It is often said that the Japanese are "born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist," in recognition of their pragmatic attitude toward multiple beliefs. The same might be said of anime, in which the young are inculcated into rural traditions based on agrarian animism, dazzled in their teens with romance and marriage paraphernalia that is often drawn directly from Christian wedding iconography, and finally encouraged in old age to sacrifice their all for the greater good, be it as pestered parents or tormented mentors. One might interpose an additional stage, that anime children "grow up heathens," steeped as so many adventure anime are in the iconography of foreign myths.
Anime is a magpie medium, stealing flashy objects and solid building materials without discrimination; the exotic religions of the West offer rich pickings, especially as a source for icons and fetishes. As an ordinary teenage girl hearing voices, deemed to have magical powers, and defeating far stronger opponents to save her people, Joan of Arc is a prototype "magical girl": anime has used her story as inspiration for frothy shows like Kamikaze Thief Jeanne and more serious works like Tragedy of Belladonna. A shattered, bleeding statue of the Virgin lends resonance to the climactic final battle between good and evil in Wicked City-set in a Christian church, where the heroine wields the combined powers of Death and the Madonna. Christ-like figures offer redemption in everything from Fist of the North Star to Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. Of course, Europe and America also mine their own religious iconography for media purposes, which can lead to some confusion about which idols are being paid their due homage. The crucifix around the hero's neck in Tokyo Babylon was inspired by pop icon Madonna, and not any Biblical character, while much of the Biblical analogies in Spriggan and Ghost in the Shell seem like so much set dressing.
It is sometimes difficult to make a distinction between religion, faith, and tradition. Faith, as in the individual response to the idea of the divine, is naturally less conspicuous than public practice, being also less open to examination and challenge. Tradition is where belief, religion, and history fade into the timeworn ritual backdrop of everyday life, particularly in the countryside, and hence often appears in anime for or about the very young. In their different ways both Bottle Fairy and My Neighbor Totoro allude to Japan's native Shinto religion, while Japanese Folk Tales supply legendary inspirations for most anime, even if they are modernized or reimagined, as in the cases of Ushio and Tora or Spirited Away. The anime Kamichu goes even further and elevates a character to Shinto godhood. In Peacock King the devotions of a young Buddhist monk are both set dressing and part of the storyline in a supernatural action-adventure. Tenchi Muyo!, Ushio and Tora, Zenki: The Demon Prince, and Shrine of the Morning Mist are all set in and around places of worship.
Like American comic creator Stan Lee before them, anime writers love mythology, with the gods of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia cropping up in numerous guises, from the super-villains of Saint Seiya and Ulysses 31 to the dysfunctional families of Arion or Oh My Goddess!. There's even an occasional nod to more exotic traditions, like the Polynesian tribal god Neoranga, although once in Japan he quickly transmutes into a clunky yet devoted family retainer-a cross between Lurch, the butler from The Addams Family and an oversized, unstable rockery. While anime has yet to suffer a scandal like that which engulfed Lego's Bionicles in 2001, in which Maori representatives protested that their religion was demonstrably not a forgotten belief system, nor as open for abuse as the creators had thought, it has often stumbled into conflicts over what constitutes fair game in the inspirational stakes. Although many of Osamu Tezuka's works show a great respect for foreign religions and often used the crucifix as an icon of justice and transcendence, he was also the man who sanctioned the infamous "Christ's Eyeball" episode of Astro Boy-see Censorship and Localization. Cruciform imagery, much of it seemingly drawn from its appearance in misunderstood foreign movies rather than direct religious experience, often appears in anime. Examples include the Christ metaphors of Evangelion and an infamous episode of Sailor Moon, heavily cut in the U.S. release, in which the supporting cast were all held captive on crystal crucifixes. Anime seems particularly enamored of Judaeo-Christian angels, either as figures of demure, cherubic innocence or gentle parental authority, in everything from the dramatic Earthian to pornography like Angel Core.
As in the West, many creators confuse witchcraft with Satanism, mixing their elements with impunity liable to shock some viewers. A similar confusion often substitutes the five-pointed pentagram of witchcraft (and/or demonology) with the six-pointed Jewish Star of David, witnessed as a symbol of sorcery in anime ranging from Urotsukidoji to Silent Möbius. Notably, the artist Leiji Matsumoto refused to allow the use of a Star of David in this manner in an abortive remake of Captain Harlock, citing his unwillingness to cause religious offense.
When anime uses religion as a story element, it is usually because of its ability to generate conflict. In Hellsing, the great schism of Christianity, which set Catholics against Protestants and devastated Europe for centuries, lives on despite a common enemy so powerful that both sides must fight it. In Angel Sanctuary the conflict is the war of the fallen angels against the forces of Heaven, another concept born of Christian culture. Nuns and priests are authority figures or protectors of the weak, but more often their supposed disengagement from the world is subverted for dramatic effect, as with sexy priest Nicholas Wolfwood, heavily armed even by the standards of Trigun, or Sister Angela of One Pound Gospel. The sexual potential of nuns has been exploited in porn anime like Holy Virgins and Leatherman, but the concept of a woman vowed to gentleness and virtue, yet powerful and detached enough to deal in death, enhances the shock of violent retribution in such shows as Suikoden and Chrono Crusade-a heavy weapon having more impact when wielded by a woman in a wimple.
In the late 1990s, Animage critic Maki Watanabe complained that too many anime followed Hollywood's lead in presenting Muslims as blood-crazed terrorists or ignorant peasants like those in Little El Cid or Goshogun, although it should also be noted that a significant number of postwar anime movies and TV specials drew on stories from the Arabian Nights. The scourge of history, religious fundamentalism, features in a few thoughtful modern anime like Yugo the Negotiator and Master Keaton. Anime has also often embraced an educational role in the dissemination of religions. In the Beginning and Superbook both dramatized Bible stories, while Osamu Tezuka regularly used Buddhist and Shinto elements in his Phoenix stories (see Space Firebird), and both Buddhism and humanism are strong influences on Night Train to the Stars. Anime's influence on the young and impressionable has also seen its use for preaching and recruitment, most conspicuously with the lavish movie productions of Laws of the Sun and Hermes for the Institute for Research in Human Happiness, but also in lesser known works such as Rainbow Across the Pacific or Fairground in the Stars, made as promotional vehicles for the Soka Gakkai Buddhist association. There was also a promotional anime made for the AUM Shinrikyo organization before the Tokyo sarin gas attack, appearing to feature character designs by Shinji Aramaki, although the authors have not been able to obtain a credit list, and AUM representatives did not answer our requests for information. Real religious figures and events appear in their historical context, as well as forming story elements in other shows, including the anime life of Confucius (although his belief system is still arguably not a religion) and the use of the martyrdom of Japanese Christians as a backdrop to Ninja Resurrection.