The Mike Toole Show
The Anime Cult

by Mike Toole,

There were some dark portents at the turn of the millennium, but I don't think any were darker than the widely-circulated announcement that the Church of Scientology had commissioned a Japanese partner to produce an anime TV series based on Battlefield Earth, church founder L. Ron Hubbard's sci-fi epic about cavemen using ancient fighter jets to repel dreadlocked aliens. (Okay, maybe the book was different, but that's how the hot mess of a feature film depicted things.) This news, reported in the pages of Newtype USA no less, heralded a licensing deal that included options for video games and a later feature film to be produced by licensor Pine Com International, and various other postings trumpeted a voice cast including the likes of Mark Hamill as Johnnie and Dan “Grizzly Adams” Hagerty as the villainous Terl.

Of course, none of this was real. The press releases were vague, naming only Author Services, Scientology's licensing company, the aforementioned Pine Com (who I can't find any reliable data on), and an animation staffer named Hajime Tachihara, who'd done some music production work on Licca-chan and Doraemon. Since this news came in the wake of the Battlefield Earth movie and during a time when anime's pop-culture credibility was skyrocketing, it seemed vaguely plausible. But fifteen years later, we look back and are reassured to see that nothing came of this accord between Author Services and Pine Com. I mean come on, a cult directly producing their own anime? How ridiculous would that be?!

Before we go down the list of anime produced by cults (because of course there's anime produced by cults!), let's lay down a few ground rules for what I'm discussing. When I say “cult” I'm not referring to the goth rock band from the 80s and 90s (look, “She Sells Sanctuary” was OK, but their best song was absolutely “Love Removal Machine.” I will brook no debate about this!), I'm referring to a specific type of religious group that is structured a certain way, with distinct attendant behaviors. Cults are usually “new” religious movements, in that they're only a couple of hundred years old at most, rather than the millennium-plus ages of most mainstream global religions. They have highly centralized leadership, sometimes one single leader that controls every aspect of the group and its practices. They have a tendency to directly involve themselves in members' lives, sometimes pressuring them to recruit family and friends, or to avoid others who aren't part of the cult. Each of the groups I mention in this article fits this profile.

In Japan, there's even a specific term for religious groups like these—“shinshukyou”, or “new religions.” Japan has a whole bunch of new religions! This phenomenon has been around for most of Japan's post-Meiji Restoration history, but the modern stuff is largely the fault of the good old US of A, whose postwar occupation involved kicking Shinto out of the treehouse as the country's state religion. The subsequent fragmentation of public religious organizations led to scads of odd little offshoots of Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity, and other faiths, from the Tenri-kyo to the God Light Association. One thing that amuses me? The big list of new religions includes Jehovah's Witnesses, who are a bit more mainstream here in the west.

The first entry in this cult cartoon hit parade isn't actually Japanese animation, but it doesn't really feel like cheating to me since it's from South Korea, the second production unit to both Japan and much of the western animation business. Dahn Yoga is the product of Ilchi Lee, who in 1985 founded a workshop that would combine traditional yoga exercises with his own program, including special “brainwave vibration” stuff. This is exactly what it sounds like—it literally involves shaking your head back and forth. These days, you can apply to start your own Dahn Yoga franchise, where you too can become licensed to teach classes in Business Yoga. Dahn Yoga produced their own flash cartoons starring Lee himself, which are brief, but nutty as hell.

From here, we move directly into Japan, where the stage for bizarre cartoons gets much larger. Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a Buddhist sect that branched off from the Nichiren Shoshu temple shortly before World War II. These days they're fairly benign – one correspondent of mine spent time rooming with Sokka Gakkai adherents, who came off as nice folks who spent their morning meditations chanting ancient Japanese sutras and talked about their “value creating society,” in which anyone who spends time helping people and enjoying life is, in fact, practicing the faith. But there's still some high-level weirdness associated with Soka Gakkai; they split permanently from Nichiren Buddhism in 1991; they've been steered by a single man, Daisaku Ikeda, for decades; and they have their own political party, Komeito.

A religion having a political party is kind of a no-no in Japanese politics, so Komeito will tell you that they don't report to SGI—they just happen to have a lot of members who worship there. It's a coincidence, okay?! And while Soka Gakkai don't stir the soup as much as they used to, they're still trying to shake off bad mojo that they earned in the 1950s and 60s, when their adherents periodically resorted to harassment and threats to grow their membership. So where do the cartoons come in?

They come in during the 80s and 90s, when SGI created a series of 30-minute cartoons to spread their message of value creation and global unity. SGI didn't create these shorts themselves, of course—they just went straight to Toei, who happily took their money and assigned eminently capable director Yugo Serikawa to transform the stories of Daisaku Ikeda into animation. These are uniformly bland, pleasant, and only marginally coherent, just like the storybooks that they're based on. Sporting titles like “Fairground in the Stars” and “Rainbow Across the Pacific” and “Let's Climb That Mountain!,” they involve a cross-section of children whisked away to have an adventure and learn a lesson about value creation.

The thing is, these cartoons weren't widely released—I'm not even sure they were sold commercially, or simply made available to Sokka Gakkai worshippers at the local temple. You can still find some of these anime featurettes as VHS rips on Nico Nico Douga, where you can experience the startling contrast between the anime's flat, cheerful internationalism and the avalanche of jeering and derision scrolling by in the viewer comments. Intriguingly, there doesn't seem to be a master list of these specials, so every once in a while another one is capped and posted. SGI doesn't seem to be making them anymore, though.

