To Be Shaman King!: The Case for Spiritualism and Mysticism

Saturday Morning cartoons are a varied collection of zany action and wacky adventure. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t truly be Saturday Morning. If you’re like me, you grew up enthralled by the bright colors and exciting characters we got to meet and, as I mentioned in one of my beginning posts, you had a difficult time differentiating between cartoons and anime. Cue the “Fox Box”. A Saturday Morning collection of different cartoons, including dubbed anime. Lots of anime. If you originally watched them you have your favorites and remember them fondly. My favorite was Shaman King. A shounen tournament series about shaman coming together every 500 years for the Shaman Tournament. The tournament winner then gets the power to, essentially, change the world as they see fit. We get to see the point of view from multiple perspectives and characters good and bad. The protagonist of the series, Yoh Asakura, is a laid back, carefree kinda guy. He has ulterior motives for joining the tournament compared to his friends, more on that later. It is the philosophy of Yoh throughout the anime and manga for Shaman King that has gotten me thinking about spiritualism and mysticism and how those concepts are far more prevalent today than we assume.

Shaman King is all about, well, shaman. People who can see and interact with spirits while also harnessing their power to beat the carp out of each other. Like any good shounen series, Shaman King had a lot of drama, a lot of conflict and a lot of battling teenagers and young adults. Shounen is an anime or manga aimed primarily at teen boys and generally action-packed. Examples include Dragon Ball and One Piece. For Saturday Morning cartoon material that just sounds right and yeah, it was. Looking back at the anime and manga, though, I got a stronger sense of story and tradition playing off each other to bring an adventure series into the realm of philosophy.
Yoh Asakura is from southern Japan, to keep with the whole anime part and a middle school student in Tokyo. We first meet our protagonist at a cemetery where he is espied by his upcoming friend, Morty (Manta in the manga), talking to spirits. Now, it is universally accepted that talking to things people cannot see is crazy and socially unacceptable; however, Morty can see these spirits. Shaman King is told from the perspective of Morty, making him our narrator and gives audiences an easy to digest understanding of the shaman.

Shaman King was written by Hiroyuki Takei between 1998 and 2004, on the other hand, the anime was produced between 2001 and 2002. So, the anime and manga have different endings – mostly because Hiroyuki took a break from writing. Regardless, both series have some very similar concepts and all the characters show up in one form or another. Besides the name change and accent changes, Shaman King the anime and Shaman King the manga tells the story of love and life; death and reincarnation; hubris and humility. Only, it took me over a decade to understand this.
Obviously, a series with shaman in the title is going to be about spirits; however, it is the use of these spirits and the ultimate goal of the pro- and antagonists that make for a conflict of moral proportions. Yoh seeks to use the Shaman Tournament to stop the primary antagonist Hao Asakura (Zeke in the anime). Yes, they have the same surname, yes they are related. Technically twin brothers, Hao is an ancient shaman who keeps reincarnating himself to both build up power and keeps entering the Shaman Tournament. It is the idea of death and reincarnation that drives much of the conflict in the manga whereas the anime is rather family friendly.

Reincarnation is one of those spiritual concepts, often found in the more eastern philosophies, that might not make a lot of sense in this context. Hao does indeed reincarnate himself, forcing his way into two different families. One thousand years before the current Shaman Tournament, Hao Asakura was actually the founder of the Asakura family and a very powerful priest – concentrating on the elements. Unfortunately, his mother had died and, not being able to get over those feelings, Hao had a penchant for darkness about him. Unable to win the first Shaman Tournament he entered because of the Asakura clan, Hao reincarnated into a new family, one closer to the tournament: the Patch Tribe in the southwestern United States. He lost that tournament as well, thanks to the Asakura’s again. Which then left Hao to reincarnate back into the Asakura family becoming Yoh’s twin in the process. Yet, even though he is a teenager again, Hao is the most powerful shaman in the tournament. This is due to his constant death and rebirth, allowing him to amass more power every time he comes back to life.

When he was originally developing Shaman King, Hiroyuki Takei wanted to explore shamanism and the connections it has in different cultures. Interesting, thinking about how many modern cultures ascribe the concept of life over death. The actions of the protagonist and antagonist end up incorporating the opposite of those established modern morals. Yoh and his later team members, Faust VIII and Wooden Sword Ryu, also participate in the death and reincarnation training model – as do their other allies Tao Len, Horohoro, and Chocolove McDonnell – so they can gain enough power together to stop Hao once again. Unfortunately, that isn’t Yoh’s overall plan.

I mentioned above that Yoh is a carefree, laid back kinda guy and Hao happens to have a similar countenance. Yoh made up his mind to embrace love has his greatest weapon. Any sort of spiritual shaman power is just a conduit for Yoh to make his moves against Hao, but the climax of the story has Hao actually winning the Shaman Tournament this time around.

Two words come to mind when I think of Shaman King – they’re in the title. Spiritualism is defined as “a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums” and mysticism is a “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender”.  Well, the end of Shaman King and the two subsequent series following the adventures of Yoh and Anna’s son Hana detail the world with Hao as king. The end of the original series has Yoh and his friends succumb to Hao’s power and are absorbed into him while he is communing with the Great Spirit. Inside him, the heroes become the embodiment of the elements – something Hao has a deep connection with. It is this getting absorbed into Hao that changes how the rest of the story goes.

Hao originally wanted to destroy all of humanity because he was a super angry dude and, as I mentioned, Yoh is using a different tactic than his family has ever used before. To this degree, Hao becomes tempered in his anger and finds love as well. How though? Hao winning the Shaman Tournament essentially makes him the supreme deity of the shaman and, according to the definition of mysticism, Yoh and his friends willingly give up their lives to enter the Great Spirit and get absorbed into King Hao which is the ultimate act of faith. Faith in themselves and faith in their beliefs.

Shamanism is the conscious act of communing with spirits of one kind or another and the use of those spirits and that power determine what you are. Hao is a bad man – the Anakin Skywalker of Shaman King. Once Yoh and his friends are absorbed into him, he barely sees a difference, but at the back of his mind, he gets this idea that maybe he would rather have his mom come back to life. A mystical feeling of sorts comes over him due to Yoh’s love for life and humanity and maybe, just maybe, Hao’s anger can be tempered.

Shaman King is one of my favorite anime and manga series. I love the characters, the plot, and the setting to death. Yet, the manga tells a better story and has the option to explore more themes and even the darkest of themes. Just look at the X-Laws in the manga versus the anime (I didn’t even get a chance to talk about them here). What we can all take from the end of either series, a moral I suppose is the rather oppressive feeling of freedom. Not oppressive negatively but in a way that has given the world the chance to evolve their own thoughts and spiritual practices. Yoh Asakura understood his duty, he had to defeat Hao and preserve life. However, Yoh found another way to save the day and that way actually fixed a lot more than just beating Hao once again. Blunt force is all well and good but a softer touch can yield similar results if used correctly.

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