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"Let's create a new history of the Gods."
So ends this re-imagineering of the myths of ancient Greece through the all-seeing eyes of Ryuho Okawa, the "founder and spiritual leader" of Happy Science, a "new global spiritual movement" with "over 12 million followers in 70 plus countries" (according to Happy Science Atlanta).
And so this lavish, two-hour animated feature does. Based on a book by the great leader, it remixes the ancient Greek gods into a wildly imaginative, largely incoherent, entirely anachronistic mish-mash of Christian, Muslim, Confucian and Buddhist spiritual teachings.
This is by far the most beautifully animated piece of religious propaganda I've seen. The good animation comes courtesy of Ajia-Do animator Yoshiaki Yanagida and his team of animators. The ancient trappings are re-created in surprisingly authentic detail. The film feels only a step down from Run Melos as a realistic animated re-creation of ancient Greece.
Unless you knew otherwise, the film actually doesn't come across as blatantly pushing a religious agenda. Watching the film without any knowledge of the subtext, it would probably just come across as a pleasing historical epic interrupted occasionally by some baffling spiritual interludes.
Even during these sequences when the film switches to outlining the belief system of the Happies, it's all so incoherent and outlandish that it's hard to make sense of it. I actually came away from the film wishing the belief system had been laid out more clearly. It probably can't be expressed convincingly because it's inherently loony.
The scenes of the spiritual world are beautifully rendered and pleasing to watch, with vivid coloring, atmospheric lighting, and highly worked animation. The scene where El Cantare appears in the clouds has some impressively animated clouds, and when Hermes visits heaven later in the film, he flies through canyons in laboriously animated background animation. The animators clearly reveled in the opportunity of this big-budget production to draw a more 'cinematic' style of animation than they are usually able.
It's fairly easy to watch the film with the aim of appreciating the nice animation while ignoring the religious subtext. It's basically set up as a piece of grand entertainment, with a hidden message, rather than flat-out preaching. The film suffers less from the lunacy of later films in the Happy Science saga. It has no demon Hitler or re-incarnation of Edison, and no anime Shoko Asahara raining terror on Tokyo. Just ancient Greeks, over which some fairly transparent Christian and Buddhist themes are overlaid.
That's the clever and insidious thing about the movie: it's eminently watchable. Like L. Ron Hubbard's pulpy Battlefield Earth books, this film brings people into a religious mythology through entertainment. The film was released in the theater like any normal film. Happy Science is known for using the big marketing company Dentsu, so these films are obviously the product of a highly sophisticated marketing strategy.
Repugnant but beautiful, Hermes entrances you with its high production quality and leaves you shaking your head at its lunacy. It's essentially two films mashed into one. One film is a nice animated swords and sandals epic, and the other is a ludicrous new age freak-out. One moment we're watching a fairly engaging story about a hero fighting against a mad tyrant in ancient Greece, and the next minute we're flying in the spiritual realm being regaled matter-of-factly with snippets of spiritual wisdom such as: Fish in heaven glow a golden color because they're happy to return to heaven. The color and shape of each flower is determined by its governing spirit fairy.
The Hermes in this film is not the herald of the gods in ancient Greek mythology; he's a regular human. He's a Christ-like messianic figure who grows up to lead the people of the Aegean to freedom from under the tyrannical rule of Cretan King Minos and to pass on his divine revelations. Along the way, Minos's daughter Ariadne helps him defeat the Minotaur in the labyrinth using the legendary Ariadne's thread, so some aspects of the story are more faithful to the Greek myths.
Similarly, Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, is re-imagined as a princess locked in a tower on the isolated island of Delos whom Hermes rescues and marries, as foretold by prophecy. With a little help from Okawa's Supreme Being El Cantare, who appears in a cloud to bestow a magic scepter, the godly King and Queen lead their people to prosperity.
The whole point of this story is that, in Okawa's world, Okawa and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite. The tactic is as old as the Kojiki of ancient Japan: establish a heavenly mandate by crafting a godly lineage and disseminating it as dogma. It's astounding that it's still possible to use the same centuries-old tactics in the 21st century.
It's not clear to me exactly how much of the outlandish story in this film is meant to be taken at face value, but it's known that Ryuho Okawa professes that he is literally the re-incarnation of Buddha, and he has heard the voice of Kim Jong-Il and Jesus, among other feats, so presumably we are meant to believe that he and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite.
According to this film, it's thanks to El Cantare's intervention that the people of the Aegean learned commerce. All the basic social and technological advances were god-given. Basically every aspect of human progress can be traced back to the good will of El Cantare, who wants us to be happy. It must require special effort to ignore several millenia of human scientific and social progress.
