Tag Archives: religion and television

Psychopomps are Good for the Soul

15 Aug
grim reaper

grim reaper (Photo credit: erika.tricroche)

Yesterday I mentioned the shinigami or Japanese Grim Reaper. With the few minutes I’ve got to post today, I thought it was worth directing readers to some excellent examples of Grim Reapers and other conveyers of the soul (psychopomps).

Bleach is the Japanese anime that got me started, but there are plenty more in what I listed such as Death Note and Black Butler. Here I am relying (again) on the excellent work at TV Tropes to refresh my memory about the many versions of this trope in anime. As I previously warned, that website is a blackhole where the best plans go to die and browsers survive only long enough to have dozens of tabs opened.

Anyhow. In my own experience, I immediately remembered several American shows that I thought wonderful examples of sustained development of the psychopomp theme:

  • Dead Like Me (2003-2004) — This series was excellent. Grim reapers in this show arrive on-scene at the moment of a person’s death and guide them through the transition to the afterlife. Much like in the trailer to this summer’s box office flop R.I.P.D., the reapers remain in our world but look different to everyone else. This means the main character, played by Ellen Muth, gets many chances to avoid her newly bereaved family. As she attempts to console her family, she makes everyone a compelling, sympathetic character. It even got her nominated for a Saturn award.
  • Reaper (2007-2009) — Less successful (critically at least) than Dead Like MeReaper‘s main character is a human subcontracted reaper for the devil. When souls escape (?) or refuse to depart the world for hell, the Devil sends the main character of this series to hunt them down.
  • Pushing Daisies (2007-2009) — This is a much less straightforward example, but the series was totally enjoyable. The main character can bring people back to life, a gift he learned saving his mother from an aneurism. This gift has two caveats: 1) If someone is reanimated for more than a minute then another person nearby must die  and 2) if the character ever touches the reanimated person again that person will permanently return to their deceased state. (He learned these lessons the hard way when reviving his mother meant the death of his childhood sweetheart and then his mother dies again when she kisses him goodnight.) Part detective story, part love story, this series begins with him reanimating his murdered sweetheart and marching inexorably to the moment where he accidentally touches her a second time. Ouch.

A glove with the power to bring the dead back to life.

There have also been a number of excellent short narrative arcs about this in other series. My favorite is the “resurrection gauntlet” from the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood. This glove brings the deceased (preferably a violently murdered one) back to life. Unfortunately, this is something more like a swap than a gift. The person wearing the glove may be in for more than they realized! If you like Doctor Who and you haven’t seen this yet, do yourself a favor and learn all about Cpt. Jack Harkness’ exploits at the Torchwood Institute.

Of course, the whole Doctor Who series is about reanimation, and the reboot of the famous science fiction show has much of the appeal in the reaper genre. After all, the Doctor is very much the harbinger of death. And he so often guides and comforts people during their final moments, much as his companions do for him with his transformations. (The Doctor “regenerates” a new body when he’s on the verge of death. This trick allows the character to be played by many different actors). Expectant fans are already aware that the current Doctor will meet his end in the Christmas special episode. Hopefully he’ll have suitable guides to ease his passing.

Doctor Who and the Temporal Paradox: Episode 8...

The Doctor regenerates. Doctor Who and the Temporal Paradox: Episode 8 – Rewritten (Photo credit: Rooners Toy Photography)


An Intro to Occult-driven Television and Anime

14 Aug

English: Japanese movie poster for 1955 Japane...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.

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight V...

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.


Bleach (Photo credit: Scott Ingram Photography)

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 BlackSoul EaterBlood+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.

The main characters of the series first season...

The main characters of the first season of Darker Than Black (from left to right): Huang, Yin, Hei, and Mao (yes, the cat). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!