If you, like me, come from a religious family, you probably had a hard time explaining to your relatives that there’s nothing “evil” about anime. It’s difficult to get them to believe it when many shows have demons as characters. Not to mention the likes of Mr. Satan, who are really difficult to explain.
People often fail to understand that Japanese culture has a completely different view of devils and demons. In Western culture, those creatures are always linked to evil and nefarious actions. In Japan, that’s not the case.
Religion in Japan
It’s impossible to talk about demons without mentioning religion. After all, it is often religious beliefs that create demons in the first place.
The first religious tradition to be established in Japan was Shintoism. It is the faith of the Japanese indigenous people, so it is as old as the country itself. Until this day, Shintoism remains the largest religion in Japan, alongside with Buddhism.
It’s important to notice that in Shinto, there are not absolute values of “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”. That means that things are not as “extreme” as they are in the biggest monotheist religions. There are evil spirits and good spirits. But there isn’t the one worst being (like Satan) and the one best being (like God). Shinto doesn’t even have major gods — each family has their own protecting gods (the kamis), which are often their dead ancestors.
Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, and after some initial conflicts established a harmonic relationship with Shintoism that lasts until this day. Most people in Japan consider themselves either Shinto or Buddhists or both.
Buddhism is often considered a philosophy system, instead of a religious one. It is based on the teachings of The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama of India. Like in Shintoism, good and evil are not extreme values. Buddhism doesn’t speak of gods and devils. It focuses on personal development and enlightenment.
Christianity arrived in Japan much later, in the early 16th century. Even though Japanese authorities were initially tolerant with the Portuguese Jesuits, that changed later. The Christian missionaries were often intolerant with Shintoism and Buddhism and were involved in slavery issues. Because of that, Christianism was ruled out during the Tokugawa Shogunate and was only accepted back after the Meiji restoration in the early 20th century. Today, only 1% of the population consider themselves Christians.
As you can imagine, the influence of the Christian faith and its extreme views of God, angels, and devils is not very significant in the Japanese culture.
Not all demons are the same: oni X bakemono X yokai
While in English we have only a couple of words to refer to demons and devils, in Japanese, things are not as simple. There are at least three different words worth mentioning here, all of which you’ll remember to have heard in anime.
The oni are more like our “demons”. They are mostly evil. At the very least, they are mischievous and like to create trouble.
The word bakemono is usually better translated as “monster”. The word has a negative conception around it, so it’s usually assumed to refer to an evil, scary being. But that’s sometimes not the case. As it is in English, creatures referred to as “monsters” can be actually good or funny or even cute.
The yokai are the hardest category to explain. The word originated from Japanese paintings known as jigoku-e, which portrayed hell and its creatures.
In spite of being originally hellish creatures, the yokai are not always bad. The one shown above, for example, is Shinchu, the Divine Insect that eats evil onis, keeping them away. He’s actually a good guy, at least for us.
This broader view of demons ultimately creates a culture where any creature that’s not human but shows characteristics or actions that are human-like can be considered a “demon”. In other words, in the eyes of Japanese people, Mickey Mouse could be considered a “demon”. Even the adorable Pokémon are demons for them. And they love Pikachu.
Demons in anime
It is not a surprise, then, that we see dubbed and subbed anime that mention “demons”, “devils” and “demonic” things all the time. It’s important to understand that those words are not nearly as “heavy” for the Japanese people as they sound to our Western ears.
So otakus are more than used to seeing demons around. Sometimes we hate them, sometimes we love them, and sometimes we even root for them.
These are the demons that behave just like you’d expect a demon to behave. They kill people, destroy things, and often don’t seem to have any emotion at all. They are your typical antagonist and sometimes don’t even have names. We just know that they are bad and we want them destroyed. Quickly. Better call One Punch Man!
There are times when demons are on our side and we want to see them winning. A great example of this is the anime The World God Only Knows. In it, “Old Hell” gives way to the “New Hell”, which is full of good devils who work day and night to keep the old evil spirits away from the human hearts. Not only these new devils are good beings, but they also look like cute human girls. What’s there not to love?
I have already mentioned Pokémon. But animes are full of other cute “demons”. We have Digimon, Doraemon, several other “mons”… And also characters such as Happy from Fairy Tail, Kon from Bleach, Mokona from XxxHolic (and other CLAMP anime), and Kero from Sakura Card Captors. They are extremely kawaii, yet still “demons”. Even if they don’t call them that in the show.
Koro-sensei is one of the funniest anime characters there are. With his octopus appearance and his plans to blow up Earth, he could definitely be considered a demon by Japanese standards. And even though we know that he is not really that silly, we must admit that he acts like that a lot of the time. And he’s only one of the silly, comical demons we have in anime.
The Shinigami from Death Note are “death gods” but they definitely have a devilish look. And the question of whether they are good or evil is difficult to answer. Ryuuk seems to only want to have fun, while Remu might be “good”, depending on your point of view. In fact, everything depends on whether you believe what Kira does is good or not. As in the whole anime, the character of these demonic creatures is ambiguous and subject to discussion.
Another example of ambiguous demons are the bijuu in Naruto. They have killed a lot of people and destroyed whole villages. But they also give immense power to whoever controls them and often protect their jiinchuuriki. They have feelings of their own, and you can argue and come to a consensus with them. Are they really that monstrous, after all?
What is your favorite anime demon? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!