Commissioned essay for Bennett Jackson. Thanks for backing my Patreon!
The final episodes of Giant Robo: The Animation consist of, essentially, nothing but failure. No living character achieves their goals: the IPO fail to stop the Emmanuel von Vogler from acquiring the final sample and unleashing the full power of the sphere; Emmanuel fails to bring about the destruction he seeks; Daisaku fails to save Ginrei, who dies; even the newly introduced Big Fire leaders, fighting among themselves, universally fail–the group opposing Komei are captured, while Komei’s plan fails and his attempt to fake the endorsement of Big Fire himself is exposed. (Given that this deception involved pulling a Weekend at Bernie’s with an unconscious Sally the Witch, its failure is perhaps to be expected.)
Most importantly, everyone except Emmanuel fails to prevent the apocalypse. And it is fortunate that they do: in the series’ final twist, it is revealed that the Shizuma Drive has a critical flaw, a hitherto undetected byproduct that has been building up in its atmosphere since the introduction of the drive, and which if allowed to continue unchecked would wipe out most or all life on Earth. In the last days of his life, Vogler realized this fatal flaw and devised a solution which would temporarily shut down all Shizuma Drives, then reboot them in a new, clean configuration–the true purpose of the Vogler Sphere and the samples which the cast has been fighting over for seven episodes now.
The question asked by Daisaku’s father hangs heavy over the final episodes: Can a new world, a better world be attained without sacrifice? And while the answer is never stated, we see it unfold before us, as all the death and destruction in the series culminates in Ginrei’s murder at Emmanuel’s hands, so he can take the last sample and usher in the apocalypse. But more is sacrificed than Ginrei; we are talking about a new world, and that is much bigger than the sacrifice of one character.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
When we last talked about Giant Robo, I mentioned that while it drew on two genres descended from the tale of the Golem of Prague, it also drew more directly from another genre that originates from Judaism. That genre originated during a period of political and religious oppression and unrest, during the period in which the Jews were ruled by the Seleucids, a Greek-speaking Syrian empire that emerged from the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire following his death. In response to this oppression there arose a new form of political satire or revolutionary literature which, in heavily metaphorical or coded terms, assured the oppressed that the oppressor would be getting theirs.
Examples of this genre date back to 300 BCE, but one of the best known is the biblical Book of Daniel, written somewhere between 167 and 164 BCE,* which retells what at the time would have been a familiar folk legend of Babylonian exile: a near-mythical past, centuries prior to the Seleucid occupation, in which the ancestors of the Jewish people were held prisoner in Babylon. The Jewish folk hero Daniel, in this legend, accomplished a number of wonders and became an adviser to the cruel King Nebuchadnezzar. In the Book of Daniel’s version of the tale, Daniel became known for interpreting dreams and visions as prophecies of the future, and ultimately predicts the downfall of Babylon in divine retribution for its treatment of the Jews. Babylon is conquered shortly thereafter by the Persian Empire, and the book ends with a series of visions in which Daniel sees thinly veiled depictions of the rise and fall of Alexander, the formation of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires in his wake, and the wars between them. It ends with a prediction that the “king of the north” (the Seleucids) would be destroyed by the “king of the south” (the Ptolemies) and the Jewish Temple, which the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV had defiled, would be cleansed and restored.
As it turned out, this final battle predicted by the book never happened, as Seleucid rule over Judea was overthrown by rebellion rather than outside conquest, but nonetheless the point is clear: the Book of Daniel was composed as a reminder to the Jewish people that their own legends told of a time when they had been under the thumb of the most powerful empire in the world, until another empire toppled it and freed them. It predicts that the same will happen to the seemingly unstoppable empire of the Seleucids, barely veiling that prediction behind a fairly transparent code that nonetheless provides deniability against any Seleucid official who tries to claim the book is subversive literature. There is hope, the Book of Daniel assures its reader. All empires fall.
Daniel-like books remained a popular genre among the Jews and, once they became a thing, early Christians for a couple of centuries after the Seleucid occupation, as in any time there are always people who feel oppressed and therefore pen revolutionary literature. Generally speaking, the books–written pseudonymously, as one might expect for an inherently subversive genre–followed a pattern, in which the destruction of a past or future empire is described in lurid detail, as a thinly veiled expression of rage against a present empire and expression of hope that justice will prevail. Some texts even go as far as making the destruction global or cosmic, wiping out the entire world so that a better one can be created in its stead. Dozens of different texts following more or less this pattern survive, which given that they were written around two thousand years ago, implies the existence of a lot more texts which didn’t survive.
The all-time bestseller of the genre, of course, is the Book of Revelation, written in the late first century CE. Full of lurid descriptions in which a future “Babylon” (fairly transparently the Roman Empire, which at the time of Revelation’s writing may have been engaged in renewed persecution of Jews and Christians) rises to power and then is destroyed by divine wrath, culminating in the final judgment of all humanity, destruction of all existence, Second Coming, and creation of a new, perfected heaven and earth, not necessarily in that order.
Revelation gave the genre its name, from the Greek word for revelation, apokalypsis, anglicized as “apocalypse,” and it has proven quite enduring. Ultimately, as we have observed, a political genre that expressed hope that the current unacceptable regime will be destroyed and something better erected in its place, its direct influence on Giant Robo is undeniable: the original piece “Tragedy Occurs Again,” which plays several times throughout the series, most notably during the destruction of Paris in the first episode, is a setting of the medieval hymn Dies Irae, which describes Revelation’s “Judgment Day.”
We thus have an answer to the question Daisaku’s father asked him: No.
No, there cannot be a new world without sacrifice. The road to a new world lies through apocalypse, the destruction of the old world, because where else can we build the new? But it’s all a matter of perspective. It’s not that the destruction of the old world is a necessary precondition for the creation of the new world, but rather that they are the same thing. In the same moment, the same activation, the Vogler Sphere shuts down every Shizuma Drive in the world and brings chaos to the civilization that depends on them, and it brings about the utopian “beautiful night” of essentially limitless clean energy Shizuma, Vogler, and their colleagues dreamed of. They’re the same thing, the apocalypse and the revolution. To the people in power and the defenders of the present order, revolution looks like apocalypse; to the oppressed, apocalypse looks like liberation and revolution.
Apocalypse is revolution seen from above, and revolution is apocalypse seen from below. What, then, is a near-apocalypse, if not a tantalizing taste of liberation cruelly snatched away?
*This remarkably precise date for the authoring of a book that old is possible because Daniel’s prophecies accurately “predict” events up to and including the failure of the Seleucid invasion of Ptolemaic Egypt in 167 BCE, but fail to predict the success of the Maccabean revolt and get the details of the restoration of the Temple and death of Antiochus IV wrong, all three of which occurred in 164 BCE. Hence, the prophecies, and presumably the rest of the book, must have been written between those years.
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