I am reading an interesting manga at the moment, Ōten no Mon (応天の門), by Haibara Yak (灰原薬). It seems that the series is still ongoing, and I am up to volume 15 of the collected version. There does not appear to be a proper English translation, which is a shame — I think it would translate quite well, although there are a few points that would not have the same impact for an audience with no familiarity with Japanese history.
It is set in early Heian Period Japan (mid to late ninth century), and it starts off as a detective story, with a “mystery of the week”. It has retained that basic character so far, but the political background of the period is becoming more and more important, due to its involvement in the mysteries. One of the things that would not work so well for non-Japanese readers is an early dramatic reveal.
One of the central characters is Ariwara no Narihira, an extremely famous poet of the period, who is also famous for (possibly not entirely factual) love affairs with a huge number of women. He was technically head of the police force of Heiankyō, the capital city, and that provides a neat way into the mysteries. The dramatic reveal comes when he meets an adolescent man who reveals that he is…
Sugawara no Michizanë!
People who read this blog are in the tiny minority of non-Japanese who might possibly get the significance of this. Sugawara no Michizanë is Tenjin, one of the four most popular kami in Japan and a particular patron of scholarship. He was initially famous for cursing his political enemies, and he was enshrined and venerated to pacify him. It is therefore ironic that the character refuses to believe in anything supernatural — and, so far, has been correct in his belief.
So, this is, in one sense, a manga with a kami as the main character. In another sense, it is not in the slightest. Buddhism has played a peripheral role, but Shinto has only really been handled in a four-episode arc about the Saigū at Jingū. Even then, there is very little involvement with Shinto ritual or belief, and Michizanë is not present at all, as he refuses to go and sends Narihira off on his own.
However, the tenth volume had an interesting bonus appendix. The chief priest at Dazaifu Tenmangū contacted the author, and invited them to visit to observe a matsuri. The priest in question is a descendant of Sugawara no Michizanë, and the jinja is built on the site of Michizanë’s grave, so the author was apparently enthusiastic, and flew there from Tokyo to enjoy the event. The bonus appendix has sketches of the event, with characters from the manga standing in for the author. These characters are both male and female, which is unsurprising — most manga authors seem to blur their gender. (Apparently, there was a bit of a kerfuffle when it came out that the author of Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer, in English) is a woman, because a lot of fans had assumed she was male.)
So, we have a manga that portrays a kami as relentlessly sceptical about the supernatural, and a descendant of that kami invites the author to the main jinja venerating the kami to be a guest at an important matsuri.
If the manga were available in English, I would definitely recommend it, but despite its choice of main character, it is not really about Shinto.