Psychedelic, Shamanic, and Magickal Themes in Anime Culture

By Benton Rooks

In Rainforest Medicine, Jonathon Miller Weisberger describes how the Secoya tribe in the Amazon utilize ayahuasca as a sacrament. Embedded within the act of magical plant ingestion is a mythical framework, a sacred form of storytelling protected by the elder of the tribe specifically detailing inner perils and potential pitfalls of the spirit life, dead ancestry who may be re-contacted while traversing the spiritual plane, and various shamanic power totems that may approach the Ayahuasqeros as they dance with devils and laugh with the Gods. Not exactly the hallmark tropes of a Hollywood film.

Entheodelic storytelling (which I co-coined with Graham Hancock, Rak Razam and Jeremy Johnson) recalls a time in which fables once served as specific symbolic reminders to initiates who were to undergo trials leading them to the spirit world. They were a way for the shaman of the tribe to re-focus attention on the most important aspects of tribal life: reconnecting to lost ancestry, safe passage and exit from the invisible world, and practical livelihood that revolves around sacred ceremony. We in the West have drifted from this exemplary model of myth in favor of viewing media as mere entertainment.

Recently, however, the work of Dr. Carl Ruck, John David Ebert, Dr. Jeffrey Kripal, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and Robert Tindall has resurrected the elder view of mythology as it relates to shaman studies. On the artistic side, Alejandro Jodorowsky (in both film and comics) could be considered the proto-entheodelic founder, in that he was attempting as early as 1970 to connect the supernatural aspects of entheogens with spirituality and techno-shamanic themes. Like the above intellectual giants, I believe that our spirit must become as strong and formidable as our machines; this is the only way of surviving the apocalyptic-drone culture we find ourselves in. [1]

While themes of astral flight, travel to the underworld, supernatural weapons and shamanic-power animal transformation are definitive tropes in shamanistic art, they need not be explicit in order to be considered entheodelic. In fact, entheogenless non-fiction and activist research focusing on the evolution of consciousness and psychedelic medicine could be seen to be embedded more subtly within the greater thread of entheodelic storytelling. As Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona has said, everything is a story and therefore proper narrative therapy—new 21st century stories that focus on spiritual evolution and reintegrating the archaic revival—must be applied to psychology as the healing balm of medicine would be to chafed skin. [2]

In the relatively mainstream TV series Hannibal (NBC), for instance, we find that Will Graham, the lead homicide detective on the show, uses a Jungian technique of active imagination to penetrate the mind of the killer. Hannibal administers psilocybin as a psychological initiation test for a patient of his.

Golden hypnotic tracers—a signature visual flair shown before Will Graham’s shamanic immersion into the underworld—also remind me of Lewis-Williams’ claims that the “geometric” images found in cave paintings are “similar to patterns that subjects reported under the influence of mescaline in experiments conducted by the neurologist Heinrich Kluver.” [3] The images are interpreted as a warning sign before entering the dreamtime. In this way, Graham is an inverted shaman for the Iron Age, acting as an underworld hero who must combat the dark stag, a symbolic representation of Hannibal as he appears to the shaman-detective on the astral plane.

Japanese anime and manga culture revolves around a more explicit alien form of shamanism that disrupts the Neo-Tokyo zones of technologically dominated interfaces, which in turn leads to a lament of lost traditional magickal and shamanic combat abilities that may otherwise come natural in cultures that remain pre-pineal gland calcification. It seems that both the occult revival and the global shamanic resurgence in post-internet culture are especially present in the narrative tropes of Japanese manga and anime—though not limited to it.

As noted in my previous article discussing the entheodelic storytelling and shamanic themes in video game culture, I believe that the attraction and popularity of occult-shamanic narratives exists to remind us of what we lost as psychoactive plants were slowly sifted out of the religious and mythical history narrative. This does not come as a shock to RS readers. However, it’s still worth noting that as our connection to natural spirituality was replaced by addictions to info-overload, our shamans reverted into psychologists of the mind-only phenomena, like Hannibal.

