Visions of heaven, hell and the realms between have been cropping up in our stories since stories have been recorded, and almost definitely before that. We are cursed with being the one species on Earth most aware and afraid of our own mortality, stemming from the fact that we have the most to lose in a material sense. So it makes sense that humanity hopes for something to exist beyond the grave and expresses that in art.
The original Japanese word for the land of the dead is ‘Yomi’, or ‘Yomi-no-kuni’. In mythology, Yomi bears little differentiation from the mortal world. It is neither a paradise nor a punishment. Rather, souls who have passed on continue a grey and gloomy existence for eternity in Yomi’s underground realm. There is a third option underlined by the name of Takamagahara, or the ‘Plain of High Heaven’. But this land is told to be exclusive to gods, who may deign to visit Earth by the Ama-no-uki-hashi, the ‘Floating Bridge of Heaven’.
One of the most popular glimpses into the afterlife appears to agree with this dreary prospect of the beyond. Death Note has less of an afterlife and more of a realm for reapers, suggesting all souls are cast into the void. However, its studio Madhouse sister show Death Parade has perhaps an even more sinister vision of the spirit’s fate, throwing the fate of our immortal spirits to chance and happenstance. At the point of death, unwitting and cruelly paired contestants arrive at a bar which will serve as the venue for their judgement. One will win the Death Game to come, leaving them free to be reincarnated. The other will lose, their consolation prize being cast into nothing.
Light Yagami himself receives a cameo here in the form of a photo and record of his admittance to the bar. His fate remains classified. Death Parade casts out all the moral dilemma of Death Note in one fell swoop, never mind whether Light deserved his godlike powers or used them for some kind of good. Here the afterlife is a rare reminder that we shouldn’t sweat the small impact we will have in this one lifetime. Ultimately nobody living knows what’s waiting on the other side. For all we’re aware, it could be the cocktail bar on the edge of eternity.
Even the inhumanity of the creatures which stalk the afterlife come to remind us of an ultimate equality which is epitomised in death. The Hollows of Bleach are merely echoes of the conflicting emotion involved in leaving life behind, while the angels of Haibane Renmei are more corrupted than they first appear. When the suffering of Rakka’s mortal existence stars welling up in flashes of dreams, the strangeness of the world she’s arrived in seeps through cracks in its pastoral peace. No matter the punishment or reward, a life bears an equal weight in death which inevitably bleeds through to the beyond. In their own ways, Death Parade and Haibane Renmei each argue that it would only do us harm to know our fate in the afterlife. To know we will be reincarnated is to sully the whole experience of life. Perhaps to laugh death in its face is to be one step closer to enlightenment.
Rather than being the unusual ordeal a viewer would expect from seeing some form of grand destination for all beings, anime instead tends to deal with the great unifier of death as exactly that. Death comes to us all as part of life and what follows after, and part of what makes us extraordinary as a race is the ways we rage against it, fighting to make our mark while we can. In Angel Beats! the high school afterlife encapsulates the emotional obstacles we consistently bump up against, celebrating that despite the pain of life we will still find the love to make a positive impact on the world of another. Besides, in a realm where nobody can die again, the comedic effect alleviates the fear of death itself. In an oddly plausible way, Angel Beats!’ gory and otherwise fatal injuries removes the shock and salves the wounds death can leave.
The fact that the afterlife crops up in so many hugely popular anime—whether characters enter it, it comes to them, or both—goes to accentuate how powerful anime is as a means of facing fears through suspending disbelief. The afterlife itself is an imaginative creation which separates us from death while giving us a way to get through to it. How many anime protagonists’ lives have been touched by death, only for it to come beating down their door years later, only this time with death-god given powers or a spiffy new sword? Its relentlessness mirrors real life, letting us process that through fiction.
This value has come to be reflected in the real world through Japan’s adoption of Halloween. The country had long before celebrated O-bon, welcoming dead ancestors back home in the height of summertime. The costume party of the Americanised Hallows’ Eve only serves as an added note of lightness and welcome amidst zombie flash mobs and cute witch outfits.
Anohana expresses the sentiment of O-bon and how it clashes with modernity and its anti-superstition. Ironically, when Jinta starts seeing the ghost of his childhood friend Menma he passes her off as a ‘summer beast’, averting the fact that she really has passed through the veil. But it’s only through reclaiming superstition and other such childish beliefs that their friends can ease Menma’s troubled soul and put their trauma behind them.
Anime might just be the medium with the most varying and conflicting views of an afterlife, due to Japan’s openness to other cultural touchstones and traditions. But this modern, brightly coloured patchwork of a Japan which embraces Christmas and Halloween didn’t always exist. The country ostracised itself from the rest of the world for a long period under the Tokugawa shogunate, prompted by civil unrest after opening its borders to western trade. But with World War II and the American occupation as a catalyst, Japan’s entire culture would become influenced by North America, Europe and the rest of Asia. A war which traumatised humanity on a global scale, the nuclear bomb leaving an open wound in Japan and the fear of illness and death for many years after, ironically opened the path for manga and anime to become a safe harbour for those who fear death, and hope for a bright beyond.