Having Japanese literature as one of my major fields of study in college, there’s a trope I discovered during my studies that’s always fascinated me. Actually, reading a lot of Japanese literature made me aware of it, but anime and manga is where I see tons of examples of it. It’s when an anime has a character that is some kind of immortal being, whether a god, a devil, an angel, etc., but they’re presented as more or less…human.
Despite having the status of “god,” “demon,” or whatever, these characters are given human traits, usually a human form and a wide range of human emotions. The “god” or “demon” could be lazy, jealous, embarrassed, mischievous, lovestruck, or any other emotion Western culture usually reserves for mortals only. To further illustrate, I listed a bunch of anime I’ve seen that have at least one character like this – a character who is some kind of omnipotent being, or at least called a “god” or something like that, yet they’re presented as very human, having human form and/or acting like a human rather than strictly a deity.
- Blood Lad: Inhabitants of the demon world like Staz are all quite human-like
- The World God Only Knows: “Demons from Hell” like Elsie and Haqua are actually very nice girls (and now we have goddesses in this current season)
- Death Note: Gods of death (shinigami) like apples (Ryuk) and fall in love with humans (Gelus and Rem)
- Hataraku Maou-sama!: The dark lord Satan is a part-timer!
- Evangelion: Shinji and Eva 01 becoming a god (or how you interpret the series)
- Kannagi: Nagi
- Shakugan no Shana: Many characters
- Haruhi: My favorite anime god XD
- Mirai Niki: Deus…and Yuno later on
- Inuyasha: Many characters
- Slayers: Many characters
- Spice and Wolf: Horo
- Soul Eater: Does Shinigami-sama count?
- The shonen trio: I know Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece have all had at least one character like this
- Madoka Magica: Madoka at the end of course
And those are just series off the top of my head. I’m sure I could think of more examples and you can probably think of more too (feel free to share any you want in the comments). There are several possible reasons for why anime is so filled with characters like this. Some of it may have to do with what I talked about in a post from a few years ago, “Animism and ‘non-human’ characters in anime.” The post was more specifically about how non-human characters in anime have human traits, not gods and demons in particular, but characters who are fantastical or alien beings, or non-living things like robots and swords. But some of what I said there is relevant here, specifically that it has to do with Japan’s historical religion, Shintoism. According to Shinto beliefs, there are various gods and spirits in all of nature and they live together with humans on Earth rather than in an immortal world like Heaven or Hell. Even though modern Japan as a whole is not a very religious country, it’s still very tradition-oriented and Shintoism still pervades everyday Japanese ideologies. Unlike the mono-theology of Western countries, Japan’s poly-theological history of worshiping gods that live on Earth with humans probably makes it very commonplace to depict characters called “gods” in their stories as being human-like or even fundamentally human.
It’s actually not too dissimilar from how the ancient Greeks viewed their gods. I was briefly into Greek mythology back in middle school, and thinking back on that now, they also portrayed their gods as having a lot of human traits. Even though the gods lived outside the mortal world (Mount Olympus) they were constantly falling in love with mortal humans (Zeus in particular couldn’t keep it in his pants) or even being jealous of them. I’m sure we can all think of at least one anime where a god or goddesses falls in love with a human.
Another reason for why we see gods and demons portrayed like this in anime is simply that it’s appealing from a storytelling perspective. Since anime covers such a wide range of stories, having even god-like characters possess human traits makes them easier to portray as actual characters that fans can get attached to. They have their “human-side” that people can relate to and sympathize with, not just in how they look (like cute and/or attractive humans) and how they act (human emotions and personalities) but also their “god-like” side that makes them unpredictable and interesting, since it’s something the series author can get very creative with. This duality of having a human-side as well as an otherworldly god side is what makes these kinds of characters memorable.
There’s one particular quote I recall reading in college that fits with this topic and has stuck with me since. I don’t remember the exact quote or where it came from (probably from one of the Japanese lit books I read, Silence by Shuusaku Endou) but it goes something like this: “The Japanese can’t imagine a god existing beyond the world of humans.” I believe the context of the quote was referring to why Christianity never caught on in Japan, but as far as this topic goes, it does shed some light on why so many anime/manga stories are quick to give characters called “god,” “demon,” or even “Satan” himself (Hataraku Maou-sama!) human emotions and behaviors. One could also say that the general Japanese populace’s ignorance about Western religion could be part of it too, but I think Japan’s history of Shintoism is the main root – there are all kinds of gods and they exist everywhere in the world with humans, so it’s not outrageous to think of them as having human personalities and feelings. But whatever the reason for it, having god and demon characters in anime make for fascinating fictional settings and fantastical storylines. It’s one trope I don’t see myself getting tired of ;)