The film is presented as fiction ("It's time to create a new mythology"), but in the implicit understanding that you're supposed to believe it as factual truth. There is a deliberate ambiguity as to how much of this one is expected to accept as truth. Happy Science obviously thrives in this ambiguous zone between fantasy and reality.
The film has an extended sequence that depicts heaven, and much of it looks suspiciously like earth. The retort offered is: that's because earth is just a reflection of heaven. The irony is apparently lost on them that heaven is being represented by animated drawings, each of which was invented and drawn according to the whim of a human being.
The Happy Science saga
Okawa is aptly named. He is the Disney not of the East but of religious propaganda cartoons. Since releasing Hermes, Wings of Love in 1997, he has released a new lavish full-length adaptation of one of his many books every three years, and each one is as impressively produced as this film.
Hermes, Wings of Love ヘルメス 愛は風の如く (1997) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of the Sun 太陽の法 エル・カンターレへの道 (2000) (watch from part 1)
The Golden Laws 黄金の法 エル・カンターレの歴史観 (2003) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of Eternity 永遠の法 エル・カンターレの世界観 (2006) (watch from part 1)
The Rebirth of Buddha 仏陀再誕 (2009) (watch from part 1)
Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, while the rest of the films were produced by Group Tac. They were actually the last films the studio produced apart from A Stormy Night. From what little I've seen skimming through the films, they're each visually quite impressive, with beautiful compositions and coloring that makes sense coming from Group Tac, but the style doesn't have the sort of realistic-school feeling of Hermes, and the stories are far more crazy.
Like The Fox of Chironup, Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, directed by Tetsuo Imazawa, and features a sequence of sea animation from Toshiyuki Inoue (misspelled in the credits) that is worth looking at as a nice piece of Toshiyuki Inoue animation even if you don't watch the film. The overhead shot of the waves in particular is amazing. The acting on the ship in this scene stands out starkly from the animation in the rest of the show, clearly because it was so good as handed in that it didn't need correction and hence you can see Inoue's touch quite clearly in things like the acting and the folds of the clothing.
Yoshiaki Yanagida's characters are beefy and three-dimensional in a way that reminds of Okiura's characters in Run Melos, if slightly less expressive in terms of facial expression and stiffer in terms of physical dexterity. The layouts are realistic if stolid and somewhat monotone, and the animation often seems to be struggling with the realistic angles. It gives you a newfound appreciation for how much Satoshi Kon's meticulous layouts contributed to the realism of Run Melos. Yanagida is a lifelong Ajia-Do animator who has been behind some richly animated shows in the past including Spirit of Wonder (1992), Ruin Explorers (1995) and The House of Acorns (1997). More recently, he was behind the OVAs Kujibiki Unbalance (2004) and Genshiken (2006).
There are numerous other good animators besides Inoue, which accounts for the high quality: Yoshiyuki Hane, Shinya Takahashi, Masami Suda (all Toei), Shigeo Akabori (Studio Junio), Takayuki Goto (I.G. co-founder), Yumi Chiba (4C), Tetsuro Kaku (Shin-Ei), Michiyo Suzuki (Madhouse), Atsuo Tobe (Sunrise). Masami Suda was one of the great Toei animators of the 1980s, and he went on to be one of the main figures behind the animation of the rest of the Happy Science films. Yoshiyuki Hane is a great veteran animator who is still very active. He did a lot of work on the classic Takahata TV shows. He single-handedly animated the beautiful opening of Nils Holgerson.
I suspect that the animators chose to work on this film in an attempt to try their hand at the sort of realistic-school animation that had been created prior in films like Run Melos and Junkers Come Here. The style of the film seems to fall deliberately into that tradition. The later films in the series have nothing whatsoever of this character.
All of the subsequent films were directed by Takaaki Ishiyama and produced by Group Tac, with Yoshiyuki Hane and Masami Suda as character designers/sakkans. Isamu Imakake and Koichi Ohata also contribute designs in each film. Shoichi Masuo is even one of the animators.
The director at the very least is a professed Happy, involved in the films as a believer (just look how happy he looks in this interview), but I'm inclined to believe (hope) that most of the people worked on this film not as believers but because work is work, and there aren't many opportunities to revel in big-budget-style animation.
I assume that Group Tac took on these projects in desperation, in a doomed last effort to stave off insolvency. It's a sad thing when great studios are so starved for work that they are forced to turn to producing this kind of material - AND it still doesn't save them from going bankrupt.
Here is a good post on The Rebirth of Buddha that gives you more of a sense of the lunacy of the rest of the Happy Science saga after Hermes and the cultural context.