By: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting
Faith is an interesting topic to really dive into for a manga and anime. We often encounter Saint or Priestly characters in Isekais and other genres, and we also see the reinterpretation and depiction of folk tales or religious elements (such as Shinto practices, Yokai, even Jesus and Buddha). However, faith as a concept, is a topic rarely reviewed in-depth in a manga. (At least, I don’t see them that often, do you?)
When it is depicted, we most often are led to see either the purely positive sides of it without much thought into actual practice or a dark depiction of organized religions/figures turned evil. Usually, the secret-evil ones appear as some climax in the middle or end of a season. The Rising of the Shield Hero and Seven Deadly Sins are examples, but an easy display of what I mean can be viewed without diving into a full series by watching the first two episodes of FullMetal Alchemist (2003).
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I am in the midst of reading Jolyon Thomas’ Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan. Additionally, the topic is of interest to me as someone who grew up Christian and have regularly encountered stories that look at and display examples of “faith” since childhood. Which is why I find Saihate no Paladin not just interesting, but a beautifully well done expression of religious faith.
To clarify, Saihate no Paladin is NOT a Christian work. In fact, the work is set in a world where it is an accepted ideology that there are multiple gods + goddesses (with “proof” of such existences through divine powers). The setting of the world is, essentially, polytheistic–though there are still some non-believers in the text that seem to explain divine powers as a yet to be explained natural part of the world. There are also those that find faith and organized religion to be flawed within the work. This is why I find it to be such a good example of a faith work, or one that holds faith as a continuous theme throughout.
(A paladin, by the way, was originally any of the twelve [fictional] knights of Charlemagne’s court but later became what it is today–a knight of any [fictional] religious court, who were renowned for heroism, chivalry, and protecting religious ideals through force against opposing and oppressive religions. In the original understanding of a paladin, the knights of Charlemagne’s court protected Christian ideologies against invading Islamic influences/believed oppression.)
By “religious faith,” I mean the complete trust or confidence in God or a divine-being by which one follows in the doctrines or practices of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. We, as the audience, know the “gods” of this world are real because that is how they have been presented to us, and our main character–William G. Maryblood–believes them to be real because of his dreams in which the god of death sometimes visits… but he has no real “proof” other than the belief in his feelings and dreams early on. It’s what makes this a faith-work.
(I guess the appearance of Mater during the fight with Stagnate could count as “physical” proof, but the goddess has not really descended and to me its a lot more like a burning bush incident as the image could be imagined. IDK, make your own assumptions–that’s just my interpretation.)
Using this definition, I can tell you that works like By the Grace of the gods and Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? are not examples of faith-works nor do they explore faith as a concept in the series.
By the Grace of the gods is not an example of a work depicting faith because, while the MC may pray daily and we may see the gods at different points, we don’t actually see any faith in practice. What are the gods’ respective domains? Do people follow all of them at once, or one at a time? What ceremonies may result from this? What are the practices? What are the beliefs? We don’t know.
Likewise, Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is also not an example of a faith work, because other than the gods names and how they help or do disservice to their believers, we don’t really know or see a purpose in them. The question of “Who to believe? And why?” is really dependent on the powers you want–not some deep, underlying question of the world. It would be better to view it as a faith in friendship or in community than a look into religious belief. One may argue that we see temptation in the “Is it wrong…” but, in this anime, temptation to leave one’s faith in a god is not a question of trusting whether or not the god you serve is truly the right choice for you, but rather whether or not the costs of serving them out way the benefits. We even see some who only serve a god or goddess because they’re forced to by the god/goddess in question, which again makes this not a work about faith but one more so about… well, I guess whether or not you have a good work environment or boss.
By comparison, in Saihate no Paladin we do see faith regularly. We know some ceremonies, we know how people practice, we know that the practice changes over time. We know that the different gods represent different things and how–to some extent–the respective beliefs pay respect to their respective gods and other organizations.
That’s where I’d like to focus for a moment because this whole story is largely showing how one’s personal faith is developed from simply following to actually trying to understand and affirm it on a deeply personal level. Through fictional means, Saihate no Paladin is showing some of religion’s biggest questions and conversations that have gone on for hundreds of years in almost every religion across the world. Breaking it down, we have religious practices (what they are and why they are), faith in the face of temptation, and theodicy (the question or justification for why suffering exists if God/gods is/are real).
