Quick Insight: Religion in Modern Society | Noragami

Incidently, this is the second and last article I managed to rescue from UnimeTV’s server crash.

(Note: This publication deals with season one, with some limited discussion about Bishamon’s arc in Aragoto. I will try my best to present a narrative that is fair and concise, from the perspective of a largely non-religious background, but also as someone who does helm interests in various teachings from multiple religions worldwide.)

A Grossly Simple Look at Japan and Its Religions

Modern Japan has a very interesting relationship with the spiritual realm. As a country, Japan has no officially recognised national religion, but its most widely practiced folk religion is Shintoism—instead of being indoctrinated from overarching beliefs set from one main source (The Bible for Christianity, Lao Tzu’s teachings for Taoism, etc.), it was instead derived from a widespread collection of folk cultures, eventually influencing the practices of other religions as well, such as Japanese Buddhism. In general, Japanese citizens who consider themselves nonreligious, seem to take part in at least some form of Shinto practice or take part in an event dedicated to Shintoism. For example, consider Christmas: a date originally derived from Christians as the birthday of Jesus. Nowadays, whilst millions around the world celebrate this holiday, it has become a holiday for the sole purpose of sharing gifts, asking for presents from Santa, and decorating the house with flashing light bulbs: hardly religious or celebratory for the birth of God on Earth. In Japan, annual festivals, shrines, and temples are all over the map. For a REALLY simple example, if you ever watched ANY anime that’s set in high school (don’t worry, you have a wide selection of those), you may have seen the main characters throw a coin into a well or bamboo container with an opening, ring a bell, clap their hands twice and pray for good grades. Behold, a classic practice of Shintoism.

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As a polytheist belief, and due to its nature as a collection of multiple cultures, folk ceremonies, deities and mythologies, Shintoism naturally involves multiple Gods (eight million, apparently, hence the unanimous name 八百万の神 or ‘Eight Million Gods’), legendary beings, spirits of heroes and famous politicians (seriously, politics can actually HELP, sometimes), and mystical monsters told from folklore and famous historical events. For creative writers, mangaka and anime creators, this is a treasure trove for fiction (big example being Naruto), even if it also involved inventing Gods who are homeless and basically having to submit themselves to slave labour for lowly humans.

A Comedically Dark Fiction: Modern Relationships with Religion

It would be right to assume, that pretty much anyone who watches Noragami can immediately pick up the dual combination of gritty seriousness and goofy comedic gags, from pretty much the first two episodes of the show.

In many ways, Noragami’s comedic undertones does not try to hide, but rather attempts to co-exist with the more fantastically epic and dark nature of certain religious folk tales depicted in the show, and the serious creative implications that explore the relationships of gods and modern society, whilst also including the always interesting aspect of explaining everyday dissonant happenings with supernatural elements: why do babies cry and suddenly calm down for no reason? Why do we randomly forget names and phone numbers? Why do depressed students commit suicide at the same locations?

Noragami’s focus on the emotional spectrum of its characters and the various inner labyrinths in which they dwell can be considered the central reasons behind what gave the title that edge in the constant battle for superiority and eventual supremacy between mainstream Shounen shows. Everything in this title holds up the Shounen flag with renewed pride: Gods and spirits, feuds and revenge tales, and the well-tred motifs of characters’ inner conflicts are all commonly-used thematic tropes of the genre. Noragami’s progressive focus on character evolutions and relational interactions provided an empathic anchor for viewers to latch onto, as they take off on their journey.

Throughout the show’s runtime, the main trio of the disgraced god Yato, human companion Hiyori and teenage ghost Yukine slowly develop through much relational difficulty and disproportionately altered ‘anime humour’ faces, and into a relationship that is akin to a functional, but always bickering family. It is through this, that the bulk of humour and drama flows and solidifies throughout the two seasons.

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On a purely thematic level, most of season one sought to crystallise the interactional dynamic of the main trio, whilst slowly introducing the mythos of their world. However, the overall storyline during most of the season was interestingly focused on the character arc of Yukine, and through him, Noragami was able to distinctively explore the temporality of existence, youth’s mental peril, and ultimately, the meaning of acceptance and self-applied responsibility. Yukine’s rebellious streak during the first half of the season is rather revealing about the mindsets of displaced teenagers, as if the show is subtly commentating on the social condition of troubled youths who engage in less than gracious acts of crime and self-harm: the regret and envy of those who have what he doesn’t, the realisation that his actions may not result in any direct consequences to himself (ignoring the consequences that may be concern to others), and the eventual descend into blind rage that was the result of an unhealthy combination of jealousy, anger and the lack of self-restraint.

Yato’s presence during the first season, runs in parallel somewhat, with Hiyori’s increased understanding of the spiritual realm: his story arc doesn’t get much focus until the second season; thus, while his character is well-supplemented with personality and a well-established sense of chivalry, the focus of the show thus far is focused squarely on Yukine. As for Hiyori, her accidental venture into this world of Gods and Demons did not amount to much of a story arc for her. Instead, her character acts almost as a pure moral compass for her two companions; a trait that once again gets further development in season two.

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Yukine’s window-smashing rampage also alludes to another sub-exploration of his character: smashing his own reflection very much highlights the rejection of his perception of reality; while at the same time, the state of his existence: brittle, and dangerous when shattered.

One of the central groundworks of Noragami’s God-to-Earth relationship is the notion that Gods exists as long as the human population perceives them as so: they serve a purpose in the overall humanity’s wishes, and thus when a God is forgotten, that God simply vanishes from existence. The darker sides of human desire are embodied within Yato’s character: a former God of calamity who rose to prominence in the more troubled times of Japan’s history but has since lost much of his identity because fewer people wished for widespread destruction on their sworn enemies. In this regard, Hiyori’s relationship with Yato is paramount in exploring how this desperate need to ‘matter’ came close to consuming him: as the moral compass, Hiyori’s secondary purpose of providing him the human anchor to hold on to is perhaps where the heart of Yato’s arc lies.

Understanding Revenge and Purpose

Season two’s focus on new primary characters, Bishamon and Ebisu, sought to deepen the character-based drama that Noragami relies on for its emotional resonance. Themes of revenge and forgiveness are explored in rather heavy thematic breakdowns of ancient feuds and a season-ending hook that seems to allude to a Heaven-wide conspiracy.

As a character arc, Bishamon’s story was executed with deliberate gravitas. While intentional, the war God’s artificial blindness to her army of shinki’s rising discontent is a subject of debate on the fanbase: is the bloodshed because of her or was the villain’s plan so intricate and struck so close to home that it should only remain a testament to his determination? Either way, the preciousness of human connection, the pain of the temporality of life is an ample focal point for Bishamon’s arc, further enhanced by Yukine’s character development during the arc.

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In any case, I will leave the discussion here, as I’ve yet to complete Ebisu’s arc: a task that I couldn’t complete due to certain issues that popped up. Either way, however, I think what I’ve already watched and analysed is enough for some solid discussion on the topic that I intended to bring up.

Update: I did indeed complete the rest of Aragoto during the time which this piece was re-uploaded. However, I find myself not having much to say about it that would present some new ideas to this topic.

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