Ever since the 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 popular with audiences in Japan and around the world.
In addition to Ultraman, other programs that featured over-sized superheroes found equal favor with an expanding worldwide audience. These include TV shows like The Space Giants, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, Spectreman and — some two decades later — The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
From the time of my early exposure to imaginative shows like these I was a fan — a big one. Yet, like everyone else in the target demographic who tuned in to follow their ginormous adventures, I never gave any thought at all to the origins of Japan’s biggie-sized protectors.
All I knew was that they captured my imagination like nothing else on television.
But recently, while thumbing through an out of copyright e-book on Japanese tourism that I found through Google Books, I came across an aged black and white photograph. The image showed a now barely remembered Daibutsu (“Giant Buddha”) statue that once loomed over Tokyo’s famed Ueno Park.
And though I’d never laid eyes on it before, something about the massive figure with a comparatively small man standing in its hands seemed oddly familiar.
As you might have guessed from the photo (or from the fairly obvious trail of breadcrumbs dropped in the previous paragraphs), an unexpected connection was made in my consciousness to Japan’s old giant robot TV shows. Just as all those other big guys had when I was a kid, the super-sized Buddha statue centered in the photograph put a judo hold on my imagination.
But it also inspired me to wonder: could there possibly be a connection between such statues and the larger-than-life TV guardians of humanity?
To be honest, my initial impulse was not to begin looking for possible links between Japan’s giant Buddha statues and those beloved giant robot TV shows. At first, my brain was busy toying around with wild ideas about a 3D CGI movie, or a comic book, or a limited-edition action figure modeled on the Ueno Park Buddha.
And, um...yes. I do understand that this could be a mite inappropriate, seeing as how it’s the Enlightened One and all. But, if you have an overactive imagination and love giant robots, then you just have to admit that something modeled after this statue would be pretty frickin’ awesome.
I mean, look at him! He’s big, he’s bad, and even those giant curls popping out of his head look like they could kick some rival giant robot butt.
Following my muse, I began roughing out a quick synopsis about a reclusive roboticist who created a giant robot in the image of the Ueno Park Buddha. It was a design choice made partly as a gesture to honor the memory of his mother, who used to pray before the statue as a child — before the 16th century Buddha was melted down during the Pacific War effort.
As clever as that might sound as a story idea, it’s actually rooted in wartime history.
During World War II, the bronze statue was claimed by the government under Japan’s newly enacted Metal Acquisition Law, which mandated that different metals be turned over for weapons production.
In accordance with that law, the head, body, and the foundation of the statue were melted down. But the face somehow escaped the destruction. Today it sits enshrined in the spot where its full image once stood.
With my thinking cap still firmly in place, several titles for my 3D-CG movie/comic book/action figure project sprang to mind. But the list quickly dwindled down to something
of a title bout between “Metal God One” and “Black Guardian Daibutsu.”
As much as I liked the former, the latter seemed to be the most fitting, as Tokyo’s long lost statue had quite clearly depicted Buddha as a ‘brother.’
When the making of Tokyo’s Daibutsu was finished in the year 1660, it was 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 the first of several royal edicts was issued, calling for the erection of Buddhist temples and statues all across Japan. The city of Nara was the nation’s capitol then, and the first and largest Daibutsu (52 feet) was erected there in the year 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 erected in the year 1252, and belongs to a famous temple in the tourist destination city of Kamakura.
Introduced by priests from China and Korea in the 6th century, the Buddhist faith of India soon spread across Japan to become the second most practiced faith after Shinto, the indigenous belief system of the Japanese.
And though initially viewed as a dangerous rival to Shinto, the priests of China and Japan eventually authored a doctrine that put the foreign faith on a path of harmonious co-existence with old gods of Japan.
It was in the 9th century that a doctrine known as honji suijaku was created. It was an ideology developed to reconcile the ancient deities of Shinto with the newly embraced Buddha and bodhisattvas (buddha-like saviors).
According to this doctrine, Shinto divinities were described as the shadows or the “trace essence” of Buddhist deities, who were in turn viewed as the true forms or “original essence” of the Shinto divinities.
Acquiring an understanding of the principle of honji suijaku was an important step in my attempt to find possible links between ancient Buddhism and the giant robots of 20th century TV — an age when technology in Japan was almost like a new form of religion.
In fact, honji suijaku made it seem even more plausible that those super-sized saviors of television could also be reconciled with the divinities of Japan.
Or the trace essence of their images, at least.
But before moving on, it seemed as though it might be a good idea to brush up on my knowledge of yet another giant figure — one of whom I was only vaguely familiar; a fearsome fictional guardian that may have come before the giant protectors of Japanese television by way of the silver screen.
