A new class lets students learn about Japanese culture and religion by watching anime and reading manga.
“Religion of Anime,” taught by Religious Studies professor Jolyon Thomas, looks at Japanese religion, culture, and history through the lens of anime and manga. Anime and manga are distinctive styles of animation and comic books, respectively, and both originate from Japan. The course is open to students from all disciplines, regardless of their previous experience with these art forms.
Though College freshman Tamia Harvey-Martin, a student taking the course, has been watching anime since childhood, she said the course exceeded her expectations of how it would study the medium.
“What initially made me choose the course is a lot different for why I’m staying," Harvey-Martin said. "I thought professor Thomas would be talking about religion in anime, but he’s also doing more than that. He’s going into cinema studies, anthropology, [and] social sciences."
Thomas said he hopes to teach students in the class how to be active media viewers and how to understand cultural references in manga and anime. His syllabus includes anime and manga from a range of genres, including the popular anime films "Your Name" and "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind." Currently, the class is reading “Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits,” a manga that blends supernatural and food elements.
Beyond the course's two weekly lectures and recitation, Thomas also offers an optional movie viewing and discussion every week. He said he hopes the course will make students think about what constitutes religion in the first place.
“[When I was an undergraduate,] I was completely not sure about what religion was. And I still have no idea. So now I’m three degrees into the academic study of religion, and if anything, I know even less about what religion is,” he said.
The class is based on Thomas's own academic research: Thomas has extensively studied Japanese religious practices and has periodically lived in Japan for the past seven years. He also wrote a book in 2012 called “Drawing on Religion: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan" and has previously taught a Penn class on Japanese popular culture.
Thomas said he plans to offer the class every fall, emphasizing that students do not need to be fans of anime or manga to take it. Hector Kilgoe, a third-year Religious Studies Ph.D. student and one of two teaching assistants for “Religion of Anime,” said he had not extensively watched Japanese media or studied Japanese culture before this semester.
"I’m learning a lot of the specifics of Japanese culture and religion through watching these films and hearing the lectures from professor Thomas," Kilgoe said. "Even though I know film analysis and religion, there’s still a lot I’m learning in this course too.”
Wharton freshman Hassan Hammoud, another student in the course, emphasized the unique nature of the class.
“I think this is a singular course that focuses so much on anime," he said. "But at the end of the day, the meat of the class isn’t about watching anime. Anime is sort of an auxiliary for us to explore the study of Japan."