Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

The setting of the entire Yuki Yuna Is A Hero franchise is absolutely stunning. There’s much to be discussed about how the series related to the entire magical girl genre, but as a scholar of fairly modern Japanese history—and specifically late Meiji and Taisho eras with their State Shinto symbology—I have been most impressed with the background and setting design of the series.

While both series include different protagonist teams, the general plot synopses of both are virtually identical. Set two years apart, they are the stories of two sets of girls (three in the sixth grade of elementary school, four in different grades of junior high school). The girls seem to live in a “parallel” Japan on the southern Japanese island of Shikoku. In this world there is a living and present god (or kami) that seems to serve the purpose of the Shinto gods in general and the pre-war idea of the Japanese emperor. This god, Shinju-sama, is a powerful tree that protects Shikoku and its inhabitants. However, it also apparently has enemies, and it chooses certain adolescent girls to help defend the world. 

Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

My master’s thesis covered much of the birth and death of this type of symbology in Japanese modern history (specifically the years of 1825 to 1945). Since Shinju-sama is clearly a god in the shinto mold, it’s then perhaps unsurprising that the symbology of Shikoku society (which, it appears, is in fact not part of a unified Japan, but it’s own nation state, but definitely one of Japanese cultural and ethnic origin) uses very heavily symbolism derived from late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Japan. There’s just an awful lot of style that I instantly recognize.

Image source: “Imperial Diet” (National Legislature Building) Wikimedia

The newest anime, Washio Sumi Chapter, is even more clear about its use of State Shinto symbology. The uniforms in Washio, especially the “randosaru” backpacks, clearly have a State Shinto aesthetic to them. While both series have examples of what one might call “State Shinto art” to be found around public spaces, on public buildings, near private residences, and hanging from large public infrastructure works (like bridges), this is even more apparent in the new season of the anime. The symbology is simply a lot more present in general.

Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

One of the most significant examples of State Shinto symbology in the series franchise can be found in the first few minutes of the first episode of both seasons. At the beginning of each day of classes, there is recognition of a shinto shrine in the classroom, and recognition (worship and allegiance, really) of Shinju-sama. The way the students talk about, think about, learn about, and conduct themselves in service to Shinju-sama has all the markings of Imperialist Japanese Emperor-God “Tenno Ideology,” Kokutai or State Shinto. Just, well, with a giant sacred multidimensional tree named Shinju-sama.

These kinds of displays were established in the late Meiji period to celebrate the emperor’s divinity and continued, in ever stronger form, until the end of World War II. With the defeat of Japan and the change in form of the Japanese constitution, these kind of displays were not only removed, but actually made illegal. Japanese education law strictly forbids any kind of religious or overt political indoctrination (I use the word overt because there have been criticisms that Japan has engaged in very subtle nationalist indoctrination in recent years). The use of a classroom shrine or swearing allegiance to the kami (be it the emperor or any other avatar) would be absolutely against the rules.

Image source: “School Shrine Containing Emperor’s Portrait” Wikimedia

So what does this use of symbology from Japan’s recent past tell us about the world in which Yuna, Washio, and friends operate as magical girls? Well, it tells us this is definitely a Japanese cultural nation. Shikoku may be its own theocratic state underneath Shinju-sama, but whatever the reality of the god in question (actual deity? Superbeing? Alien?), it’s clear that Shinju-sama is worshipped, obeyed, and revered according to modern reconstructions of long established Japanese socio-religious practices. It shows us that either this Shikoku is a parallel version of our own Japan (given the level of technology and everyday culture and social actions), or it is itself a reconstruction of an earlier time in Japanese history (the franchise takes place in “Year of the Gods 298” to the “Year of the Gods 300” but what does that mean?). Honestly, it could be either, we don’t really know. 

Since speculation is fun, I’ll go ahead and relate my own theory—but there’s absolutely no telling if I am right or not. This is pure conjecture based on scant evidence (and with me avoiding any spoilers for the benefit of readers). My belief is that the world of our heroines is actually far in the future after some calamity has happened to the human race. Perhaps humanity was caught in an interstellar war between Shinju-sama and the Vertices enemies which attack Shikoku and which the magical girls fight against. Able to reestablish a new human colony and endow certain humans with powers, Shinju-sama reaches into the distant past of Japan as the basis for establishing the new Shikoku. This leads to a combination of early 21st century technology, amenities, and infrastructure, combined with the theocratic State Shinto of Imperial Japan in order to create a functioning human government (with Shinju-sama taking the role of the Emperor, as well as a sacred tree: an ancient symbol of the kami in Japan). 

Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

The use of State Shinto symbology in Yuki Yuna Is A Hero adds depth, mystery, and beauty to the setting of the series far beyond what a general Japanese cultural setting adds already. It imbues everything that the heroines do with a sacredness that is underscored by the reverence they have for Shinju-sama. And for a Japanese audience, it latches onto a symbology that still exists on the margins and in the peripheries of Japanese society, more felt than seen under the new social rules of post-war Japan. 

The original Yūki Yūna wa Yūsha de Aru can be watched on Crunchyroll and Washio Sumi no Sho can be seen on Anime Strike

Comments (7)
  1. If you enjoyed the series I would definitely recommend checking out its prequel LN series, Nogi Wakaba is a Hero, which takes place 300 years before when the Vertex first attack. It’s a grittier story and is my absolute favourite in the franchise, it may also help to answer some of the queries you had concerning origins.

    • So far I’m enjoying what I perceive is directly applicable to my area of study, so yeah. I’ll look up the prequel series.

  2. Wow, such a nice article.
    Your theory in last paragraph is pretty much right.

    Here the non-spoiler summary:
    There is a prequel (light novel), 300 years before Yuki Yuna, the name is Nogi Wakaba is a Hero. The story is about first Vertex attack on Earth in 2015, and main story takes place in 2018. Many question in Yuki Yuna series and Washio Sumi series will be told in this series.

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s nice to know my theory has some basis, but it did seem like the only thing that made logical sense to me as a scholar of this kind of symbology.

  3. Thank you for the article. I was surprised that State Shinto aesthetics and “State Shinto art” existed, and that these were present in YuYuYu and WaSuYu. However, I wished that you had included visual comparisons between real-life and the anime in order to both better support your points and satisfy the desires of fans, such as myself, who want to know as much about this series as possible.

    It’s unfortunate, as I doubt there are many Western or translated papers on State Shinto aesthetics readily available on the Internet should I dig deeper in this topic, and with the resources available to someone who lives in Japan and who has studied in this field, I feel that this article could have been so much more informative and enlightening.

    Regardless, thank you for shedding some light on this well-crafted series. I always welcome more articles on the nuances, craft and themes of the anime I watch, and this one is no exception.

    • Believe me, I would have preferred to do this as well. Unfortunately, due to Japanese copyright law as well as just general copyright courtesy, it wasn’t possible. Since we operate in Japan and are owned by a Japanese company, we obey Japanese copyright law and general traditions. This means we can ONLY use images posted by the rights holder (on social media like Twitter, as an example), or images in the public domain (like the old diet building and the classroom shrine above). Many of the most obvious State Shinto images are yet not in the public domain, because Japanese copyright is the life of the photographer (or rights holder) plus 70 years. If the photographer was youngish at the time the photograph was taken in the 20s, 30s, or 40s, they may yet still be alive, and even if they are not, we’re nowhere near the 70 years mark. Thus, while I really wanted to do exactly what you ask, it is not legally possible. Sorry. 🙁

      • That’s truly unfortunate, but understandable.

        Thank you for responding. I appreciate it.

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