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Drawing on Tradition

Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan

Jolyon Baraka Thomas

Publication Year: 2012

Manga and anime (illustrated serial novels and animated films) are highly influential Japanese entertainment media that boast tremendous domestic consumption as well as worldwide distribution and an international audience. Drawing on Tradition examines religious aspects of the culture of manga and anime production and consumption through a methodological synthesis of narrative and visual analysis, history, and ethnography. Rather than merely describing the incidence of religions such as Buddhism or Shinto in these media, Jolyon BarakaThomas shows that authors and audiences create and re-create “religious frames of mind” through their imaginative and ritualized interactions with illustrated worlds. Manga and anime therefore not only contribute to familiarity with traditional religious doctrines and imagery, but also allow authors, directors, and audiences to modify and elaborate upon such traditional tropes, sometimes creating hitherto unforeseen religious ideas and practices.

The book takes play seriously by highlighting these recursive relationships between recreation and religion, emphasizing throughout the double sense of play as entertainment and play as adulteration (i.e., the whimsical or parodic representation of religious figures, doctrines, and imagery). Building on recent developments in academic studies of manga and anime—as well as on recent advances in the study of religion as related to art and film—Thomas demonstrates that the specific aesthetic qualities and industrial dispositions of manga and anime invite practices of rendition and reception that can and do influence the ways that religious institutions and lay authors have attempted to captivate new audiences.

Drawing on Tradition will appeal to both the dilettante and the specialist: Fans and self-professed otaku will find an engaging academic perspective on often overlooked facets of the media and culture of manga and anime, while scholars and students of religion will discover a fresh approach to the complicated relationships between religion and visual media, religion and quotidian practice, and the putative differences between “traditional” and “new” religions.

9 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-ix

One of the most frustrating experiences of my life was that of becoming suddenly illiterate when I stepped off the plane and into Narita Airport in January of 2002. I had moved to Japan on a whim and with little linguistic preparation, having landed a teaching job via the Internet about three or four...

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pp. xi-xii

Books are collective efforts, and this one has been immensely enriched by the following individuals’ commentary and recommendations. In no particular order, they are George Tanabe, Helen Baroni, Christine Yano, Shimazono Susumu, Inoue Nobutaka, Jacqueline Stone, Hirafuji Kikuko, Hoshino Seiji...

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pp. xiii-xiv

In an ideal world, this book would be as thoroughly illustrated as its subject matter, but the exigencies of keeping print costs down (and the difficulty of getting permission to use all of the images that might be appropriate) militate against it. I compensate for the limited number of figures I am able to...

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Introduction: Religious Frames of Mind

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pp. 1-34

The 20 March 1995 poisonous gas attack on the Tokyo subway system perpetrated by the religious group Aum Shinrikyō irrevocably changed the Japanese religious landscape. Armed with plastic bags of liquid sarin (a deadly nerve agent) wrapped in newspaper, members of the group’s inner...

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1. Visualizing Religion

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pp. 35-56

Just as a mangaka juxtaposes a series of discrete panels to create a comprehensive story, in the first half of this chapter I juxtapose several brief sketches of notable technological innovations in Japanese illustrated media to narrate the history of some stylistic, topical, and industrial tendencies that...

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2. Recreating Religion

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pp. 57-101

When I traveled back to Japan on a research trip in 2009 after two years away, two manga were prominently displayed in bookstores around Tokyo and Kyoto. One of these was the third volume of Saint Young Men (Seinto oniisan), a comical depiction of Jesus and Śākyamuni (the historical...

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3. Entertaining Religious Ideas

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pp. 103-124

In this chapter I perform a detailed case study of several anime by an influential director, showing ways in which audience interpretations—including academic interpretations—of certain films as products deriving from directors’ religious motivations or as media for imparting religious messages can...

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4. Depicting Religions on the Margins

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pp. 125-153

It is difficult to discuss religion in contemporary Japan without addressing the influence of Aum Shinrikyō, the infamous group responsible for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March of 1995. In the aftermath of the attack, religions—particularly religions of recent provenance...

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pp. 155-156

Manga and anime reflect the protean—and often conflicting—interests of the people who produce and consume them. Although they are often simply sources of profit for producers and diversion for audiences, they sometimes feature moving pictures and stories that may animate audiences...


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pp. 157-173


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pp. 175-188


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pp. 189-197

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865863
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824835897

Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 821737498
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Drawing on Tradition

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Comic books, strips, etc. -- Japan -- History and criticism.
  • Comic books, strips, etc. -- Religious aspects.
  • Animated films -- Japan -- History and criticism.
  • Animated films -- Religious aspects.
  • Japan -- Religion -- 21st century.
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