Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

One of the most famous questions in science fiction may be from one of the most-hated science fiction films: “What does God need with a starship?” The question is asked by Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek V as he confronts a being which claims to be God in—and also claims that he requires the use of the starship Enterprise. Yuki Yuna Is A Hero begs the question, if Shinju-sama really is an all-powerful God, well, “What does God need with a magical girl?” 

[This article contains MAJOR spoilers for the entire Yuki Yuna Is A Hero anime franchise released so far.  Read with caution.]

Yuki Yuna Is A Hero is amongst a new batch of recent magical girl anime that asks some seriously difficult ethical and philosophical questions. And its core, of course, it is a magical girl story. Which means it has all of the necessary accouterments one would expect. We start with the titular character, Yuna. Like many of the magical girl characters she has come after, while she is earnest, she’s far from the best at anything. Indeed, she is presented as fairly average, even mediocre—until she learns she has been selected to be a magical girl. Part of a magical girl team with adorable character familiars (Yuna’s is a cow-like spirit that, perhaps creepily, enjoys eating beef jerky) and differently colored costumes with incredible weapons, audiences would be forgiven for thinking Yuna and her eponymous series was still more of the same.

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Yet it most certainly is not more of the same. We know it’s not because while all the appearances make it seem as though we’re looking at a typical junior high school in a typical city on the coast of some typical part of Japan, we’re soon shown it’s not. This isn’t 20XX. Rather it’s the “Year of the Gods 300” and this Japan is not ours. Rather we learn that while the whole of Japan is understood to be both a geographical and cultural whole, the governed territory in which Yuna and the other girls live is Shikoku. Shikoku seems to be a quasi-independent state underneath a God-Emperor-Tree called Shinju-sama. Shinju-sama is worshipped, glorified, and obeyed in a way that is an undeniable nod to, copy from, or further extension of Imperial Japan’s State Shinto Ideology.

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Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

Shinju-sama requires the recruitment of young girls, like Yuna and her cohorts, in order to defend Shikoku–and Shinju-sama from the attacks of invaders. These invaders are called Vertex or Vertices, and they attack in the Tree World (which makes some sense, as Shinju-sama is a tree-entity, supposedly). While Shinju-sama is a god, for some reason the girls are still necessary to protect Shikoku—their friends and families, and their god. But… Why? If Shinju-sama is truly omnipotent, well, what does God need with magical girls?

This philosophical question can go a lot of different directions because it isn’t a new question. It connects to several major issues in Philosophy of Religion. If a given deity is all-powerful, why even expect humans to take on any responsibility whatsoever? This is especially true if the supposed purpose is defense. Why would a God create an enemy so powerful it could defeat that God? Isn’t that just a rendition of the old “Could God create a rock so heavy He Himself could not lift it” conundrum? It also runs right along tangential to “the problem of evil” (“if God is all good, then how can He allow such evil to exist?”) and the very nature of “what is good or evil” (“if a deity would ask you to suffer so in His defense, is He truly Good, or is He not in fact evil?”).

The easiest and perhaps least interesting direction to go with this question is simply that Shinju-sama doesn’t exist, or at least, doesn’t exist even remotely close to claimed. If Shinju-sama is merely a creation of the governing elite, then would certainly explain everything. In this case, there is likely no magic involved (“any technology sufficiently advanced will appear like magic”), and the mythos of Shinju-sama exists to control the population and to elicit self-sacrifice from those chosen to be Heroes. We are told, because they are told, that the reason Heroes are chosen is because of their special connection or affinity to Shinju-sama. If Shinju-sama doesn’t exist (or is really just like an ordinary tree or something), then clearly this couldn’t possibly be true. 

Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

Yet this answer feels like a cop out to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it’s boring. It has been one of the easiest ways to resolve questions of Philosophy of Religion but saying the questions are ultimately not worth answering. Claims that any religion is bogus doesn’t actually answer the question in terms of thought experiment, rather it just shuts down the discussion. Of course Shinju-sama could be a fake, but that’s not fun at all. The second reason I think of this is a cop out is because “tree space” exists and so do the enemies (the Vertex), and they have a real effect on Shikoku. If these kind of otherworldly beings exist to oppose Shinju-sama in some actual parallel space, then it seems reasonable to extrapolate that Shinju-sama actually exists. Finally, these are magical girls, and therefore there seems to be some need for magic or divine power, even if it’s not clearly explained or well understood. 

Okay, so the second way to address this question is to say that Shinju-sama is not who “he” (if “he” is a “he” at all) appears to be. My pet theory is that Shinju-sama is not a deity nor omnipotent. This isn’t the same answer as saying that Shinju-sama is a myth, because in this response Shinju-sama does exist, and the population of Shikoku, including human government leaders, believe him to be a a deity. In this way, Shinju-sama is more like the gods of antiquity than the modern idea of a monotheistic, all-good Abrahamic Godhead. In our modern conceptualization of religion, we might not see Shinju-sama as a transcendent God, but more a super-being like Zeus. A god that is very much within the universe, not outside of or above it. In a more ancient or classical approach to religious philosophy, could we answer the question “what does God need with a magical girl?” Yes, we probably can. 

The pantheons of antiquity, indeed the pantheons of many surviving indigenous religious traditions, are not “all-powerful” or “all-good.” There may be gods who are generally moral or generally amoral, but these pantheons tend to be reflections of humanity. While the argument in these traditions for the creation of humans is similar to that of the Abrahamic religions (“created in God’s image”), there is a pretty significant difference between the many and varied personalities, and therefore personal failings, of members of these pantheons, and the perfection of the Abrahamic Godhead. No one, not the least of all ancient or current practitioners, that the gods are perfect. Indeed, woe to the human that gets in the way of one of their spats.

Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter

And to some degree this is true of the kami of Japan, and the idea behind the humanly divine and divinely human Emperor in Japan. In this way, Shinju-sama, as a super-being, that doesn’t always have every ability or total control of all aspects of the universe and might require actions by humans doesn’t really break any traditions. But it also means that Shinju-sama would not be purely good or be without ethical and moral considerations. Shinju-sama could decide good ends justify momentary bad means in a way that modern monotheistic religions find impossible to accept. In this case, what does Shinju-sama need with magical girls? Quite a bit perhaps and for all sorts of reasons.

The final answer to this just brings about the same questions asked earlier. That answer is, honestly, that no fully omnipotent, all-power, transcendent God would need anything. If we apply this to an omnipotent Shinju-sama, then we have to come to the conclusion that Shinju-sama could easily defend himself and Shikoku and wipe out the Vertex without any help at all from the magical girls. And Shinju-sama could certainly do this without asking for sacrifices. So that must mean there must be some other purpose to the creation of the magical girls and their battles with the Vertex. Yet if so, then Shinju-sama cannot be all-good, because Shinju-sama would then be lying to the people and to the magical girls themselves, and nearly all human societies and religions consider lying to be immoral behavior. Thus Shinju-sama appears self-serving and immoral, but why would an omnipotent being be prone to such petty, very much human-like behavior? 

For every question we ask there are so many more questions we can ask, and we quickly get stuck in circular questioning for which answers never seem to come without generating more questions. “What does God need with a magical girl?” I don’t know. You tell me, if you can.

The original Yuki Yuna Is A Hero can be watched on Crunchyroll and the Sumi Washio Chapter and Second Season can be seen on Anime Strike

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