From Spirits to Superfans

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A woman walks through the torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, while glued to her phone (IMAGE © SHUTTERSTOCK)

The mythical origins of popular gaming culture

Text Hannah Gould

If nothing else, 2016 has demonstrated the unexpected power of a popular mythology to capture people’s hearts, minds, and wallets. Among the more demonstrations of this fanaticism is Pokémon Go, a GPS-based, augmented reality smartphone game that rebooted the global pop culture phenomenon of Pokémon. Even before it was released in its home country, Japan, Pokémon Go had become the most-downloaded phone application in a single week – in history. Reports of its enthralled players exploring their city for the first time, entering churches and graveyards in pursuit of Pokémon, and even becoming seriously injured whilst playing the game, caused equal bemusement and moral panic.  

Since the 1990s, Japanese popular culture franchises like Pokémon, Power Rangers, Hello Kitty, and Sailor Moon have captivated audiences around the world. They have also been the vehicle for Japanese religious mythology to go global. Just as 6th-century Buddhism spread to Japan from Baekje (modern Korea) via icons and sutra texts, in the modern day, Japanese animism has spread to the West – perhaps in a more subtle form – via trading cards, animated films, and iPhone applications.

Pokémon owes much of its conception to creator Taijiri Satoshi’s childhood love of bug collecting. But like other Japanese games, manga (comics), and anime (animation), it also draws heavily upon the animist mythology and religious history of Japan.

Shintoism is Japan’s native religious tradition, which teaches that the world is inhabited by thousands of kami, or spirits. These kami include famous historical figures, mythical beings like goblins and fox-gods, animals, and even elements of the natural environment like rocks, trees, rivers, and mountains. When paid proper respect and presented with ritual offerings of food or sake, kami can bestow good luck in business, health and agriculture. When disrespected, they can turn vindictive and cause serious misfortune. Shintoism thus provides a rich ritual repertoire for learning to live peacefully alongside the non-human forces in the world.

A giant Pikachu balloon flies in New York. From Japan to the US, the game has taken the world by storm (Image © Shutterstock)

Shintoism might best be described as a collection of folk traditions, rather than a unified religion, as it has no set of doctrinal statements, no codified text, and no centralised authority. Instead, like almost all Japanese religious practice, it is highly pragmatic, focused on the accruement of worldly benefits (genze riyaku). It is also highly syncretic, having blended with Buddhism, Confucianism and other folkloric beliefs throughout its long history in Japan.

But Shintoism’s central animist idea – that the material world is alive with spirits – has pervasive influence in contemporary Japan. In everyday life, the borders between humans and things, the spiritual and mechanical, are often paper-thin, if non-existent. In Millennial Monsters (2006), cultural anthropologist Anne Allison argues that pop-culture phenomena like Pokémon demonstrate a kind of “techno-animism”, which imbues digital and mechanical technologies with a spirit or soul. Japanese toys and robots are bursting with life and agency, and everything from household appliances to aeroplanes can be kawaii (cute); people hesitate before throwing away dolls, afraid that they may choose to take revenge on their former owners.

In some cases, the parallels between Shinto kami and Pokémon are clear. For example, the “water/ground” type Pokémon, Whiscash, bears a strong resemblance to Namazu, a catfish who causes earthquakes in Japanese mythology. More subtly, animism provides a whole ontology of narratives, symbols, and sentiments for Japanese artists to draw upon.   

One of the best examples of this influence in Japanese popular culture is the internationally successful animated films of Miyazaki Hayao. In Miyazaki’s 2001 Oscar-winning classic, Spirited Away, a young human girl enters the supernatural world of a Japanese bathhouse that serves thousands of different gods, and must work to free her parents, who have offended them. In other films, Miyazaki’s animism is tied to a particularly potent environmental message. Princess Mononoke (1997) portrays a struggle been humanity and Nature, with the spirits (kami) of the forest ultimately taking revenge on the civilisations who greedily consume its resources.

Hundreds of Pokémon Go enthusiasts in a park in Tin Shui Wai district in Hong Kong (Image © Shutterstock)

Just as these works employ polytheism and advocate proper respect for Nature, analogously, the history of Western literature is heavily inflected with Judeo-Christian thought. The Christ-the-redeemer figure who sacrifices himself (or less frequently herself) for others functions as a central archetype – appearing as everything from Sydney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, to Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia.

According to Eriko Ogihara-Schuck, author of Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad (2014), the international success of Spirited Away dramatically exceeded the expectations of Japanese observers and even the filmmaker himself. Both were sceptical that the film’s deep engagement with animism would resonate with Western audiences’ monotheistic worldview. But like Pokémon, a world inhabited by an infinite variety of spirits and creatures – many of whom are friendly allies – proved captivating to audiences around the globe. Of course, producers did make some editing decisions when preparing the Pokémon television series and films for American audiences, such as emphasising the role of an individual hero as saviour.  

The appeal of Japanese franchises cannot be explained by their enchanting mythology alone; it is the convergence of the spirit of animism with the spirit of capitalism that has propelled their global success. Allison argues that “techno-animism” is embedded in commodity consumerism. The logic that allows people to form emotive ties with pop culture characters is also used to drive purchases of merchandise, spurred by the distinctly capitalist slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” Pokémon Go players have spent billions of dollars on in-app purchases, toys, films, and all manner of goods – from Pokémon branded lunch boxes to cars.  

Given the animism embedded in Pokémon, it is no wonder that some of the more hostile reactions to the renewed franchise have been from rival religious institutions.  In 2016, a 15-year-old edict that condemned Pokémon as un-Islamic was renewed by Saudi Arabia’s top clerical body, whilst evangelical Christian sects in America denounced the game for promulgating belief in false idols.  Popular culture, like religion, is good at capturing our imaginations – and Pokémon has elements of both.

For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 122.

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