Beginning with Will’s rebirth in Volume 1, we are introduced to the first of our goddesses and the one he later serves, Graceful–the goddess of death and rebirth. He is raised by undead creatures and through them we are introduced to religion. This is primarily done through Mary, who is a former Saintess. She prays daily for the care of Will to the goddess, Mater, who governs motherhood/child raising and earth. Mary teaches Will religious practices, such as the five days of Silent Prayer (Chapter 4), and it is because of her influence that Will has a strong understanding and base in his faith of the gods.
We have the Cardinal, who not only performs Mass on a regular basis but is constantly working to support the church financially and religiously in a world where religion could face a massive growth in disbelief or other problems. One scene that stands out to me about the Cardinal is how his belief influences his practice. He makes note to Will and informs him of how aware one, like himself, must be (and is) when guiding a religious organization and still keeping faith. One must put the faith, but also the followers above the self-interest typically thought to come with power (Chapter 22):
Back to the point, our proof in the early chapters is seeing how prayer leads to divine gifts–for Mary, it’s the sacred bread gifted by Mater. For some it is divine powers of healing and such–things that may also be explained by some sort of yet-unknown magic or science in their world if not for our (the audience’s) understanding/view of the gods. I say this because we must remember that words are the most important part of magic in this world, and that some magic can be performed without words so long as the meaning is understood, so there is some question or potential for people to believe that these divine gifts are actually a form of magic.
We see temptation as early as Chapter 9 in which William must choose between his family and faith. Faith that he must have in the god/goddess to be looking out for the good of his spirit/soul and his family above letting them and himself live longer.
Will refuses, he fights hard, but ultimately loses and still chooses the faith he’s grown up with over keeping his family a little longer. It’s what they hope for with him, and though it hurts, he believes that it is for the best.
It reminds me of the story of Jesus in the desert, (Matthew 4:1-11):
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, you shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain and he showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then the devil left him, and behold angels came and ministered to him.
Granted, this is a very different scenario. In this, Jesus is given the temptation of food and drink–something one desperately needs to survive after so long in the desert alone. However, he has faith that God will care for him and keep him safe–that God is making the best choice from him even if he doesn’t necessarily know how or why starving in a desert will help and even if it hurts right now. That is, in essence, religious faith. And this religious faith in the face of temptation is something Will displays often and shows most prevalently in the described events above.
[Somewhat unrelated, but I would note here that typically God or divinity sends messages through the forms of dreams and other less-tangible things rather than appearing as themselves (like God sending angels to pass messages or appearing as a burning bush). The devil comes as “himself” which is something I find interesting as we don’t see the good gods/goddess in the day and among people as themselves. Instead they appear in dreams or through gifts and powers/heralds but the evil gods come before people and walk among them when tempting. Even Mater, in this series, comes as a momentary apparition when protecting Mary and Blood rather than, fully, as her self.]
Theodicy–how can suffering exist or be alright when gods exist? Why don’t the gods help or come forth in the same way that the evil ones do? Etc. It’s a question religions debate and struggle with immensely, and the focus of many religious movies.
I want to avoid too many spoilers for those interested in reading this AMAZING work by Kanata Yanagino, so I will just note that the first couple of volumes really don’t approach the topic from the point of Will questioning his own faith. He’s truly a devote follower and missionary/priest. I think that with Meneldor’s early character introduction, the topic is expanded upon.
By addressing of these questions–in some cases–repeatedly, Will experiences a cycle of reaffirming faith and rejecting temptation while he continuously travel down the path of a paladin. It is this path that makes the work such an excellent depiction of religious faith in a fictional setting and why I really love the series as a whole. It tries to inform readers of faith without shoving a religious ideology down your throat and is a really interesting approach.
A traveling missionary and paladin is a concept regularly seen in isekais and other genres but, again, not deeply explored despite religion playing such a large role throughout history, and today, around the world.
Saihate no Paladin is ultimately the story of a man, a traveling priest, who is coming to terms with his own understanding of his religion as he spreads his goddess’ doctrine and practices. He displays faith in the face of temptation where others may be led astray and is working to become a true paladin of his religion. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the anime addresses these topics in it’s adaptation and others over the course of the season, in addition to how the continuing manga does as well. Luckily, I get to find out this season!
But, what are your thoughts? Anything to add or share?