In April of 1966, four months before Ultraman and The Space Giants first aired on television, the film Daimajin (“great demon god”) was released to the movie theaters of Japan. This enormous idol-turned-god-of-wrath was partly based on the Buddhist tradition of the dharma guardian, a deity who serves as a protector to those who offer their prayers to them.
According to an entry on Wikipedia, the image of Daimajin in the film is said to resemble that of the war god Hachiman, one of the Shinto deities who was adopted into the Buddhist traditions of Japan under — wait for it—honji suijaku.
*Adjusts black-rimmed bifocals*
Frankly, though, after looking into this myself, I happen to think that Daimaijin actually shares a much closer resemblance to Bishamon, the armor-clad god of warfare and the punisher of evildoers. What’s more, in the traditions of Japan, Bishamon is described as the guardian of the places where the Buddha went to preach.
But whatever his visual influence, that the giant movie idol Daimajin actually has roots in the ancient faith systems of Japan makes perfect sense. But can the same be true of Ultraman, a futuristic superhero from outer space?
Based on information found while perusing August Ragone’s excellent book, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, it appears that the influence of Japanese Buddhism did indeed have an impact on the creation of Ultraman.
According to Ragone, when the effects director Eiji Tsuburaya saw the early designs for the TV show’s hero, he thought that Ultraman looked too alien and sinister. Tohl Narita, Ultraman’s designer, was asked by Tsuburaya to rework the sketches and to somehow come up with a face that was more benevolent-looking.
Narita looked for inspiration in a vast variety of sources, including books on the classical art of ancient Egypt and Greece. But ultimately, it would be much closer to home that the designer would find what he had been seeking.
Into the alien and robotic face of Ultraman, Ragone writes that Narita somehow worked in the peaceful and stoic expression of a Japanese bodhisattva statue (See: Kannon).
In further consideration of this topic, I think that it would be fair to say that in the designs of Ultraman and the soon-to-follow giant protector figure Spectreman, the influence of the Hindu-Buddhist principle of the chakra, or circle of energy can also be seen. Chakras are considered to be centers of spiritual energy in the human body.
In the center of Ultraman’s chest is a light akin to the heart chakra. The chest light blinks to warn the hero from another world of the loss of his sunlight-infused life-force energy.
And centered on Spectreman’s forehead is a jewel akin to the “third eye” or brow chakra, which also flickers—though for no clearly defined reason. But it does look cool.
With regard to the other giant robots of the classic era, the long-haired Goldar of The Space Giants (a.k.a. Ambassador Magma) is supposedly not a robot, but has a body composed of gold metal, “rabbit ear” antennas on his head, and he can transform into a rocket, too...like a robot. But there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly spiritual about his design.
Conversely, Johnny Sokko’s Giant Robot, lives up to his name without a shred of ambiguity, but the head mounted atop this ‘bot is clearly modeled after Egypt’s Great Sphinx of Giza. It is a design that does show the pattern of a religious influence, but not a Buddhist one.
In his 1974 book The Buddha in the Robot: a Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion, roboticist Masahiro Mori explores what he considers to be the metaphysical implications of spirituality on the field of robotics.
As devout Buddhist, Mori writes that the nature of Buddha is something that can be found in everything, from trees, rivers, and rocks, to people, animals, and insects.
In that the presence of the divine can be found in all things, Mori writes that within the robots made by himself and his colleagues, there must too reside what is referred to as “buddha-nature.”
Even more profoundly, the engineer suggests that within the robot also exists the potential to attain spiritual enlightenment, or buddhahood. And it is an intriguing concept.
In spite of what could be described as a budding interest, unlike the brilliant roboticist, I have never practiced Buddhism. But I have watched a whole lot of giant robot shows, and have no problem thinking that it was perhaps a brush with buddha-nature that inspired me to see something that others may have overlooked: the trace essence of religious archetypes in the giant protector figures of Japanese TV.
Taking my newfound enlightenment into consideration, though, I’m not quite sure now how much further to take the whole Daibutsu inspired CG movie/comic book/action figure idea. In fact, it’s possible that with the writing of this essay the notion has run its proper course.
There’s an achingly sentimental side of me that still wants to see the complete image of Ueno Park’s literally defaced Daibutsu given a proper remembrance. But something tangible that restores the whole form of a once-venerated statue that was blasphemously turned into the tools and weapons of war.
Perhaps––after considering it again from that historical perspective — at the very least, a Black Guardian Daibutsu action figure could be viewed as an homage.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks. Sometime after this was written, he started practicing Buddhism.