Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Men of Metal: Mini Cooper Robots Attack!

Having recently done a post dealing with robots, religion, and mythology I've decided to follow it up with, what else, more robots. I was about eighteen-years-old when I found Men of Metal: Eyewitness Accounts of Humanoid Robots by Rowland Samuel in the copy of Esquire (April 2004) I was reading. As the following video explains Men of Metal was a pamphlet created as part of a viral marketing campaign designed to sell mini cooper automobiles by creating an urban legend which claimed that a UK based mini cooper engineer named Dr. Colin Mayhew had turned mad scientist on the world and was building a fleet of giant robots out of the vehicles.

Unfortunately the ad campaign was not a particularly big success, in part because so many people found it so convincing as the ad itself gave no indication at any point (whether in the pamphlet or on the various wed sites it led you to) that the whole charade was nothing more than one big car commercial.

As for myself, at age eighteen I had read alot of 'strange but true' books on various topics (UFOs, ghosts, bigfoot, etc...) and could smell a hoax the moment I read the opening of the pamphlet which quoted Aristotle about being open minded. Nevertheless, I still found the whole thing quite fascinating.

Today the ‘Mini Cooper Robot Myth’ remains a fascinating footnote in the long history of humankind’s relationship with mythical mechanical men.

Sources/More Information:

Pursuing Marketing Buzz at NYTimes.com

Men of Metal: Horror or Hoax and Men of Metal: The Anatomy of a Hoax by Michael Walls

The Art of The Lie: Disinformation in Advertising by John J. Fanning (One man who was not at all amused by the myth)

Links to the various Men of Metal viral websites

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“Ave Machina! Deus Est Machina!!”

Raise your hand if you remember Power Rangers

Ok, now raise your hand if you still watch Power Rangers

Ok, you don’t really have to answer that. I, myself, don’t watch Power Rangers anymore. I have however recently been taking a look at the original Japanese series which the U.S. Power Rangers was based on; Kyoryu Sentai Zyu-Ranger which in Japanese means “Dinosaur Squadron Beast Rangers.”

Zyu-Ranger was a very different show from the American series Power Rangers. In Zyu-Ranger the titular rangers were actually five ancient warrior priests, as oppose to five “teenagers with attitude,” awaken after millions of years to fight the evil witch Bandora. As priests they served the prehistoric Daijuujin or “Great Beast God.” Since there was no Zordon or Alpha 5 in Zyu-Ranger it was Daijuujin who acted as the team’s instructor and mentor. Western fans will recognize Daijuujin as the Power Ranger’s Megazord.

That’s right ‘the Megazord’ was originally a fully sentient mechanized deity, not just a big toy robot for a group of super-powered teens.

The concept of robotic deities is actually one which is encountered quite often in Japanese popular culture whether it be in Tokusatsu shows like Zyu-Ranger or in the form of anime (Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Evangelion, Shaman King, etc..), video games, or robotic toys like this “God Jesus Robot” which was popular in Japan in the 1980s and lives on today as an internet meme.

But wait, how can a robot be a god?

The answer to this question is actually part of a far greater one, namely why is it that the Japanese view of robots is so much more optimistic than that of Westerners? As is evident the Japanese have a clear fascination with the idea of robotics, which undoubtedly helps to explain why they are also the world’s leading experts in the field and will probably be the first country to possess actual sci-fi style robotic workers.

Westerners, however, have been fascinated with idea of artificially intelligent automatons for just as long as the Japanese have, but with one key difference. While the Japanese have been dreaming up stories about god-like robots that will make our lives better Westerners have been conjuring nightmare scenarios such as those seen in films like Metropolis (1927), Westworld (1973), The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), and I Robot (2004) where such machines ultimately turn on their creators and either enslave or destroy humanity.

What can explain this polar opposite reaction to the idea of robotics? According to a thought provoking essay entitled How Religion Affects Our Views of Humanoid Robots published earlier this year on zyobotics.com the answer may actually lie in both culture’s mytho-religious backgrounds and how such sacred stories have themselves perceived the idea of man-made life.

To begin with, stories about man-made artificial intelligence have never gone over well here in the West. One of the earliest examples is a legend concerning the philosopher Rene Descartes who was said to have constructed a mechanical maiden called Ma fille Francine in 1640. All was well until Descartes took the robot with him on a sea voyage where the God-fearing sailors threw the creation overboard believing it to be the work of Satan.

