Saturday 10 March 2012

Anime Christi - Part 2 of 2

By Eric Hanna, S.J.

In anime there are also characters who are not Christians themselves but who represent Christ in the story. Most heroes can be considered Christ-like characters because of the way in which they redeem the story and defeat evil through their actions. However, there are a few characters, who represent the person of Christ and their actions in the story reflect Christ's actions in salvation history. For instance, many heroes sacrifice their lives to save the lives of their friends; only to experience a 'resurrection' moment.

 In my opinion, the most explicit Christ figure in anime is from the 1998 series Trigun. Trigun is primarily a western; as such it seeks out to explore the themes and archetypes of the great cowboy movies of the past few decades. As such, the exploration of a western gunslinger as a Christ-figure is very deliberate. The hero's name is Vash the Stampede. It is revealed that while he is an extremely dangerous gunslinger, he has taken a vow never to kill. In a world where outlaws threaten innocent lives, Vash struggles to save the lives not only of the innocents but of thieves and murderers. Vash works to redeem and change the minds of criminals and “sinners”.

At one point in the series, Vash is depicted as a young man watching a spider catch a butterfly, and he wants to set the butterfly free. An older character kills the spider, explaining that without food, a spider cannot survive. The older character states that the human mission is to save that which is beautiful from that which is evil … but the young Vash weeps and pleads that there must be a way to save both. His character rejects the logic of death and survival and seeks another way.

Vash's skill at fighting borders on miraculous; but he hides his abilities by behaving clownishly and foolishly (which lightens the action with a little comedy but also represents a self-emptying kenosis). Vash's partner and friend is a country preacher named Wolfwood who carries a huge cross. The author uses the story of Vash and the old west as a metaphor for the problem of human suffering. The people of the old west and of Jesus' time were convinced that the solution to suffering is for God to punish and kill the evil people and invite the innocent to paradise. But Christ defied this logic; instead of using violence Christ came to suffer. Vash himself suffers terribly as a result of his refusal to kill, enduring great injury while trying to save people who are trying to kill him.

The climax of the story involves a terrible moment for Vash, in which he resolves to kill an arch-villain who is bent on destroying the world. Vash is plagued by guilt, as if he has taken sin upon himself. He is dragged behind horses as a criminal, stripped, and humbled. He does not resist this treatment. At the last moment, though, he stops the villain without killing him, and carries the villain back home on his shoulders, resolving to care for him and teach him how to live rightly.

All of these moments are replete with Christological imagery: Vash wears red (standing for blood and life), he wanders in the desert, he has a transfiguration in which he appears to be a heavenly figure, he bears symbolic wounds, and he has an intuitive grasp of what people need in order to turn from sin and abundance of life. The latter episodes reveal that Vash is old enough to have been present when the world was a green paradise, and that his motivation is to remedy the wrong that turned the world into a desert wasteland and let humanity have a new future. The Christ-figure reveals the author's conviction that humans are caught in a cycle of violence, and that radical forgiveness and a salvific act of sacrifice are needed to show humanity the way to live.

There are many other archetypes at work, the message is strongly Buddhist and the lone gunslinger also represents the values of samurai ethics. But the Christological aspect of the character is strong and deliberate. This makes for a rich and fruitful context in which Eastern and Western ideas can play off of one another.

Anime can be very strange. Like any art form, it can be used to convey either fatuous, destructive themes or deeply human and redemptive ones. It is our role as discerning viewers to seek out that which is most good and benefit from it. It is neither my job or my desire to bring Christ to these stories. It is my belief that, implicitly or explicitly, Christ is already present in all human narrative. The Jesuit missionaries who first came to Japan were deeply moved by the culture and the people they encountered. They found Christ already at work in Japan. Their faith lead them to openness and receptivity. Our faith must lead us to the same; only then can we truly find God in all things.


  1. Hi Eric. Great job on exploring faith related themes in anime. You may be interested in writing about Death Note. This show contains themes about forgiveness and playing God. (No intention for spoilers here.) I'd very much like you explore more about faith in anime shows in the future. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi there! I know this post of yours is an older one, but I still must say I love what you wrote here. I found it over a year ago, actually, but upon re-reading it I'm still impressed and enjoyed it all over again.
    I found it while researching Christ-figures in popular culture (specifically manga and anime) for my thesis (for my M.A. in Theological Studies. (I'd completed it and graduated last spring, but I'm currently revising the thesis as a more thorough 'Director's Cut' edition, in hopes of trying to publish it.)

    I am a parishioner at a Jesuit parish in Vancouver, where I also attended the attached college - I believe you might know a mutual acquaintance, recently ordained John O'Brien- and I am quite enamoured with Ignatian spirituality, AND since I was already a die-hard Trigun fan, your blog hit a lot of perfect buttons!)

    I had already chosen Vash as one of my three case-study characters for my thesis (the other two being Superman and Optimus Prime), and your commentary was a beautiful summation of many of my own views about the character and the series. So, thank you very much, Fr. Hanna! I hope you continue to find Jesus in the culture - and in the popular variety too!

    Take care, and God bless.

    Kalelin Marianne Kirk :-)

  3. Ah, P.S. I quoted you in the thesis. Hope you don't mind! (I cited you as properly as I could, and provided the link to the blog in my bibliography.)


    Kalelin :-)