Have you ever heard the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”? It goes without saying that it has to do with the unique lifestyle of a country, but what drives people from that country to behave in a certain way? Well, the answer lays in no other reason than those people’s culture and beliefs. Did you notice that when you watch an anime you feel like there’s something different with the atmosphere, customs, and traditions we’re used to in western countries? Like festivals held in the god of Nature’s honor, propitiatory rituals made before an important exam, or still spirits you’ve never thought could exist before. You know what? That’s the magic of Shinto ideology, of which every Japanese anime on this Earth is imbued. Even when it doesn’t look like it!
Really, Shinto influences can be found all over in anime, being the very essence of Japanese thinking. And it sometimes comes to life to make us live the most wonderful adventures ever! It takes the shape of phantasmagorical creatures, whose existence mix with the ones of brave girls and boys blessed with extraordinary powers, causing them a bunch of troubles, or becoming the reason for their strength, most of the time. They fight side by side to defeat monsters, ghosts, deities and to win battles that aren’t just against evil entities, but also against their own inner selves. But if we have to decide what the anime that involves Shinto the most are, what kind of list would come out? Let’s try to find it out together!
10. Gugure! Kokkuri-san
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: October 2014 – December - 2014
One day, little girl Kohina Ichimatsu locks herself up and, all alone, tries a divination game actually meant to be played by couples. Indeed, according to legends, if you dare to play the game by yourself, Kokkuri-san, who’s the spirit that’s supposed to give you answers about anything you ask by moving a coin on a Ouija-like board, will appear before you to make your life miserable. Well, apparently Kohina couldn’t care less about the legend, but when she realizes Kokkuri-san actually exists and it’s a pretty hip fox-like spirit, who relies on search engines to give people their answers, it’s already too late.
Maybe Gugure! Kokkuri-san can’t be exactly considered as the most spiritual of all Japanese anime, but when it comes to Shinto elements, we can easily see them all over. Foxes, tengu, and tanuki run across the scene all the time, and they’re all there to take care – and sometimes also cause trouble – to poor Kohina, who was so careless to mistrust ancient beliefs. Of course, in a digital era, spirits need to keep up with the times too, though being a complete mess using computers, but it’s better to try something than nothing at all, isn’t it?
Full of funny bits and original ideas, Gugure! Kokkuri-san is a title you shouldn’t miss, especially if you want to experience the lighter parts of Shinto.
9. Kyoukai no Rinne
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: April 2015 – September 2015
Kyoukai no Rinne is Sakura Mamiya’s story, a girl who’s capable to see dead people since childhood. Her power was mysteriously awakened when she got lost in the woods near her grandmother’s house. Aside from being aware of that, Sakura can’t recall the cause at all. Her life starts to get more complicated when she becomes a high school student: one of her classmates, Rokudō Rinne, seems to be pretty close to Sakura’s world, but she couldn’t say whether Rinne’s human or not. And, of course, she’ll have to find it out.
Whoever has never watched an anime inspired by a Rumiko Takahashi’s work? May they cast the first stone. Probably, we all know Takahashi sensei’s world of fantasy is filled with magic and traditions coming from Japanese popular imagination, so if you’re searching for a story in which religion is undisputed protagonist, you can’t miss a masterpiece ad Kyoukai no Rinne!
8. The Eccentric Family (Uchouten Kazoku)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: July 2013 – September 2013
What’s the first thing the word “Shinto” makes you think? Ghosts? Deities? Shrines? Well, actually there’s another part of this religion that has to do with unique creatures capable of quite extraordinary things. When it comes to this kind of mystical animal-based anime, the right example is Uchōten Kazoku… especially if you like cute raccoons, better known in Japan as “tanuki”!
Uchōten Kazoku is the tale of a wealthy tanuki’s family, whose members have the ability to shift their shape and turn into humans. They live a carefree life, enjoy mimicking all kind of beings who exist in the world, observe mankind by mixing with the crowd, and never worry about the future. But not all tanuki are like this. The main character Yasaburō Shimogamo, the third son of Shimogamo’s family, is indeed a rebel, who wants to get rid of his nature and become a real human being. Condemned by his own blood, he’ll do his best to learn as much as he can from Benten, a mysterious and ambitious woman, he’d like to be similar to.