Another example, even more pertinent to our discussion, is the story of John Murray Spear a former Universalist minister turned spiritualist who in 1853 attempted to usher in a New Age by constructing a mechanized messiah later immortalized under the moniker of the God Machine. Spear’s God Machine excited many people at the time of its completion and the minister proudly took his new deity on tour across New England. Unfortunately, things once again took a turn for the worst when an angry New York mob, torches in hand, set fire to the barn where Spear was housing his synthetic savior, ultimately destroying it.

However, the most famous western myth to involve the creation of artificial intelligence gone bad is not one of metal but of flesh in the form of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818); the basis for every robot run amok story ever written since then.

According to Religious Studies scholar Prof. Robert Geraci in an article for the November 2006 issue of Theology and Science, this distinctly Western distrust of intelligent automatons is based largely in part on the Christian association of physical matter with evil, sin, and death and that in order to be “saved” one must transcend this corporal sphere of existence. Because of this the idea of beings (i.e. robots) whose existence is wholly physical (as oppose to humans who are assumed to have a spiritual component or soul) is a frightening concept. This is, of course, without even touching on the obvious factor that certain religious proponents would also undoubtedly perceive the idea of man creating life as being inherently blasphemous.

In contrast to this are the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions which teach that all things have a soul or kami. This not only goes for people, animals, and plants but for rivers, mountains, forests and even inanimate objects like samurai swords, sandals, and sowing needles. Because of this prevailing idea it’s not at all hard to see why the Japanese would not have the same inherent disdain for robots that many Westerners seem to possess. For the Japanese a robot would have a soul, the proverbial “ghost in the machine,” as do all other things.

Likewise, according to researcher Kristy Boyle the Japanese’ love of robots can also be traced back to their strong affection for puppetry or Karakuri Ningyo which dates back as far as the 12th-Century. Japanese puppets, says Boyle, can take many forms from theater puppets to children’s toys but there is also a special class of puppets known as the Dashi Karakuri which are used in religious festivals. These puppets are used to mediate the boundaries between the human world and the spiritual world and are important ritual tools for ensuring fertility, healing the sick, bringing luck and rain. It is with the same reverence towards the Karakuri that many Japanese roboticists approach the idea of modern day artificially intelligent robots.

But getting back to the original point, how can a robot be a god?

The answer is quite simple from a Japanese point of view. First off Daijuujin (a.k.a. Megazord) meets the Shinto qualifications for a god in that he invokes awe in his mortal subjects, the Zyu-Rangers, and even in his enemies (Bandora is completely shocked when she first sees Daijuujin in his complete form). Secondly, if kami (souls or gods) can be found in all things, even weapons like swords, then it is quite easy to see how a weapon like Daijuujin can also be in possession of a kami. Furthermore, as a humanoid robot Daijuujin recalls the sacred Dashi Karakuri puppets thus making him an ideal mediator between the mortal realm and the spiritual one. In essence Daijuujin as a robot can be a god in Japan because he meets all of the qualifications and invokes all of these sacred ideas.

This concept is one that will be undoubtedly hard to grasp for many Western-minded readers who in my experience have a hard time grasping even the idea of the role of idols in Eastern religions. For these people, whether they are religious or not, the idea that a physical object – be it a fetish, idol, statue, puppet, or robot – can be more than what it appears – that it can in fact be or at least embody a god – is a wholly baffling concept due to Western religions own conception of God as invisible and beyond depiction.

In the end it is nevertheless interesting to see how technological advancements, such as robots, have been and are being interpreted by different cultures. In the recent film Terminator Salvation (2009) the cyborg character Marcus Wright was played out as a messianic figure (he’s even crucified twice in the film) who helps the human resistance in their fight against the evil A.I. Skynet. Then there are the two Transformers films which feature the heroic Autobots in their fight against the evil Decipticons. There’s even a council of god-like robots called The Primes who appear towards the end of the second film in what looks to be some sort of cyber-heaven. Both films have been massive box office hits, so perhaps times are a changing here in the West and a more positive view of robots is on the way in.


