God and Ultraman

BAL-80Last night I watched episode 45 of Ultraman 80, “The Endlessly Challenging Soul of the Baltan Alien” on Crunchyroll.

Ultraman 80 was the 1980 entry in the long-running Ultraman TV series produced by Tsuburaya Productions, the company I worked at for 15 years.

In this episode, a young boy takes a photo of a UFO, but his friends think it’s a fake. Turns out, it’s a real UFO piloted by Ultraman’s arch-nemesis the crab-clawed space monster Baltan. His plan is to create discord among human beings by making them argue about things that aren’t real and thereby conquer the world.

I think there are some people working on the same plan in Cleveland, Ohio right now. But that’s another story.

There’s a scene in that episode that took me by surprise. Agent Yamato of UGM (Utility Government Members), the high tech fighting force that protects our planet from aliens and monsters, confronts the kids while they’re arguing about whether the photo of the UFO is real or not. Unbeknownst to them, Agent Yamato is actually Ultraman 80 in human form.

Agent Yamato breaks up the fight by saying, “These problems never really get solved. UFOs are like, you know, God or Buddha. They’re there for some people, and not there for others. Could you guys grab an old lady going to a temple and say, ‘If you believe in your ancestors, then where are they? Show them to me!’”

To which the kids reply, “That would be really mean. I couldn’t be that mean to an old lady.”

“That’s right. UFOs are the same. For people who believe in them, they’re there. And for people who don’t, they’re not. That’s all. Take it any further and you’ll get into a fight.”

And as I’m watching this I’m all, like, “Woah!”

Ultraman has been one of Japan’s top-rated TV shows for kids since 1966. This was on national network TV at prime kid viewing hours. Can you imagine a line like that in a mainstream American kids’ show like, I dunno, Spongebob Squarepants or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? Or even in something edgier like Teen Titans or Spiderman or whatever?

We’d never hear the end of the outcry.

Most Japanese people are nominally Buddhists. I say “nominally” because even though most Japanese people will tell you their religion is Buddhism, most of those people don’t really know much about Buddhism.

Me and Koichi Takano in 1996. He is hungover. I am not.

Me and Koichi Takano in 1996. He is hungover. I am not.

However, Noboru Tsuburaya, the president/CEO of the company at the time, Kazuho Mitsuta, the show’s producer, and Koichi Takano, who oversaw the special effects (and was my boss) were all Catholics. If they’d been offended by these lines, they would not have made it into the final program.

It’s a pretty amazing little message for kids. Let people believe what they want to believe and don’t get into fights with them over seemingly irrational beliefs that make them happy.

Now, of course, if someone is trying to force a specific belief system on everyone, that’s a problem. Folks on the Left are very vigorous in their defense against religious ideologies being taught in our schools as if they were scientific facts. I’m completely in favor of that. I don’t think kids should be taught that the Earth was created in seven days and that Noah’s Ark was real.

On the other hand, I get why people who believe in that stuff don’t like living in a culture where a huge number of people tell them they’re stupid. Personally I think it’s a mistake to take the Bible literally. It wasn’t written to be taken literally and you don’t have to take it literally to get its ethical teachings.

Yet I understand that lots of people feel otherwise. They think that the only thing that can stop people from doing bad things is the belief that they will burn in Hell if they displease God. I also think that, in many cases, they’re probably right.

Historically, religions emerged as powerful forces in human society at the time when people first began trying to live together in large urban settings. The various belief systems they drew upon started well before that. But religions as we know them today are the product of a time when people began to understand the necessity of getting everyone on the same page about what was and was not permissible in these new dense groupings of humans.

The concept of laws and of agencies whose job it was to enforce those laws also appeared around the same time. But the cops couldn’t be everywhere. So you also needed the idea of an invisible cop in the sky who saw everything you did even if the actual cops didn’t.

The system wasn’t anywhere close to perfect. But it did work better than not having a belief in an invisible cop in the sky at all. Which was why you could get killed if you said you didn’t believe in the invisible cop in the sky. Because if you didn’t believe in the invisible cop in the sky, who knew what you were capable of? And, even more importantly, if you spread the idea that there was no invisible cop in the sky, there was a real danger of the entire society collapsing into chaos.

Right now we’re in a transitional period when it comes to that stuff. For one thing, there are too many competing versions of the invisible cop in the sky. These versions of the invisible cop in the sky used to be so widely separated that their differences didn’t matter all that much. Nowadays there are too many people insisting that their invisible cop is better than their neighbor’s invisible cop. There are too many people who think that believing in the wrong invisible cop is the same as having no ethics at all. And, of course, there are some versions of the invisible cop wherein the invisible cop is more like an invisible schizophrenic with magic powers.

80 Baltan BlooperIn terms of one-on-one interactions of the kind we engage in every day, though, I think Agent Yamato is right. God or Buddha are there for some people, and not there for others. For people who believe in them, they’re there. And for people who don’t, they’re not. I think we can find a way to live with that idea.

We can learn to understand that just because someone doesn’t believe in God or Buddha, they’re not necessarily a bad person. We can also learn to understand that just because someone does believe in God or Buddha they’re not necessarily an idiot.

As Agent Yamato says, “That’s all. Take it any further and you’ll get into a fight.”

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