We could also say that Uchōten Kazoku is a story that represents Shinto belief itself. Better, it represents a Japanese fantasy about the real world as perceived by all of those spirits who share their space with humans and observe them from a close perspective. We’re not alone on this Earth, and Uchōten Kazoku is exactly what you need to keep that in mind.
7. Hot Springs Fairy Hakone-Chan (Onsen Yousei Hakone-chan)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: October 2015 – December 2015
Shinto is a religion mainly based on the belief that there are spirits who inhabit nature, but what most of people don’t know is that sometimes, in Shinto, nature itself can come to life. This is exactly what happens in Onsen Yōsei Hakone-chan, in which the essence of a hot spring and protector of the water suddenly awakens, after a long, long sleep. The creature, called Hakone, whose name is written with the ideograms of “fairy” and “child”, takes the shape of a cute little girl, but unfortunately she has lost her powers. High school student Tōya, who goes to the shrine near the hot spring every day to pray for he and the girl of his dreams to find happiness together, will be the one to help Hakone regain her powers.
Onsen Yōsei Hakone-chan isn’t a story about wonderful adventures or special beings with crazy superpowers, but its simplicity is what relates to Shinto the most. Shinto is about peace of mind and communion with nature, that is metaphorically represented by the bond that ties Hakone and Tōya. A piece you shouldn’t absolutely miss.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2014 – March 2014
The exact opposite to the tranquility of a happy life in communion with nature that can be found in certain Shinto anime is the battle between good and those dark forces that generate from people regrets, helplessness and desperation. And that’s exactly what’s depicted in one of the most famous anime of the recent times: Noragami.
In Noragami, the main character is minor deity and self-proclaimed “Delivery God” Yato, who’s desperately trying to build his own shrine by doing all sort of jobs, from helping the elderly with cleaning, to searching for lost animal. And for the bargain price of five yen! One day, while engaged in a task, Yato casually runs into middle school student Hiyori Iki, who ends up saving his life from a car accident, taking the hit in his place. From that day forward, Hiyori will be stuck between two dimensions and will have to help Yato and his loyal human-like weapon Yukine to fight against evil entities, until her wish to get back to normal won’t be granted.
References to Shinto in an anime like Noragami are more than loud and clear. Well-known deities from Japanese folklore, such as the god of war Bishamonten or god of poverty Kofuku Ebisu, move across the scene, fighting each other, while secretly preventing others from falling into darkness the world. If you haven’t watched Noragami yet, then you should definitely do it! Especially if you like action and funny bits!
5. Cool-headed Hoozuki (Hoozuki no Reitetsu)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: January 2014 – April 2014
We all know how much Japanese people is obsessed with hierarchies and bureaucracy, but did you know that also on the other side demons and yōkai are pretty busy with making society work properly? Well, if you’re not convinced, you should try to ask chief deputy Hoozuki how’s doing with his stressful… afterlife! Hoozuki no Reitetsu takes place in a Hell ruled by King Enma, who is its highest authority, with the power to sort the souls of death people waiting to atone for the sins they’ve committed in life before being able to reincarnate. In other words, he’s the big fish, the one who makes the rules, and has the last word on everything. But King Enma would be overwhelmed with work if it wasn’t for his cool, collected and efficient number one: Hoozuki, who helps him solve all those problems he couldn’t be able to get rid of by himself.
Well, Hoozuki no Reitetsu is, no mistake, an out of the ordinary story. We should actually say that, though being a Shinto tale, it’s also quite inspired by Buddhist beliefs, but it tries to give watchers an idea of how the netherworld looks according to some branches of Japanese religious imagery. And that’s enough for us to make it in fifth position of our Top 10.
4. Mushi-shi (Mushishi)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 2005 – June 2006
In a world ruled by unknown forces, strange creatures of all shape and dimension hide in the nature and secretly interact with humans, sometimes deciding about their lives, sometimes deciding about their deaths. Legends tell us these mysterious entities are the so-called mushi. They can resemble insects, they can resemble plants, they can even resemble parasites, but they’re actually the nearest creatures to the very source of the existence. Only few people are able to see them, so not much is known about the reason for their existence. Those people are called Mushi-shi and, just like Ginko, they are sort of investigators who travel the world to find out about mushi’s origin, and answers to the meaning of life.
