[Excerpt] Buddha in the Robot

Buddha in the Robot
By St. Paco

Ever since that giant protector of mankind known as Ultraman first punched his way out of television screens in 1966, Japan’s live-action giant robot shows have been immensely popular with audiences in Japan and around the world. In addition to Ultraman, other youth-oriented programs that featured over-sized super-heroes would find equal favor with an expanding worldwide audience. These include shows like Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, the Space Giants, Super Robot Red Baron, Spectreman, and The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

From the time of my early exposure to imaginative shows such as these I was a fan–a big one. But, like everyone else in the target demographic who tuned in daily to follow their enormous adventures, I never gave much thought to the origins of Japan’s biggie-sized protectors. All I knew back then was that they captured my imagination like nothing else on the television. But recently, while paging through an out of copyright e-book on Japanese tourism downloaded from the Internet, I came across an aged photograph of a now barely remembered Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) statue that once loomed over Tokyo's famed Ueno Park. And though I had never seen it before, something about the expressionless giant with a comparatively small man standing in his palms seemed oddly familiar.

As you may have guessed from the picture (or from the obvious trail of bread crumbs dropped in the previous paragraphs), a connection was quickly drawn to giant robot shows. Just as those other giants had done when I was young, the super-sized statue put a judo hold on my imagination. But, more than that, the photograph also provoked me to ponder if there could really be a connection between such statues and those larger-than-life TV guardians of humanity.

War Machine

To be completely honest, I didn’t immediately begin contemplating the possible links that could exist between the giant Buddha statues of Japan and its giant robot TV shows. At first, my fertile mind was too preoccupied with untamed ideas about a computer generated movie, or a comic book, or even a limited-edition action figure modeled on the Ueno Park Buddha.

Oh, and yes, I do realize that such thinking is kinda' inappropriate, in that it's a representation of the Enlightened One and all. But if you have a good imagination, and you like giant robots, then you simply must admit that a massive mechanical man modeled after the statue would be pretty frickin’ awesome. I mean, look at him! He’s big, he’s bad, and even the curls popping out of his cranium look like they could kick some butt.

Within a few short minutes, I had roughed out a quick synopsis about a reclusive roboticist that I named Mori Masamune, who had built a giant robot cast in the image of the Ueno Park Buddha. This act was done as a gesture to honor the memory of his mother who used to visit the statue as a girl in the 1940s, before it was melted down for use in the Pacific war effort.

If that idea sounds good as a clever bit of fiction, it’s because it is rooted in historical fact.

During World War II, the bronze foundation, body and head of the Ueno Park statue were claimed under Japan’s Metal Acquisition Law, which mandated that various metals be turned over to the government for weapons production. Somehow the face of the Tokyo Daibutsu escaped destruction. Today, it sits enshrined in the park where the full statue once stood.

With my thinking cap still in place, several glorious titles for the CG movie/comic book/action figure project came to mind. But the list soon dwindled down to a ‘title bout’ between “Metal God One” and “Black Guardian Daibutsu.” As much as I liked the first one, though, the second really seemed to be the most fitting, since Tokyo’s long lost religious statue clearly depicted Buddha as a ‘brother.’

Heavy Metal

When the making of Tokyo’s Daibutsu was finished in 1660, it was just one of nine large bronze Buddha statues casting long shadows on the landscapes of Japan. The nation’s oldest dates to the 8th century, when a royal edict was issued that called for the building of Buddhist temples across Japan. The city of Nara was actually the nation’s capitol then, and the first and largest Daibutsu (52 feet) was completed there in 752.

Until about the 18th century, when an earthquake lessened their number, Japan’s other giant bronze Daibutsu statues could be found in temples located in the towns of Gifu, Echizen, Takaoka, Hyogo, Nikko and Kyoto. Japan’s second largest but most visited bronze Buddha was finished in 1252, and belongs to a temple in the tourist destination city of Kamakura.

Introduced by priests from China and Korea in the 6th century, India’s Buddhist religion quickly spread across Japan to become the second most practiced faith after Shinto, the native religion of the Japanese. Initially viewed as a dangerous rival to Shinto, the priests of Japan eventually authored a doctrine that would put the foreign faith on the path of harmonious co-existence with old gods of Japan.

It was in the 9th century that a philosophy called honji suijaku was developed in order to reconcile the ancient deities of Shinto with India’s more recently embraced buddhas and bodhisattvas (buddha-like saviors). According to this principle, the Shinto deities were considered the shadows or the “trace essence” of Buddhist deities, who were in turn viewed as the true forms or the “original essence” of all Shinto divinities.

It seemed that an understanding of the honji suijaku philosophy could be extremely useful in my attempt to discover possible links between ancient Buddhism and the giant robots of 20th century, an age when technology was like a new religion in Japan. What's more, the very existence of such a doctrine made it seem even more plausible that the super-sized saviors of modern television could also be reconciled somehow with the deities of Japan.

Or the ‘trace essence’ of their images at least.

Before trying to establish connections with Ultraman and the others, it seemed like a good idea to investigate yet another modern giant protector figure. One that might possibly have preceded the entry of the others into J-pop culture by way of the silver screen...

The YKFS management hopes that you have enjoyed this teaser excerpt of St. Paco's "Buddha in the Robot." The complete essay appears in the pulse-pounding pages of Kung Fu Grip! #5.

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