“Robots!” by Sam Boykin, in Creative Loafing (March 28-April 3, 2001)
How Religion Affects Our Views of Humanoid Robots (April 12th 2009) at zygbotics.com
John Murray Spear's God Machine (May 2002) by Robert Damon Schneck at forteantimes.com
Power Rangers - What you might not have known (May 16th 2009) at retrojunk.com
More on Kyoryu Sentai Zyu-Ranger at http://www.supersentai.com/

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Yamata no Orochi: In Legend and on Film

The Yamata no Orochi is a legendary dragon from Japanese mythology. Described as a beast so gigantic that a cedar forest grew on its back the Orochi possessed eight-heads and eight-tails, had eyes as red as winter cherries and a belly that was always stained with blood.

According to the Kojiki (lit. “Records of Ancient Matters” c. 712 C.E.), Orochi was slain by the Shinto storm god Susanoo, who was one of the three deities born to god Izanagi following his return from the underworld. Susanoo’s brother and sister were Tsukuyomi, god of the moon, and Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. Susanoo resented his role as god of storms and rebelled eventually causing so much disruption that he was banished from heaven and sent to Earth.

Once on Earth, Susanoo encountered an elderly couple who along with their young daughter were all weeping profusely. Susanoo inquired as to what was the matter and learned of the Yamata no Orochi and how the couple had been forced to sacrifice one of their eight daughters every year to the beast and now the time had come to sacrifice the eighth and final daughter.

Susanoo then promises the elderly couple to slay the Orochi if they in turn will let him marry their last daughter. The couple agrees and Susanoo transforms the girl into a comb which he then fastens in his hair. Susanoo then goes to work setting a trap for the dragon. He prepares eight barrels of rice wine and places them on a platform surrounded by a fence with eight openings. When the Orochi arrives to devour the young girl it instead discovers the wine. The monster greedily consumes the wine until it passes out drunk. Susanoo then goes and splits the Orochi open with his sword. When he does this he discovers fabulous Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (lit. “Grass Cutting Sword”) which he gives to his sister, Amaterasu, to make amends for past wrongs.

Amaterasu later passes the sword along to her descendent; the first emperor of Japan. This sword along with the Yata no Kagami mirror and Yasakani no Magatama jewel become the three sacred Imperial Regalia of Japan which still exist today in the emperor’s keep.

Orochi: The Eight-Headed Dragon

Over the years Orochi has appeared in a handful of Japanese comics, video games, anime, and even live action films beginning with 1959’s The Three Treasures and most recently in 2003’s Onmyoji II.

However, perhaps the most famous film to star the titular dragon is the 1994 fantasy epic Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon. Produced by Toho Studios (home of Godzilla) and directed by 90s Godzilla series veteran Takao Okawara, the film is set in medieval Japan and tells the story of Osus; the younger son of a pair of twins born to the Emperor of Yamato. An evil shaman named Tsukinowa tells the Emperor that if the boy is allowed to live that great misfortune will fall upon the kingdom. The Emperor agrees to kill his infant son and has Tsukinowa throw him off a cliff. However, the child is saved at the last minuet by the intervention of the phoenix-like White Bird of Heaven who deposits the child with the Emperor’s sister who is a priestess of the gods.

Osus is raised by his aunt and grows into a fine young warrior. Eventually his father tells him that he may return to the palace, much to the dismay of Tsukinowa. However, Osus’ return does bring misfortune in the form of the eminent death of both his mother and brother. Angry at his son the emperor sends him away on what must surely be a suicidal task to kill the chieftain of a nearby clan of barbarians.

On the way Osus encounters a young priestess named Oto who possesses the nifty ability to shoot fireballs from her palms. The two travel to the palace of the barbarian chieftain and Oto attempts to infiltrate the palace but is captured and bound to a post where she will be sacrificed to the demon-god Kumasogami. Osus storms the palace, kills the chieftain, and rescues Oto but not before Kumasogami materializes and the two duel it out.

Upon returning home the emperor says that he is proud of his son but does not yet forgive him. Tsukinowa, however, is furious and summons a sea monster to kill Osus. Osus battles the monster but goes down for the count until Oto sacrifices herself to save him.

Meanwhile Osus’ aunt learns that Tsukinowa is actually a devotee of the nefarious lunar deity Tsukuyomi who is preparing to return to Earth (he's been floating around in the depths of space in what looks like a UFO made out of crystals) where he will wreak havoc. Osus, distraught over Oto’s death, takes refuge in the temple of the Bull-Headed Judge of the Underworld. The Judge appears before Osus and challenges him to a duel. Impressed by his skills he makes him the gods’ champion and returns Oto to him as well. The Judge then tells Osus that he must travel to the moon where Tsukuyomi has set up base and defeat the evil god.

