Do you love Japanese culture? Do you pour over books about Japan, or research online, in the hopes of visiting the country that produces some of your favorite series? Well, we’re about to drop a cultural lesson on you. If you’ve ever been interested in learning more about the religion, myths, and kami of Japan, here’s an introduction to these as they relate to Red Data Girl. Read on for some enlightenment.
Red Data Girl is a coming-of-age story painted in the beautiful colors of Japanese legends. If you like stories with a strong basis in exotic fantasy then you’re in for a real treat. The series is imbued with Shinto mysticism, some of which may be quite foreign to Western audiences (although certainly more familiar if you watch a lot of anime!). The series releases on DVD on June 17th. Click here to order!
Let’s start with the title: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red Data List documents rare or endangered species to evaluate their risk of extinction. In the series, the main character Izumiko Suzuhara is the titular Red Data Girl—a human with a rare, endangered gift for the supernatural, possessed by a goddess. Essentially, the students of Houjou Academy compete to gain recognition in the World Heritage Collection—to basically be considered human beings with significant spiritual importance for protection and influence, not unlike UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, which conserve worldwide natural or manmade landmarks for cultural significance.
Most of the students’ powers are related to Shinto or Buddhism, although a few are exceptions. Shinto is a religion specific to the people of Japan that centers around shrines devoted to a huge pantheon of kami gods large and small, universal and local, which often embody natural forces. Incidentally, Shinto is the most practiced religion in Japan, although only a small number of citizens consider themselves religiously Shintoist.
Izumiko in particular is a miko, or Shinto shrine maiden, at Tamakura Shrine, which is a World Heritage site. Anime sometimes features cute miko girls in their traditional red and white robes, and these are actually their true-to-life dress in Japanese shrines. This shrine in particular is based on the real-life Tamaki Shrine, a lovely pilgrimage site located in the mountains.
Ultimately, Izumiko discovers she is not just a miko, but a yorishiro, or a vessel for a Shinto god or spirit. If you’ve ever seen a tree bound up in rope with paper streamers in shrine scenes in anime, these are also yorishiro, as these trees give the kami a physical place to manifest, particularly during religious events. Izumiko is specifically the yorishiro for a dangerous kami goddess called Hime-gami, or “Princess Deity,” whose immense power is coveted by others.
Izumiko later meets her fated protector, the prickly tsundere mountain monk Miyuki Sagara. These mountain monks, or yamabushi, are from a long tradition of hermits who follow shugendou, which is a sort of hybrid sect that combines Buddhist, Shinto, and other religious practices. These practices involve intense spiritual training to gain mystical powers, and yamabushi are often known as warrior monks who served as advisers and soldiers in many of Japan’s conflicts in and before the Sengoku Era. The Tamaki shrine on which the Red Data Girl shrine is based is heavily associated with shugendou in real life. Incidentally, many of the chants that Miyuki and his father Yukimasa make throughout the show are actual real-life mantras, or variations on real sutras. Some of these, like the protective spell he teaches Izumiko, may be associated with specific hand movements as well to complete a spell.
Also associated with shugendou are the tengu, a type of kami or youkai (supernatural being, often translated as demon) you may recognize from anime—crow spirits often depicted with red masks with long noses and a yamabushi’s robes. (Kurama from Kamisama Kiss is a tengu, although quite a bit different from the one depicted here.) One of Izumiko’s classmates is actually secretly a tengu who becomes her familiar due to her spiritual power, and he eventually comes to her aid.
Finally worth noting is the onmyouji, Ichijou Takayanagi, Izumiko’s classmate and something of a minor antagonist in the series, who wants to gain the World Heritage designation for himself. Onmyouji practice onmyoudou, or “the way of yin and yang,” an esoteric mix of cosmology and occult mysticism with basis in Chinese practices. Onmyouji are also featured in other anime (Tokyo Ravens from last season, for example, features an onmyouji boy named Harutora who happens to have no powers), and you may recognize their distinctive robes. Onmyouji can summon and control shikigami, which are a specific type of kami that manifest in paper and origami, which Takayanagi employs in his own spiritual battles.