Cult anime's biggest player is undeniably Kofuku no Kagaku, a.k.a. the Institute for Research into Human Happiness, a.k.a. HAPPY SCIENCE!! Alright, it's just Happy Science—the boldface and exclamation points are something I put in there, because Happy Science is kind of a ridiculous name for a religious group. Happy Science was founded and is still led by Ryuho Okawa, who happens to be the reincarnation of Hermes, Buddha, Mohammed, Christ, and Moses. He's obviously also a manifestation of the supreme being-- I mean, just look at the guy!

Happy Science has a bunch of superficial characteristics in common with the Church of Scientology—it's one of those ‘prosperity religions’ that insists that the best and most faithful people will be rewarded with material riches. Okawa's flogging of the group's principles of happiness and the “Right Mind” can be yours if you buy the ever-increasing pile of books that he publishes. I'm not sure how much enlightenment costs, but I'm betting there's a dollar number and it's in the six figures. Like Soka Gakkai, the Happy Science group also has its own political wing, the Happiness Realization Party. They really hit the streets in the last couple of elections, fielding more than 300 candidates in a bid to achieve some political relevance. They won a total of zero council and representative seats. Along with the spiritual stuff, the Happiness Realization Party also firmly believes that North Korea is definitely going to try to nuke and colonize Japan, so they have to strike first. It's why, despite all of the talk of peace and divinity, they're kinda right-wing.

Since 1997, Happy Science have been kicking out lavish, big-deal theatrical movies promoting their faith's goofy-ass doctrine. The first one is sort of an origin story for one of Okawa's guardian spirits, a version of Hermes that only slightly overlaps with the mythical figure. Hermes: Winds of Love was just the first, though—a few years after that nonsense, we got the Laws of the Sun, and The Mystical Laws, and The Golden Laws, and several other movies with “Laws” in the title. I have to admit, I was weirdly and genuinely happy when, a couple of years after giving the US release of Hermes: Winds of Love a sound critical thrashing, I took in The Golden Laws, only realizing when Hermes himself abruptly appeared to save the day that I wasn't watching a spinoff, but a goddamn sequel to the original.

Scientology hides a lot of its stranger doctrine behind copyright law and pricey course fees, but all of Okawa's spiritual weirdness is right there in these animated movies, from the true name and form of God (an old guy in a sheet called El Cantare) to the mystical staff of Kelyukaeyon, to open and direct spiritual warfare with Hitler and Nietzsche (with a little timely advice from the ghosts of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison). That's the big difference between Happy Science and the other groups—these guys really want everyone to see their anime. Several of their films are dubbed in other languages, you can purchase them on DVD or VOD, and the group faithfully and rigorously gives each film a Los Angeles and New York screening, so they can submit it for inclusion on the Academy Awards ballot. None of their movies have won a nomination… yet.

Lately, though, the Happy Science films have dialed the zaniness back. As Justin notes in his review of The Mystical Laws, that particular film comes off as pretty standard, half-decent science fiction. Maybe Happy Science are easing off the doctrine to avoid alienating their practitioners, or maybe they're just hiding the kookiest material from the potential herd of recruits now that nerds on the internet are skewering their earlier “hits.” Still, I remain impressed at how accessible their anime is—and their latest film, The Laws of the Universe Part 0, just came out in Japan, so I'm sure its international release is right around the corner.

You've seen this image meme floating around for the last several years, right?

Haha! That guy totally does look like Jesus, doesn't he? Only he's not Jesus, he's actually this dude.

If you're old enough, you remember this guy. Shoko Asahara (who's still around, just in jail and on death row in Japan) was the leader of a religious sect called Aum Shinrikyo. Aum branded themselves as “the absolute truth” and stuck to a pretty simple formula: yoga + Buddhism + the book of Revelation + the prophecies of Nostadamus = APOCALYPSE. They had a secluded headquarters with a stockpile of weapons, they had assassination plots against both Daisaki Ikeda and Ryuho Okawa (yes, these guys tried to kill the leaders of the other groups that made their own anime!), and in 1995, they flooded the Tokyo subway with poisonous sarin gas, killing 13 people and injuring scores more.

All of this was under the auspices of Asahara, who declared himself the Lamb of God. This weird, apocalyptic mixture of Buddhism and western religious ideas still drew plenty of impressionable followers, and notably Aum was very aggressive about courting people on the fringes of society, including anime otaku. Its kind of amazing, though not that surprising, that the group knocked together a short propaganda anime of their own.

I can't find creative credits on this thing (I've heard from a couple of pals that some fairly notable creatives worked uncredited on this, but I don't dare ask them directly), which mostly depicts Asahara himself, meditating and lecturing to crowds of his admirers, speaking to followers on the phone, and occasionally demonstrating his divine powers. The OVA opens with a moment of abject hilarity when Asahara, in perfect Lotus position, abruptly flies up into space. The rip I've got has a blown audio track and frequent references to cult doctrine, so it'd probably be a real challenge to subtitle. Anyone up for it? The episode ends with an off-key musical ode to Asahara and his family, ostensibly composed by the cult leader, who fancied himself a musician. The whole spectacle is funny, sad, vaguely horrifying, and really interesting.

And the thing is, you can't really write off cult anime! Like I said, Happy Science's last film was relatively normal, but they're still making more. Aum Shinrikyo is dead and buried, but its successor group, Aleph (you can be damn sure they're trying to distance themselves from Aum) is still around. These entertaining, bizarre shows demonstrate that anime can come from anyplace, and be about anything. Now, I'm off to try and find that Laws of Divorce and Inheritance anime that supposedly exists. Wish me luck!

discuss this in the forum (31 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

The Mike Toole Show homepage / archives