The Spirit World of Noragami
February 11, 2014 2 Comments
Like many anime or manga that focus on the spirit world as found in Japanese belief systems and religions, Noragami presents us with a representation of how the lives of humans constantly intersect with spirits. The spirits, or ‘Youkai’ in Noragami are far from good, but are instead the metaphysical accumulations of humanities pain, sadness, and hatred. Throughout the series we have seen how easily they can cause the death of humans, as they are attracted to negative feelings, possessing the individuals body and pushing them over the edge. It would however be unfair to call them ‘evil’, at least in the conventional meaning of the word, as they are not acting out of malice or hatred, but are instead acting based on what they are, in an unthinking fashion.
Youkai are not inherently evil in the way that devils or demons are supposed to be within western belief systems, but are instead the representation of spirits, both good and bad. Youkai range eclectically from the malevolent to the mischievous, and may occasionally bring good luck or good fortune to those that encounter them. Most of the Youkai that are shown in Noragami are the malevolent kind, taking the form of giant monsters that seem intent on death and destruction. What is particularly interesting about Yato’s actions are that they seem almost futile – he cannot wipe out the Youkai as they are the creations of humanity, and many are the corrupted spirits of deceased humans. Instead we see him helping others as much as possible, and seemingly acting as a sort of games keeper, trying to control and thin out the heard as much as possible. There are parallels here between Yato’s actions and those of the spirit hunters within Kyoukai no Kanata, although in this case we are talking about a kami rather than a human organisation.
One of the most interesting aspects of this series is how fragile the link between humans and deities can be, and how easy it would be for Yato to fall to a Youkai and be consumed, corrupted, and eventually subsumed into the writhing mass. Yato may be a kami, but he is a forgotten kami, one that existed during a time of constant warfare and who is no longer needed during a period of apparent peace. Yato’s itinerant lifestyle demonstrates to us how easily a god can be lost and forgotten – his constant use of temples as safe sanctuaries further illustrates his precarious position as a forgotten deity. As he explained to Hiyori in last week’s episode, these temples are protected by divine energy, and although it may look to Hiyori that he is living like a tramp, they represent the safest place for him and Yukine to sleep. Yukine and Hiyori in her spirit form represent perfect prey for malevolent Youkai, and the problems that they encountered in last weeks episode serve to highlight how precarious their current positions really are, and how much they have to rely on Yato for protection and advice.
To follow on from this, the presentation of kami in Noragami has been that of slightly eccentric, but generally good-natured individuals. Yato is a bit crazy, and suffers from serious delusions of grandeur that belie his clear poverty and lack of presence. Tenjin seems to be a wealthy, kind, if slightly perverted old man who looks after his worshippers needs, and Kofuku is the ditzy and irresponsible deity who lives a simple and carefree life. But, like with the Greek gods, Japanese kami are far from all loving and beneficent, but are instead capricious and prone to jealousy and selfishness, and are as likely to punish those who slight them as they are to grant favours. Tenjin for example is quite happy to help others as long as he gets something in return, and even outsources the problem of malevolent Youkai in the local area to Yato because he has to deal with the prayers of those who come to his temple. Despite numerous student suicides happening in his local areas, the workings of his temple and his standing as a god of scholarship and knowledge come first.
Kofuku, while mischievous and easy to like also causes others lots of worry and pain, as shown in episode four when we discover that she was the reason behind Urasawa’s bad luck and suicide attempt. She wants to have fun, but her fun and entertainment comes at the cost of people’s livelihoods and possibly even lives. And yet, it is hard to dislike her, Kofuku is an entertaining character, one who is easy to like but causes immense misfortune to those around her because she is a poverty god. She exemplifies the capricious and selfish nature of these kami, they act based on what benefits them, and although this may be to help others so that their standing within Japan increases, they do not necessarily act purely for the benefit of others. Furthermore, because they are kami, causing someone to try to commit suicide because they lost their job has little bearing on their own existence. But, while Kofuku in particular is a dangerous, and irresponsible god, she, Yato, and Tenjin are not malevolent or evil, but are instead acting in a way that makes sense given their circumstances as immortal deities.
Yato is however a little more dangerous or at least more chaotic than the other kami we have so far encountered, and has been described as a dangerous god who sowed death and destruction wherever he went. It is particularly interesting that Yato is being chased by Bishamon, the Japanese name for Vaiśravaṇa, one of the Four Heavenly Kings in Buddhism, although in Japan, Bishamon depicted as a god of warfare and punisher of evildoers, something that is at odds with the gentler vision of this deity found within Buddhism. That Bishamon is after Yato also points to his dangerous, and darker side, while also suggesting that despite the generally calm demeanour of Kofuku and Tenjin, along with the easy going personalities and good relationships with one another, Kami are not necessarily friends, and can even be enemies. Furthermore, their fights, with the interjection of Kofuku also cause damage and potentially even increase the number of Youkai in the surrounding area, showing how quarrels between Kami have a direct impact on the human realm. As part of this whole conflict we also have Yukine showing how easily he can corrupt a kami through his own selfish whims – stealing skateboards and having dirty of ‘impure’ thoughts about Hiyori has a direct impact on Yato and the power that he possesses.
This is the world that Hiyori finds herself in, a world she was oblivious to before her crash and acquiring the ability to separate her spirit from her body. It is a world that is full of dangers, one that exists alongside the human realm, but is invisible to all but a few who have, or are given the ability to see it. What is interesting is how different the being who inhabit this realm act when faced with the problems of everyday life, and how quickly Hiyori assumes that her newfound abilities allow her to explore a world she seems to view as a fascinating fantasy world. That it is full of danger is beyond doubt, but unlike the western hell, or demons, we are presented with a world that is largely filled with the accumulation of humanities greed, pain, suffering and hatred. The clouds that Yato warns Hiyori about seem to focus on those in stressful situations, such as students, or stressed out office workers, drawing in larger Youkai and ultimately leading to death and agony. Throughout this world kami like Yato roam, helping others for offerings so that his existence is maintained even when he has no official place of worship. It is an interesting place, neither good nor evil, but filled with both, and ultimately seems to be the place where the fate of humanity is decided.