Anime Debunked: The Witches of Our Lives
Explore the differences between Biblical fact and anime fiction as we debunk Witch Hunter Robin.
One usually associates witches with acts of worshipping the devil, flying on broomsticks, and keeping a furry black cat. Fortunately, Witch Hunter Robin contains none of those stereotypes. Popular in both Japan and North America, its success does not come without reasons: not only are those stereotypes not used in the anime, but the stereotypes are redirected and warped in manners that have little to do with their original connotations. In addition, Witch Hunter Robin is saturated with so much Biblical references that it almost becomes a representation of a new-age version of the Bible, whose stories are so much embedded in our culture.
To talk about Witch Hunter Robin without touching on the subject of witch hunts would be like going to Japan without eating sushi. Witch hunts were persecutions of people believed to be witches that began in the sixteenth century and ended in the nineteenth century. Eighteenth and early nineteenth-century church scholars condemned as Devil-worship a group of pagan Germans’ traditional pre-Christian ceremonies, whose core involves secret arts for influencing the course of nature. As the Christian religion became the religion of the common people, the practice of those arts came to be regarded as a conscious service of the evil principle. Thus, those pagans who practiced such arts were viewed as not only non-Christian, but anti-Christians. Therefore, Christian zealots began witch hunts in hopes of purifying the population. Consequently, thousands of the accused "witches" were either hung or burned at the stake.
Just as the pagan witches were said to be able to alter nature’s course, the hunted Witches in the anime, who come in all ages, sizes, and social classes, all have unique supernatural powers. The Witches’ motives for using, or abusing, such psychic powers are no less interesting than the powers of the pagan witches. For example, Misawa in the second episode of the series has the ability to tangle the internal organs of his victims. He does so to silence people who know of his devious past. Kurata, a Witch in another episode, has an image of a scarab tattooed onto his hands and has the power to control insects. He uses flies or bees to mummify other Witches in order to prolong his own life. They both employ their powers to fulfill their survival instinct. One of the Witches, called the Single Eye, also has the ability to awaken and multiply the amount of dormant fear in whomever he pleases. It is interesting how some of the Witches’ supernatural abilities correlate to the Western Occult culture, ranging from Dr. Urler’s bending-spoon telekinesis to the Spontaneous Human Combustion (the SHC phenomenon) on Ripley’s Believe it or Not shows.
The twenty-six episode series can be divided into two main parts: the first ten episodes or so focus mainly on the types of Witches that Hunters hunt, while the rest of the series deals with Robin’s life as a fugitive, as she is ordered to be hunted down for being a Witch. Both parts are very interesting. The second part focuses on the conflicts between the two institutions of power, Solomon and the STN-J, and on Robin’s dilemma that forces her to flee from the people with whom she is closest, and to live in hiding.
This series is similar to the Bible in that the difficulties that Robin endures throughout her stay at the STN-J are similar to the perils that a voyager comes to face during a religious pilgrimage. In this archetypal journey, Robin travels from home, meets challenges along the way, conquers them, and becomes a stronger person by the end of her journey, when she defeats Zaizen, her arch-enemy. Like most ideologies of classic adventure stories, Robin is constantly in pursuit of truth and self-identity since she comes to be reclassified as a Witch.
The anime raises controversial issues such as self-doubt, and Robin’s exile represents a search-for-self motif. In a way, Robin shares similar heroic and sacrificial traits with figures such as Jesus and his associates. Both Robin and Jesus are, one way or the other, either exiled or forced to go on a religious pilgrimage. It is precisely during this "pilgrimage" that Robin is forced to question and search for her true identity, while Jesus travels and preaches over the Middle East as a way of searching for himself as well. While Robin is searching for herself, the series constantly challenges and questions the identity of God and his associates, through referring to Witches as "fallen angels" and through a cave painting that represents the Greek God Saturn, who in the anime is the equivalent of Satan, or "God." The immortal witch, Methuselah, questions Robin, "How are you so sure that it wasn’t God who fell?"
Methuselah is, in fact, the name of the oldest man in the Bible. "The entire lifetime of Methuselah was 969 years, and then he died" (Genesis 5:27). It is important to know that "Methuselah" does not mean "the oldest living witch," nor the "clan of the Immortals," as mentioned in the anime. The producers of Witch Hunter Robin simply found it as a suitable name for an immortal witch.
The plot also focuses on science and religion through eugenics. The goal of "Project Robin" or "Project Demon Child" is to genetically manufacture a Witch who will become the "Eve of all Witches." According to Toudou, the scientist who created Robin, the pi-genome that he used in the experiment came from a pure race of Witches who existed 3000 years ago. They were referred to as "gods" before their genes began to mutate, so much so that these Witches were no longer able to pass their powers onto their children, so most of these genes eventually died out. Now that Robin possesses the pure genes of the original Witches, Robin’s label as the "Eve of Witches" is reaffirmed. In spite of her young age, she is still a strong character, since Robin and Eve are both raised by holy orders (Robin as a nun in Tuscany, and Eve being nurtured by God). In spite of this, Robin is actually quite different from Eve in several ways. For example, she resists temptation better than Eve. Exiled from the Garden of Eden, Eve is susceptible to the temptation of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, consciously breaking God’s law. Robin, on the other hand, is able to refrain from continuing to use the Splinter of Knowledge, something that may grant her the power that she desperately needs to defeat all of the upcoming Hunters. In addition, although there are striking parallels between Robin’s using the Splinter of Knowledge and Eve’s eating of the Fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil, the resulting significance of these acts are actually quite different. Both figures do gain Knowledge from committing such acts. Knowledge is power, and this is exactly what Robin inherited from the deceased Methuselah: her Splinter of Knowledge. However, Eve obtains the knowledge of what is good and what is wicked as she cannot overcome temptation. In fact, her consumption of the Forbidden Fruit is a deliberate act of defiance against God, while Robin obtains the Splinter almost as a legacy or thank-you gift in return for relieving the Methuselah from the turmoil of her morbid life. In this way, Robin’s eventual use of the Splinter is only to be expected as her right. Robin does not let her curiosity get the better of her, as Eve does.
