This was written as an entry to Anime Writing Reddit Competition. It’s an essay so this isn’t my usual style nor it is as comfortable to read if you’re not in the mood. Expect spoilers for Season 1 and 2 of Noragami (Aragoto).
Noragami is an anime based on the adventures of an up and coming God called Yato without a single shrine to his name and a schoolgirl – Hiyori – who changes his fortunes forever. The purpose of this essay is to explore how the anime illustrates how religion, spirituality and medical practices approach mental health in today’s society.
This anime is appropriately based in a country with supposed mental health issues linked to its high suicide rates, while potentially aimed at an audience who can relate to the circumstances depicted. It is based on a religion ingrained into the Japanese culture that is strongly tied to elements of spirituality. This can be seen as a double edged sword in combating mental illnesses as I’ll explain in more detail next.
Religion and spirituality are not the same especially when it comes to mental illness
People are very unhappy nowadays in what is becoming a very atheist world in many parts. Organised religion is slowly taking a step back and Japan is a prime example of a country who is duly influenced by it. The first thing I’ll do is refer to is a survey based on 7,000 people in England that supports the basis of this argument. It identified that people who had “spiritual understanding of life” but not practicing organised religion were more likely to have a variety of mental health disorders than religious and atheists people. While looking into this, I couldn’t ignore the correlation. Japanese culture is technically not religious but it is instead spiritual as the dominant religions are either considered lax in dictating a way of life or lacking in a strict religious framework. This forms a rather thin connection between the mental issues in Japan and the Shinto religion – which Noragami is based on.
Going on this, some can make the assumption that having a spiritual understanding of life (without a religious framework of regular worship) somehow causes more mental health problems. This is all hypothetical because the survey doesn’t prove cause and effect. It cannot prove which came first: spirituality or mental ill health. But it may warrant further looking into.
This challenges a common assumption that spirituality (think mainstream rituals such as yoga and meditation) leads to better mental health. Although there is one consideration to bear in mind. I wanted to point out that the broadening of the term spirituality can imply mental health by definition. Such misconceptions make mental health more difficult to diagnose and cure if there are unsolved misunderstandings.
Now that the parameters of spirituality and religion has been defined, I’ll move on to the main event.
Episode 1: How negativity spreads
The anime starts season 2 by recapping on the concepts of how humans fall prey to dark spirits requiring the intervention of “kamis” ie Gods such as Yato.
“His longing created the vulnerability that brought the Phantom”.
In the first episode, what seemed to be a simple matter of babysitting turned out be something more sinister. The baby wouldn’t stop crying. This was a symptom of the vulnerability that drew a phantom. How this all came about becomes clearer a few minutes later when Yato looks in the mirror. It seemed the phantom was an image created by the baby in the mirror because he wanted someone to play with.
This is a concept in Noragami influenced by the Shinto religion – humans are made vulnerable by a circumstance which a dark spirit (or phantom) exploits. This perspective minimises accountability and emphasises sympathy with the plight of the “victim”. Sympathy is the key word here because we are more inclined to help someone rather than blame them for their erroneous ways. For example, an unsympathetic psychiatrist would be very problematic if their patient happened to be deeply depressed.
“Unless we do something it will eventually possess his mother and take her humanity”.
There was also another concept I picked up on. In this scene, the mention of the mother eventually becoming possessed was glazed over when on reflection I saw it hinting at a bigger theme in the series. Simply put, negative emotions are contagious.
“Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” – 1 Corinthians 15:33
You can easily imagine how this story would work if re-enacted in a more realistic setting. A baby refuses to stop crying, so the mother takes out her frustration through violence (beating the child). Or worst, the lack of sleep causes dramatic mood swings at her workplace and her colleagues respond in kind. By the end of the week, the whole town has been affected by bad spirited behaviour. And this continuous cycle would have all started from an innocent place – a newborn child. Think the “Noise” and “Reapers” from The World Ends With You if you’re familiar with the game.
Episode 1 shows us how a simple scenario can be interpreted differently leading to a similar conclusion but different diagnosis. Remember that mental health is very murky and hard to quantify even for medical professionals. This creates a challenge for medical diagnosis counter arguing conclusions drawn by the illustrative nature of mythology and spiritual beliefs. Simply put, in many religion circles, a demon possessing your child is pretty powerful diagnosis rather than “he needs more company”.
