(Warnings: Spoilers for the anime. Highly subjective opinions.)
(Trigger warnings: Suicide, bullying, corporal punishment)
Noragami didn’t work out for me. Finishing the entirety of the first season was a tiresome and at times painful chore. But plot-wise and character-wise, Noragami is pretty tolerable. If I were to consider only those factors – well it still wouldn’t be an anime I actually like but neither would I hate it. What pushed me from indifference to dislike was not the story itself but rather the tactless manner in which it addresses some issues like suicide, bullying, self-harm and corporal punishment. On its own, each of these would be unpleasant but more or less negligible. Most of these have little impact on the overall plot. But when taken together, they are much harder to ignore and effectively ruins the entire anime, at least for me. One salient feature of media is how it’s open to the consumers’ interpretation and let’s just say that my interpretation of Noragami leaves me pretty pissed off.
There are two instances in Noragami where Yato is involved with humans attempting suicide, one in episode 3 and the other in episode 4. The former case is treated seriously and the latter humorously. And both are done in a way that is deeply flawed and downright offensive. Yato’s attitude towards suicide is this: “If someone wants to die, I say let them.” Now that’s an attitude I can understand. My personal belief that if someone wants to end their lives, then that’s a choice that should be respected. I know that most wouldn’t agree with me. But that aside, my problem with Noragami is not Yato’s words but the reasoning behind them. He is contemptuous towards suicidal people because he compares them with the Shinki/Regalia, i.e, spirits like Yukine who died even though they wanted to live. The implication here seems to be that because there are people whose lives were robbed from them despite their will to live, those who voluntarily throw away their lives are somehow lesser. And that makes me furious. No one just wakes up one day and thinks, “Oh hey let’s die today, it sounds fun.” People driven to the brink of suicide usually have their reasons, their problems and these problems are not always fixable. Depression and suicidal tendencies won’t go away if people just appreciate the value of life. It’s never that simple. I’m not saying that life isn’t precious or not worth the struggles; it is, sometimes. Sometimes, it isn’t. It’s all a matter of perspective and individual experiences. And the way Noragami seems to treat this matter from a moral high ground does not sit right with me.
Then in episode 8, towards the culmination of Yukine’s arc, a boy in Hiyori’s school contacts Yato because he’s being bullied. And Yato’s brilliant solution is to give the boy a couple of pocket knives. Give the scared, traumatized boy a weapon and let him go confront his tormentor. There’s no way that can end badly. Of course, in the show, it doesn’t end badly. The boy, Manabu, almost hurts his bully but wills away the phantom influencing him so that he can preserve his humanity. The bully pisses himself and runs off and Yato concludes that everything is resolved. Except it isn’t. First of all, let’s look at Yato’s approach to the problem; he arms Manabu and sends him off to participate in something that is clearly a test. I have no idea what Yato was smoking when he decided this was a good idea. Manabu is clearly frightened and desperate in the aftermath of what seems to be frequent bullying; desperate enough that he called the number of a random guy claiming to be a god for help. Sending him to off to challenge his bully in a pocket knife duel is the most idiotic thing to do because there is a very high chance that Manabu might snap and stab the guy. After what he’s shown to have endured, it’s a reasonable enough response. But while I can write that off as Yato’s idiocy (I don’t imagine war gods would make good counselors), the way the show treats this as a legit solution is nothing short of ridiculous. So yes, the bully wets his pants and runs away in terror – next day, he might come back with his posse and hurt Manabu again. Or he might just tell the other students that this crazy boy threatened him with a knife. There are so many ways it could go wrong and yet it’s implied that everything’s fine and dandy. Manabu didn’t give in to the phantom and act violently so everything is fine. Violence is bad, I get it. I agree. But Noragami seems fond of using an oversimplified, black and white approach that once again trivializes the experiences of the people who actually have to go through this shit.
The icing on this messed up cake comes in episode 9, the one where Yukine is ‘corrected’ via the supernatural version of a beating. They’re not even subtle – Kofuku outright calls it a beating. Three other Shinki trap Yukine in an obviously painful barrier and demands that he repents for his sins. It’s essentially torture. What bothers me isn’t the violence of the scene but rather how it’s portrayed as a valid, effective method to punish and reform Yukine. Sure, Yukine is pretty unsympathetic throughout the whole thing so it’s hard to feel bad for him, and I didn’t, but I do have a problem with the very obvious parallel to corporal punishment, particularly how it’s shown to be a successful solution. Yukine is perfectly fine after the ordeal; he’s still bratty to Yato but his penchant for theft and perverted thoughts are nowhere to be seen. How nice. Do I even need to say why this bothers me? This sort of discipline is a shitty thing to inflict on anyone, not to mention that it’s likely to be ineffective or downright harmful in the long run. Noragami does not even try to address this aspect nor does it focus on how utterly ineffective both Yato and Hiyori were at helping Yukine before the situation deteriorated so much. Part of the blame for it lies with them but instead all of it is heaped on Yukine. But hey, a lot of pain and a power of friendship speech fixed everything so why bother with it anymore, right? How about fuck no.
I don’t know whether these problematic portrayals are intentional on Noragami’s part. I don’t know whether I’m reading too much into what the creators intended to be silly comic relief and melodrama. May I am, maybe I’m not. But the fact remains that none of the aforementioned implications are anywhere near subtle so I believe I’m justified in reacting against it. It’s good for anime to address relevant social problems. But it’d be great if it could do so respectfully, without coming off like a heavy-handed sermon.