Can you tolerate the many quirks, stereotypes, conceits, and, let’s be frank, the sexualization of young women in Asian animated series? If so then you may be amply rewarded by their matter-of-fact supernaturalism. The occult is everywhere in these series. It’s a well-worn trope that stands nearly as tall as the monsters in Kaiju films (like Godzilla). If you want secret knowledge, forbidden spiritual powers, mystical or mythical creatures, then anime has definitely got you covered. How does it all fit together? Well, I’ll continue to explore that in the future here, but for now I just want to direct readers to a few worthwhile islands in this vast media ocean.
I should also note that I’m no expert on Japanese religions. I do appreciate Japan’s cultural products–Cowboy Bebop was the first television series that totally blew me away when I found it. As an scholar of American religion and religious theory, I’m always approaching this material for how it might be used to illustrate the way religion works. The differences between Japanese and Western products help me see how differently we treat the supernatural in our two cultures.
American audiences who have any interest in the supernatural dramas will naturally be familiar with The WB’s Supernatural or perhaps Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Charmed, True Blood, or The Vampire Diaries. There are many more, but what these shows share is usually the contest between light and dark. We are expected to pick a side.
The best of them–and most of these series have significant peaks and valleys–throw curveballs at viewers to keep them guessing about which side they should really root for. [Classic example: the end of season 6 in Buffy where good-girl sidekick Willow finally becomes the show's major villain.]
The Western preference for supernatural drama often attempts to balance the humanization of the main characters with their increasing otherness. Being Human (both the British and U.S. versions) does a great job showing the challenges characters face as they become increasingly entangled in cosmic confrontations. Upping the ante is natural, and the rising stakes for characters see them taking greater risks to survive (e.g., Willow again).
Japanese anime has what seems to me a wide register when it comes to presenting the supernatural. Some series narrate the coming-of-age with superhuman power that Americans adore. (Have you seen how many comic book adaptations we’ve had lately?) But others, lying primarily in the world of fantasy, begin with the premise that the world is as supernatural as the show presents it.
Fullmetal Alchemist is a great example. Precisely because the show is set in an alternate world, there is no pretense that having these powers is somehow dehumanizing. American audiences have generally been less willing to tolerate this conceit, although the recent success of Grimm and Sanctuary suggest there may be more room for this than ever.
Not all of Japan’s successful A-list anime have required displacement into fantasy worlds to succeed. Bleach has over 350 short episodes and tells the story of Ichigo, a high schooler who can see and hear ghosts. He becomes an exorcist. [More accurately he becomes a Shinigami or Grim Reaper, but exorcist feels more appropriate.] Eventually, the story becomes considerably more action-oriented, but its premise through the first 14 episodes or so is entirely supernatural. You can watch the whole thing with a subscription to Crunchyroll.com.
Other notable anime series that significant supernatural elements include InuYasha (Medieval Japan filled with spirits), Death Note (main character punishes villains by killing them with his magic powers), Vampire Knight (i.e., teen vampire academy), Occult Academy, Moribito, Natsume Yujin-cho Si, Hell Girl, The Mystic Archives of Dantalian, or, if you can tolerate its sexual(ized) content, Demon King Daimao. There are many more.
My personal favorites available on Netflix right now include Darker Than Black, Soul Eater, Blood+, Black Butler, and Mushi-Shi.
If you were braving these waters, you might start with the critically praised Darker Than Black. In this show a “Hell’s Gate” opens and transforms people into superhumans. Fighting ensues as ominous government agencies attempt to manipulate and extort the people with the most powerful or dangerous abilities.
If you’re looking for something a bit more straightforward, watch the vampire action series Blood+. It’s even got a live-action remake (only 88m long) that while pretty mediocre gives you quite a bit of the feel of the original (with none of its plot and background). The anime series is far more rewarding, however.
Right now I’m making my way through Tsukoyomi: Moon Phase. It’s a Japanese anime series about photographer named Kouhei who takes spirit pictures for an occult magazine. On assignment in Germany, he encounters a vampire and soon he is entangled in a very frightening and strange world.
I’m sure it’ll all work out. Unlike my post on Hollow, there is often and nearly always deliverance in these supernatural dramas. Part of what keeps them going (and going and going) is the constant deferral of salvation. There’s always one more catch, one last hurdle, a final obstacle. Cliff-hangers are the bread-and-butter of these series. It keeps customers buying more manga and it keeps audiences glued to their televisions waiting for the next chapter.
I expect that a number of these shows will receive write-ups like the one I did for Hollow. Let me know if there’s one in particular you’d like to see!