Together Osus and Oto fly to the moon upon the White Bird of Heaven and attack Tsukuyomi in his palace. Osus and Tsukuyomi sword fight and then eventually transform into giant monsters; Tsukuyomi into Orochi (there was a reason this film was named after him) and Osus into a giant robot armed with light saber, I mean….oh hell it’s a light saber!

Of course, Osus triumphs banishing Tsukuyomi back to the depth of space. In the end Oto asks the Judge of the Underworld why, if Tsukuyomi is evil, the other gods don’t simply just kill him. The Judge responds saying that the next time Tsukuyomi returns to earth he will prove a force of good because “gods are like that.”

Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon is an epic if flawed film. The film’s story obliviously takes several creative liberties with the original mythology, most notably the fusing of the character of Tsukuyomi with that of Orochi. This aside the film has several other problems. The plot feels episodic and forced. The human fight scenes are well staged as is the fight between Osus and the demon-god Kumasogami which reminded me of something one might see in an old Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie.

However, director Takao Okawara has often been criticized for his inability to stage a properly choreographed monster fight scene, a fact which is especially true when dealing with Orochi and Osus’ final anemic lunar battle. Part of problem is the fact that Orochi is simply a large mechanized puppet and thus can’t move around very well. Then there is the fact that Osus transforms into a robot reminiscent of something one might see on The Power Ranger. Not that Tsukuyomi and his lunar palace (did he buy it from Rita Repulsa?) don’t also come across as the type of villain one might expect to see on that show.

In the end, Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon is definitely not one of Toho Studios’ better films. Using the Netflix five star rating system I give it a two and a half; I like it – just not that much.

Ghidorah: Spawn of Orochi

While Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon was a weak movie in many ways, Toho has nevertheless produced a large number of stellar giant monster films (or “kaiju eiga”) over the past fifty-years. During this time Toho has created a number of iconic creatures including Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah; a golden three-headed dragon dedicated to destroying all life on Earth. A force of nearly unstoppable destruction Ghidorah is the modern day descendent of Yamata no Orochi; in spirit at least.

Having first appeared in the 1964 monster mash Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ghidorah quickly became one of Toho Studios’ most iconic villains battling such characters as Godzilla, Mothra, and even the superhero Zone Fighter on numerous occasions. Ghidorah was a beast so powerful it often took the combined effort of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and on one occasion four other monsters to stop him.

In the 90s Ghidorah’s size was increased and he was rechristened King Ghidorah. Ghidorah has also taken on a number of different forms over the years including; Mecha-King Ghidorah (a cyborg form), Desghidorah (a black four legged version), Cretaceous Ghidorah (who was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs), Grand King Ghidorah (a pointer version of King Ghidorah), and Keizer Ghidorah (a four legged shape shifting version).

The connection between Ghidorah and Orochi was always implied, never explicit, until the 2001 film Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack in which it is actually stated that Ghidorah is an immature Orochi having failed to grow its remaining five heads.


The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm
Orochi at www.tvtropes.org


At Top: Susanoo battles Orochi (c. 1870s) by Toyohara Chikanobu.

Center Left: Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon (1994) movie poster.

Center: Godzilla vs. Ghidorah from Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)

Bottom: The many faces of Ghidorah. Clockwise from the top left; Desghidorah, Cretaceous Ghidorah, Keizer Ghidorah, and Mecha-King Ghidorah.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

R.I.P. John A. Keel

I just learned that amongst the recent string of celebrity deaths experienced these past few weeks that writer John A. Keel has also died (July 3rd). While Keel may not have been a household name like Michael Jackson he was an important figure for those of us with an interest in mythology, folklore, cryptozoology, and Fortean studies. It was Keel who coined the term “Men In Black” and who made the West Virginia Mothman a famous enough monster to warrant a theatrical film in 2002. Keel published his book The Mothman Prophecies in 1975 based on his first hand investigations of the Point Pleasant, WV Mothman sightings.

While I will definitely be preparing some kind of tribute to the life and works of Keel for now reader of my blog can learn more about Keel and his work by following the link below to cryptozoologist Loren Coleman’s obituary article at Cryptomundo.com.

Photo: Unveiled in 2003 this 12-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of Mothman stands at the center of town in Point Pleasant, West Virginia where for thirteen months between 1966 and 1967 the creature allegedly terrorized locals.