Anime like Mushishi are a portrait of the deepest essence of Japanese religious beliefs, and of its fascination. Nature is where everything generates from and where everything goes back to, so here and the other dimension, the dimension that eyes can’t see, co-exist to give life to an endless circle. The real world and the world of spirit are indeed two sides of the same coin, and maybe Ginko will never be able to completely understand what’s the mystery that resides behind all living things in universe.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: July 2007 – September 2007
Shinto is a philosophy based on peace and nature, but it can be really unsettling, sometimes. Not all spirits that inhabit this world refrain from crossing that thin line that divides numinous dimension from the land of the living, and when they do what awaits human race is just pain and sorrow. This is why a mysterious man, well-known as “The Medicine Seller”, travels across feudal Japan in search of evil spirits, the so-called “mononoke”. His mission is to exorcise as many as them as possible with his special sword. But slaying malevolent entities is not that easy; indeed, for the exorcism to work, he needs to carefully analyze the spirit’s form, past, and purpose first.
As in each culture and folklore, there are good and bad beliefs, that has to do with human’s dual nature. Everything has a dark side, that originates from dread, desperation, anxiety, and Mononoke portrays that forbidden zone of Shinto that everyone fears and that nobody wants to talk about.
2. Into the Forest of Fireflies' Light (Hotarubi no Mori e)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: September 2011
There are very few anime so delicate as Hotarubi no mori e, that’s one of the best example ever when it comes to the Shinto philosophic idea that earthly ties are ephemeral. Fragile are the memories, fragile are the promises, fragile are the human beings, and fragile is the flow of their existence in this physical world. Fragile is also the connection between Hotaru Takegawa, a cheerful and optimistic high school student, and Gin, seraphic spirit of the forest, whose existence could fade like a dream by a light single touch.
When they met, Hotaru was still a little child. Curious to find something out about the god of mountain of a story she had heard about before, Hotaru ends up losing in the mysterious forest. Unable to find her way home, it’s Gin who’ll get her out of troubles. Gin offers the little girl his help, provided that she’ll never try to touch him along the way, or else he would disappear forever. Once out of the forest, Gin warns Hotaru to not come back anymore, but she will eventually break the promise and run back to him every summer.
Hotarubi no Mori e is therefore the bitter part, though leit motif, of Japanese religion-based stories. It definitely deserves to be in the pole position.
1. Natsume's Book of Friends (Natsume Yuujinchou)
- Episodes: 13
- Aired: July 2008 – September 2008
The thought of the other side can sometimes be really scary, especially if you’re a teenager who’s supposed to be spending your days with thoughts of blue skies and spring. But when you’re aware that there’s much more than what the eyes can see, that no one but you will be able to understand, that there are questions that maybe will never find an answer, the only way to move forward is to accept the fate you were assigned.
This is exactly what Natsume Takashi tries to do. Natsume Yūjinchō is indeed the story of a young student, who knows Shinto belief isn’t just a bunch of legends meant to scare children or to give people peace of mind about a hypothetical afterlife. Since he was a little child, Natsume is able to see spirits and yōkai, whose world scares him, but also represents his personal struggle against his inner self and weaknesses. Together with Nyanko-sensei, his guardian spirit and loyal companion, Natsume is going to experience the good and bad, while searching for a place to belong to.
Demons, deities, exorcists, rituals, in Natsume Yūjinchō everything talks about Shinto, even the simplicity of Natsume’s lifestyle. In a world full of mystery, Natsume Yūjinchō wants to talk about the bright part of the unknown.
Are we alone in this world, or are there hidden forces coexisting with us, that we are unaware of? Whatever the answer is, Japanese religious fantasy divides universe into two dimensions, that are an empiric sphere in which normal people live normal lives, and a spiritual sphere, that’s the reign of supernatural creatures. They create a perfect balance, that’s the reflection of Japanese society and lifestyle themselves: people living in a technological jungle, product of a capitalistic era, who share the space with secret gods of nature residing in little shrines secretly scattered between the tall skyscrapers.
Did you like our list? Let us know with a comment, and see you to the next article!