Intellectual beauty hidden between the lines: Philosophy in Anime
Anime has never been perceived by the global community as a viable art form let alone a respectable forum of philosophical inquiry. Originally developed in Japan, the animated series that have prevailed in American shores, for example, have been targeted at younger audiences. Pokémon, a story depicting a myriad of fantastical creatures, was a phenomenon that captured the interest of American youths for decades but ultimately tarnished Anime’s reputation by making audiences believe that Anime is merely a form of children’s entertainment. An integral part of Anime, or Japanese animation, is that it provides a forum for Japanese artists to portray complex themes and story lines to a wider audience. Anyone that ventures to take a closer look at Anime can clearly see that the dialogue and themes portrayed can easily be held as comparable to the works of some of the greatest writers known to man; since often times Anime creators are influenced by such writers. It comes as no surprise then that philosophical and theological themes often times take center stage in different Anime series. Aside from its role as a popular animated art forum, Anime portrays complex philosophical as well as theological themes which undoubtedly validate its function as a means of philosophical as well as theological inquiry.
“Full Metal Alchemist”, also known as FMA, depicts the story of Edward and Alfonse Elric. The world of Edward and Alfonse revolves around alchemy, a practice that was developed to facilitate the creation of tools, weapons, and any inanimate object in general. Alchemy in this series is much like alchemy in real life with one exception, in this Anime humans can basically will an object into existence by simply gathering the necessary materials together and then placing their hands over them in a process called “transmutation” .After the tragic loss of their mother the young brothers decide to take fate into their own hands by attempting the outlawed practice of human transmutation. Their brave, if not misguided, attempt backfires and in the process Alfonse loses his body while Edward loses his right arm and leg. After the life altering event that leaves the young brothers incapacitated, Edward and Alfonse set off on a journey to acquire the legendary philosopher’s stone, which they believe holds the power to repair their bodies through a successful transmutation.
Edward and Alfonse’s journey toward self fulfillment is analogous to the philosophical theory of “spheres of existence” proposed by Soren Kierkegaard. Born in Denmark in 1813, Kierkegaard’s philosophical theories and inquiries are held in high regards by the philosophical community, his “spheres of existence” theory is prominent in existentialist studies. Existentialism in lay man’s terms is the study of the human existence as it is shaped by emotion, consciousness and the acquisition of knowledge. Kierkegaard’s “Spheres of existence theory” is compatible with the Full Metal Alchemist story in that both Kierkegaard’s theory and FMA (Full Metal Alchemist) touch upon the process of self fulfillment as a multifaceted task. “In his view there are three main ‘spheres of existence’ or modes of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Sometimes Kierkegaard portrays these lives as a sequence of steps, each of which we must take on the path of meaning and self fulfillment” (Existentialism: Basic Writings, 5). The journey the Elric brothers embark upon to recover the missing pieces of their bodies metaphorically sets forth the notion that they are on a path of not only physical self fulfillment, but also spiritual self fulfillment as they attempt to redeem the sins they have committed in their failed attempt at a human transmutation.
The villains in the FMA story fully exemplify Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic sphere of existence” criteria. “The most fundamental characteristic of the person living the aesthetic life is that his purposes are exhausted by the satisfaction of desires for momentary or short-term fulfillments” (Existentialism: Basic Writings, 5). In FMA the main villains are the homunculi, beings who resemble humans but are burdened by the lack of a soul and immortality. Homunculi are created when a person attempts a human transmutation, which always fails since a human soul cannot be created through transmutation. There are seven homunculi in FMA and each is named after a deadly sin. Lust, Wrath, Greed, Envy, Pride, Gluttony, and Sloth each reflect Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere theory since they are each overpowered by an inherent need to carry out the actions that are correlated to their name. Gluttony for example often fails in his attempts to destroy the Elric brothers since his appetite gets the best of him, he often enjoys a meal constituting in whole human victims which artfully illustrates the concept of a person being “consumed” by his or her sins.
The two remaining spheres of Kierkegaard’s theory, the ethical and the religious spheres, are also depicted in FMA. Kierkegaard regards the ethical sphere as encompassing the rational human thoughts correlated to justice. In FMA there exists the overarching “law of equivalent exchange” that presides over all alchemists and their transmutations, which reflects Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere. “Human kind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost” (Full Metal Alchemist). This rather poetic law presides over many of the decisions and outcomes that shape the Elric brother’s journey. For example in their failed attempt at transmuting their mother back to life the brothers did not accurately calculate the value and therefore the sacrifice that had to be made to create a human body; which ultimately claimed pieces of Edward’s body and Alfonse’s body in its entirety .The religion sphere is also depicted within FMA not only in the personification of the seven deadly sins, but also in the prevailing dilemma of alchemists who struggle with the decision to play God every time they will something into existence through transmutation. The three spheres of Kierkegaard’s theory are experienced by the Elric brothers, a condition which Kierkegaard believes is the key to self fulfillment, and coincidentally the brothers regain their bodies at the end of the series. FMA definitely brings serious philosophical topics to light through a heart wrenching story line, unlike the bubbly story line surrounding the life and times of Haruhi Suzumiya.
“The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” tells the tale of Haruhi, a young woman going through school under a constant haze of melancholy brought upon by her belief that life is devoid of fun and adventure. To her chagrin, there are plenty of strange paranormal creatures that have gravitated towards her under the guise of new friends without her knowledge. Among her new group of friends are an esper (guardian of the space and time continuum), a time traveler, and an alien, each of whom believe beyond a doubt that Haruhi is connected to the fate of their “people”. This strange series of events mostly takes place within the halls of Haruhi’s high school where often times shenanigans and chaos ensue.
