Demons, identities and politics: Why reading a 60s Japanese graphic novel can be beneficial for 21st century students in the Midwest

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In my REL 202, "From Buddhist Scriptures to Anime," I have begun to use the famous manga Dororo, created by Osamu Tezuka from 1967-1968. The course fulfills the new core category "texts" in our religion major. Courses in this category are supposed to "explore the nature, development and ongoing interpretation of foundational religious texts." Dororo is a manga (Japanese genre of graphic novels) telling the story of a character, Hyakkimaru, who is dismembered as a child by 48 demons. So, naturally, the question arises, why do I think this fictional narrative not only fulfills the criteria for our text category but also makes an appropriate reading for our students? The first question is easily answered. In my course, Dororo constitutes the last in a series of readings that explore how religious themes and texts of the Buddhist tradition have been adopted, interpreted and appropriated in Japan. And adaptations of Buddhist themes and even scriptural passages abound in Dororo. Here, I would like to reflect on the second question: what does a 60s manga about demons have to tell us in the 21st century in the Midwest?

Before I get to the main theme of my blog, I would like to briefly recount the narrative of Dororo and some of the possible interpretations thereof. Dororo starts before his birth when his father, a fictional feudal lord during the warring states (sengoku) period in 16th century Japan goes to a Buddhist temple to make a Faustian pact with 48 demons: In exchange for their promise to give him unlimited power and perpetuity, he will sacrifice his son and lineage to them. When he returns home, his wife has given birth to a son missing 48 body parts. To dispose of the disfigured child, they float him in a basket down a river, where he is found by Dr. Jukai, who adopts him, gives him a name, “Hyakkimaru,” and equips him with artificial prostheses. When Hyakkimaru grows up, he is haunted by the 48 demons who want to see him dead. So he sets off on a quest to regain his body parts by killing the demons who had taken them. In this quest he is joined by a self-proclaimed thief, Dororo, who turns out to be a girl in disguise to survive the violence of the period. For most of the book, Hyakkimaru and Dororo walk a barren landscape that is the result of a seemingly endless war, helping villagers fend off demons who all seem to be, in some way or the other, evoked and produced by the relentless violence unleashed by men in search for glamour: power and glory. On the last pages of the book, Dororo decides to stay back with the villagers to rebuild the country while Hyakkimaru walks into the sunset, still on the quest to find his true self.

Even a cursory reading illustrates that this narrative is packed with religious symbolism, classical themes and moral lessons. Besides the obvious religious symbolism of a child left in a basket to float down a river, Tezuka utilizes a lot of imagery from the Buddhist tradition that I sidestep here. In addition, one can easily identify the Jungian theme of individuation as a process from psychic dissociation to integration and wholeness. Both he and Dororo struggle, albeit in differing ways, with the quest for origin and meaning. Dororo is clearly exploring borders and fluidity of gender norms and stratifications. Hyakkimaru is looking for his biological father who sold and abandoned him. In pitching the evil nobility and samurai against the helpless villagers who are repeatedly saved by outcast, religious folk and vagabonds, Tezuka clearly critiques classism and the unscrupulousness of those in power. But the villagers themselves are not that innocent themselves. While they rely on Hyakkimaru and Dororo on their liberation from violence and economic oppression, they quickly turn against the two for not living up to the social norms and for being outcasts on their own once the direct threat of death and starvation has passed. The agents of evil are not human by nature but demons, to be exact, demons unleashed by the inexhaustible desire of the powerful to dominate and possess. Finally, the background of the destruction caused by the Sengoku period clearly reflects Tezuka’s own experiences during World War II and the destruction seen in the postwar period. In many ways this book is a condemnation of war mongers and those who seduce the masses to support a war that benefits those in power and brings destruction on the rest.

But the real message for us, I believe, lies in the imagery of the demons. Throughout the book, Tezuka seems to suggest that wherever desire and greed go awry, demons emerge. We all have different motivations for our actions and decisions. Some of us want to rule, not only politically, but in all our little, metaphorical kingdoms: we want to be in charge of this committee or that group, determine the discourse, and propagate our ideas. Some of us just want to get by, live day by day, struggling to make the next payment, the next deadline, the next errand: we are exhausted, barely able to think and adopt what others, news outlets, speakers, Twitter and memes suggest. Some of us struggle with the question of identity, feeling a tension between the models presented to us by social expectation and who we feel we are. In this manga, the demons symbolize desire to control as well as the unwillingness to stand up and take on the responsibility of self-determination. We have to face these metaphorical "demons" to find ourselves. Self-determination and the acceptance of others go hand in hand. In his Undiscovered Self, C.G. Jung suggest that if we are not able to face our own shortcomings, we demonize others. On a personal level, this leads to psychosis and dysfunctional relationships; on the political level, it leads to bifurcation and destruction. It is our choice, if we cultivate holistic relationships or if we give in the temptation to divide and condemn.

Gereon Kopf Headshot

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

 

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