Examining Old School Anime: Mindfulness of Death

Time for me to take another foray into the Leijiverse!  Lupin III gave me no ideas for this week’s article, but I remembered the first episode of Galaxy Express 999 held some very important themes on mortality.  Some themes in Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 cause me to wonder whether Leiji Matsumoto might indeed be a Christian.  If not, he ranks as a noble pagan–along with the likes of Cicero and Lao-Tze.  (And perhaps more moderns are familiar with Matsumoto than Cicero.)  The two works above began serialization in the same year (1977) and share a similar theme: remembrance of death drives one to nobility while forgetfulness of death leads to corrupt morals.  Christians believe the same thing, though perhaps no book spells it out as well as Budoshoshinshu, aka The Code of the Samurai, which was written as a guide for Bushido: “As long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will also fulfill the ways of loyalty and familial duty….your character will improve and your virtue will grow,” (3).  In the anime Captain Harlock, forgetting death led to a population which declined to lift a finger to preserve their own lives against the invading Mazone and which drowned itself in distractions and worthless pursuits.

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vlcsnap-2015-11-10-14h47m27s937The moral corruption in Galaxy Express 999 is a bit more subtle.  People can now plant their minds into machine bodies and so live for as long  as 2,000 years.  This technology is touted as increasing human flourishing, which it does in terms of increased lifespan.  However, it has a dark side: the poor are unable to attain mechanical bodies, suffer destitution, and essentially live without the protection of the law.  But, the poor dream of one day boarding the train Galaxy Express 999, which is rumored to take them to a planet where they can obtain mechanical bodies free of charge.

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We first meet our hero, Tetsuro, travelling with his mother across snowy vasts in order to reach the metropolis.  They intend to work hard and save up enough money so that they can board the Galaxy Express and attain a kind of earthly immortality.  The mother’s dream is cut short when she is murdered by a mechanical human, who has taken to two legged game since his conversion to machinery.  Tetsuro escapes and is taken in by Maetel, a beautiful blonde who dwells alone in the wilderness.  (Sine dubio, the preferred habitat of blonde bombshells.)  She admits to having two tickets for the Galaxy Express and agrees to let Tetsuro have one as long as he accompanies her on the trip.  After taking care of some unfinished business, they find themselves flying off into space.

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C. S. Lewis famously argued that we know that human beings were made for more than earthly life by the fact that we are not able to find satisfaction in it.  The world is not enough.  Human happiness can only be fulfilled in seeing the Father’s face, which vision St. Teresa of Avila burned for so ardently that she claimed to die of not dying and rejoiced to hear each chiming of the clock–another hour separating her from the sight of her Beloved Lord gone!  What are we to make of the people of the Earth of Galaxy Express 999, who expand the experience of their mortal consciousness by thousands of years through doffing their bodies?  Without bodies, how can we even say that they are human?  Are they no rather ghosts in machines?  This loss of humanity makes the robotic humans willing to prey upon and oppress their less fortunate fellows, as we see in the murder of Tetsuro’s mother.

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Conversely, one finds nobility in human beings who are flesh and blood and the mechanized humans who embrace death at the end.  It is a curious crossover between Christianity and Bushido that mindfulness of death helps people to lead disciplined lives and to respect their fellow men.  I’m very eager to watch how Galaxy Express 999 further develops this theme.

4 thoughts on “Examining Old School Anime: Mindfulness of Death

  1. The difference between the two cultures is much more powerful than the similarities in reaction to the universal fact of death. The Christian West embraces resurrection, while the Buddhist East looks to reincarnation. Japan in particular has developed the attitude of “mono no aware”–the acceptance of the transience of all things, including life itself, and the realization that this very transience is what makes our lives beautiful. This is the significance of the cherry blossom.

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    1. That is very true. I recall a chapter in Shusaku Endo’s The Samurai, where a prelate in Rome used this attitude to argue that the Japanese were not convertible. (Two to three hundred thousand Japanese martyrs says he was wrong.) Actually, I’ve even seen a sort of “mono no aware” appear in certain Western films over the past decade, but we have been influenced strongly by Eastern philosophies since the middle of the twentieth century.

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  2. On this, on “mono no aware,” and on how awareness of death brings one nobility, I have only this to say. It’s a poem that I wrote for the person who is of greatest importance to me, more than any human in the world:

    We swore we would meet, you and I
    On the last sunset before the end of the world
    And I would bring every bag of chips I had
    And you would bring all the wits you had left
    And we would watch the red light shine
    The red light of glory and death

    Waiting for your own end is morbid, I know
    Waiting for anything’s a waste of time
    That’s what they say in this country of ours
    A stitch in time saves nine

    Yet as we’re all desperate for immortality
    Gasping for one last breath of sweet air
    We stare at the Eternal orb of our last sun
    Rising and falling to mark our days

    And every day might be our last
    And every moment we have is precious
    And every passion we have is the first we ever felt
    And the very last to come

    I find it very interesting that a Christian, who expects Eternity, knows something of transience and how without the notion of Time we falter and lose ourselves to meaninglessness. Then again, one can run blindly into death if one knows either that they will find Love beyond it, or that the death itself brings meaning to one’s Life.

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