Update, 3/13/2011: welcome, new visitors. I felt these reflections were worth reposting in the wake of current events in Japan. I am aware that this is based on a half-watching of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and does not account for its ending, and I am preparing a sequel/follow up in the coming days with additional thoughts.
There’s an editorial in the New York Times, and another story in the LA Times about the resilience and civility of the Japanese people in the face of crisis. The spirit shown in the show is very real. (You may also find the original Time Magazine article about disaster behavior, referenced in the column, helpful to read too.)
While you listen, no matter what you believe, please consider donating to the ongoing relief efforts. Click here for a list, or see the links above for opportunities.
Yes, the first “Art and Soul” episode since June 6, 2008. This one is about what Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, and disasters in general, might tell us about human nature and behavior in such circumstances.
For those who don’t remember or know about this audio column, this is where I put on my seminary student, Christian theology and ethics and philosophy hat. You won’t offend me if you run away screaming after hearing that. :) In turn I promise not to be that preachy. I just felt after a while, it was time to do one again, and for a worthy show at that. And to counter any misunderstandings that might have happened this week, ahem.
Transcript after the cutaway.
Art and Soul: an audio column about anime, religion, and ethics. Brought to you by Michael Huang, because seminarians will always find an excuse to preach. Issue 6: Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and Human Nature.
Since it’s been more than a year since the last episode, I suppose I should reintroduce this column for all the new listeners out there. Those of you who mainly know me from the podcast, especially recent ones, may be surprised to learn that I’m a seminary student, and I’m almost done with my divinity degree. (Now you can imagine just how much I have to put up with from my co-hosts.) All the way back in 2007 I thought of connecting my theological and philosophical reflection with some of the animes I’d been watching, and so began these individual audio podcasts which feature just me talking about anime from an explicitly Christian angle. They’re not sermons so much as ruminations, so don’t expect to be preached at–though, of course, if this sort of thing offends you, feel free to not listen. I won’t be offended, I promise.
Enough introductions, though. Today’s issue is about Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and disaster behavior, human kindness, and what that might even say about God.
You know, for some reason, I was expecting a Lord of the Flies scenario in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. Bones made a fuss, and a disclaimer, about the show’s realism and research. I fully expected that part of the realism would involve the breakdown of civil society. It was partly based on my view of human nature: that, to use Christian parlance, we are fallen creatures who will take any opportunity to seek our own self-interest over others, no matter how much it hurt it causes. We’ve seen it in other circumstances before, too: in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for instance. Heck, I believe in what the Calvinists call “total depravity.” Civilization is a thin veneer. We’re always only one or two steps away from barbarism or, to use an anime example, Infinite Ryvius. That’s realism, isn’t it?
So far, however, we don’t see that yet in Tokyo Magnitude. Not that human frailty and flaw isn’t on full display, starting from the ennui-filled, bratty teenage Mirai as introduced in episode 1. We see instances of pushing and shoving among the survivors as they stand in line for the restroom, too. Still, we have yet to see mass looting or rioting. The authorities can’t rescue everyone, but they seem to be at least halfway prepared with food and supplies. Granted, as of episode 6, only two days have passed since the big earthquake and aftershocks are still occurring. The show takes a defiantly hopeful mood at times, even when it shows scenes of unbearable sadness: a school chapel turned into a morgue, Tokyo Tower fallen down. Perhaps this show was being optimistic, naively so?
So I thought, until I read a very informative article in Time Magazine about the way people really behave in disasters. It turns out, given the proper leadership who can break through people’s panic and paralysis, people often behave better during crisis than they normally do. Airline stewards and stewardesses are trained to shout at people in an evacuation, in order to snap them out of the paralysis that often accompanies fear. Leaders must also provide a sense of reassurance: “it’s going to be OK, you’ll get out just fine” in order to prevent panic. People are most willing to be led, in fact, during an extreme crisis situation. When good leadership exists, people will not only follow useful directions, they will actually fall into their social roles in ways that help: doctors will treat the wounded, managers will coordinate people, wait staff will show people where to go next.
