When I was in high school, some friends of mine introduced me to the world of anime (or Japanime as it was called at the time.) At first I was skeptical because after all, they were just cartoons, right? Those thoughts were completely shattered the more I watched.
Anime is merely a way of telling stories. It's a media form and has no bearing on the quality of the story. Just like there are bad television shows that dull the mind and offer only superficial entertainment, there are also bad anime series. But there are some very stimulating and thought provoking television shows and movies as well. And in anime as well.
One of my favorite series is called "Fruits Basket." This is a innocent seeming story about a family with a strange curse. 14 members of the family have been cursed. (Japanese families are still often very clan like, with large estates and strong family ties even among cousins etc, so this is a large wealthy family.) 13 of the family turn into animals of the zodiac (plus a cat) when they are weak or when they are hugged by a member of the opposite sex. And one, who represents God, bears the brunt of the curse, and in return is head of the family. In stumbles a high school girl who has recently become orphaned.
At first I wasn't so sure about this series, because I'm not a fan of anything that deals with the zodiac in general. But it turns out that there is actually very little to do with the actual zodiac or it's meanings, it's just kinda there.
What the series does do is explore wounded human nature. The Sohma family is cursed. And each member reacts to the curse differently. Some react in anger, some force themselves to be cheerful, some become withdrawn, but they all carry deep, deep scars born from their curse. They feel hopeless and trapped in their situation, controlled by an equally wounded and fearful "god."
And here enters Tohru Honda, a high school girl whose mother had just died in a car accident. Her father had died when she was very young. Her mother was a former gang member, who had quit when she met Mr Honda. She had found someone who accepted her for who she was, and gave her love and allowed her to bloom. When her husband died, she did her best as a single mother, pouring her love into Tohru, and teaching her what it means to be a kind person.
This love helped Tohru become a person who chose to believe in and accept other people, finding their good points, even when she was living under difficult circumstances.
She comes to live with three of the main characters by chance, and discovers their secret. But instead of rejecting them, she accepts them and wishes to continue being their friend. Her unconditional love has a great impact on the wounded hearts, and one by one the cursed family members begin to seek her out.
The series isn't a dark series, in fact it's quite humorous. But the characters are multi-leveled and deal with the real pain and fears of rejection and self-loathing. All the characters feel worthless, because they have been cursed, they are no longer human, and somehow deserve their pain. But they long for redemption even so.
There is no instant fix in this story (the anime is only one season, but the book form last for well over 13 volumes and goes much deeper into the characters issues.) but it is instead a journey of hurting people hurting others, being hurt, but then being accepted and slowly changing and accepting themselves, becoming kinder in the process.
One of the characters is a grade school girl, who encounters bullying at her school. She is different. All the cursed members have hair color that resembles their animal. In Japan, where everyone has dark hair, it's easy to stand out. So the girls in her school didn't like the fact that she had different colored hair. When she tried to defend herself, the girls ignored her, eventually just laughing anytime she said anything. In the end, the girl locks away her words, unable to speak. She quits going to school, and eventually runs away from home in her shame.
She is eventually found and introduced to Tohru, who of course falls in love with her instantly. Little by little, the girl regains her courage, but is still unable to speak. Eventually she recieves a letter from her school teacher, urging her to come back to school. In the letter, the well meaning teacher writes "You should learn to like yourself a little more, and then others will like you too."
Two others with the curse had been reading the letter with her, and were disgusted with what was written. But one, thinking of how he had started to change since Tohru had entered his life, reflects about it. He said, "I don't understand that thinking. How can someone who can only see the ugly things about themselves learn to see the good things? How can you like yourself just like that? No, I think the teacher was wrong. First you have to be told that you are loved, and then little by little, you can learn to love yourself." He told her how much she was loved, and they were all relieved when the little girl made her first utterance.
I really like this series. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it makes me think. It does such a good job of capturing the human condition. We are cursed beings. The curse was not about transforming into an animal, the curse was the pain of rejection and the pain of being different. The more you went into the series, the more you saw how each character was driven or defined by his or her pain. Even those who weren't cursed. Some turned their pain into strength, but most were being crushed by it, crying out for a savior.
Of course this series is not Christian, but it shows life without God, or rather life with a flawed god. In the end, the only thing that can redeem these people from their pain, is love: unconditional love.
And isn't that what we have been given from God? Isn't that the people we are supposed to become. A person who does not look at another person and finds reason to distrust them, but instead looks at a person and celebrates them. Instead of giving into jealousy, there is celebration.
I learn so much of what it looks like to be a Christian from the main character, Tohru, who even when she has every right to give into her pain, she still accepts and loves others for who they are. She doesn't judge, but merely accepts. She gladly serves, and learned the secret of thankfulness.
John Eldredge likes to talk about how all Epic stories are just a reflection of The Epic Story of God and His love for us. I feel like I don't have words to do justice for this series, but somehow I wanted to write out a little of what it makes me feel when I encounter stories like this.
Hope from ashes. Redemption from pain. Unconditional love. Struggling, but not being overcome. And changing and becoming stronger and better people because of the struggle.
Our pain, our struggles, our relational disasters. These are all parts of the curse of sin. But there is hope, even in the cursing. We are not left alone in our curse. Jesus took the curse upon Himself to save us. He loved us when we were unlovable. He has given us reminders of His love. We are allowed to live even when cursed with death.
Yesterday and today I was overcome with my own ugliness. How my heart judges and condemns others so easily. How I focus on myself so much, it traps me in a miserable spiral.
But God reminds us that we are loved. Even in a sinful world, living with other sinful people and being confronted with our own sin, God gives us reflections of His love. We are not perfect people. But we are not perfectly cursed either. We have Hope and offers of Redemption.
My heart was soothed by a roommate who worries about me, and took time to just be with me when I wasn't feeling well, physically and emotionally. And God reminded me through a silly story about His love, and what life is really about.
I'm not alone in my struggles and my pain.
Someday I want to become the kind of person who gives love to others. I want to look at people and see their good points, and celebrate them, instead of being jealous or threatened by them.
Growth is painful. But it is growth. And growth is a blessing from God.
I'm thankful for another chance to Remember and Learn and be Challenged to rise above myself.
I hope I can remember this tomorrow as I brave another day of rain and work...
But at least I know, even when I fall and I hurt others, I can never be so ugly that God doesn't love me and continues to bless me.
Yes, tonight I am Thankful.
and going back to bed, so I can remember to be loving tomorrow. ;-)