Haruhi Suzumiya’s story parallels the theological theory for the existence of God that is proposed by the accomplished philosopher William P. Alston. In his inquiry titled “Functionalism and Theological language”, Alston argues that God must indeed be inherently different from human beings in many regards but that there lies a problem with such differences since for instance an immaterial spiritual being cannot “do” anything in the physical realm which would mean God is powerless. However, to resolve this dilemma Alston states that it is the simple differences in the way that human’s and God go about performing tasks that truly defines the inherent differences between the two entities. “The core concept of human action is not movement of one’s own body, but rather bringing about change in the world-directly or indirectly- by an act of will, decision, or intention. That concept can be intelligibly applied to a purely spiritual deity. It is just that we will have to think of God as bringing about changes in the ‘external’ world directly by an act of will- not indirectly through moving his body as in our case”(Philosophy of Religion, 355). Herein lies the parallel between Alston’s theory and Haruhi Suzumiya, since the supernatural beings that surround her are all fascinated with her ability to will things into existence without knowing that she has done so.
Haruhi is human, a normal high school girl by all indications, yet she is capable of altering the state of her world without noticing. This phenomenon directly mirrors Alston’s theory in that like Alston’s theory, Haruhi is the same as other humans with the exception of how she goes about performing tasks, just as Alston believes that God differs from humans only in the way in which he or she goes about performing tasks. The young man who is an esper on the show, a powerful guardian of the time and space continuum, states that Haruhi may very well be a god who possess the ability to recreate the world everyday as she sleeps; which is a valid assumption if one takes Alston’s theory as valid.
Similarly, Alston states; “Whether any functional properties can be common to God and man, and if so which, depends on what divine-human differences there are. It will be recalled that we are working with a conception of God as differing from human beings in three main respects: incorporeality, timelessness, and infinity. We shall consider them in turn” (Philosophy of Religion, 354). Alston asserts that God must differ from humans in his or her relation to incorporeality, timelessness, and infinity. Haruhi Suzumiya in fact meets this criteria since she, unlike humans, holds control over each of these realms which further validates the theory that Haruhi is a God. Haruhi’s control over the realms of incorporeality, timelessness, and infinity is reflected in the fact that she directly influences the fate of the realm of the alien (incorporeality), the esper (timelessness) and the time traveler (infinity). Undoubtedly the paranormal circumstances surrounding Haruhi’s high school experience seem rather farfetched but they are nothing compared to Nauta’s middle school experience in “Fooly Cooly”.
After an Alien teenager named Haruko becomes the protagonist Nauta’s house maid in the anime “Fooly Cooly”, havoc ensues. This coming of age story is riddled with paranormal phenomena and the emotional roller coaster that is associated with growing up. Like the “Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”, the world of “Fooly Cooly” (FLCL) is much like real life with the exception of the paranormal phenomena that surrounds Nauta’s story. Nauta’s cranium and mind become a portal through which Haruko summons weapons and other devices to aid her ongoing quest to find her long lost love. Nauta allows Haruko to use him as she pleases due to his growing, and unappreciated, affection for her. As the show progresses, Nauta goes from being a naïve boy to an experienced young man who discovers the temporary lack in sanity that is love. Nauta’s experience reflects the philosophical theories proposed by Antonio Damasio. An accomplished cognitive scientist and philosopher in his own right, Damasio develops his philosophical theories about the functions of emotion within the mind.
Nauta’s irrational love for the hell raising Alien, Haruko, reiterates Damasio’s conclusions about the role of emotion as a catalyst for change and its ability to trump reason.
The pervasiveness of emotion in our development and subsequently in our everyday experience connects virtually every object or situation in our experience, by virtue of conditioning, to the fundamental values of homeostatic regulation: reward and punishment; pleasure or pain; approach or withdrawal; personal advantage or disadvantage; and, inevitably, good (in the sense of survival) or evil (in the sense of death). Whether we like it or not, this is the natural human condition. But when consciousness is available, feelings have their maximum impact, and individuals are also able to reflect and to plan. They have a means to control the pervasive tyranny of emotion: it is called reason. Ironically, of course, the engines of reason still require emotion, which means that the controlling power of reason is often modest. The Feeling of What Happens, 58
Damasio views emotion as a beautiful yet crippling part of the human experience, a claim which Nauta could attest to since his love for Haruko constantly puts his life and sanity in danger. Although Damasio’s theory goes on to describe the functions of the brain that cause emotion and consciousness, his analysis is filled with existentialist influences and poetic flourishes that ultimately give a holistic understanding of his inquiries. Nauta matures as FLCL progresses and in the process he is able to strengthen his power of reason and by doing so harnesses the rampant emotions that constantly put his life in danger.
In conclusion, aside from its role as a popular animated art forum, Anime portrays complex philosophical as well as theological themes which undoubtedly validate its function as a means of philosophical as well as theological inquiry. Ranging from the existential experiences of the protagonists as seen in “Full Metal Alchemist” to the question about God’s possible existence as seen in “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” anime offers a unique venue through which to show case prominent theories in philosophy and academia. Far from being kid-friendly, serious anime showcases the difficult tasks associated with the development of one’s character, the struggle to grasp theological beliefs, and attaining self fulfillment. Undoubtedly anime offers a flurry of shows that depict complicated philosophical theories through the use of metaphors, comedic routines, and visually stunning animation.
Aikawa, Sho. Full Metal Alchemist. Dir. Seiji Mizushima. Oct. 2003.
Brody, Baruch A., ed. Readings in the philosophy of religion an analytic approach. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1992.
Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harvest Books, 2000.