed to be genuinely sweet and there’s a mess of ideologies going on here that are played for laughs and humour but have probably strayed a fair way from the borrowed religious themes.
Even The Devil is a Part Timer works on subverting the audience’s expectations. It sets up a standard Satan versus Hero situation and Lord Satan (Maou) is corrupt and trying to take over the world. There’s no question of his evil nature in the first episode or of the hero’s righteousness. However, as the series progresses, Emi (the Hero), resorts to stalking, petty rumour spreading, jealousy, and other underhanded tactics while Maou pretty much conforms to the new world’s rules and laws. We also learn that Emi is part angel which begins to subvert the idea of what an angel is before Mitsuki shows up.
Despite being an angel, Mitsuki is very much on par with Angela from Black Butler. He kidnaps characters, he tortures them while laughing about it, he’s petty and vindictive, and ultimately he’s overwhelmed by the power of Maou. And at that point no one feels even slightly sorry for him because he’s a complete an absolute jerk who totally had it coming.
One anime that takes a different approach is Angel beats where Angel (or Tachibana) is originally portrayed as a cold and efficient killer, but later it is realised she is acting in the best interest of others she’s just a really, really bad communicator and no one had ever taken the time to ask her what she was doing. Turns out she isn’t an angel anyway which kind of makes the title of the show a bit odd (unless you count the fact that the computer program she’s using to generate some of her weapons is called Angel Player). Ultimately though, Tachibana is actually trying to help the other students live a happy school life, make peace with their previous life, and move on. Which is probably the most angelic sounding character I’ve mentioned so far.
Demons in anime go anywhere from being mindless beasts hell-bent on destruction, to articulate and savvy romantic interests. The defining trait of being evil is questionable in most of these characters and a lot of them are portrayed as being very human or having very human motivations. And regularly there is no connection between demons and any specific religion as they come across more as random monsters then creatures from the pits of hell. Frequently demonic characters are ones a human audience can sympathise with. It’s an interesting trend though it does make you wonder where all the ‘evil’ demons went. You know, the ones that actually wanted to devour human souls and lead us into ruin.
Now as I said at the start, there’s nothing new about the borrowing of icons and ideologies from religion in narratives, and trends in narratives come and go. But it will be interesting to see what sorts of angels and demons we get from here on out.
And on that note, I’d love to know who some of your favourite angelic and demonic characters are from anime so please be sure to leave me a comment below.
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