Mari, the young mother who takes Mirai and Yuuki under her wing, displays all of these traits as she guides the two children home. She always tries to make sure the two of them are in sight. She gathers them in her arms during aftershocks, and constantly tells them that they will make their way home. She never panics and always remains calm. This is why Mirai and Yuuki are, fundamentally, all right–they have their emotional stresses to deal with, to be sure, especially regarding whether their parents are ok. Who wouldn’t? And Mari, as we learn eventually, has her own struggles and worries. But they are alive, and they are heading steadily and more certainly toward home. They are walking in the same direction.
Christians believe two things simultaneously about human beings: that they are created in the image of God, and that they are fallen and imperfect–sinful, in fact. These two things do not cancel each other out. Rather, they exist side by side and help illustrate the duality that everybody understands: that people are capable of both tremendous good and evil, that human intelligence can create both Beethoven and the nuclear bomb, that one day we can say the most loving and tender words and the next we spew forth the most horrid verbal abuses. This is true regardless of one’s religion. Believers have been guilty of the most horrible crimes, and non or other-believers have accomplished great moral good–and vice versa. It’s a human thing.
So why was I expecting such a dark outcome from disaster, in spite of the facts? Well, my theological camp tends to emphasize the “sin” part, to realize that we are never as righteous or pure as we think we are, and that every one of us is capable of the worst behaviors given the right circumstances and motives. I still think this is true, and in an age of inflated self-esteem and narcissism, the emphasis is appropriate. Perhaps the most succinct expression of this idea comes from the indie folk artist Sufjan Stevens, in his song about the clown serial killer John Wayne Gacy. He confessed:
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him.
Look underneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid.
Thing is, though, this sentiment–which is simply another way of saying “there but for the grace of God go I”–can be misread. Sufjan isn’t literally saying he’s just as bad as a serial killer or that he’s guilty of exactly the same crimes (though: what was it Jesus said about anger and murder in the heart?). And when it’s overly simplified, it can lead one to believe that human beings are always as bad as they can be. The truth that nothing we do is “good enough” for God to save ourselves gets twisted to mean that nothing we do is good, period. It can easily turn into a destructive form of passive fatalism: the world’s going to break anyway, so why bother trying to save anyone or anything? People will just turn into animals and everyone will be miserable.
Incidentally, that’s where Mirai begins: as a brat, childishly pessimistic and apathetic, wishing the world would break because she’s bored and unhappy. Then, in the wake of disaster, a loving person takes her and Yuuki in–and it’s probably not an accident she’s called “Mari”. She remains calm and patient in spite of her relapses into teenage brattiness and her continued mistreatment of Yuuki, which not even his near-death can completely stop. (A very realistic touch, I might add. People don’t change instantly.) But Mari does not let her go. Instead, she treats her almost like her own child. Slowly, not consistently but surely, that love begins to change Mirai. Experiencing this love, and also seeing it in others such as the grieving old man handing out water bottles, she begins the process of overcoming her selfishness. Her view of people grows larger as she sees not only their problems, but also their humanity: such as her classmate who lost her mother. She begins to see them through the lens of humility and love rather than self-interest. Her question is not so much, “how are they in my way?” as “how can I be of help to them?” which is where she is at the end of episode 5. In episode 6, she and Yuuki finally begin to try to help Mari in her own struggles.
Looked at in general, this plotline should be a familiar one. This is how Christians believe God transforms people who follow Jesus, who while still being sinful are embraced–to the point of death–by him and carried through the wreckage of the world, walking together toward home. St Paul wrote that it is God’s kindness, not his wrath, that leads to repentance. Even though people aren’t perfect, when they demonstrate that kind of kindness to others when they are lost and in need of direction, they are not only doing it for God without necessarily knowing it (Matthew 25), they also can become, in the original Greek, ikons, windows, through which God becomes visible. We all have filters and blinds that we put over that window, to be sure. Yet, when enough of that light shines through, it can mean the difference between life and death. Between paralysis and movement. Between staying on a private pile of rubble, or going home.