So like immersion in video game virtuality, spirit-oriented themes in anime culture are indicative of the unconscious desire to shamanize, or “walk” between the material and spiritual planes of existence in trance. This cosmological framework is perhaps best represented by the neo-platonic influence in the Islamic metaphysics of Ibn ‘Arabi and the equally intricate Mahayana Buddhist cosmological framework, depicting the complex “planes of existence” that one must pass through in order to obtain the androgynous God-head. [4]

Indeed, it seems that the central hell of Japan is the elimination of indigenous shamanism, in which the direct interaction with the Gods is severed by enslavement to (and ironic obsession with) the machine. This theme has been best represented by the films of Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon. Each of these masterful Japanese artists depicts universes so overrun with industrial and transhuman intelligences that the repression of supernatural (and often primitive) imaginal instincts is made to literally burst with violent force onto the material plane (as in Paprika and, Spirited Away).  Machines otherwise considered inert become demonically possessed by AI infiltration, a sad commentary on the pitfalls of human intelligence in the techno-shamanic age (Ghost in the Shell). [5]

In Kon’s masterpiece Paprika we are treated to the techno-shamanic Goddess of the underworld, but in a pop-psychedelic fashion with unprecedented visual flair. The main character, Doctor Atsuko Chiba, enters into the mutual dream-space of her patient as the digital avatar of Paprika whom she deals with in a technology called the “DC Mini” that allows people to connect dream worlds for psychotherapeutic application. The passages through imaginal innerspace as seen by Paprika are commanding, the astral-avatar being much more bold and brave than the material plane version of the character, and she sees her own frail human condition in a distinctly mocking way. Thus, Paprika is a playful techno-shaman who winks at the seriousness of humanity, a wonderful absurdist. In the same way the Wachowskis borrowed from Morrison’sInvisibles, Nolan (Inception) and Aronofsky (Black Swan) have also both borrowed extensively from Kon’s distinct experimental prying into psychological sci-fi inquiry.

Paprika is also in contrast to Kon’s previous post-modern schizophrenic workPerfect Blue, which is stamped with Lynchian atmosphere that recallsMulholland Drive. It’s an anime that notably mirrors Philip K. Dick and Ebert’s ideas [6] on the ways in which 2-D avataric images can begin to bring about electronic trauma, especially for celebrities who fall prey to them, and how the avatar of the mirror world of film can begin to introduce dual personality traits to those who remain unwary.

The 12 episode series Boogiepop Phantom (written by Kouhei Kadono and Yasuyuki Nojiri) is a still underrated gem that also carries a David Lynch influence while maintaining its own flavor, the central interdimensional phantom character of the title is sent to humanity in order to engage and evaluate the alienating qualms of the 21st century. We find the shinto inspired goddess facing off with a figure called the imaginator, who is a sort of gnostic archon trickster bent on manipulating collective intelligence, despite the phantom’s wishes, as she holds a motherly sympathy for humanity. This is not unlike Luna’s depiction of the fatherly hooved evil spirit Chullachaki, who in ayahuasca visions warps and distorts the yajecero, until the motherly rainbow spirit Sachamama intervenes.

The telepathic poetic channeling of the phantom’s dictums given by the transhuman ghost also forces its characters to reconsider the role that the fleeting hallucination of memory plays in consciousness, and is a sort of metaphysical primer of how people may take ego-dissolving doses of visionary plants in order to obtain commune with similar information-entity portals.

Indeed, these alien entities, like Kon and Philip K Dick’s ever present cyborgs, seem to have a rather condescending view of certain complaints that us humans have, indicating a kind of cosmic joke attached to our particular form of suffering, though these problems often appear stronger on account of our specifically 21st century induced trauma, which prioritizes the material plane and the default problem solving state, as Thomas B. Roberts and Graham Hancock have previously pointed out. [7] Technological info-overload encounters are also given precedent in the equally Lynchian meets cyberpunk identity meditation predominant in Serial Experiments Lain.

Masaaki Yuasa’s vibed out experimental feature Mind Game also has a distinct entheodelic visual flair. The story centers around an out of body experience that occurs when the main character is shot in the head early on, so that much of the story has to do with ghostly interactions and Moby Dick references with the character “God”. The near death experience triggers a resolve with certain fundamental traits missing from each of the main character’s lives. The ability to let go, be intimate and engage with art are among the main lessons, for those who have not already died may not truly live. Next to Kon, Yuasa has probably the most philosophically daring oeuvre in the anime and manga genre. The series Kaiba is a worthwhile reflection on the digitization of memory, and one of the more playful pieces that methodically rearranges the tropes of sci-fi so that they become wholly unfamiliar, especially for an American audience.

In contrast to Goddess heroine themes in Lain and Boogiepop, male energy oriented series in the shonen genre of manga and anime (typically martial arts influenced, often with supernatural themes), such as Bleach, Naruto and Berserk, indicate what Ratsch has talked about extensively in his masterpieceShamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas — shamanic warrior combat, often aided by magical weapons to ward off and protect oneself against demonic supernatural forces. Examples of this extending beyond mere symbol or entertainment can be found in a ritualistic Western magickal ritual or a more overtly shamanic one (such as ayahuasca). As Winkelman points out, medieval European witchcraft also maintains and blends into what are usually considered to be distinct shamanic themes.