We find several other parallels to the Bible, or more specifically to Christ, besides Robin being the "Eve of all Witches." Robin exhibits Messianic characteristics, branding her as a savior who must rescue the rest of the Witches’ race from being categorized as heretics. Instead, Robin must lead them as a superior race. In addition, since Robin was created using the aforementioned "God" genes, she is symbolic of a superior power. This makes her an archetypal savior figure, such as Jesus, Moses, or other Messianic figures. This "Project Demon Child" is also referred to as Hope. In the same way, Jesus is the hope of the Jewish people and Christian tribe, the one who could bring these people into salvation. Similarly, Methuselah and Lazarus from the Bible are represented differently in the anime, but they share commonalities in both: Methuselah is an old, almost immortal, person, while Lazarus is a man raised from the dead.
Now comes the problematic part. Like most anime, Witch Hunter Robin is not without flaws. Often in anime shows, information about Western values is wrong. Let’s start with the Methuselah Witch and her cave painting. According to the Book of Genesis, "Methuselah" is the name of the oldest man who ever lived, whereas the term is given to a race of immortal Salem Witches in the anime. The cave painting, the supposed image of "Saturn" is problematic as well. Saturn is, in fact, one of the Gods of Roman and Greek mythology, but this God does not typically take the image of a three-eyed bull. However, this bull image does fit the physical attribute of the devil; according to Tituba, one of the historically-recorded first witches of Salem Town in Massachusetts more than 300 years ago, the devil is "a thing all over hairy, all the face hairy, and a long nose." In the anime, the old Witch questions Robin’s belief in God. The Methuselah asks Robin why she is so sure that it was the Demon who fell, not God. The Methuselah then makes the bold statement that Witches, or the first ones anyway, are "fallen gods" who have been driven out of Paradise by their jealousy. This is an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost but she uses Saturn, as opposed to Lucifer. The three-eyed bull is supposed to be an image of God, but it is clearly stated that the image of God cannot be created by human hands, and God cannot be seen. For someone who has been raised in a monastery, she certainly does not know the Bible as well as she ought to; she even appears shocked at the Methuselah’s proposition. The entire concept of the painted image is saturated with profound irony: it violates the Ten Commandments. Some of the Ten Commandments that appear to be violated are: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me;" "Thou shalt not make unto thee any given image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;" and "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."
Another concept that is warped in the anime is the Inquisition, which is based on the Spanish Inquisition, an ecclesiastical tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church established in Spain in 1542 and finally suppressed in 1834, under which large numbers of people deemed to be heretics were tortured and executed. While the actual Inquisition accuses anyone of heresy in order to eradicate them, the Inquisitors are those who determine if a prospective candidate, a powerful, but relatively sane Witch is worthy of becoming a Hunter.
However, the density of the Biblical references present in Witch Hunter Robin also hinders its popularity because of their blasphemous nature. The Witches in the series, while not all evangelical in nature, are all framed as such. The most obvious example is Robin; she is expected to be the new "Eve of Witches." Also, the Witches’ Mark that was carved onto the accused Salem witches’ skin before they were burnt (according to the Methuselah witch) is a runic symbol that means "God." The bold statement that Witches are gods is clearly supported when Toudou says in the last episode that "Thousands of years ago, men were ruled by ‘gods,’ or ‘Witches,’ as they are known today." Likewise, the Methuselah, whose name is an allusion to the Old Testament, raises a Lazarus from the dead, like Jesus. Jesus revives Lazarus to demonstrate God’s power through him, which affirms the Methuselah Witch’s God-like powers, and may even suggest that she is God’s equivalent.
What is more blasphemous is that the Methuselah Witch, who has the God-like ability to transfer some of her powers onto her representatives, is able to do so with Narumi the Electric Eel in episode twelve simply by chanting a spell. In fact, even one of the Witches, Dr. Kurosawa, has the ability of life force transfer. He performs a God-like deed as he transfers life from drunken mobsters to his dying patients, similar to shamans, village priests, and other spiritualists from many religions and mythologies, who are able to transfer the life force from one person into another.
In the end, despite all the misrepresentations and errors that the producers have overlooked, Witch Hunter Robin is still a worthwhile series due to its attention-grabbing themes, interesting characters and plot, and its numerous parallels to characters in the Bible. The Witches’ powers, ranging from different levels of telekinesis, to the control of the five elements, to the ability to steal or transfer life force both from oneself and from others, to astral projection, and to pyrokinesis are sure ways of keeping the audience intrigued. These powers, while obviously different from those of their pagan predecessors, correlate to the Western culture of the Occult, making the Witch Hunter Robin series a more modern approach to witchcraft. Furthermore, the anime also puts a pagan spin on several Biblical concepts, just as how Robin shares several similar traits with her Biblical parallels.