Episode 2: The power of faith, the perils of doubt
In episode 2, the one who falls prey to dark spirits isn’t human but a spirit who befriends Yukine. What you’ll realise in Noragami, spirits suffer the same emotional issues as humans. The afterlife doesn’t grant them immunity to this. The spirit – Suzuha – was neglected by his God holding onto a promise by a human who could see him even though she was a living person. The promise was his cherished friend would come visit him again to watch the cherry blossoms, so he decorated the tree where the promise was carved. Thirty years and counting, he held on then Kugaha broke the news that he was abandoned. The phantom dogs then appeared to attack him at his most vulnerable state.
Faith is at the centre of all that is religious and spiritual. We have all heard of people finding God in their darkest hour, finding hope when there seemed like none. On the brink of mental breakdown, faith in a higher power is literally a life-saver. Many people probably would suffer from deep depression if it weren’t for faith. It allows you to move forward into the unknown and acts as a shield against uncertainty, once removed your doubts resurface and you can become victim to negativity and temptations.
What we can take from episode 2 is the coping mechanism are the same. It could be denial, delusional thoughts, obsession or naivety. We turn to different sources to find a solution to the darkness in our hearts and prevent it consuming us. And this anime show does more than weigh on this – prevention.
Two methods of prevention
We have looked at small examples of dark spirits spreading their evils and the infectious nature of negative emotions. A remedy for this surfaces when looking at the God-Regalia relationships. In Noragami, Gods can be “blighted” (infected) by the impurities of the spirits under their care when their regalia commits a sin or is attacked by phantoms. The ramifications are laid bear when you see how Yato treats Yukine and Bishamon’s relationship with her numerous Regalias.
The lowly God on one hand always asks Yukine to discuss his feelings whenever he begins to sense ill-thought creeping in. In contrast, Bishamon had little interactions with her regalias outside the 9 combat ready shinki. This results in her suffering in isolation whilst relying on medication and her traitorous doctor who eventually abuses his position. This may have been a sly dig at the pharmaceutical approach (use of antidepressants) to mental health treatment. Either way it highlights effectiveness of two contrasting methods.
There’s a reason why having someone to talk to is highly recommended when facing mental health issues. Venting and expressing emotion is a remedy well illustrated in this series. Bishamon’s story is also reflective of how neglect can result in deep isolation a recent phenomenon in Japan called Hikikomori. Additionally, I find Gods being able to feel their regalia’s emotions is similar to how loved ones tend to sense your bad moods. A mother may not become blighted by her daughter’s transgressions but she is definitely affected when her children experience any form of emotional turmoil.
The Cure: The one thing they all agree on
“The two cannot be separated. To cleanse the body is also to cleanse the mind.”
When all else has failed, you call your psychiatrist or if you’re religious, your religious leader. In Noragami, there is an ablution. This is is a ritual held to purify a Shinki that has been committing sins and betrayed his/her God(s). It is a painful process of cleansing the impurities or blight attached on the body. You can draw direct parallels between an ablution, cleansing of sins or exorcisms of christianity and other religions. Unfortunately, this is too mystical for the medical profession but these processes are not completely world’s apart. A big part of dealing with a mental health situation is confession. Yukine had to confess his sins before the blight left him. Honesty with your psychiatrist is vital to proper treatment. I think this is the one thing, medical practices, religion and spirituality all agree on. Confess it, let it go and move on.
I think when it comes to mental health these can all be effective because the outcome is within the mind. It is what you make of it – a placebo effect in different shapes and sizes. For example, if I genuinely believe Pastor David just casted out a demon from my body, I would stop worrying and suddenly feel happy. And I’m the only one who can judge whether that’s correct. With the intangibility of such cases the concept of Gods and spirits may not look so far fetched after all.
We have advanced to the point, the human body is well documented and understood. But the mind is still rather mysterious. Noragami painted an interesting picture around mental health issues and gives us a new angle to view them. Even if there is nothing groundbreaking to be found on the surface, what’s to say inspiration cannot be found when addresses such challenges?
Japan has developed a reputation for high suicide rates so it doesn’t surprise me an anime show tackling mental health exists. The show touches on the potential causes such as neglect, isolation and lack of expression. It does a fair job of visualising the effects of mental illness even if unintentional. A child suffering from such issues could potentially find comfort in dark spirits being vanquished by good, down-to-earth duos such like Yukine and Yato. Drawn as symptoms of distressed souls but reflective of medical conditions rampant in Japanese society and all around the world. The more I read into Noragami and Japan, the more vivid the connection and real life analogies became.