Popular titles like Bleach, Full Metal Alchemist and Naruto also contain particularly overt witchcraft references. Necromantic soul sucking learned from advanced demons are common in the darker tone of Bleach, while Narutosyncretically incorporates elemental Wiccan magic with Ninja themes. Granted, the writing quality for each has dwindled since extended serialization, but they were groundbreaking upon initial release.

Paranormal demon interactions also take center stage in Death Note, where the main character converses with a death god who grants him invisible telepathic murder—not unlike the magical dart sorcery that occurs currently in Peru. [8] Spirit interactions happen in a more positive way with the poetic anime and manga Mushi-Shi, wherein the central character Ginko serves a sort of Japanese version of a curandero, who must blow a special smoke in order to maintain energetic protection from the mushi, hungry supernatural forces related to illness, lethargy, and sadness, who sap the life-force of vulnerable humans.

While Kounen’s immensely colorful ayahuasca induced visions in Blueberry andOther Worlds serve as a direct entheodelic storytelling representation of the holographic-spirit-interface in the film world, the above (albeit cursory view) of avant-garde anime carries its own less explicit symbols intertwined with the perilous journeys to the heart of the endless data-feed contained in the akashic records and astral-imaginal realm.

[1] Jodorowsky’s ideas on art and shamanism may be found in his bookPsychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy. For an extensive post-Campbell dissection of metaphysical, shamanic, symbolic and entheogenic themes in myth and the history of spirituality see below bibliography.

[2] Mehl-Madrona.

[3] See Sam Woolfe’s “Cave Paintings and Shamanism“.

[4] Chittick.

[5] For occult themes in Eastern shamanism see Beyer (1973) and Lowell. For techno-shamanism in general see Davis. For a erudite conversation on psychedelic and mystical themes in Philip K. Dick’s work see RS editor Jeremy Johnson’s recent interview with Erik Davis.

[6] See Ebert’s Dead Celebrities, Living Icons: Tragedy and Fame in the Age of the Multimedia Superstar.

[7] For entheogens’ relationship to metaphysics and mystical states see Roberts. For an example of how an archetypal entity may be interacted with beyond symbolism in ayahuasca innerspace see Hancock’s interactions with the Magician archetype, in Letters from the Far Side of Reality. Also Jung’s Red Book.

[8] Beyer, 2009.



Beyer, Stephan V. The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1973.

Beyer, Stephan V. Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

Burckhardt, Titus, and William Stoddart. The Essential Titus Burckhardt: Reflections on Sacred Art, Faiths, and Civilizations. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2003.

Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʻArabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K., & Coomaraswamy, R. P. (2004). The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom.

Davis, Erik. Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.

Ebert, John David (2005). Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons. Christchurch, New Zealand: Cybereditions.

Ebert, John David. Dead Celebrities, Living Icons: Tragedy and Fame in the Age of the Multimedia Superstar. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2010.

Ebert, John David. Art After Metaphysics. CreateSpace. 2013.

Fohr, S. D. Cinderella’s Gold Slipper: Spiritual Symbolism in the Grimm’s Tales. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1991.

Fohr, S. D. Adam & Eve: The Spiritual Symbolism of Genesis and Exodus. 4th rev. and enlarged ed. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis, 2005.

Guénon, Rene. Symbols of Sacred Science (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis.

Jodorowsky, Alejandro, and Rachael LeValley. Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2010.

Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Lowell, Percival. Occult Japan: Shinto, Shamanism, and the Way of the Gods. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1990.

Madrona, Lewis. Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process. Rochester, Vt.: Bear & Co., 2007.

Roberts, Thomas B. The Psychedelic Future of the Mind: How Entheogens are enhancing Cognition, Boosting Intelligence, and Raising Values. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2013.

Ruck, Carl A. P.. The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2007.

Ruck, Carl A. P., and Mark A. Hoffman. The Effluents of Deity: Alchemy and Psychoactive Sacraments in Medieval and Renaissance art. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2012.

Scott, Timothy. The Symbolism of the Ark: Universal Symbolism of the Receptacle of Divine Immanence. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2009.

Schuon, F. (1965). Light on the Ancient Worlds. London: Perennial Books.

Tindall, Robert, and Susana Bustos. The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2012.

Weisberger, Jonathon Miller. Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon. New York: North Atlantic Books, 2013.

[Main image Satoshi Kon’s Paprika]

Thanks to Reality Sandwich for this post

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